The best fantastical and frightening books about women reclaiming their own power

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been fascinated fairy tales, folklore, and horror since I was a child, drawn to these strange stories in which wondrous and terrifying things happen. In many of these tales, the women often lack a sense of agency or control over their lives and work for a better life within the limitations of their situation. The act of retelling these stories provides space to explore this lack of power and how these women might find clever or unusual ways to reclaim it. In particular, I’m interested in the ways characters might make use of the danger or darkness around them to carve their own path in the world. 


I wrote...

Twelve: Poems Inspired by the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale

By Andrea Blythe,

Book cover of Twelve: Poems Inspired by the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale

What is my book about?

Twelve is a retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” Bewitching and beguiling, this short series of linked prose poems take the reader to the under realm and back, following the stories of twelve princesses and their life after the dancing ends. Each poem gives voice to one of the twelve princesses, revealing how they face the aftermath—whether it’s in the battle of marriage, disappearing into a world of books, the comfort of love in the kitchen, or a refusal to give up the dancing—each sister charts her own path into salvation or destruction. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories

Andrea Blythe Why did I love this book?

Angela Carter’s collection of retold tales is considered a classic work of feminist fiction. The author disassembles well-known fairy tales, such as “Bluebeard,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and churns them into subversive narratives that evoke an underlying current of female rage. In her titular story, “The Bloody Chamber," Carter brings the classic “Bluebeard” tale into the 1970s and expands the backstory of the main protagonist, giving her history and motivation for the choices she makes. The author doesn’t shy away from the violence of the original tale, wrapping it in the gothic style. While many retellings lose some of their original magic when they are modernized, Carter’s stories maintain an edge of the fantastical, while at the time making them gritty and discomfortingly real. 

By Angela Carter,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked The Bloody Chamber as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With an introduction by Helen Simpson. From familiar fairy tales and legends - Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, Beauty and the Beast, vampires and werewolves - Angela Carter has created an absorbing collection of dark, sensual, fantastic stories.


Book cover of I Am Not Your Final Girl

Andrea Blythe Why did I love this book?

Much like fairy tales and folklore, horror stories have their own rules and tropes for how the female protagonists or villains are expected to behave within the confines of their own stories. I Am Not Your Final Girl is a powerful collection of horror-themed poetry that gives voice to female characters from horror cinema — the survivors, victims, and monsters who prowl through dark worlds, facing oppression, persecution, violence, and death. Holland’s words provide these women a platform to channel their pain, trauma, and rage into a galvanizing force. These women are survivors and fighters, women who claim their own power and take ownership over their own bodies. They do not give up; they do not relent. 

By Claire C. Holland,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked I Am Not Your Final Girl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now an Elgin Award-nominated book!

"There is nothing else in this world / like realizing / you’re going to live / and not being sure / you can."

From Claire C. Holland, a timely collection of poetry that follows the final girl of slasher cinema - the girl who survives until the end - on a journey of retribution and reclamation. From the white picket fences of 1970s Haddonfield to the apocalyptic end of the world, Holland confronts the role of women in relation to subjects including feminism, sexuality, violence, and healing in the world of Trump and the MeToo…


Book cover of Deathless

Andrea Blythe Why did I love this book?

Deathless is a lyrical retelling of Koschei the Deathless tales from Russian folklore, combining richly magical elements with historical and cultural details of post-revolution Russia. The novel presents wonderful oddities, such as Stalinist house elves, woven soldiers who fight battles between Life and Death, and bureaucratic dragons. However, the center of this story Marya Morevna, a child of the revolution and a complex character, who is capable of being at once naive, cunning, kind, and sometimes vicious. Throughout the journey of her life, Marya goes through many transformation, first with her marriage to Koschei the Deathless himself. She is tenacious and strong, changing as needed in the wake of the challenges and situations that confront her. 

By Catherynne M. Valente,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Deathless as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A handsome young man arrives in St Petersburg at the house of Marya Morevna. He is Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and he is Marya's fate. For years she follows him in love and in war, and bears the scars. But eventually Marya returns to her birthplace - only to discover a starveling city, haunted by death. Deathless is a fierce story of life and death, love and power, old memories, deep myth and dark magic, set against the history of Russia in the twentieth century. It is, quite simply, unforgettable.


Book cover of Brute: Poems

Andrea Blythe Why did I love this book?

