05/28/2024

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Track the Untold Stories

8 Ghost Stories That Will Haunt You

8 Ghost Stories That Will Haunt You

I love ghost stories. It’s not just the surface-level horror of the supernatural that appeals to me, but the deeper themes they can be used to explore. They are, at their heart, always about something returning: lost love, buried griefs and traumas, societal shames, injustices. A ghost—like a good tale—will only linger on for a reason.

My debut novel Spitting Gold is also a story about the many things that haunt us. Set in 1860s Paris, it follows two sisters who are con artist spirit mediums, exploiting other people’s belief in spirits for their own gain. But, as my characters soon discover, we can’t always pick and choose which parts of the past will come back to speak to us.

In researching Spitting Gold, I’ve become a connoisseur of the ghost story. Here are eight novels that have stuck with me in particular, from classics of the genre to more recent additions that deserve a place on your shelves.

The Haunting of Hill House Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Brought together by the occult scholar Dr. Montague, a group of strangers meet to investigate the reported supernatural phenomena in the remote Hill House. While they expect the poltergeist activity that greets them, they aren’t so prepared for the menacing sentience of the building itself. Hill House doesn’t want them to leave. And for Eleanor—a lonely young woman who has never felt welcome anywhere—there’s something seductive about this.

Shirley Jackson’s iconic paranormal thriller may be the blueprint for the haunted house genre, but the reading experience still feels as fresh and surprising as ever. The prose is exquisitely tense; the setting is perfectly unsettling. Just like Eleanor, you will never want to leave.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

I can’t get enough of the uncanny, barren suspense of a polar horror story, and Dark Matter is the best example of this that I’ve read yet. Just ahead of the outbreak of the Second World War, an Arctic expedition sets out from London for the uninhabited bay of Gruhuken. Working-class wireless operator Jack feels a particular pressure to prove his worth to his new Oxford-educated colleagues—not to mention to impress the handsome Gus. So when someone needs to volunteer to remain behind, solo, through the winter, Jack is the one to raise his hand. But as the polar night closes in, he starts to wonder if he really is alone on Gruhuken, or if someone else walks out there in the dark.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Set in 1870s Ohio, Beloved is the story of mother Sethe and daughter Denver, whose home is haunted by the infant girl that Sethe lost in the process of escaping slavery. The family attempt to drive the spirit away, but the horrors of the past can’t be exorcized so easily, and soon a mysterious young woman arrives on their doorstep. She identifies herself only as ‘Beloved’—the single word that Sethe could afford to have inscribed on her dead child’s tombstone.

Beloved stands out for me as a ghost story that so successfully unpacks the legacies of grief, trauma and interrupted love, both for the novel’s characters and on a larger societal level, making it a powerful and unforgettable read.

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

If you’re as obsessed with urban legends about cursed film sets and theatrical productions as I am, then Plain Bad Heroines is the book for you. This eerie doorstopper takes place between two connected time periods: in 1902, two students at a New England girls’ boarding school are found dead in the orchard following a freak yellowjacket attack. In the present day, the girls’ lesbian love story and grisly young deaths are being adapted for a Hollywood film, shot on-location where the school still stands. As both narratives unfold, they join into one delicious gothic drama studded with a host of brilliantly complicated female characters.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo is a literary treat told through the mingled voices of a graveyard of spirits, on the evening that President Lincoln’s son Willie is laid to rest. The cemetery’s inhabitants have never been able to accept their own deceased states, but as Willie’s soul falls into danger, his new neighbors will have to come to terms with reality if they want to help save him. This book is charmingly weird, massively entertaining and it packs a real emotional punch – I haven’t ever managed to get through it without crying. This is the book to pick up if you want a paranormal tale that’s more life-affirming than horrifying.

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss

Six archaeologists are excavating the remains of a Norse burial ground in Greenland when they learn that the outside world has been hit by a devastating pandemic. Safe in their isolation but entirely cut off from families and friends, tensions in the group run high, particularly when visions of past violence start to creep into their dreams.

Cold Earth’s narrative style takes the form of a collection of letters written—and presumably never sent—by these six characters. The result is the literary equivalent of a found-footage horror in the style of The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, lending a spine-chilling dramatic irony as the reader makes connections between the subjective accounts that the characters aren’t yet able to see.

The Between by Tananarive Due

When Hilton’s wife is elected as the only African American judge in 1990s Dade County, Florida, the family become the targets of racist hate mail. At the same time, Hilton is afflicted by new nightmares, some so vivid that it’s hard to tell them apart from waking life. One childhood half-memory recurs in particular: the day he should have drowned. Are these disturbing visions just the product of extreme stress, or is something trying to warn him of impending peril?

The Between is an enigmatic, shifting novel with a narrator slowly losing his grip on reality. The horror of this story is its uncertainty as psychic foreboding converges with the very real threat of racially-motivated violence.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Last on this list is the ghost story that managed to scare me the most—possibly because I made the mistake of reading it late at night in a spooky old English countryside house. This is an atmospheric historical novel set in the crumbling Hundreds Hall, whose resident Ayres family have fallen on hard times in post-war Britain. When the newly-qualified physician Dr. Faraday is called to the hall to examine a patient, he becomes tangled up in the Ayres’ lives, and in the strange occurrences that they attribute to a presence they call ‘the little stranger’. Sarah Waters knows how to craft a perfectly-paced story, and the slow-burn, nerve-wracking tension in this novel of social change is no exception.

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