What is it about haunted house stories? In a way, I guess it’s obvious: our homes are where we spend our most vulnerable moments, sleeping, having sex, eating, spending time with our families, even working (now, in the age of Zoom). Whether they be massive mansion, suburban houses, apartments, or even hotel rooms, our homes imprint themselves on us. And our suspicion, I think, is that we in turn imprint ourselves upon them, our hopes and fears and pains staining their walls. From what I can tell, stories about haunted houses go back at least to 200 BCE, when the Roman comic playwright wrote Mostellaria (The Haunted House). Several centuries later, early novelist and noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu included an episode about an abandoned home possessed by an unhappy spirit in her epochal Tale of Genji. The subgenre really took off, though, in the 19th century, as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James, among others, brought the idea into focus.
The following are some of my favorite novels about these dark places. Most are set in houses large and small, one in an apartment, and one, surprisingly, in a retail store. You’ll probably notice I don’t include either Turn of the Screw or The Shining on this list. That isn’t out of any lack of love for these classics. I just doubt anyone needs to be reminded that they exist. Even if you hate the horror genre, you’ve heard of at least one of these, and you’ve absolutely seen, read, or even heard media influenced by them. So, here are some lesser-known works you should check into if you, like me, enjoy these unquiet places with bleak histories.
The House on the Borderland (1908)
William Hope Hodgson
William Hope Hodgson’s weird, visionary novel had a massive impact on authors from H. P. Lovecraft to Alan Moore to Terry Pratchett. It was a radical break from the by-now hackneyed conventions of the traditional Gothic novel, all those ghosts and villainous Italians and damsels in distress. Instead, Hodgson’s novel breaks open onto the cosmic and the inexplicable.
Some fishermen discover a deep pit in the wilds of Ireland and on the edge of that pit, a journal written by an old recluse. In this journal, the man recounts his experiences living in a formerly abandoned and ancient house. Over the course of a few months, he is plagued by creepy manifestations and nightmares in which he is pulled into some other space and exposed to godlike entities. Then, one night, hideous Swine-Things crawl out of a nearby pit and lay siege to his house. It just gets stranger from there. Hodgson takes his readers on a tour of the bizarre and the awesome, refusing simple answers in favor of crafting a hallucinatory experience. However little-known it is now, The House on the Borderland is one of the works that changed the genre forever.
The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
While the haunted house trope goes back millennia, Shirley Jackson’s Hill House was the place where it crystalized into its current shape. This relatively short novel follows a team of wannabe paranormal investigators and psychics as they explore a rambling mansion with a history of tragedy and eerie happenings. Eleanor Vance, a fragile woman living in the shadow of her domineering mother is our primary protagonist. She is joined by John Montague, an investigator who hopes to transform the study of the paranormal into a proper science, callow young Luke Sanderson, heir to the estate, and Theodora, a bisexual and sly-witted psychic.
Hill House is itself a central character in the book, and you will find yourself lost within its beautifully decorated and sinister halls. The Netflix series of the same name is a great work of horror too, but it diverges so much from the novel that reading it will provide a different experience. There’s a reason Stephen King prefaced Salem’s Lot with this novel’s first paragraph: it is possibly the best opening of any horror novel written. Whatever walks in Hill House, walks alone.
Hell House (1971)
If you haven’t heard of him before, Richard Matheson wrote I am Legend, What Dreams May Come, a good number of the original Twilight Zone episodes, and directly inspired a young Stephen King. Hell House is about the Belasco House, the site of an infamous massacre-party and now reputed to be the most haunted house in the world. A few decades before the novel is set, a group of people entered the house hoping to study its mysteries. Only one of them survived, Benjamin Fischer, a neurotic psychic who has now been convinced to return to the house with a new group of psychics and scientists. They are intent on unlocking the Belasco’s secrets, but they may not survive long enough to do so.
Although it begins with some tame manifestations of the paranormal, the scares in Hell House become far more visceral as it steams along, and it is one of only two novels on this list to which I would apply any sort of content warning. Matheson clearly took up the challenge laid down by Shirley Jackson and decided to turn it up to eleven. Dangers both psychological and physical begin to appear and before you know it, the blood begins to flow. They also made a decent if histrionic movie adaptation of the novel in 1973 that’s well worth a look.
Burnt Offerings (1976)
The author of only two novels and a Broadway play, Robert Marasco nonetheless created a classic of the haunted house subgenre with this story. The Rolfes, husband, wife, small son, and wise-cracking grandma, rent a house that seems far outside their budget for a summer. Big, beautiful, equipped with a swimming pool and other amenities unfamiliar to this poor family, the house belongs to two elderly siblings who’ve decided to take their own vacation. The only wrinkle in this rental plan? The siblings ask that the Rolfes leave food three times a day outside the rooms of their even older mother, a woman who lives in seclusion and whom they will never see. Then, the creepiness begins.
Burnt Offerings offers up good scares as well as well-written and realistic characters. It also ends with a twist that made quite an impression on me when I first encountered it. This will be a vacation to remember.
