Haunted house stories are their own special genre of horror. From moody Gothic tales of bumps in the night, to chilling, gore-filled nail-biters, They all follow a basic template: a group of people enter a house that seems a little…off. The more perceptive among them notice that something’s not right. Inexplicable occurrences pile up like books on a TBR stack, someone discovers a graveyard/occult shrine in the basement, and one by one the rest of the group begins to realize the truth. Sometimes, one or more of them disappear. Sometimes, an apparition confronts the whole group. But inevitably the haunting comes to a head during a stormy night or a full moon or a Halloween party or a seance, and no one’s life is ever the same.
And then we close the book and move on to the next house.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)
In the vast subgenre of Governesses in Trouble, The Turn of the Screw stands tall, modestly dressed, perfectly coiffed, and glancing nervously at the strange sounds emanating from the attic.
The novel begins with a framing device: a nameless narrator listens to his friend Douglas read aloud from a manuscript written by Douglas’ friend, a governess. The governess is now dead, and so can’t defend herself or add any important notes to her manuscript, which tells of strange occurrences while she cared for a pair of orphans at an estate called Bly House. She is hired by the children’s uncle, who wants nothing to do with his new wards, and while she establishes close relationships with her new charges she also sees, or thinks she sees, a pair of other people stalking about the premises. Could they be the ghosts of the children’s previous governess, and her illicit lover? Why can’t anyone else seem to see them? Did they do something terrible to the children? Or is it the governess herself who is doing terrible things, and concocting the ghosts to deal with her own anxiety?
It’s all left extremely vague, and the book’s endlessly debatable sexual mores and psychological twists laid the groundwork for every haunted house tale that came after it.
Twilight Pariah by Jeffrey Ford (2017)
College kids go to abandoned house in the woods, and everything goes perfectly well, they have a nice time, and return home unscathed? That doesn’t sound right, let’s try it again: Jeffrey Ford’s Twilight Pariah mashes up the “cabin-in-the-woods” story with the “haunted house” story, resulting in a terrifying tale of college experimentation gone wrong. Maggie, Russell, and Henry spend their last college vacation together venturing into the woods and excavating the dilapidated old Prewitt Mansion, a fun bit of practice for newly-minted archaeology major Maggie. Things get weird when they find the skeleton of a child—or at least they think it’s a child. But most children don’t have horns.
When they try to go back to normal life, they find that no matter where they go they feel themselves being watched, and even followed, but they can never see a pursuer. Their homes are ransacked. And then, terrible things start happening to their friends. Someone wants the child they found, and the horrors won’t end until they give it back. You can read the first chapter here!
Hell House by Richard Matheson (1971)
Richard Matheson’s take on a haunted house story is an odd (ghost) duck. On one hand, it becomes an exploration of spiritualist practices, and a detailed take on the different between mental and physical mediums. On the other hand, it’s a meditation on death, and whether the human personality can survive the experience. And on a blood-covered third hand, it’s a surprisingly gory, hyper-sexualized take on a ghost story.
Emeric Belasco, eccentric multi-millionaire was famed for his depraved, orgiastic parties, and his creeptastic mansion has been shut up ever since one of those shindigs resulted in over a dozen deaths… and Belasco’s disappearance. Now a second eccentric multi-millionaire, William Reinhardt Deutsch, has hired four people to go into the house, reputed to be the most haunted in America, and come back with proof of consciousness after death. Dr. Lionel Barrett, a physicist who also studies parapsychology, agrees to spend a few nights there with his wife, Edith, who has no psychic tendencies or training. The couple is joined by Florence Tanner, a Christian Spiritualist/mental medium, and physical medium Benjamin Franklin Fischer, who was the only person to make it out of the last investigation of the house with his body and mind intact. As in any good haunting story, the house exploits each person’s foibles and weaknesses, but what’s really interesting is how Matheson sees the paths created by each character’s beliefs, and how far he’s willing to take them down those paths, no matter how brutal the circumstances become.
Coldheart Canyon by Clive Barker (2001)
Clive Barker ditches the usual creaky Victorian mansion or crumbling English manor for a jazzier location: the Hollywood mansion of a silent film legend. Coldheart Canyon is a fizzy concoction of satire, scares, and sex. Todd Pickett is just beginning to age out of the explodey action movies that have made him a megastar, so he decides to go under the knife. But as always in horror stories, tampering in God’s domain comes with consequences, and the surgery goes awry, leaving Todd in a desperate situation. He can’t be seen until his face has healed, so he holes up in the classic home of Katya Lupi, which then leads to his near-stalker Tammy Lauper, well, near stalking him, and did I mention the ghost orgies?
