The creaking doors, the soft thud of footsteps on loose floorboards, the draft that chills to the core, the rustling drapes in some room that sounds remarkably like whispers, and – always – the glimpse of something moving just out of the corner of the eye.
Through well-worn narrative devices, the signatures of haunted houses are immediately familiar to anyone who has ever heard a ghost story. They endure because the feeling of being vulnerable in a home – a structure where one is meant to be the most secure – is scary as hell.
For me, when I think about haunted houses, the 1936 image of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall leaps to mind. One of the most famous photos, if not the most famous photo, of a supposed ghost ever taken is of the spectral form of Lady Dorothy Walpole descending the staircase of Raynham Hall in Norfolk. While the photograph is considered by many to be a fake, it is nonetheless striking and lingers in my mind.
At first, the idea of finding something like her floating around at night in a dusty old manor is unnerving, but as my imagination spins out possible scenarios of a Lady Walpole-like ghost moving through a wall, making noises when I’m home alone at night, or breathing cold, dead breath on my sleeping form, the eeriness becomes fuel for an especially messed-up nightmare.
That’s what a good haunted house story can do: slowly reveal itself like a vapor, and unfurl into a terror-inducing resident in your unconscious. With that in mind, join me as I recommend the best haunted house novels to stop your heart while you relax at the hearth this Halloween.
10) Burnt Offerings (1973)
By Robert Marasco
This isn’t one you will hear talked about near enough, and that may be due to the fact that Marasco wrote one stage play (the terrifying Child’s Play, about a Catholic school with a demon problem), and only two novels before his death in 1998. But Burnt Offerings’ legacy is certainly felt in the 1970s haunted house horror subgenre – and Stephen King has spoken of its influence on The Shining. It begins in Queens, N.Y., where the Rolfe family seeks to escape the city’s oppressive summer, they find a "too good to be true” inexpensive rental in Long Island. The catch is the owners, the Allardyce siblings, require the Rolfes to send a meal tray to their elderly mother who resides in the house (but who never emerges from behind her strange door). The house seems to stoke strange obsessions in the family. The father dedicates himself to repairs of the house, but has flashes of violence, such as when he violently tries to make his son “man up” in the swimming pool. The mother takes to cleaning endlessly, is absorbed in the photos of expressionless people outside Mrs. Allardyce’s room, and is falling in love with the house because it fills a void in her life. The house seems to gaining a life of its own, almost restoring itself just as it destroys the family. It was adapted into a movie of the same name starring Karen Black, and Oliver Reed, in 1976.
9) Coldheart Canyon (2001)
By Clive Barker
Hollywood star Todd Pickett needs to hide away a bit after undergoing major plastic surgery to return his looks to their former glory. To recoup and heal in private, his agent sets him up with Coldheart Canyon, an old Hollywood mansion unknown to most, but a den of hardcore debauchery for the 1920s jetset. Faced with a door to a realm where no desire is too extreme, Pickett has to unravel the mysteries of the house, deal with his biggest fan who shows up, and encounters the ghost of the silent film starlet who once live in Coldheart.
8) The House Next Door (1978)
By Anne Rivers Siddons
Not all haunted houses are old mansions with a violent past; some are modern-day structures popping up in the upscale burbs of Atlanta. The affluent narrator and her husband become friendly with the talented architect building the “house next door” in their neighborhood. But their admiration for his work fades as nasty business befalls any who move into the home. The house itself appears evil all on its own without seemingly having any good reason, and even one character wonders aloud who has ever heard of a haunted contemporary home less than a year old.
7) The Amityville Horror (1977)
By Jay Anson
The Amityville Horror house is one of the most famous haunted paranormal cases in America, and while widely criticized, the “story” part of this allegedly true story still makes for a good horror read. In 1974 Ronald DeFeo killed six family members in this Long Island, NY, home. A little more than a year later, George and Kathy Lutz, and their three kids moved in after getting a, ahem, killer bargain. Twenty-eight days later, they abandoned the home. During the time they were there, the family claimed they were assaulted by unseen entities. They reportedly encountered slamming doors, slime oozing from the walls, a hidden “red room,” a child’s imaginary friend (who looked like a demonic pig), physical attacks, and more. Even the priest who blessed the house said he was commanded by something to “get out.” Anson’s book launched an entire franchise of books and movies, including the 1979 film with Margot Kidder and James Brolin. Don’t dismiss this book even if you don’t believe the Lutz family’s story; taken as a horror yarn alone, the book taps into popular 1970s genre themes of cash-strapped families trying to achieve suburban dreams in a time of recession and inflation.
6) The Secret of Crickley Hall (2006)
By James Herbert
In 1943, Crickley Hall in Northern England served as an orphanage to children evacuated from London during the Blitz of World War II. The house’s tutor comes to believe the orphans are mistreated by the headmaster. Meanwhile, the plot also unfolds in modern-day 2006, where the Caleigh family has moved from London into Crickley following the disappearance of their young son. The family hears sounds of ghosts moving about the house, and the other two Caleigh children are tormented by an old man specter who beats them with a cane. But the mother becomes attached to the house after she begins to communicate with the voice of her missing son, and is reluctant to leave. The book was adapted into a 2012 miniseries, featuring Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams.
