There’s something primal about a haunted house story—stories in which a structure that’s supposed to shelter you turns against you. It’s a trope that we keep returning to—this week, Netflix launched a new series based on the classic Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, and the results are truly terrifying (if at a bit of a remove from the book).
Our binge-watch over, we got to thinking: what are the best, most frightening haunted house novels ever written? Here’s our top 10.
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
Let’s start with the obvious choice. Jackson didn’t invent the haunted house story, but she perfected it, coupling the tropes of a home infested with a malevolent spirit and a group of curious minds there to investigate the supernatural with a narrator who becomes increasingly unreliable as the horror spirals higher. At first, Jackson uses Eleanor, our gateway into the story, as a comforting figure—we see ourselves in her, we relate to her trauma and her challenges. Once the first clues hit that Eleanor may be a few sandwiches short of a picnic, we move through stages of denial, shock, and anxiety as Jackson takes the horror from a simmer to a boil. It’s possibly the best haunted house story ever written, and as such, we encourage all the adaptations Hollywood wants to make.
Kill Creek, by Scott Thomas
Thomas sets out a familiar premise—four prominent horror writers are invited to spend Halloween at the infamous Finch House, notorious for being haunted by the memory of the terrible things that happened within its walls. All four reluctantly agree, needing the publicity. Their stay at the house is bad enough, but Thomas expands the reach of the haunted house tale when the entity that’s slumbering in the Finch House—which was awakened by the guests—follows them after they leave, exploiting their secrets and interior scars, mental or emotional, in order to torture and destroy them long after. The safety valve for haunted house stories is the idea that the scares will cease if you can just manage to leave. Thomas takes away that possibility, leaving you absolutely terrified.
The Shining, by Stephen King
Sure, it’s not a house but an entire hotel. Still, King’s classic remains one of the scariest books to follow the basic template of an innocent family consumed by intelligent, possessed edifice. The Overlook Hotel is so alive, and finds a willing recruit in alcoholic, repressed domestic abuser John Torrance, who becomes its sharpened blade. But it’s the isolation the Torrance family experiences while acting as caretakers for the hotel over the long, dark winter that truly gives this story an air inevitable violence. Ultimately a story about a man who loses his fight with his own demons, the core of its horror is in how something familiar and reliable—like your spouse, or the roof over your head—can be turn unrecognizable so gradually, you don’t notice until you’re being chased by a killer wielding a roque mallet.
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House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
There is no other book like House of Leaves, full stop. Beginning with a premise that is subtly creepy—a chronicle of house just slightly larger on the inside than the outside—Danielewski manages to replicate the feeling of going insane, playing with every aspect of the form of the novel readers have been trained to rely on, from the narration, to the existence of original sources in the footnotes, to the typography and page layout. Taken together, these changes to the fundamental object that is the novel causes you to doubt your own perception of the story, drawing you into the sinking sense of doom and paranoia at the heart of the tale, making it your doom and your paranoia. As you find yourself counting letters in a sentence or turning pages upside-down to see what might be revealed, you might experience a moment of clarity, and realize how crazy you’d seem to an objective observer. And then you realize the house is a book, and what are books if not larger on the inside?
Medusa’s Web, by Tim Powers
When their aunt dies, orphans Scott and Madeline return to Caveat, the rotting house they were raised in. Their cousins Ariel and Claimayne still live in the old Hollywood Hills mansion, and still guard the family’s secret—that they are part of a network of old Los Angeles families that use magical, rune-like drawings known as Spiders to travel freely between 1920s Hollywood and the present day, switching bodies with people in the earlier era. Part sci-fi, part the photo at the end of Kubrick’s The Shining, the story explores addiction in ways no one else has ever tried, revving up a horrifying tale of seduction as Madeline slowly falls under the spell of Caveat and the strange, intense pleasures that the Spiders offer, even as Scott becomes increasingly desperate to get them away.
Hell House, by Richard Matheson
Scarier than the author’s more famous I Am Legend, this classic novel is as potent today as when it was published. A wealthy man is facing death, and hires a small team to investigate whether there really is an afterlife. They move into a notorious haunted house in Maine—known officially as the Belasco House, but as Hell House to the townsfolk—in order to explore the question. The house, or the entity within, begins to use the characters’ own weaknesses against them, picking away at their sense of control and their grip on reality. All the while, Matheson is doing the same to the reader—playing with our sense of what’s really happening—until, by the end, our feelings of unease exploded into pure terror at the climax. It’s a visceral exploration of the idea that we bring our demons with us wherever we go.
The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters
Set in a crumbling estate in Warwickshire after World War II, this novel combines Gothic classic ingredients—a once-great house gone to seed, a family in dire straits, inexplicable illnesses, haunting spirits, encroaching madness—into a modern, meaty, character-driven story. A dwindling family, the Ayres, struggles to survive in the dilapidated, crumbling family estate known as Hundreds Hall as the world outside, transformed by war and technology, becomes less and less familiar. Waters’ decision to tell the story from the point of view of a brilliant doctor from humble roots, who has fond memories of Hundreds Hall from his childhood, is a smart one, as his determination to explain everything with science and logic amounts to a literary version of the “this is fine” Internet meme.
The House Next Door, by Anne Rivers Siddons
Siddons spins a fairly classic haunted house story, making one essential deviation: the protagonists don’t actually live in the haunted house at all. The Kennedys are a happy, prosperous couple who are dismayed to discover that a new home is being built on the lot next to theirs. The finished house turns out to be gorgeous, the work of a genius architect, but everyone who lives there meets a tragic end of one kind or another—even those who merely step inside suffer terribly. Siddons takes a slow-boil approach to terror, incrementally moving her characters towards a devastating ending that will leave you with sweaty hands and jumping at shadows.
Slade House, by David Mitchell
Mitchell has been quietly building a complex and compelling shared universe, tying his novels into one another in subtle ways. Slade House explicitly exists in the same universe as The Bone Clocks, so it’s helpful if you’ve read that one, though not necessary. It’s also less complicated in structure than some of his other work, but as a result is more viscerally scary. The titular house appears every nine years around the corner from a pub, presenting itself to a misfit, an outcast—someone who does not fit in with the rest of the world. The owners of the house, the Grayer Twins, welcome this person into their home and make them quite welcome. No sooner will the chosen person decide to leave than they’ll discover they are trapped—and that the twins have a nefarious purposes for luring the strangers in. It’s not technically not a ghost story, true, but it’s still a supernaturally scary read.
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
James’ iconic novel still sparks conversation today—no one is entirely certain whether this is a dark, brooding ghost story, or a dark brooding contemplation of insanity, or maybe a little of both. Taken at face value, it’s the story of a young woman who is hired to care for two young children. She comes to care deeply for them, and is disturbed when she begins seeing two mysterious people on the grounds of their home, and more so after she discovers some unsavory facts about the woman who held the position before her. The sense of uncertainty the book inspires is purposeful, and part of the dreadful fun—whether you believe it’s a ghost story or a story about a young woman whose mental instability causes the death of a child, you’re still filled with dread at every turn of the page.
What’s your favorite haunted house novel?