A Spine-Tingling Reading List of Haunted House Novels

Creepy house at dusk with lights lit
Photo by Ján Jakub Naništa on Unsplash
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.

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US jacket of Bitter Orange with hyper-realistic green leaves and bright oranges
“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.

 

The Letters in the Barn

Shirley_Jackson_Portrait

I’m a huge fan of the novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. In fact, it could easily be my (current) favourite book ever. And so I’m very excited about the biography of Jackson that Ruth Franklin is writing. Every so often Ruth sends out an email to subscribers about how she’s getting on (you can sign up here), and this week I received an update about Ruth’s search for some of Jackson’s letters. It’s a fascinating story, and I’m sharing it below with Ruth’s permission.

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Last spring, during an ordinary day of research in Shirley Jackson’s archive at the Library of Congress, I came upon a file containing about a dozen long, chatty, intelligent letters from a woman I’ll call Anne. A housewife in Baltimore (my hometown), Anne sent Shirley a fan letter after reading an essay she had written about the Oz books, and an intense correspondence ensued: a letter every month or so for about a year, from December 1959 to January 1961. Shirley rarely saved drafts of her letters, but from Anne’s responses I had a sense of what she must have written: there were stories of family life (both women had four children), recipes, and much talk about books: fantasy and science fiction (Tolkien), poetry (Dylan Thomas), children’s literature (Oz, the Moomintroll series, E. Nesbit). There were also details about We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which Shirley began writing around the same time as the correspondence started. Poignantly, Anne wrote of her own struggle to write and her desire to carve out space for herself amid her obligations to her kids and her husband.

I closed the folder knowing that I had to find Shirley’s letters to Anne. Shirley’s diary-keeping was sporadic; with few exceptions, the only substantive letters of hers that still exist are to her parents and touch only briefly on her writing. Letters about her work on Castle, her last completed novel, would be invaluable.

A Google search turned up Anne’s daughter Nora, who responded quickly to my email. Yes, Nora remembered quite well her mother’s correspondence with Shirley Jackson; one of Shirley’s children had even come to visit the family in Baltimore. But Anne had died more than a year earlier, and most of her possessions were carted off in a dumpster.

I was saddened but not surprised. An occupational hazard of women’s biography is that one’s subject tends to correspond with other women — often non-writers whose papers are not preserved. I kicked myself hard for not having come upon Anne’s letters sooner, resolved to interview Nora at some point about her mother’s relationship with Shirley, and put the letters out of my mind.

A week ago, I received a surprise email from Nora. Her mother, it seemed, had owned a country house that would soon be sold. Nora realized that the letters might have been kept there, in an old animal barn. Those words galvanized me. We arranged to meet at the house — a four-hour drive from New York — the following day.

The barn, front view.

The barn was filled with a lifetime’s worth of detritus: old toys, clothing, knickknacks, and box upon box of newspapers, magazines, and letters. We soon were covered in dust and dirt. Mice had chewed through many of the boxes. An afternoon of searching turned up letters from various friends and family members, but nothing from Shirley. Nora had to leave, but I decided to stick around for another day: the barn contained easily a hundred more boxes. Feeling a little like Hercules before the Augean stables, I asked a friend to come and help.

Did I mention that all this was done by flashlight?

By the time she arrived, around noon the next day, I had already spent the morning taking apart the barn, with no luck. My friend wondered what was in the front half of the barn, which I had only glanced at: Nora thought the letters would be in the back. We opened the door to a room strewn with more boxes and old furniture — including a wooden filing cabinet. With some difficulty, we jiggled open the heavy top drawer. My friend reached inside and pulled out one of Shirley’s letters.

The elation we felt is hard to describe. There were definitely tears. After we calmed down, we went through the drawer carefully. Most of the letters were still in their original envelopes, with postmarks — important, because Shirley rarely dated her letters. Many were on her trademark yellow typing paper, which held up amazingly well over the last fifty-plus years. Anne had numbered the envelopes, so we could be sure we had found all the letters. In total, there were fifteen of them, and they are as extraordinary as I imagined them to be.

A small assortment of the letters.

SO WHAT DO THE LETTERS SAY? you ask. Well, for now that will have to wait. Soon, they will go to Shirley’s archive at the Library of Congress, where they belong. But first I plan to enjoy touching them for just a little longer.

It now feels like an anti-climax, but I have an essay in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review about Shirley’s two hilarious household chronicles, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. I also spoke about the books on the NYTBR podcast (my segment begins around 19:00). A few years ago, with my two small children in tow, I went to get Raising Demons from the library. The checkout clerk peered over the desk at my children. “Is it a how-to manual?” he quipped.
Wishing you a week of happy surprises and discoveries,
Ruth