A friend recently asked me why I love haunted house stories as much as I do, and they refused to accept “just because” as an answer. I told them I’d get back to them and, I suppose, this blog post is my way of doing just that.
So I’ve been sitting with the question and this is what I’ve come up with: I love how liminal the entire genre is and how often the events that may or may not be happening may or may not be just in the character’s head; I love how haunted house stories are essentially nesting dolls— the story of the characters living in the house sorting through the stories that came before and the stories before those stories; and I am always drawn to the creepy and unknown over the known, as well as any story that points at the limits of what can be known and how ludicrous trying to understand the inexplicable can often be.
I think mostly, though, I just love a good haunted house story. My answer — "just because" — stands.
In honor of spooky season (the best season), I’ve pulled together a by-no-means-exhaustive list of my favorite haunted house books, books with houses that exemplify the Shirley's Jackson quote: “It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope."
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”
Including this book on the list is an absolute gimme: it’s obvious, but also, how could I leave it off? Jackson is an all-timer for me, as is this book. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve settled down into the eerie comfort of Hill House and the group of misfits that stay overnight at the bequest of occult scholar Mr. Montague. Yes, it’s creepy, but it’s also comforting! And so humanly broken and strange. Jackson’s writing is so reliably beautiful, too. Just thinking about this book makes me want to escape to an abandoned mansion in the woods, in search of my own ”cup of stars.”
“But the interior didn't smell like it'd had people here, not for a long, long time, and smelled instead like such old buildings do: green and damp and dark and hungry, hollow as a stomach that'd forgotten what it was like to eat.”
I had no idea what to expect when I sat down with this novella, but wow it was addicting. A group of friends rents an abandoned manor in Japan, planning for one last night of fun, drugs, and alcohol before two of them go off and get married — what could possibly go wrong! The house in this one is so deliciously feral, matched only by the live wire of the characters’ relationships. The sentences are also beautiful and propulsive, pulling you forward as the danger implicit in the house, as well as friendships (“friendships”) threaten to rend everything apart. I haven’t read anything else by Khaw, but I’m excited to check out the rest of their work.
“What do you do when you're visiting someone's house and their garden starts vanishing?”
I love David Mitchell in all his David-Mitchell-ness, but Slade House, probably the shortest of his books, is also my favorite. (Although, of course, I’m biased.) What started as a story on twitter became a seven-part novel about a home that’s only occasionally accessible once every nine years through a small iron door down a British alleyway, around the corner from a homey pub. The titular home is my platonic ideal of a hidden, haunted home: an overgrown, untended garden; hallways filled with maybe-recognizable portraits; rooms with dimensions that don’t make sense; secrets that seem carved into the woodwork. The chapters take place over five decades, as people enter through that door, not knowing the dark and curious truths they’ll find on the other side, and definitely not expecting anything they find to be parasitic. The story is sinister and intricate and, genuinely, so much fun. A quote from the book — “Tonight feels like a board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.” — describes how the book feels better than I possibly can.
“You’re very silly or very brave, living in a haunted house.”
Mexican Gothic is so fun. When it was released (June 2020!!), I was in dire need of something all-consuming and beautifully written, and this book was absolutely the ticket. The house in this book — High Place — is so thick with secrets, its walls so porous, its rooms so elaborately and mysteriously adorned, it is an absolute treat to sink into the book’s eerie atmosphere and that constantly hovering question: what the heck is going on here. Gothic, juicy, chilling. Great.
“You wouldn't maintain a house like that' you'd feet it and water it. You'd have to give it nourishment and love it to keep it alive and healthy.”
I think I originally found this book in a long-since-lost Twitter thread where Carmen Maria Machado recommended her favorite haunted house books. Predictably, I’d already read most of them, except for this book, which I had never heard of before and promptly snatched up from the library. And whew does the sneaky creepiness of this one really stick with you. Have you ever found suburbia or the story-lessness of new builds unnerving? The house in this book isn’t a storied old mansion; it’s a new construction, built by an up-and-coming architectural savant, that when a new couple moves in…. well, things go wrong, and somehow it seems like the house has something to do with it. This one is so fun and creepy and, occasionally, feels like reading the haunted house book version of gossiping with friends over a boozy brunch.
“But for just a moment, her reflection looked short, hunched perhaps, and Jane frowned, stepping closer. Her reflection had red eyes.”
This gothic, ghosty book is set in post-war England and centers on a young woman determined to maintain her independence and the surgeon she goes to work for. An absolutely delicious premise. Add in Lindridge Hall, the surgeon’s dilapidated family manor that the young woman is forbidden from going to, and you have a ghost story that’s perfect for cozy, rainy-day reading. Lindridge Hall is a haunted home alongside the best of them: filled with candelabras, shadowy corridors, walls filled with secrets. The Death of Jane Lawrence occasionally brings to mind Rebecca and Crimson Peak, which is truly the highest of compliments.
Don’t miss our event with Caitlin Starling, in conversation with Madeline Roux, for the paperback release of The Death of Jane Lawrence on October 20.
“I've read that madness is present when everything you see and hear takes on an equal significance. A dead bird makes you cry, and so does a doorknob.”
Helen Oyeyemi is one of my favorite authors who consistently has fun pressing up against the bounds of genre. White is for Witching is (obviously) her working within the haunted house genre, and man it’s great. The teenage Miri lives in a haunted house (along the cliffs! In Dover!) with her twin brother and father, across the street from a graveyard. The house itself acts out, as well as ghosts that may or may not be ghosts (sometimes, from Miri’s perspective, it’s unclear what’s just in her head). I’m honestly finding it difficult to describe so much of what this book does, so I’ll just say: it is atmospheric, strange, and absolutely worth your time.