Top 25 Best Ghost Story Books
Who doesn’t remember sitting around the campfire telling, or hearing, a great ghost story? These tales of hauntings are one of the earliest forms of horror, and they’ve been around since Homer’s Odyssey when he journeys to the underworld. There are even ghost stories in the Bible! The belief in ghosts, and subsequently, tales about them exists in many cultures around the world. With so long and varied a history, it’s difficult to nail down the top twenty-five tales in the genre.
Perhaps the best place to start would be what historians and critics refer to as the “golden age of ghost stories”, just after the decline of the gothic novel in the 1830’s. Writers of this golden age include such visionaries as M.R. James, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry James and Sheridan leFanu. The work of each of these writers features prominently in this top twenty-five list, but their influences and elements of their early tales can be found in more works of modern horror.
In 1929, M.R. James wrote about what he believed were the key elements of the English ghost story. These include; the appearance of truth, no gratuitous violence or sex, present day (for the time period it was written) setting, no explanation of how the haunting works, and of course, a delightful scare. Several modern ghost stories still follow this framework. The Amityville Horror claims to be based on true events. Tales like Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and The Little Stranger by Waters leave the reader wondering if the haunting is supernatural or only exists in the minds of the characters. Some stories eschew these rules altogether. Matheson’s Hell House, in particular, contains graphic descriptions of both sex and violence, and uses science fiction elements in an attempt to explain the haunting. The Ring by Koji Suzuki and Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter also use elements of science fiction to explain the supernatural.
Gothic horror also influenced the modern ghost story with its themes of mystery, romance, and death. These influences can be seen in tales such as The Seance by John Harwood, and The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo. Some elements of ghost stories are shared across cultures and themes, such as, of course, the haunting, and the pleasing terror, but ghost stories have become so mainstream that it is hard to create horror with a simple spectre.
These twenty five ghost stories are sure to give readers some pleasant chills.
This short story collection features some of the earliest works of horror pioneer, M.R. James. The collection features eight stories in which scholarly and quiet protagonists stumble into supernatural forces, either innocently or through their own folly. In “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”, an English tourist is coerced into buying a disturbing manuscript that is connected to the cathedral he is visiting. “Lost Hearts” introduces a young orphan who has troubling visions of children with their hearts missing that may have a connection to his cousin’s quest for immortality. “The Mezzotint” involves a sinister painting, and the spirit within it. In “The Ash-Tree”, an heir quickly realizes that his new home is cursed. “Number 13” is an inn room that doesn’t exist, yet encroaches on the guests of the adjacent rooms, and in “Count Magnus”, a Swedish travel writer has a ghostly encounter. Another tale of a traveler with a ghostly encounter is “O Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad”. Finally, a scholar faces an unseen horror when he goes on a hunt for missing treasure in “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”
Why it’s on the list: Though modern horror readers will likely not find anything particularly scary in James’s work, they have a timeless eerie and unsettling quality. The details of the horrific happenings are never explicitly laid out, leaving them to the reader’s imagination, but the juxtaposition of these terrifying supernatural events with idyllic and pastoral settings provides a gothic, atmospheric feel to the stories. If readers want to enjoy the full effect of the spookiness of these tales, it is best to read them aloud.
Read if you like: classic horror, gothic horror, witches, religious horror, supernatural horror.
The ghosts at the Overlook hotel aren’t exactly the friendly sort: there’s a lady rotting in the bathroom in Room 217, gangsters, and murderous topiaries with flat, blank faces. And they all want Danny Torrance. You see, Danny has a gift. O’Halloran, the chef at the Overlook, calls it “the shining”. Danny can sense people’s hidden thoughts and motivations as well as catch glimpses of the future, told to him by his imaginary friend Tony. Tony tries to warn Danny of the terrible events that will befall him at the Overlook, but Danny has no control over the situation when his father, Jack, decides to pack up the whole family and live there during the winter as a care-taker. The Overlook is haunted by all of the tragic events that took place within its walls, and Danny is a touchstone that sets all of the evil in the house going. When the forces in the house decide that they want Danny as a permanent guest, they attack the weakest link in his family: his dad. Jack is a recovering alcoholic with a short fuse, and as the house manipulates Jack into madness, Danny and his mother are become increasingly afraid of him. Will any of them escape the Overlook and its sinister inhabitants?