5) The Little Stranger (2009)
By Sarah Waters
Another modern book with a storyline connected to post-WWII England, this gothic story’s haunted abode is called Hundreds Hall. The 18th Century crumbling relic is home to the Ayres family, but the ghostly activity really kicks in when a child is mauled by the family dog. One of the elements that makes this book so enjoyable is the infuriating Dr. Faraday, who attempts to logically explain away every supernatural occurrence (despite children's writing mysteriously appearing on the wall and scorched walls are, y'know, totally normal!). The family’s fears intensify, and the reader joins them in feeling crazy just as the good doctor tries to rationalize everything happening around them.
4) The Turn of the Screw (1898)
By Henry James
This classic gothic story remains great, especially for fans of creepy child characters who see ghosts. In a letter read by an anonymous narrator, we learn a governess, now dead, was hired to become the caretaker of an orphaned boy and girl at a large estate. The governess begins to catch glimpses of the spirits of dead household employees roaming the grounds. She learns the children just happened to be friends with these employees when they were alive, but are they still? Also, what secret is the boy hiding about his recent past? There’s still literary debate about how much the governess was seeing vs. losing her grip on reality, but James himself said he enjoyed introducing the “stranger and sinister” elements of ghosts into mundane, daily life. Fun fact: Martin Scorsese ranked the 1961 film adaptation, titled The Innocents, as one of the scariest movies ever.
3) Hell House (1971)
By Richard Matheson
Is there life after death? Newspaper publisher Rolf Rudolph Deutsch wants to know, but the wealthy Hearst-ian figure doesn’t have time to waste since, well, he’s closing in on death’s door. So, what’s a magnate to do other than enlist a physician and two mediums, and have them join him at the infamously haunted Belasco House in Maine, aka “Hell House,” for a paranormal investigation? While clearly taking inspiration from The Haunting of Hill House, Hell House teases with suspense and terrorizes. The 1973 movie adaptation, The Legend of Hell House, is likewise a fun ride, and also written by Matheson, but check out the book first. This entry, along with the next two, make up the "big three" of the best haunted house ever...
2) The Shining (1977)
By Stephen King
I almost didn’t include King’s third published novel in this list because it is such an obvious choice, and I thought an entry would be better used for a lesser-known work. Plus, the Overlook Hotel isn’t even a house. And yet, I love this book so much, and it is so hands-down one of the best horror novels ever, that it demanded inclusion. You have no doubt heard that Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation (likewise one of the best in the horror genre) is quite different from King’s story, and it is. It is full of creeping dread and great scares, but also tragedy and heart. Jack Torrance – troubled alcoholic, flawed father and husband, and struggling writer -- is the new winter caretaker of the historic, and notoriously haunted Overlook. In the book, he is more three-dimensional than the monster Jack Nicholson expertly played. But as the walls seem to close in, and dark forces from the hotel’s past seduce Jack and torment his young son Danny, King’s story comes to life – and brings some rather nasty hotel guests with it. Also, you’ll never look at topiary animals the same way again.
1) The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
By Shirley Jackson
This novel by Shirley Jackson remains one the best haunted house stories of all time. The old manse Hill House has a bad habit of killing off inhabitants – so, of course it seems like a good idea (very bad idea) for occultist and paranormal investigator Dr. Montague to bring some folks along for a stay. Although phenomena begin as merely unsettling occurrences, the house is feeding off Eleanor, the sensitive waif, and getting stronger. As much as I love The Shining, I think even Mr. King would allow me to say Hill House is better, and a work of genius. The Haunting, the 1963 film based on Jackson’s story, is also pretty great, but not near as exceptional as the novel.
The Yellow Wallpaper (1892)
By Charlotte Perkins Gillman
Gillman’s story is actually a short story, but deserves inclusion in this list. This early entry in feminist literature revolves around a young woman, our unnamed narrator, who is taken to rest up at an ancestral hall/colonial mansion after giving birth. Her husband worries about her “nervous condition” and seeks to remove all stimulation. Through entries in her hidden journal, she slowly unravels in the upstairs nursery where she stays. In the room with barred windows and scratched floors, she becomes lost in the titular wallpaper. The torn, patchy paper reminds the narrator of foul things, has a “yellow” smell, and leaves yellow marks on all who touch it. She comes to believe she sees women trapped and crawling on her knees within the transforming, viney pattern. Beyond the feminist interpretation, I also like thinking of this as a gothic ghost story – as did H.P. Lovecraft, who counted himself a fan of Gillman’s chilling tale.
A Winter Haunting (2002)
By Dan Simmons
My final recommendation of best haunted house stories is the only one I’ve not even finished. I discovered Simmons’ book through research for this list, and am already finding it immensely compelling. The main character in the book is writer Dale Stewart, a self-destructive type who shatters his life as the result of an extra-marital tryst, and a botched suicide attempt. He now seeks peace in the solitude of a farmhouse in his hometown, Elm Haven. The man, himself, is haunted by his past, and seems like one of those guys who keeps trashing his own life. That trend appears to continue in the farmhouse – the setting for a horrific incident that took the life of his childhood pal Duane McBride four decades earlier – as Dale’s personal monsters take shape. The book is a spiritual sequel to Simmons’ Summer of Night, which I plan on checking out next.