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You can’t escape ghosts in literature, whether you like them or not. Humans’ve been telling frightening stories since we were drawing on cave walls, and our addiction shows no signs of abating millennia later. However, a ghost story is rarely just that. Rather, spirits frequently represent the most enigmatic things that plague us, from pain to secrets to unsolved mysteries. Contemporary ghost stories have moved into psychological horror terrain, with damaged minds and haunted house settings.
To celebrate the frightening side of autumn, I’ve gathered ten of our favorite ghost stories that encapsulate everything that the modern version of such stories can accomplish and be. These novels make us think; they ask us to question our past and our preconceptions. They’re also really frightening, so keep the lights on as you read so you don’t start seeking for ghosts in the dark corners of your own house.
As the Civil War raged on in the United States, Abraham Lincoln crept inside a tomb at Georgetown Cemetery one night in February 1862 to cradle the body of his 11-year-old son, who had died of typhoid disease. This historical fact sparked Saunders’ remarkable imagination, which he unleashed on a fictive landscape that was both supernatural and historical. Willie Lincoln awakens after his death in the bardo, a metaphysical limbo between death and rebirth, where he finds a true Greek chorus of souls. Willie, trapped in the bardo by his father’s sadness, is guided by the spirits, who tell their stories of love, death, and remembrance. In this polyphonic drama of our connected humanity, Saunders connects the immense anguish of one historically significant man to the pain and salvation of everyone.
If you’ve seen the Netflix series of the same name but haven’t read the source material, which many consider to be the best haunted house story ever written, it’s past time to do so. Four seekers arrive at the decaying Hill House, where scary happenings abound, to engage in a parapsychological research in this landmark classic written by the queen of creep. Jackson’s brilliance resides in the connections she draws between haunted houses and haunted minds, which culminate in an unforgettable climax. Whether you’re a first-time reader or a die-hard Jackson lover, The Haunting of Hill House is a horror fiction master class.
King’s seminal ghost story, released in 1977, solidified his reputation in the horror genre. The novel begins with a new beginning for Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who has moved his family to the Overlook Hotel, a remote Colorado Rockies resort. Jack intends to get his life back on track as the new off-season caretaker, but the ghostly hotel has other plans. Danny, Jack’s five-year-old son, has a “shining”—a psychic skill that allows him to see the hotel’s malignant ghosts that seek to possess him. When Danny becomes too difficult a target, they turn to Jack, setting up a tense standoff between a stranded family and the spooks who want them dead. King explores Jack’s own traumas through the haunted home trope—and delivers a spectacular thrill trip of paranormal activity.
“I can’t picture American writing without it,” observed literary critic John Leonard when Beloved was published in 1987. Morrison’s masterpiece is as important to the American canon as it ever was. The novel is set in post-Civil War Ohio and revolves around Sethe, a lady who escaped slavery eighteen years earlier but has yet to find freedom from its horrors. Sethe is haunted by the unsettling vision of Beloved, the nameless baby daughter she murdered many years ago in order to save her from a life in chains. Years later, Beloved has returned from “the place over there” to seek vengeance for the loss of her life. Sethe is tormented by loss and love as she struggles with the terrible decision she made. Beloved is a classic about remembered trauma, both personal and national, written in thick, beautiful prose that verges on the sublime.
Who says ghosts have to live in old Victorian mansions? The scene in Hendrix’s highly imaginative Horrorstor takes place at ORSK, an IKEA-style furniture retailer. When bizarre damage begins, three employees establish a nightly patrol to investigate, but what they discover defies belief: want tobe ghostbusters, an unhoused guy living surreptitiously in the store, and, yep, real ghosts. Hendrix provides a palm-sweating horror thriller as well as a laugh-out-loud retail satire as these scrappy patrollers square off against the malevolent spirits who seek to keep them in the showroom forever. If you’ve ever wished an eternal curse on IKEA while building their furniture (and who hasn’t? ), Horrorstor is the book for you.
Mexican Gothic, set in 1950s Mexico, begins with a disturbing letter: bride Catalina writes to her cousin Noem in distress, claiming that her husband is poisoning her and that “fleshless entities will not let me go.” To investigate, the glamorous and formidable Noem heads to High Place, the countryside house of Catalina’s new husband, Virgil Doyle. There she meets the “basically macabre” Doyle family: English aristocracy who colonized the mining town of High Place, and their terrifying dad, a ruthless eugenicist. Noem, plagued by terrifying images of ghosts and violence, organizes her escape with Catalina, but High Place will not let them leave so simply. Moreno Garcia offers Gothic horror at its greatest in this horrible and mesmerizing tale, with a wonderful layer about the scourges of racism and colonialism.
Aisha, a Muslim lady living in a run-down apartment building with her white fiancé and his children, begins having bizarre nightmares about the building’s history. Not long ago, a Muslim neighbor storing explosives in his unit caused a tragic accident, sparking Islamophobia among the multiracial residents of the building. The explosion awoke hostile spirits that feed on xenophobia; now, Aisha must appeal to her neighbors for help in defeating the ghosts that harass her. The authors expose unsettling truths about the demons that exist within and without humanity in this modern reinterpretation of the haunted home cliche.
Lois Cairns’ life takes a turn for the worse when she becomes obsessed with a fragment of silent film that may contain the solution to a century-old mystery. She is struggling with her son’s autism diagnosis and has been fired from her teaching position. Lois believes the video demonstrates that an eccentric socialite who vanished under unexplained circumstances in the early twentieth century was, in reality, a pioneering female filmmaker. Lois’ all-consuming investigation into the mystery revitalizes her career but jeopardizes her and her family’s life, for the past refuses to die. Experimental Film is a suspenseful and fascinating film that combines old world folklore and modern filmmaking to claim that every movie is a ghost story.
Clare comes in Havana for a horror film festival and discovers her husband Richard dressed in a white linen suit she’s never seen before. Another issue is that Richard was killed in a hit-and-run accident months ago. Clare, bereaved and surprised, pursues Richard through Havana’s bustling streets, sinking into a dissociative condition that sends her plunging backward into the past. “Perhaps a person became even more themselves when they were away, emancipated from their customary present tense,” Clare speculates. Van den Berg creates a lyric story about tourism, marriage, and loss in this slippery novel of transitional locations and second selves.
Every year, the Echota family gathers for a bonfire to commemorate Cherokee National Holiday and the death of their son Ray-Ray in a police shooting. The annual bonfire on the fifteenth anniversary of Ray-death Ray’s transforms the family members’ inner sadness into something fundamental and new. Hobson weaves the Echotas’ loss with the tragedies of their lineage, ceding sections of the story to an ancestor named Tsala as reality and the spirit world merge. Tsala describes his own assassination for refusing to be removed from his territory, while thousands of other Indigenous people were forced to walk the Trail of Tears. Hobson’s mystical saga of old and modern injustices is a moving act of reclamation, steeped in magical realism and Cherokee culture.
There you have my top ten ghost stories. Will you try to read any of these? Have you already read one? Let me know. And throw a ghost emoji in the comments to let me know you made it this far.