Why it’s on the list: The Shining is one of the scariest books ever written. It is the perfect blend of supernatural terror and psychological horror. The Overlook Hotel is a claustrophobic environment, trapping the reader, just like the characters, in its clutches. There is a sense of being cut off from the rest of the rational world, and the nightmare reality of the hotel takes over. The supernatural aspects are subtly creepy, such as the elevator that should not be moving on its own or the eerily empty hallways. They are downright terrifying, such as the scene where a decomposing ghost lurches out of the bathtub and attacks Danny Torrance. Perhaps even more horrifying is the effect that the spirits of the Overlook have on Jack Torrance, and his rapid descent into madness.
Read if you like: haunted house stories, supernatural horror, psychological horror.
What is the most terrible thing that you ever did? Those are the words that are asked one night at a meeting of the Chowder Society, a group of five friends with a terrible secret. Each man in the group comes out with a horrifying tale of something that has happened in their life, particularly Sears who tells the story of a young student whom he cared for that was suspected of killing his brother. The Chowder Society used to be five members, but a year before the book begins, the fifth member, Edward Wanderly died of apparent fright at a party. Since then, The Chowder Society members have all been having terrible dreams and have been occupying their time with ghost stories. As their feelings of foreboding increase, they decide to call in Edward’s nephew Don, an occult writer who they believe can help them. He tells them the true story behind his novel, and they, in turn, share their dark secret with him, but as mysterious deaths in their town continue, the Chowder Society (and Don) soon discover that all their stories may actually be connected.
Why it’s on the list: This ghost story starts off mildly eerie, pulling the reader gently into the world of Milburn until it’s too late. Then, the terror escalates at a roller coaster rate, and nothing and nowhere is safe. Not even the character’s memories. It’s not really clear if all of the men in the story are haunted by supernatural beings or from the guilt that comes from their past misdeeds. Though the supernatural characters are real enough, they may be fed by the guilt that these men feel and their belief that something is haunting them. This theme of the power of story and of the unreliability of even memory makes this novel a particularly haunting read.
Read if you like: psychological horror, supernatural horror
Dr. John Montague has been searching for a haunted house. He rents Hill House for three months and invites a small group of people to join him to research and document any paranormal activity. In this group are the heir to the house Luke Sanderson, a psychic young woman named Theodora, and Eleanor Vance. It is through Eleanor’s eyes that we see the events at Hill House unfold, and even as she approaches it she describes the house as not being sane. Eleanor is a reclusive woman who up has been caring for her mother and when her mother dies, living with her sister. Eleanor hates her sister and steals her car to get to Hill House. When she arrives, she feels for the first time that she fits in. That’s also when the crazy, paranormal stuff starts happening. There are messages written in chalk and then blood on the walls, specifically for Eleanor. It’s almost as if the house has been waiting for her. The scariest moment is when Eleanor discovers that the hand she is holding in the dark as someone is trying to get into their room is Theodora’s. There’s also doors being rattled off of their hinges, cold spots, and strange smells in the house that can’t be explained. Even in the end, you are unsure whether or not the house was actually haunted or if all of this was in Eleanor’s mind.
Why it’s on the list: The Haunting of Hill House is the ultimate haunted house story, but at the same time, it’s also a great tale of psychological horror. Readers are only ever given events from the point of view of Eleanor, and all of the supernatural events seem to be focused on the protagonist. Could these supernatural occurrences be real? Or are they all products of her imagination? The scares are truly chilling, and the atmosphere of Hill House is tense and eerie.
Read if you like: haunted house stories, psychological horror, unreliable narrators
The Woman in Black is a straight-out, no frills ghost story. It’s got the perfect, gothic vague edge of creepiness. As an up-and-coming solicitor, Arthur is tasked with settling the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow in the village of Crythin Gifford. Mrs. Drablow’s funeral is unattended save for himself and a mysterious pale woman dressed all in black. Later, while at Drablow’s estate, Eel Marsh House, Arthur encounters the woman again in a family graveyard. He attempts to approach her but she disappears. The disappearing woman isn’t the only odd thing about Eel Marsh House. There are screams coming from a locked nursery, and sounds of distress coming from the marshes. Oh, then there’s the other mystery. The children of Crythin Gifford have been going missing.
Why it’s on this list: While this is not a book for those people who want nail-biting scary and it’s also not a psychological thriller, this is a creeping horror that sneaks up on you slowly in a spooky haunted house and a town full of secrets, and that’s what makes it great gothic horror. Susan Hill doesn’t spend pages and pages describing the horrors that Arthur faces, letting the reader imagine those for themselves. Instead, The Woman in Black focuses on the unsettling atmosphere of Eel Marsh House and Crythin Gifford, and they aren’t places that you want to be after dark, at high tide, or pretty much ever.