Here’s where the story diverges from the usual haunted house path: Lupi was a star in the days of silent film, but at some point in her career she brought a souvenir back from the Old Country…a grotesque painting featuring a Count who was doomed to haunt the Romanian countryside…except now the various ghosts and ghouls that stalk the night seem to roam the canyon itself. And this being Clive Barker, the sexuality of the story hits a fever pitch and stays there. (This is the only book on this list to prominently feature a priapic goat boy, for instance.) Also, there might be demons? Like actual demons, not just ghosts. Again, trust Clive Barker to turn the subgenre inside out and turn it into an erotic Hollywood satire.
The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson (1977)
Home ownership, man. Some people would say it’s the American Dream, but some people would argue that, like, you might buy a house and move your family into it only to discover that evil lurks in the house…because there was a murder in the house, which the realtor told you about, silly. And then you had a priest come to bless the house but then sort of handwaved the fact that he super freaked out and told you not to go in certain rooms, and thought it was cute when your kid had a new imaginary friend named Jodie who just happened to be a pig with glowing red eyes, it’s like, haven’t you ever seen The Exorcist? Haven’t you ever even heard of The Exorcist???
It’s like you WANT to be haunted.
This book was a sensation when it came out in 1977, and it’s a great, scary read, with tiny details like fly infestations and telephone static adding up into a gripping story—especially once the lines between truth, fiction, and hoax begin to blur and you find out that the whole story is based on a real house. The book and ensuing film series have enough of a hold on the American imagination that as recently as 2010, hundreds of people lined up at dawn to go to a yard sale at the Amityville house.
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc (2017)
I reviewed Jac Jemc’s literary horror last month, and it’s stuck with me. This tale follows a young couple as they leave their city (and, hopefully, a gambling addiction, and a heap of relationship tension) for a new life in an idyllic small town. They find a surprisingly inexpensive Victorian-looking house on a cul de sac, whose lovely broad lawn leads straight into a sun-dappled forest complete with playing neighborhood children, and winding paths that take you to a beautiful lakefront. Except…the lawn seems to be shrinking? And the children are there all the time, but don’t seem to belong to any families? And there’s something wrong with the lake? And why is their neighbor always watching them?
Jemc plays with the clichés of horror writing in ways that made me giggle with delight, but she never forgets what genre she is, and the story goes from being unnerving to creepy to terrifying, and you probably won’t want to stop reading until you’ve finished it.
The Elementals by Michael McDowell (1981)
All of you know Michael McDowell’s work, whether you realize it or not. The man whom Stephen King once called “the finest writer of paperback originals in America” was best known for writing the screenplay to Beetlejuice, and as if that wasn’t enough, he co-wrote the script for The Nightmare Before Christmas and the novelization of Clue. (You can read a conversation between McDowell Douglas E. Winter over at Too much Horror Fiction, the excellent site curated by Will Erickson, who in addition to being a national horror treasure in his own right, co-wrote fellow national treasure Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell.)
But I’m not talking about any of those right now, because I’m going to talk about The Elementals! Two families, the Savages and the McCrays, just want to find a pair of Victorian homes to share a blissful summer on the Gulf Coast. But no. Instead there has to be a third house, which of course is haunted by something horrific, which is obviously awakened by the youngest McCray child. Summer vacations never go the way you plan.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009)
This 2009 neo-gothic novel was Waters’ third to be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It centers on Faraday, a rational man who worked his way up from lowly beginnings, and is now a respected country doctor. After he’s called to stately Hundreds Hall for an appointment, he gradually befriends the Ayres, the high-class family who lives there. He soon learns that they’re falling apart financially, and are under enormous strain to keep up the appearance of well-heeled lords and ladies of the manor.
When the family attempts to throw a party to attract potential suitors for Caroline Ayres, things abruptly go from bad to much worse: a guest is attacked, Caroline’s brother, Roderick, seems to be falling back into his World War II-induced PTSD, and there might be a spectral visitor driving Lady Ayres to madness. Waters balances the spookiness with an examination of England’s crumbling mid-century class system, along with some trenchant observations on gender roles and the trauma of war.
HorrorStör by Grady Hendrix (2014)
Grady Hendrix asks the question: what if I write haunted house story, but instead of a haunted house, it’s set in a parody of IKEA? And what if I make people think it’s a silly comedy, but actually it turns into a bloodcurdling, gut-ripping horror about halfway through? And it’s not so much a horror story as much as it’s an examination of class, consumerism, and the concept of the work ethic?