The House Next Door (1978)
Anne Rivers Siddons
Anne Rivers Siddons mostly wrote character studies of Southern women, big novels about friendship, marriage, and emotional struggle. In 1978, though, she published this novel, a unique haunted house story which will probably be what she will be remembered for. In this novel, Colquitt and Walter Kennedy are a well-off and middle-aged couple living in a lovely corner of suburban Atlanta. One day, they find that a house is being built in the empty lot next door, and despite their misgivings about losing the view the lot gave them, they get to know the couple that move in as well the ultramodern house’s architect.
In the years that follow, that house is plagued by a series of inexplicable tragedies, tragedies that force the Kennedy’s to ask themselves: can a brand-new house be pre-haunted? This one will give you a lot to think about as well as providing some excellent and subtle scares. It deserves a better film treatment than that given it by the Lifetime Channel in 2006.
The House (1997)
A content warning to begin with: this novel deals, among other things, with themes of pedophilia and child sexuality, though the child in question is no ordinary girl and the novel doesn’t get particularly graphic. Skip this one if that pushes the wrong buttons. That said, The House is certainly the pulpiest book on this list, unabashedly bonkers and intent on freaking you out, though it does have some intelligent plot twists up its sleeves.
This novel introduces five ordinary people who start experiencing strange, even absurd manifestations of the supernatural. It all seems to have something to do with nightmares they are having of the house in which they all apparently grew up, as well as a butler and his creepy daughter. Little spends a good amount of time introducing us to his cast, but when the weird stuff hits, it really hits. Again, this is pulp, so don’t expect lyrical writing or subtlety, but if you have a taste for the adventurous and the bizarre, give this one a try.
The Overnight (2004)
Ramsey Campbell has written several novels that fit the bill of the haunted house story. The Influence, Nazareth Hill, and others explore this territory with subtlety and intelligence. I want to highlight The Overnight, though, because it takes a radically different tack than other works in the subgenre. First, this isn’t strictly speaking a haunted house so much as a haunted retail store, one clearly based on the Borders/Barnes & Noble brands. We follow the crew of this bookstore as they try readying it for a visit from their corporate overlords, but unbeknownst to them, dark forces are astir in this foggy strip mall. It all builds up to the titular overnight shift, a last-minute scramble to put things in order.
The novel’s chapters alternate between the different members of the crew. They are as varied a group of people as you’ll find working in retail but what they all have in common is that they have no idea of the menace enclosing them, not until it’s too late. This isn’t a conventional haunting story, with people knowingly trapped in a terrifying situation: these are regular folks who try explaining away subtle and increasingly odd signs of the supernatural as being coincidences or bad luck. This method of telling a horror story is rarely employed, and it actually heightens your fear for these characters. And, as always, Campbell implies more than he shows, hinting at a cosmic horror underlying it all.
The Little Stranger (2009)
In this eerie novel set in the 1940’s, a young doctor, Faraday, has returned to the small village in which he grew up. The Ayres family are what’s left of the local gentry, a small family that lives in an absurdly large estate they don’t really know what to do with. As Faraday’s life gets slowly entangled with those of the Ayres’s, small but disturbing events begin overtaking a narrative primarily concerned with character and vivid setting details. A party goes disastrously wrong, sounds come from an abandoned nursery, and the members of the family begin fraying at the edges.
Sarah Waters lures you into expecting a typical ghost story, but something more ominous is afoot at Hundreds Hall. This is classic Gothic storytelling, stylish and creepy, informed by a concern with class differences and a knowing subversion of the subgenre’s tropes.
House of Windows (2009)
At a fancy dinner party one night, Veronica Croydon, wife of a missing Dickens scholar, corners a young horror writer and begins telling him about what led to her husband’s disappearance. Central to this story is the eponymous house of windows, The Belvedere House, a strange structure with a storied history of brilliant and troubled owners. What unfolds is something like a cross between a domestic drama set in academia and a tale of weird, possibly cosmic horror.
Langan is working in the tradition arguably started by Henry James in his seminal possibly-haunted-house novel Turn of the Screw and built upon by Peter Straub. This is literary horror at its finest, involving delicately developed characters, intelligent conversation, and ambiguous manifestations of the dark. Don’t expect any easy answers here, but instead a web of mysteries and everyday tragedies mixed with supernatural scares.
Apartment 16 (2010)
This nightmarish novel by Adam Nevill, author of The Ritual, takes place in what should be more properly described as a haunted apartment building. Apartment 16 in this posh building has been closed-up for 50 years. That is, until now, when an unfortunate night watchman investigates mysterious sounds coming from it one evening. Nevill’s novel follows him as well as a young American woman, Apryl Beckford, who has come to London to clear out her dead aunt’s rubbish-filled apartment. As it turns out, Apryl’s aunt knew a thing or two about what happened in apartment 16 and soon, if we are that unlucky, so will the rest of the world.
I can’t say much about the central mystery of this novel without spoiling it, but I will say that Nevill’s novel is a slow-burning and eerie novel that permanently burned some hellish visions into my mind’s eye. Despite the sound of that, this book isn’t that gory, depending instead primarily on suggestion and a building sense of unease.
SEE ALSO: Beloved, Mexican Gothic, Dark Matter, Maynard’s House, Locke & Key, Our Lady of Darkness, Dark Gods, Come Closer, The Hellbound Heart, You Should Have Left, Mapping the Interior, White is for Witching, Horrorstör