Read if you like: haunted house stories, gothic horror.
The Turn of the Screw is the story of a governess hired on in strange circumstances. Her employer gives her the care of his orphaned niece and nephew on the condition that she never contact him. On her first day, news comes that Miles, the nephew, has been expelled from school. It is the governess's first test. Does she tell the uncle? And why has this seemingly angelic child been expelled? Then, the ghosts start to appear. First is the ghost of an old valet whom the housekeeper describes as being "too free" with everyone. The governess assumes that this apparition seeks to corrupt the children and vows to be a shield against his evil influence. Then, the ghost of the children's former governess appears to Flora, the niece, and the governess suspects that the children have seen the ghosts before. The children never admit to seeing the ghosts, and the reader isn't sure whether the governess is delusional or actually being haunted. As the ghosts continue to appear, the governess's relationship with the children becomes increasingly strained and uncomfortable. Flora leaves the house with the housekeeper, and shortly thereafter Miles dies after a ghostly encounter with the valet. Was the governess just insanely protective? Or was something eerie and wrong going on between the children and the ghosts?
Why it’s on the list: The whole book has the vibe of the movie "The Skeleton Key" without the heavy-handed explanation of what's going on. You're left to decide the truth for yourself. The supernatural aspects are truly chilling, with just enough of a hint of the psychological that the story is haunting as readers try to figure out the truth of what happened.
Read if you like:psychological horror, gothic horror, classic horror.
In this short story, the unnamed narrator marries a woman with whom he falls hopelessly and fanatically in love. He is stunned by her beauty and also her intelligence, and he is utterly grief-stricken when she grows ill and dies. He is unable to stay in the home that he shared with his wife near the Rhine, and so moves to England where he refurbishes an abbey, and later, marries a woman who is the polar opposite of his first wife, Ligeia. Where Ligeia was raven haired and dark-eyed, the narrator’s second wife, Rowena, is blond and blue eyed, but the narrator has no love for Rowena, as his heart still belongs to his first wife. He still has not yet recovered from her loss, when in the second month of his marriage to Rowena, she, too, grows ill, complaining of a fever and believing that the gold tapestries that adorn her bridal chamber have come to life. Her condition rapidly worsens, but the narrator still cannot help thinking of his first wife. Is Ligeia haunting his new marriage or just his memory?
Why it’s on the list: Poe is synonymous with spooky, atmospheric horror, and this haunting tale is no exception. Shades of psychological horror tinge the story, as the reader is never really sure if Ligeia is truly haunting the narrator, or if indeed, anything supernatural happened at all. In some readings, Ligeia is, in fact, only a figment of the narrator’s imagination, making the twist at the end even more sinister. Still, “Ligeia” is a compelling and eerie tale about the terrible power of grief and loss.
Read if you like: psychological horror, gothic horror, classic horror.
A billionaire hires Dr. Lionel Barrett to enter a notoriously haunted house to prove the existence of life after death. Hell House, the former home of Emeric Belasco, is no stranger to terrible and perverse happenings, which Belasco orchestrated while he was alive. The house’s negative energy has lasted, creating one monster of a haunted house. The last two expeditions that were sent into the house ended in tragedy, and now Dr. Barrett, his wife, and a team of two mediums, including one that has survived the last visit, attempt the house once more. Will this be the team that is successful or will the house corrupt them as well?
Why it’s on the list: Hell House takes The Haunting of Hill House and makes it edgier, darker, much more frighteningly real. The ghost here are nastier than in Jackson’s classic, and Matheson doesn’t skimp on the sex and graphic gore. Also missing in Hell House are the hints as to the psychological nature of the haunting. These ghosts are real, and Dr. Barrett is out to document their existence with science, if the house doesn’t destroy him and his team first.
Read if you like: haunted house horror, and science fiction horror.
Ghosts, demons, werewolves, zombies, and monsters populate this collection of fifteen short stories and one award winning novella. The novella is the titular Ghost Summer, which takes place in the small, Florida town of Gracetown. Gracetown is a hotbed of supernatural activity, as is evidences by the first three stories in the collection, which are all set in the eerie town. In Gracetown, don’t go near the lake, summer is terrible, and children can see ghosts until they turn twelve years old. It is for that reason that Davie Stephens is so excited to visit his grandparents who live there. When Davie and his sister become caught up in the tragedy of the Simmons siblings, past and present collide in frightening ways. Other tales in this collection involve werewolves with body image issues, and a series of stories set in a post apocalyptic world, chronicling the survival of one child.