And yes these are good questions to ask, but most importantly when Horrorstör is funny, it’s hilarious, when it’s scary, it’s terrifying, and when it’s heartfelt, it might make you cry. This is a horror story that embraces the genre at the same time that it transcends it, and will make you really care about the characters.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
Eleanor Vance spent most of her youth caring for her abusive mother. But just when the old lady finally died, Eleanor’s sister stepped in to take up the torch of the bullying. Eleanor escapes for what she thinks will be a fine adventure – joining Dr. John Montague’s investigation of the haunting of Hill House. But once she’s there she finds herself buffeted between the attentions of Theodora, a probably-queer bohemian girl, Luke, the heir to Hill House, and, of course, the House itself…which seems to want her more than all the human characters combined.
Is there an eccentric millionaire who tampered in God’s domain? Yep. Did he have a messed up relationship with his two daughters? Boy howdy. Does the house have weird angles and rooms that don’t make architectural sense? You betcha! That’s all just background, though. The reason Hill House endures is Jackson’s extraordinary writing, and the way she lets you into Eleanor’s weird, endearing, utterly tragic stream-of-consciousness. The book can be terrifying on one page and tragic the next, and it’s shot through with Jackson’s black humor and commentary on gender roles. Read one way, this is the scariest book of the 20th Century. Read another, and you have a tragic commentary on women in general, and Eleanor Vance in particular.
Slade House by David Mitchell (2015)
Slade House is David Mitchell’s take on a Gothic British haunted house story. He skips through time, gradually showing us the history and horrors of the Grayer Twins, two psychic adepts who feed on the souls of unsuspecting victims. This sounds pretty grim (and it is) but it’s also fascinating to watch how Mitchell rewrites a bare bones plot—poor saps are lured into a haunted house and ghost-murdered—with a variety of living, breathing characters, all of whom you’ll really care about despite knowing what’s coming.
And of course, the real fun starts once the victims start fighting back…
The Shining by Stephen King (1977)
Where to begin with The Overlook Hotel? Any time you show up for a job interview, and your prospective employer has to tell you how the last guy went crazy and murdered his whole family, maybe you should rethink taking the gig? But Jack Torrance is that special type of desperate, and he takes the job as The Overlook’s caretaker because he wants time and solitude to work on a play, and to bond with his family. Plus it’ll keep him away from any access to liquor for months, which is just what he needs.
This….does not go well. Jack’s son, Danny, has “the shining”, an umbrella term for a few different psychic gifts. The poor kid is immediately attacked by the hotel, and has to deal with ghosts and living topiary while his parents try to put their marriage back together. And of course then the hotel moves on to weaker prey…Danny’s dad.
The Family Plot by Cherie Priest (2016)
Like a lot of horror, Cherie Priest’s The Family Plot is about a lot more than just a haunting. When Chuck Dutton gets an offer to strip the old Withrow House, he sees a chance to save his family business, Music City Salvage, and to offer some stability to his daughter Dahlia, still reeling from a bitter divorce. But when he sends Dahlia and her crew out to the estate, they find more than they bargained for: some gorgeous antiques, vintage mahogany balustrades, an immaculate crystal chandelier…and a cemetery, a corpse, and a vengeful ghost.
Priest’s novel dances lightly between chilling ghost story, class commentary, and a perceptive look at a woman rebuilding her life and her relationship with her dad.
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle (2012)
Because I love “haunted-house-but-there’s-a-twist” type stories, I’m including Victor LaValle’s 2012 novel. Here, there are three twists: the haunted house is a mental hospital; the main character is committed against his will even though he has no mental health issues; the hallucinations the patients are having might be…The Devil?
Pepper is a big man who’s having a very bad night. When a pair of cops decide they’ve had enough of his mouth they decide to drop him in New Hyde mental facility instead of a jail cell, and after a few enforced therapy sessions and non-consensual medications he’s not sure what counts as real. But the stories other patients tell about “The Devil” are seeming more plausible by the minute… As in all of his work, LaValle make you care about the characters, and he makes you think, but never at the expense of telling a gripping, truly scary yarn.
Special Bonus Haunted House: “The Specialist’s Hat” by Kelly Link (1998)
This story is special because Kelly Link wrote it, but also because you can read it here.
Off you go, I’ll wait!
Wasn’t that great? As always, the haunting of the house balances perfectly with the haunting of each family member, and by the end of the story, you know Claire and Samantha and their dad. But for me at least, the one I feel the most for is the caretaker, Mr. Coeslak. They’re always locking him in the tool room.