This article was first published on Electric Lit.
I grew up reading ghost stories — M.R. James, Edgar Allan Poe — and loved watching the ghost story dramas that were on television every Christmas. I’ve always enjoyed being frightened, to feel that surge of adrenaline when I’m doing no more than curling up on my sofa or in my bed. It’s a natural high without any serious consequences.
Haunted house stories bring that feeling of uncertainty or terror home. If you’re indoors when you’re reading a novel with a haunted house at its center, the room you’re in, its uncurtained windows and dark corners, will still be there when you put the book down, and so the thrill continues. And your own house doesn’t have to be a gothic mansion with turrets and secret staircases to be scary. Ordinary houses and apartments all have their own peculiarities that can unsettle. Are those noises water gurgling in the pipes or something else? Did the kitchen door creep open because it’s badly hung, or is something standing on the other side? The fun of reading novels with haunted houses is turning off your thinking brain and seeing how you react.
In Bitter Orange, my third novel, I play with the tropes of haunted houses: the grand dilapidated mansion, the bird found dead in a room, the white face at the window. It’s not only a haunted-house novel; Bitter Orange touches on the ghostly because the setting and the characters’ states of mind seemed to ask for it. Here are seven great haunted house novels that have me glancing over my shoulder:
You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Ross Benjamin
This book is for anyone who has sat in a lighted room at night with a large glass window in front of them and worried about what’s out there beyond their reflection. Except that Kehlmann cleverly plays with that dread by altering the reflection so the terror becomes what is or in fact isn’t in the room. The narrator in this brief novel is staying with his wife and daughter in the antithesis of the haunted gothic mansion: a modern glass box rented from Airbnb, in the Alps. Written as a journal, the book includes the screenplay the narrator is attempting (pretending) to write, interspersed with notes on the state of his marriage. But as he looks back over what he’s written he sees entries he doesn’t remember making. The book plays with time-travel as well as hauntings, and even throws in a bit of geometry.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
I couldn’t write a list of haunted-house novels without including this perfect example. Jackson sets the horror up from the first paragraph, saying of the house, “whatever walked there walked alone.” A paranormal researcher gathers three other people together, including lonely spinster Eleanor, to investigate Hill House in New England, a labyrinthine property of odd angles and dark corners. It’s clear by the end of the novel that the house has a malignant agency; it’s not haunted so much as it’s evil personified, which Eleanor becomes fixated on and changed by.
The Elementals by Michael McDowell
The McCray and Savage families decamp to their two Victorian summer houses at Beldame on a spit of land along the Alabama Gulf Coast, taking with them thirteen-year-old India who is visiting for the first time. But there is a third house in between the two, one that has been empty for years and is slowly being consumed by sand. No family member will step inside it except the spirited India. The location — all heat, light, and encroaching sand — is unlike the usual haunted-house trope of dank darkness, which makes it all the more vivid. The Elementals that inhabit the third house are slippery things, not quite ghosts, but some sort of malevolent shape-shifters that truly terrify.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
In 1947 Dr. Faraday is called out to Hundreds Hall, a dilapidated English country house that he first visited when he was ten and his mother was a maid for the family: “I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain — like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.” From that clever description, Waters hints that this story will be ambiguous and subtle. Faraday becomes entwined with the Ayres family as odd events occur in the house. This is an historical novel with wonderful period detail, and by the end you could say that it’s not the house that is haunted, but the people in it.
White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
There aren’t any witches in White is for Witching, but there is a house in Dover, England that could be said to be alive. The story — which is slight — is told by four voices, one of which is the house itself. The main narrator is Miranda Silver, who has pica, an eating disorder which compels her eat things which aren’t food, including chalk and plastic. Four generations of dead Silver women exist within the walls of the house and it seems the building has no intention of letting Miranda go either. The writing style is fairytale-esque, and structure is unusual, with the points of view often swapping unexpectedly. There is a feeling of unsettling and confusing dark magic, and it’s the kind of book you have to sink into and not struggle against to discover its full enjoyment.
The Stopped Heart by Julie Myerson
Mary and Graham Coles move to a rural cottage in Suffolk, England, one that is “dark and unsteady, turned in on itself.” They have suffered a terrible tragedy and are trying to make a new life for themselves in the country, but Mary catches fleeting glimpses of children in the house and hears their voices outside, as well as seeing a red-headed man. As this narrative develops we are switched into one taking place a hundred years previously. Here, a red-headed stranger is caught under a falling tree and taken in by the family who live in the same cottage as the Coles do now. We hear from a character who is “haunted” by a ghost from the future: “Merricoles.” The two timelines are intricately woven, and the whole story carries a wonderful undercurrent of menace.
Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco
This haunted house novel ticks a lot of boxes for familiar (and reassuring) tropes: rambling and isolated country house, weird current inhabitants, and a happy family that gets “stuck” there. Marian and Ben, together with their son David and aunt Elizabeth, rent a Long Island mansion from the Allardyce siblings one summer. But it’s so cheap, is it too good to be true? Marian becomes obsessed with the house and its contents, as well as an upstairs sitting-room beyond which lives old Mrs. Allardyce. Marian must provide meals for her three times a day, and yet never sees her. You do have to roll with the 1970’s dialogue and occasional sexism, but if you’re looking for a house that turns people mad, this is a classic.
Are there any haunted house novels you’d recommend? Let me know in the comments below.
“In the vein of Shirley Jackson’s bone-chilling The Haunting of Hill House, Fuller’s disturbing novel will entrap readers in its twisty narrative, leaving them to reckon with what is real and what is unreal. An intoxicating, unsettling masterpiece.” Kirkus (starred review). Read more reviews for Bitter Orange.