Why it’s on the list: Though not all ghost stories, each of these tales is haunting in their own way. This collection is not outright scary. Instead, its stories are chilling and unsettling. Themes of loss, isolation, and death are explored, and a sense of dread is present in even the most mundane and ordinary seeming circumstances. The Gracetown cycle of stories is a great example of this. The town may appear to merely be an eccentric town with strange superstitious, but as the stories progress, readers learn that the town’s superstitions prove to be true. History is also examined. In “Ghost Summer”, particularly, the past and present are heartbreakingly woven together.
Read if you like: gothic horror, zombies, science fiction horror, werewolves, demons, post-apocalyptic settings, historical horror.
Jack Miller is a twenty-six year old failed academic who jumps at the chance to escape his dead end job as an export clerk by becoming the radio operator to a year-long expedition to Gruhuken, an arctic outpost in the north of Svalbard. Feeling slightly out of place among the Oxford-educated team, Jack initially thinks of turning down the offer, but upon seeing a dead body fished from the Thames is quick to change his mind, an ill-fated decision. Almost immediately, bad luck begins to plague the expedition. One member’s father dies, and he returns home. Another member breaks his leg. Finally, the leader of the expedition falls ill, and Jack is left alone at the outpost to carry on. John mans the outpost alone, but as the sun sets for the long, arctic night, he realizes that he may not be alone. Something is lurking in the icy dark, and it wants to come in.
Why it’s on the list: In this short novel, Paver weaves a tightly crafted, chilling tale. In the daylight of Gruhuken, it is easy to dismiss the eerie rumors, and the unsettling nature of the pace, but as the sun sets and the team dwindles, the tension mounts. Told as Jack’s travel diary, this gives readers an inside look at his unfolding horror. You will never look at winter as peaceful again.
Read if you like: arctic settings, science fiction horror.
Cas Lowood hunts ghosts. Along with his herb-witch mother and their cat, Cas travels the country looking for ghosts, preparing himself to face the one that killed his father. Case moves to Thunder Bay, Ontario for one reason: to find and kill the ghost called Anna Dressed in Blood. Anna is an incredibly powerful ghost who murders anyone that enters her home, except Cas. With Anna, Cas gets more than he bargained for. Not only is she a wrathful, murderous ghost, but she’s also a lonely, cursed girl. The dripped red dress she wears was once white on the day that she was brutally murdered in her own home. With the help of his friends, Thomas and Carmel, and his mother, Cas slowly unravels the mystery surrounding Anna as he comes to care for her. But Cas knows there can be no happy ending for them. He’s a ghost hunter, and she’s a ghost, and this is no fairytale.
Why it’s on the list: Anna Dressed in Blood is amazing. Anna is, by turns, evil and heartless and vulnerable and caring. She is a tragic figure, and her loneliness is similar to that of Cas, a boy who, by necessity, lives on the fringe of society. The two are drawn to each other, and even though, you know their story cannot end well, you will be surprised. Anna is only one antagonist that Cas faces in the story, and at first, she is truly terrifying. However, through Cas’s persistence, readers will come to know a different side of Anna, and other horrors, both supernatural and those of the more human variety will give the reader chills.
Read if you like: young adult fiction, haunted house stories.
Mara is done with silly superstitions that her childhood with her spiritualist parents was filled with. She wants nothing to do with ghosts, mediums, even religion. So, when her lease is up and she’s looking to buy a home with her boyfriend, Neil, she doesn’t care about the house’s brutal and bloody history or the rumors that it is haunted. Even practical concerns, such as the holes in the roof, don’t sway Mara from purchasing the derelict Blackwood House. Almost immediately after they move in, mysterious things begin happening. Odd sounds in the attic, children crying, even ghostly apparitions, but Mara is determined that there is a logical explanation for it all. Will she see the supernatural danger before it’s too late?
