Whether you’re on the Halloween bandwagon, or would rather just skip this ride, there’s no denying that there’s nothing quite as thrilling as a good horror story. As humans, we’re inexplicably fond of scaring ourselves. People have been telling ghost stories for centuries. Maybe it’s a fascination for the grotesque and the macabre, or maybe we’re just glad that we’re not the wretched characters in the tales. Whatever it is, here are a few sinister reads to raise those neck hairs.
1) The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”
No other story gets the haunted house right more than this one. Jackson is the master of the horror genre, and she can do you a good creepy tale. In this story, the lonely and recently liberated Elinor answers a newspaper advertisement seeking anyone who has had paranormal or supernatural experiences for a social experiment.
All the volunteers are to stay at Hill House, an isolated and sinister setting that is the perfect backdrop for a story that will have you flipping through the pages. There is no gore, and no demented psycho killers – it is a simple, effective ghost story told by a master author.
2) We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
“I can’t help it when people are frightened . . . I always want to frighten them more.”
Like I said, Jackson is the master of this genre – once you’ve read her, you’ll see why she’s nabbed two spots on this list.
This is the story of the Blackwoods: Merricat, who wants to run away from humanity and live on the moon, and her older sister, Constance, who was once suspected of having poisoned the rest of their family (though she was eventually acquitted of all charges). They also live with an uncle who has survived said poisoning, but is no longer all there. Naturally the people in the village shun them, and the girls are more than happy to be shunned.
However, outside forces soon start interfering and the sisters must do their best – and their worst – to deal with the new developments.
Again, Jackson doesn’t have to resort to tired tropes to give you a scare. The power of this story is in the gradual dislodging of your certainty, with Jackson drawing tightening circles of doubt around you. You’ll be thinking about this one for days.
3) Clockwork by Philip Pullman
“If you want something you can have it, but only if you want everything that goes with it, including all the hard work and the despair, and only if you’re willing to risk failure.”
I read this story over ten years ago – it made such an impression on me, that over the years my mind continues straying back to it and I still get a shudder.
It begins with a storyteller, weaving a tale about a town competition in which the participants have to reveal a clockwork sculpture of their making. One participant, desperate to win, makes a bargain that will ensure his victory. However, as with all such bargains, it doesn’t come without its drawbacks: once the man’s automaton hears the word “devil”, it immediately comes to life and begins a murderous quest which can only be stopped by a particular song.
Intertwined around this scary machine, are also the stories of a young, dying prince, whose life is prolonged by a clockwork heart, and a young girl, whose real heart seems like the salvation for the wretches caught up in this madness.
It may be a short children’s novel, but it’s dense with meta, analogies to Faustian tales, and several storylines which all end up clicking together at the end of a tense, nail-biting ride.
4) Beloved by Toni Morrison
“Something that is loved is never lost.”
This one has won numerous awards and appeared on just as many banned lists. Set in a period following the American Civil War, it’s the story of Sethe, an ex-slave woman who has escaped slavery, and is now living in the liberated North. Upon her initial escape, she was almost caught by her previous captors, and in her fear and determination that her daughter should never suffer the horrors she did, she slit her baby girl’s throat.
Now, over a decade later, her house is haunted by this baby. That is, until the ghost manifests into a young woman, insinuating herself fully and completely into Sethe’s world, taking everything of hers, until, it appears, she might take Sethe’s life, too.
It’s a gripping, and deeply sorrowful tale about love and motherhood set in slavery riddled America. The sorrow felt by both mother and child is intensely palpable that you almost feel weighted down with it, and so intensely haunting that it stays in your mind for day. It’s a ghost story that’s also a tragic love story.
5) Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
“You must come with me, loving me, to death; or else hate me, and still come with me, and hating me through death and after. There is no such word as indifference in my apathetic nature.”
Did you know that before Stoker’s Dracula there was Carmilla?
In this deliciously gothic little number, young Laura and her father find a broken carriage in the middle of the woods, and an abandoned young girl within it. They take her into their home, care for her, and soon, the two girls become close friends, especially after discovering that they recognise one another from dreams they’ve had in the past.
Soon strange things start to happen each night, with increasing deaths around the neighbourhood, and it quickly becomes apparent that Carmilla isn’t as innocent as she seems.
The story nails atmosphere: deserted, grand house, surrounded by expansive woods, cloaked by dark nights, with darker subtext. It’s said to be the inspiration for the countless lesbian vampire narratives that followed, and it’s the perfect story for a scary night in.
6) Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
You said I killed you–haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe–I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad.
Everyone’s heard of this one. And when else is Cathy and Heathcliff’s extraterrestrial wailing, and tragic ghostly pining going to be bearable if not around Halloween? Even desired, perhaps? I’m not exactly Cathy and Heathcliff’s no. 1 fan, but I have to admit, with the dark moors, with the eerie atmosphere, howling winds, and towering Gothic battlements, the thrills are a dozen a minute. (And yes, it was absolutely necessary to choose the corniest looking cover for this one.)
7) In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
“Imagination, of course, can open any door – turn the key and let terror walk right in.”
One day in November, 1959 two ex-convicts murdered a family of four in their beds. They had no past involvement with the family, and the senselessness and intensity of the crime caused immense speculation at the time. No doubt, it was what compelled Capote to write the novel. It is also the reason why it’s still stuck in my mind since I read it several years ago.
It is categorized as non-fiction, but be warned, Capote’s depiction of certain events do involve some alterations. Despite that, Capote takes you on a riveting exploration of what does, and doesn’t, entail humanity.
8) Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories
The Casque of Amontillado
“I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.” –The Casque of Amontillado
Ghost stories are much more fun when they’re actually fictional, so let’s move onto the godfather of this genre. Poe’s stories are vivid, gruesome and unique; sometimes fantastical, sometimes situated in the mundane, but always unsettling. They all make for riveting reads, though my personal favourites include The Casque of Amontillado, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Black Cat.
9) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories
“And then I heard him fall . . . with a sound like the ripping of sacking. His screams grew fainter until they were lost in the worrying snarl. And then, after I thought that he was dead, I saw, as in a nightmare, a blinded, tattered, blood-soaked figure running wildly across the room.” – The Brazilian Cat
You may know Doyle as the beleaguered creator of Sherlock Holmes, but did you know he also wrote ghost stories? He was very interested in the supernatural (especially from a scientific point of view), and he wrote some ghost stories creepy enough to rival Poe’s. His collection called Tales of Unease is perfect for a night of scares.
10) Carrie by Stephen King
“People don’t get better, they just get smarter. When you get smarter you don’t stop pulling the wings off flies, you just think of better reasons for doing it.”
I couldn’t leave Carrie out. She’s a cult classic. While the blood-soaked Carrie wreaking havoc on her town is iconic, it is her extremist Christian mother, and bloodthirsty classmates that I found the scariest. It’s weirdly satisfying when Carrie goes on her rampage at the end, and exactly the kind of total and utterly rage-fuelled destruction that makes the perfect hair-raising read.