I love a great haunted house novel, even if sometimes the haunting is by a demon rather than a ghost. I suppose that’s a “possessed house” novel instead, but let’s not split hairs. Then there are the haunted object stories, like King’s Christine (a car) or Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box (a suit of clothes). In my new novel, Dead Ringers, I weave together a crazy quilt of those elements, including a demon in a basement, a room full of haunted mirrors, and ghosts with agendas. But when they’re done right, the straight-up haunted house novel is one of the most beautiful, elegant, and terrifying subgenres in literature. If you like this sort of thing, even a little, odds are you have already read the big three—Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Stephen King’s The Shining, and Richard Matheson’s Hell House. Maybe you’ve even read The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson, which purported to be a true story. But here are Five Haunted House Books You Probably Haven’t Read, and should…for better or worse.
BURNT OFFERINGS (1973) by Robert Marasco
So many classic horror films were adapted from novels without most members of the viewing audience having any idea of the films’ literary origins. If you’ve seen the film version of Burnt Offerings starring Oliver Reed, Karen Black, and Bette Davis, you know the basic story. A couple from the city get an impossible to refuse deal on the summer rental of a mansion, as long as they’re willing to take care of the owners’ ancient mother, bringing food to her attic room. Soon, the new tenants find their bodies, emotions, and relationship withering, as if they’re being drained away. It’s an excellent film, one that scared the hell out of me as a kid. I didn’t read the novel until years later, and I wished (of course) that I’d read it first. But either way, if you love a good haunted house novel, don’t pass on Burnt Offerings.
WILD FELL (2013) by Michael Rowe
It’s very difficult for today’s writers to create an effective haunted house novel without finding some way to twist it, either through humor or through the lens of technology. Any author attempting a haunted house novel in the classic tradition needs the skill and talent to weave a dreamlike sense of terror with compelling characters and, most importantly, a sense of place that is both unique and tangible, not to mention full of dread. Michael Rowe is up to the task in Wild Fell, in which a man fleeing his life in search of a new one purchases the summer house on Blackmore Island in a deal which feels to him like destiny. The whole affair is a modern exercise in classic gothic storytelling, and well worth your time.
THE TURN OF THE SCREW (1898) by Henry James
All right, maybe this is cheating. Maybe you’ve read The Turn of the Screw, most likely as a school assignment, but speaking of gothic storytelling…go back and read it again as if it’s the first time. For those of you who have only ever pretended to have read it, the time is now. The tale of a governess caring for two children at a huge, sprawling but lonely estate, The Turn of the Screw is notable also for the literary war that has been waged over it since its publication. Literary critics who admired James’ abilities as a writer but looked down their noses at supernatural fiction insisted that the governess must be insane, the ghosts in the story an invention of her afflicted imagination. Read this classic and decide for yourselves. Afterward, be sure to watch the film adaptation The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr, the second best haunted house film ever made (after The Haunting, of course).
THE SENTINEL (1974) by Jeffrey Konvitz
The 1970s seemed very fertile ground for certain types of horror, including the haunted house story, religious-based horror, and horror with a certain subversiveness. The Sentinel is another that has stuck with me for decades. When Alison Parker moves into an apartment of a New York brownstone, she is unsettled by the presence of the top floor tenant, a blind, hermit-like Catholic priest named Father Halloran, who spends all of his time sitting at the window, staring outside. Alison is haunted by the recent death of her father as well as her own attempted suicide, not to mention the fact that her boyfriend is suspected in the murder of his late wife. She seeks comfort in getting to know the other tenants in the building, all of whom have secrets of their own. Soon she discovers that neither the brownstone nor its tenants are precisely what they appear to be. A profoundly dark bit of horror, which was also adapted to film.
THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND (1908) by William Hope Hodgson
In my lifetime, H.P. Lovecraft has gone from being a writer cherished primarily by horror aficionados and lovers of weird tales to one whose works are taught in classrooms and considered as great literature of the supernatural. If you’ve read Lovecraft but never read The House on the Borderland, one of Lovecraft’s major literary influences, you’re in for a treat. Hodgson’s seminal novel takes the classic gothic old dark house scenario and transports it to a hellish landscape that is claustrophobic and alien. The secrets of the old dark house involve pig monsters, an old journal, the Sea of Sleep, and a dead world. In other words, it’s batshit crazy. This is one of those novels that people claim to have read without actually having done so. I hope you’ll remedy that right away.
Christopher Golden is the New York Times #1 bestselling author of Dead Ringers, Snowblind, Tin Men, and many other novels. With Mike Mignola, he co-created the cult favorite comic book series Baltimore and Joe Golem: Occult Detective. As editor, he has compiled such anthologies as Seize the Night, The New Dead, and Dark Duets. Please visit him on Facebook and @ChristophGolden on Twitter.