Why it’s on the list: Mara’s past is an interesting hook in this supernatural tale, though her insistence on a logical explanation for the mysterious occurrences borders on the ridiculous once things get truly scary. There are plenty of creepy and violent ghosts in the house’s history, including a serial killer whose victims are primarily children. A surprise twist reveals that Mara is more closely connected to the house than she realizes, and this increases the tension in the story. Blackwood House is the perfect haunted house, removed from civilization and isolated from help, creating a tense, claustrophobic environment. Moments of romance between Neil and Mara ease the tension in this eerie and atmospheric novel.
Read if you like: haunted house stories, a dash of romance.
Set in 1973, Joyland is part murder mystery, part coming of age novel, and part ghost story. Devin jones is a university student fresh off a painful heartbreak when he applies for a summer job at Joyland, an amusement park in North Carolina. He’s looking for more than just a summer job; Devin is also looking for a place to belong. He finds just that and more in his duties as the park’s costumed mascot. At Joyland, Devin finds a home and a family among the park’s employees. He also becomes fascinated by the mystery of Linda Gray, a woman who was brutally murdered on the park’s haunted funhouse ride, and whose ghost still haunts the park.
Why it’s on the list: Though the ghost story isn’t the main focus of the plot, Devin does sense something amiss on the haunted funhouse ride, but it’s woven in with his own journey at the amusement park, from his friendship and attraction to Erin, his coworker, to learning how to speak the park’s lingo to saving a little girl from choking on a hot dog. Astute readers will find some similarities between Devin’s haunted amusement park, and another of King’s ghost stories, The Shining. Both have a child with supernatural powers who can interact with the spirit world, but the horrors in Joyland are much tamer.
Read if you like: dark mystery, haunted carnivals, retro pulp fiction, coming of age stories.
On the year anniversary of their five year old son’s disappearance, Gabe and Eve Calleigh relocate from London to the countryside to escape the terrible memories of the city. They move into the abandoned and forbidding Crickley Hall. Almost immediately, strange things begin happening in the house. Odd noises are heard, and strange puddles of water appear in the house. The dog is strangely afraid of the place. At first, Gabe is skeptical about the home’s paranormal activity, preferring to find a more logical explanation for the phenomena, but as the supernatural events increase, a logical explanation becomes less likely, and it is Eve who is convinced to stay in the house. She believes that her son may be trying to contact her from beyond, and so strong is her belief that she attempts to make contact with him through a psychic. Slowly, the tragic history of Crickley Hall comes to light and the reality of the danger that the Calleigh family faces the longer they stay in the haunted house.
Why it’s on the list: With all of the elements of a good ghost story, The Secret of Crickley Hall will hook readers almost instantly and lure them into a sense of security with the familiar haunted house tropes, such as the skeptic and the psychic. The mystery surrounding the source of the haunting adds to the mounting tension and dread. Readers know something bad happened there, and the events that lead up to the climactic reveal unfold at a blistering pace. All of these make for a deliciously suspenseful classic ghost story.
Read if you like: haunted house horror, dark mystery.
When Asakawa’s niece dies, the investigative reporter inadvertently learns about the death of another teen from a cab driver on his way to work. The circumstances of the two deaths intrigue Asakawa. They are too similar not to be connected. After some research, he discovers that a total of four teens have all died at roughly the same time under very similar circumstances. His search leads him to a resort, and a fateful video cassette. The images on the tape are brief, confusing, and the consequences of viewing them are dire. Asakawa receives a warning that he will die in seven days unless he follows the instructions on the video… the instructions that have been taped over. Never once doubting the warning’s sincerity, Asakawa enlists the help of brash, morally questionable philosophy professor, Ryuji who has a vast knowledge of and intense interest in the paranormal. Together, the two trace the video’s origins to the tragedy o a young psychic named Sadako whose ghost may be responsible for the cursed tape.
Why it’s on the list: Ring, and its movie adaptations, were what made Japanese horror popular in the west, but long before that, Sadako’s name was synonymous with horror in Japan. This eerie tale combines ghost story with mystery, Japanese mysticism with medical science, past with presents with chilling results as tension slowly mounts. Though slightly dated (who uses video tapes anymore?), Ring still offers a dark and spooky mystery.
Read if you like: Japanese horror, science fiction horror, dark mystery.
