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The haunted house novel has a long and storied history. Many scholars date its creation in American literature to the late 1700s and early Gothic tradition. Names like Horace Walpole, Edgar Allan Poe and Edith Wharton often spring from the depths of memory.
But haunted house novels are also part of the tapestry of contemporary literature. Whether literary ghosts conjure up memories of Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Stephen King’s The Shining, Antananarivo Due’s The Good House or Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching, the fact remains that haunted house novels are still going own our shelves for a long time.
Interestingly, some reviewers have noticed that haunted house novels (and stories) have some interesting implications for the genre. For example, Emma Higgins’ scholarly book The Haunted House in Women’s Ghost Stories explores the connections between literary ghosts and gendered liminality. In fact, Melissa Edmunson has argued that the ghost story served as an entry point for female Victorian writers and “gave women a voice in a society that often ignored women’s thoughts and opinions”. On the other hand, Ruby Brunton posits that there is a genre of haunted literature that stems from male fear of women’s refusal to conform to social expectations – what she calls ghost stories of “wailing women”.
Some of the works on this list are new classics in the vein of traditional haunted house novels. Others offer interesting takes on paranormal prose, delivering startling specters that will linger in your imagination. Whichever book you choose to pursue, you’re in for a mesmerizing good read!
The Sentence of Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich has won countless awards for her writing (including the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, to name just two big names). His latest novel, The phrase, is yet another engrossing read. It’s a haunted house novel… or rather, a haunted novel library novel. Flora, an irritating customer, has died and returns to haunt an independent bookstore in Minneapolis. New employee Tookie ends up having to get to the root of Flora’s haunting. Sure, Tookie has a lot on his plate without an annoying ghost haunting his workplace, but no one said the afterlife had any respect for the living.
Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw
If the cover isn’t terrifying enough for you, what’s inside should be. This slim volume by Cassandra Khaw is no less chilling in its brevity. When five old friends reunite in a Heian-era mansion for the scariest wedding ever, you know nothing good can come of it. And, of course, nothing good does. Beneath the surface of this yokai-filled haunted house romance simmer socioeconomic, romantic, and gendered tensions. I mean, the mansion’s backstory (given early enough, so I’m not spoiling the plot here) involves a bride on stilts being buried alive within the walls to wait for her groom who doesn’t show up. It seems fitting that the current characters got together for their own wedding…
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
It seems like mexican gothic is quickly becoming the must-have haunted house novel of our time. I can’t say I have a problem with that. I mean, you have a rebellious Mexican socialite, her mysteriously absent former cousin, and a haunted house on a hill that’s so foggy Heathcliff would be jealous. I think one of the reasons this haunted house novel is so successful for me is that it embraces the Gothic literary tradition while still managing to do some really new things with the genre. Of course, we have a strange mansion, deeply disturbed and/or disturbing men, and the requisite graveyard. But we also have mycology, feminism and a critique of colonialism. (Bonus points if you read “The Yellow Wallpaper” with this novel – there’s a really interesting interplay between the two.)
The Last House on Useless Street by Catriona Ward
A mysterious teenager + her lonely father + a queer bible-reading house cat = ah-mazing. This is a genre-defying book in the best possible way. There is horror happening for sure. Certainly a festival of chills. It’s also kind of a mystery (both for some characters and for the reader). And he’s deeply invested in what could be considered the psychological thriller. It’s also a very good read, pure and simple. It’s no wonder the critical acclaim for this one has been so strong. If you want a gripping haunted house novel that will leave you in shock, this is a great option for you.
White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson
This YA haunted house novel delivers in spades. A captivating story with interesting characters? To verify. New hometown for a protagonist with a past? To verify. A disturbing house with mysterious voices, disappearing possessions and voices in the walls? To verify. And like the best ghost stories, this one has a few twists. Jackson shared that two things inspired her to write a haunted house novel: 1) a trip to Detroit and the urban legends about haunted houses there, and 2) the story of a real haunting in Japan that resonated with her.
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
I am obsessed with this book. It centers on the disappearance of Winnie, a mixed-race Vietnamese American who moved to Vietnam to get lost. There is so much to say that I don’t know where to start. Option 1: the novel’s critique of the continuing legacies of colonialism. Option 2: the incredible network of women on both sides of the grave. Option 3: the hair. So much hair. Whichever aspect of this haunted house novel you focus on, the fact remains that the haunted rubber plantation at the heart of this book is disturbing from every angle.
The Upper House by Julia Fine
Do you remember Margaret Wise Brown? You know, author of weird children’s books like Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny and The Color Kittens? Well, she’s the (first) ghost in the attic of this haunted house novel. Seriously. And it’s a really interesting read. It’s about new mother Megan and her struggles with postpartum depression. When the nurse tells her to breastfeed her newborn daughter, Megan thinks, “But it wasn’t that simple. Nothing about motherhood was as simple as that. I knew it the moment they moved Clara from the bloody sheet to my stomach. And so the story begins to unfold and Megan and Clara are drawn into the unfinished business of Margaret Wise Brown and all the dangers that entails.
When Judgment Comes by LaTanya McQueen
This haunted house romance takes place in a small town in the southern United States. Mira tried to let go of the pain and racism of her past, but returned for her friend’s wedding at the former plantation-turned-chic. Amid the echoes of tortured slaves, Mira and her childhood friends Jesse and Celine are forced to navigate their own rocky relationships as the past reverberates into the present. I almost want to suggest a literary trio: When judgment comes + Nothing but blackened teeth + Build your house around my body. Between the three books, you have two plantations, two unhappy marriages, and three protagonists who desperately tried to escape their past.
Not afraid of these ghosts?
Check out this article on 30 haunted house books that will give you goosebumps or this one on 20 of the best award-winning horror novels. And if you wanted to know more about Edith Wharton, check out this deep dive into her writing.