In her stunning poetry collection, Brute, Emily Skaja navigates the dark corridors of trauma at the end of an abusive relationship. Exploring the intersections of both love and violence, these poems have a mythic quality to them, with the narrator seemingly struggling to survive the brutality of a fairy tale world longing to gobble her up. At the same time, the fantastical elements of these poems are balanced by the present moment, with cell phones, social media, and other current technologies evoking a kind of modern magic that holds sway over our lives. The poems in this collection take the reader on a journey from sorrow to rage, guilt, hope, self-discovery, and reinvention.

By Emily Skaja,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Brute as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Selected by Joy Harjo as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets

Emily Skaja’s debut collection is a fiery, hypnotic book that confronts the dark questions and menacing silences around gender, sexuality, and violence. Brute arises, brave and furious, from the dissolution of a relationship, showing how such endings necessitate self-discovery and reinvention. The speaker of these poems is a sorceress, a bride, a warrior, a lover, both object and agent, ricocheting among ways of knowing and being known. Each incarnation squares itself up against ideas of feminine virtue and sin, strength and vulnerability,…


Book cover of The Rust Maidens

Andrea Blythe Why did I love this book?

Set in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1980, The Rust Maidens is about a sudden change that overcomes several teenage girls in the community. Out of nowhere a metamorphosis begins to take place, the teens’ bodies transform into rusted metal and broken glass—reflecting the decaying factories and communities around them. As word of the transformations spread, the event takes on the power of an urban legend, but the girls have their own secret plans, which they share only with themselves.  

What is beautiful and striking about this book is that the body horror at its center becomes a means for these girls to find their own power. Despite the fear of suddenly finding their bodies shifting into a form they cannot recognize as their own, the transformation also provides a means of escape and defiance against a community that would balk at them being anything other than what they are expected to be.

By Gwendolyn Kiste,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Rust Maidens as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Something’s happening to the girls on Denton Street.

It’s the summer of 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Phoebe Shaw and her best friend Jacqueline have just graduated high school, only to confront an ugly, uncertain future. Across the city, abandoned factories populate the skyline; meanwhile at the shore, one strong spark, and the Cuyahoga River might catch fire. But none of that compares to what’s happening in their own west side neighborhood. The girls Phoebe and Jacqueline have grown up with are changing. It starts with footprints of dark water on the sidewalk. Then, one by one, the girls’ bodies…


You might also like...

Feral Maril & Her Little Brother Carol

By Leslie Tall Manning,

Book cover of Feral Maril & Her Little Brother Carol

Leslie Tall Manning Author Of Maggie's Dream

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Mentor Laugher Research nut Avid reader

Leslie's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Winner of the Literary Titan Book Award

Bright but unassuming Marilyn Jones has some grown-up decisions to make, especially after Mama goes to prison for drugs and larceny. With no one to take care of them, Marilyn and her younger, mentally challenged brother, Carol, get tossed into the foster care system. While shuffling from one home to another, Marilyn makes it her mission to find the Tan Man, a mysterious man from her babyhood she believes holds the key to her family’s happiness.

But Marilyn’s quest is halted when her daddy, an ex-con she has never met, is chosen by the courts as the new guardian. Caleb Jones wants something more than a father-daughter relationship. He sends Carol far away, where the boy won’t be a hindrance to his plans. Marilyn devises a plan of her own: to locate her little brother, kidnap him, and run away.

Independence, however, often comes at a high price.

As Marilyn weathers the unexpected and often brutal storms of her childhood and adolescence, hope becomes her ally as she winds through small southern towns, wrapping herself around an assortment of hearts along the way. With unexpected help from a caring social worker, a carnival of misfits, her first true love, and even the elusive Tan Man himself, Marilyn will discover that “family” isn’t always what we imagine it to be.

"A dazzling piece that delves deep into the themes of survival, the casualties of self-discovery, and the power of familial ties." ~ Prairies Book Review

Feral Maril & Her Little Brother Carol

By Leslie Tall Manning,

What is this book about?

Bright but unassuming Marilyn Jones has some grown-up decisions to make, especially after Mama goes to prison for drugs and larceny. With no one to take care of them, Marilyn and her younger, mentally challenged brother, Carol, get tossed into the foster care system. While shuffling from one home to another, Marilyn makes it her mission to find the Tan Man, a mysterious man from her babyhood she believes holds the key to her family's happiness.

But Marilyn's quest is halted when her daddy, an ex-con she has never met, is chosen by the courts as the new guardian. Caleb…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in fairy tales, Russia, and presidential biography?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about fairy tales, Russia, and presidential biography.

Fairy Tales Explore 294 books about fairy tales
Russia Explore 354 books about Russia
Presidential Biography Explore 19 books about presidential biography