Aging rocker, Jude Coyne has an obsession with the strange and macabre. He collects spooky artifacts, such as a hangman’s noose, a witch’s confession, even a snuff film. So, when his assistant finds a ghost for sale in an online auction, Jude is skeptical but not one to pass up the opportunity. The ghost arrives in the form of a garish suit wrapped in a heart-shaped box but with little evidence of the supernatural… at first. When Jude discovers the ghost, he quickly realizes that the entity haunting the suit is terrifyingly evil, and it wants to destroy Jude and everyone around him. Jude and his girlfriend, Georgia race to escape the ghost and unravel the mystery of the apparition’s murderous intent because this haunting was no mere coincidence. Along the way, their relationship grows stronger and Jude faces some painful truths about his past and himself.
Why it’s on the list: Though the premise is simple and deceptively whimsical, Hill’s debut novel packs a horrifying punch. The ghost in the heart-shaped box is truly terrifying, and as Jude and Georgia learn, he wasn’t exactly a stand-up guy in life either. Though the pace of the story is slow at first, letting readers gradually get to know the prickly characters of Jude and Georgia, once the ghost arrives, readers are lead on a fast-paced thrill ride with the couple as they discover its origins and intent. At first, Jude and Georgia are a bit hard to relate to, but as the tension mounts and the ghost draws closer, readers will find themselves breathlessly rooting for the couple’s survival.
Read if you like: music, supernatural horror.
When the Lutz family finds a great deal on a large home at 112 Ocean Avenue, they can’t pass up the bargain, what with George’s failing business venture draining the family finances. Little do they know that their dream home was the site of a gruesome murder. A year before they buy the house, Ronald deFeo Jr., the son of the home’s previous owners, killed his parents and siblings in the home under mysterious circumstances and claiming that voices in the house drove him to it. Soon after they move in, the Lutz family begins having strange experiences. Windows opened and closed by themselves. Missy, the Lutz daughter makes an imaginary friend whom she claims looks like a pig, and George discovers his wife, Kathy, levitating in bed. The wall ooze a strange viscous substance. The Lutz’s contact Father Mancuso, and it further aggravates the forces in the house. Even after his visit, Father Mancuso gets strange blisters whenever he thought about the events that unfolded on Ocean Avenue.
Why it’s on the list: The Amityville Horror shares many similarities to The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House in that they all take the idea of home as a safe place and turn it on its head, making it a place of nightmares. The supernatural occurrences are also similar, though much like Hell House, it is obvious from the start that the Amityville house is evil. The story is supposedly based on the true events that caused the Lutz family to flee their home at 112 Ocean Avenue a mere 28 days after its purchase, and though the writing style is that of a piece of sensational journalism, it’s still an incredibly spooky tale. The deFeo murders did, in fact, happen, lending an air of credibility to the story.
Read if you like: true crime, paranormal horror, haunted house horror.
Li Lan’s family has fallen on hard times. After the death of her mother, her father has squandered the family’s fortunes on drowning his sorrows in opium. With no money or standing, Li loses hopes for making a good marriage in 1873 Malacca. Her family is therefore understandably shocked when she receives a marriage proposal from the wealthy Lim family, but this proposal is a little bit unusual. Rather than becoming engaged to the Lim family’s handsome heir, Tian Bai, the proposal is that Li marry the Lim’s son, Lim Tian Ching, who died months earlier. The marriage is the family’s attempt to ease their son’s restless spirit, but it’s not a marriage that Li wants. She is torn between her desires and her sense of duty to her family. Marrying Tian Ching would make her an eternal widow, but it would ensure her family’s financial security. Though her father is not about to force the marriage on Li, Madame Lim, the matriarch of the Lim family, pays constant visits to Li in an attempt to coerce her into the marriage, and Li’s potential suitor haunts her nightmares. But what is his purpose in pursuing her? After falling ill, herself, Li journeys to the Underworld to find out, but she may not make it out alive.
Why it’s on the list: Filled with culture and history and rich with magic and superstition, The Ghost Bride, unlike many other ghost stories, does not merely document a haunting. It takes readers to where the ghosts actually are. In the afterlife, Li discovers a corrupt bureaucracy, demons, zombies, monsters, and even a dragon. Ghost brides did actually exist, further enriching the history of the story, and while there are few scares to be found in this ghost story, it is filled with romance, adventure and magic.
Read if you like: gothic horror, historical horror, paranormal, paranormal romance, unique and detailed settings.
When her father dies after contracting a fatal chill while attending a Dickens reading, twenty-one year old Eliza Caine is left with limited funds and even more limited options as a plain, bookish woman in Victorian London. So, she accepts a position as governess at Gaudlin Hall without learning anything about her new employers or her situation. When she arrives at the home, she meets her charges, Isabella and Eustace Westerly, but their parents, or any other adult, are nowhere to be found. As Eliza searches for answers about the strange circumstances surrounding the siblings, she discovers that she is not their first governess and that all the others have died in mysterious accidents. Could the children be responsible or this there a darker, more sinister force at work?
Why it’s on the list: This House is Haunted is, as advertised, a haunted house story that borrows many of its elements from the gothic traditions of Dickens, Bronte, James, and Poe, to name a few. It’s a slow boil that gradually builds tension as Eliza puts the puzzle pieces together about the true nature of Gaudlin Hall and just who or what is haunting it. Unlike many of the gothic governesses before her, Eliza is practical and determined even in the face of mortal danger. Also unlike many gothic hauntings, this ghost is real. There is no psychological subtext here or mere feminine hysterics. Truly malign forces threaten Eliza, trying to drive her away from Gaudlin Hall.
Read if you like: gothic horror, supernatural horror, haunted house horror.
Constance Langton is advised to sell Wraxford Hall, sight unseen, or burn it to the ground by the family lawyer who informs her that a distant cousin has left her the estate. He gives her a packet of information about the history of the old mansion. She learns that it was built on the ruins of a monastery that was torn down by Henry VIII and the woods around it are supposedly haunted by the ghosts of the monks. She learns that the Society of Psychical Research is interested in studying the home to see its ghostly apparitions, and she learns the fates of its former occupants, which include disappearances and mysterious deaths. Living friendless with an emotionally distant father and a mother who has never recovered from the loss of her youngest child, Constance is no stranger to darkness and death, but when she brings her mother to a seance, hoping that contact with the supernatural will comfort her, tragedy strikes. Constance is left alone with the mysteries and the ghosts she’s inherited.
Why it’s on the list: The Seance has all of the elements of a good, gothic ghost story: a haunted mansion, questionable inheritance, family secrets, and of course, ghosts. The atmosphere is dark and moody, and even the language places readers firmly in its Victorian setting. Even the most seasoned of gothic horror fans or dark mystery readers will appreciate the slow buildup of suspense that Harwood creates, deepening the mystery in an unexpected ways to keep readers guessing until the end of the novel.
Read if you like: dark mystery, gothic horror, Victorian settings.
When Dr. Faraday, a country doctor, is called to the estate of Hundreds Hall to tend to the 14 year old maid’s stomach pains, she tells him that she feels that there is something dark and scary about the house. The doctor laughs it off, much like her employers. Living in the house are Mrs. Ayres and her two adult children Roderick, a retired RAF airman who suffers from nervous disorders and the brash Caroline. Faraday insinuates himself into the lives of the Ayres, occasionally treating Roderick and befriending, and eventually courting Caroline. The Ayres struggle to stave off the collapse of both their home and their fortunes, but the strain is starting to take its toll and odd things begin to happen at Hundreds Hall. First, a new family from London moves in and their daughter is attacked uncharacteristically by Caroline’s dog at a dinner party. Strange sounds occur in the house, accompanied by childish drawings on the walls, and Mrs. Ayres believes that the spirit that is haunting Hundreds Hall is that of her daughter, Susan. When Mrs. Ayres is locked in the nursery, it only serves to confirm that belief, but all is not well at Hundreds Hall. Slowly, all of the inhabitants are succumbing to madness and paranoia. Are these the effects of a haunting or of their knowledge that their way of life will soon be coming to an end?
Why it’s on the list: Dr. Faraday, as the protagonist, brings sturdy skepticism to a story that has shades of James’s The Turn of the Screw and Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. There’s even a character named Roderick in the Ayre’s family, who, like Poe’s character attempts to keep up the family estate despite his own ailments. Every mysterious thing that happens at Hundreds Hall seems, to Faraday at least, to have a rational explanation. It is this realism that sweeps readers up into the mystery of the mansion. It’s spookiness is balanced by Faraday’s biting social commentary, leaving readers to wonder if something truly supernatural is haunting the house or if the psyche of this once wealthy family is crumbling just like their ancestral home.
Read if you like: gothic horror, supernatural horror, psychological horror, dark mystery.
The Haunted Hotel begins with the mysterious Countess Narona as she is demanding of a doctor to know whether she is going mad or if she is indeed truly evil. The Countess has the uncanny ability to get others to do what she wants, even if it’s not in their best interests. It is with this magnetic ability that she is able to seduce Lord Montbarry away from his fiancee, the kind-hearted Agnes. The Countess and Lord Montbarry marry and move to Venice, living in an old palace until the lord mysteriously dies. Later, the palace is converted into a hotel, and strange things begin happening. Agnes, unable to move on from her heartbreak, takes a job as a governess and visits the hotel with her charges, unaware that it is the scene of her beloved’s death. Forces draw Agnes and the Countess together, and only they can quiet the hotel’s restless spirit.
Why it’s on the list: Though The Haunted Hotel is more of a gothic mystery than a ghost story, Collins’s tale is subtly chilling. It’s not a ghost story that is going to make you jump at shadows or read with the lights on. Instead, it’s a slow boil gothic mystery with plenty of atmosphere and spooky supernatural elements. While there are very few supernatural thrills, despite the ghost, the most frightening character in the novel is not the ghost, but the Countess who may or may not be evil. This is the psychological aspect of the story too, as readers are left to draw their own conclusions as to whether the haunting actually took place or if the two women were merely haunted by their memories.
Read if you like: gothic horror, dark mystery, Victorian literature.
Adam Snow is an antique book dealer who, when lost on a country road, stumbles across a decrepit old mansion and decaying gardens. Drawn to the house, Adam explores the grounds until he feels a cold, child-like hand slip into his own. Later, he learns that the house is called “The White House” and that it was famous for its gardens until tragedy struck the owner. The ghostly hand begins to appear more and more in Adam’s daily life, but its presence is generally benign. Then, Adam journeys to France to track down Shakespeare’s First Folio for a client, and the spirit becomes increasingly malevolent, particularly around bodies of water.
Why it’s on the list: Hill’s story is very similar in vein to her popular The Woman in Black. Both deal with a lone man facing supernatural forces. Both deal with an unsettling presence that the protagonist happens upon in an old house. Both recall classic ghost stories such as the works of M.R. James, and it is partially because of this familiarity that The Small Hand is so frightening. Readers know the eventual outcome of the story, even if the emotionally distant Adam does not. There are hints of Henry James in the story as well, as the haunting causes Adam to doubt his sanity, and here, Adam’s emotional distance causes the reader to seriously consider the question as they examine Adam’s relationship with the other characters in the story. It’s a short, but delightfully chilling tale.
Read if you like: gothic horror, supernatural horror, psychological horror, dark mystery.
Bookish Freddie Watson journeys to the Pyrenees in the wake of his brother’s death in World War One, in part to escape his parents expectations and in part to escape his own crushing grief. When George’s ghost briefly appears to him, Freddie is comforted, but the experience also rekindles his sadness. However, George is not the only ghost that Freddie will come into contact with during his trip. When he crashes his car in the middle of a snowstorm, Freddie is forced to take refuge in a small, nearby village, which seems to be in the midst of a festival. There, he meets the lovely and mysterious Fabrissa, with whom he feels that he can share his grief and sadness. She, too , has suffered tragedy, and her tale of woe will lead Freddie to discover secrets that have been buried for over six hundred years.
Why it’s on the list: With a little bit of history, some mystery, and of course, some spookiness, this historical ghost story will not scare the socks off of you. In fact, despite the requisite gothic horror elements of castles, graveyards, ghosts, and bad weather, it seems, at times, more fairytale than ghost story. What makes this tale haunting, however, is Freddie’s all-consuming grief which is captured honestly and without melodrama.
Read if you like: gothic horror, historical horror
When their aunt Elspeth dies of cancer, twins Julia and Valentina Poole inherit her London flat on the condition that they live in the home for one year before selling it and that their parents, Jack and Edie, Elspeth’s twin, never set foot in the house. At first, Julia, the emotionally and physically stronger of the twins, is reluctant to leave home, but Valentina sees the inheritance as a chance to break free of her sister’s control and discover her own life. The two journey to London, move into the flat, and meet their neighbors, including their aunt’s former lover who forms a close relationship with Valentina. They also slowly discover that the ghost of their aunt is haunting the apartment and learn dark family secrets.
Why it’s on the list: Though there are ghosts present in this story, and Elspeth’s apartment is adjacent to London’s famous Highgate Cemetery, Her Fearful Symmetry is not a very spooky tale. Instead, the novel is more akin to Victorian gothic horror, in which dark impulses of deeply flawed characters are explored. The characters here are, indeed, flawed, and it’s these flaws which make their stories so compelling.
Read if you like: gothic horror, dark mystery.