History’s Top 11 Haunted House Novels
Written by: Matt Molgaard
I recently returned to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It’s one of the finest pieces of fiction to take readers by storm, and it also got me thinking about haunted house stories. While this isn’t necessarily a sub-genre that I’m madly in love with, it cannot be denied that some of the greatest stories in history focus on the age old idea of an abode that holds something dark, waiting for the next unsuspecting occupant. And knowing that I got to wondering, why haven’t I put this list together yet? These novels certainly warrant attention, and you can bet your tail they’ll scare the skin right off of you!
Ghost Story by Peter Straub: For four aging men in the terror-stricken town of Milburn, New York, an act inadvertently carried out in their youth has come back to haunt them. Now they are about to learn what happens to those who believe they can bury the past — and get away with murder.
Verdict: Full disclosure: This is the only Peter Straub novel I’ve ever enjoyed. And I didn’t just enjoy it, I loved it. It’s a bit different than the typical “this house is haunted” story, but the core elements are all there, and Straub sells the hell out of his characters. This is a fine read, and if you’ve never given Straub’s work a go, you need to make this your introductory piece.
The Shining by Stephen King: Jack Torrance’s new job at the Overlook Hotel is the perfect chance for a fresh start. As the off-season caretaker at the atmospheric old hotel, he’ll have plenty of time to spend reconnecting with his family and working on his writing. But as the harsh winter weather sets in, the idyllic location feels ever more remote . . . and more sinister. And the only one to notice the strange and terrible forces gathering around the Overlook is Danny Torrance, a uniquely gifted five-year-old.
Verdict: The Shining comes from the days when King had no issues with writing basic, animalistic stories. There was no need for outrageous concepts or the inclusion of technological terror; werewolves, vampires and haunted house were fair game. And that’s when King was at his absolute best. The Shining is one of his greatest works, and though it differs from the film marginally, it’s still a really, really satisfying read for those who love the film and those who just want to read a kick ass haunted house story.
Hell House by Richard Matheson: Rolf Rudolph Deutsch is going die. But when Deutsch, a wealthy magazine and newpaper publisher, starts thinking seriously about his impending death, he offers to pay a physicist and two mediums, one physical and one mental, $100,000 each to establish the facts of life after death.
Dr. Lionel Barrett, the physicist, accompanied by the mediums, travel to the Belasco House in Maine, which has been abandoned and sealed since 1949 after a decade of drug addiction, alcoholism, and debauchery. For one night, Barrett and his colleagues investigate the Belasco House and learn exactly why the townfolks refer to it as the Hell House.
Verdict: I’ll always have trouble in choosing a true, definitive favorite haunted house tale; Hell House, The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House are remarkable works. Regardless, this is one of the three greatest ever written. Matheson’s prose is so captivating it’s almost unreal. You want to know how a genuine classic story reads? Pick up Hell House.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill: Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer, travels to a remote village to put the affairs of a recently deceased client, Alice Drablow in order. As he works alone in her isolated house, Kipps begins to uncover disturbing secrets – and his unease grows when he glimpses a mysterious woman dressed in black. The locals are strangely unwilling to talk about the unsettling occurrence, and Kipps is forced to uncover the true identity of the Woman in Black on his own, leading to a desperate race against time when he discovers her true intent…
Verdict: I’m still a little disappointed with the transfer that Hammer released a few years back. While the film was decent, it lacked the lingering effects that Hill’s novel produced. It’s a very creepy tale that stands amongst the very best of its kind.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson: It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.
Verdict: Like Stephen King’s The Shining and Richard Matheson’s Hell House, The Haunting of Hill House is unquestionably one of the greatest haunted house stories ever written. I’d venture to say it’s slightly superior to the aforementioned works, which would – quite obviously – make it the very best haunted house story ever crafted. That’s an extremely powerful statement; let it sink in. Shirley Jackson was a genius through and through, and The Haunting of Hill House is a novel that you’re destined to read on numerous occasions.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Carol tells the story of a bitter old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge and his transformation resulting from a supernatural visit by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come. The novella met with instant success and critical acclaim. The book was written and published in early Victorian era Britain, a period when there was strong nostalgia for old Christmas traditions together with the introduction of new customs, such as Christmas trees and greeting cards. Dickens’ sources for the tale appear to be many and varied, but are, principally, the humiliating experiences of his childhood, his sympathy for the poor, and various Christmas stories and fairy tales.
Verdict: A Christmas Carol is far more than a simple haunted house kind of tale, but that element does live in this timeless story. An emotional adventure, the tale tugs at the heart strings more so than inducing genuine fear, but it’s a brilliant piece all the same. Great around the Christmas holidays, the story still works wonderfully well any time of the year. If you haven’t read this classic you need to enlighten yourself!
The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson: In December 1975, the Lutz family moved into their new home on suburban Long Island. George and Kathleen Lutz knew that, one year earlier, Ronald DeFeo had murdered his parents, brothers, and sisters in that house. But the property complete with boathouse and swimming pool and the price were too good to pass up. Twenty-eight days later, the entire Lutz family fled in terror. This is the spellbinding, best-selling true story that gripped the nation, the story of a house possessed by evil spirits, haunted by psychic phenomena almost too terrible to describe.
Verdict: I’ve seen a number of fans pan Anson’s tale of familial terror. I’m not one of those who feel the story is poorly written or lacks suspense and worthwhile payoffs. For my buck, this is a damn creepy tale that climbs under the skin and lives there. If you dig the movie, check out the novel, it’s a superior work.
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe: A traveler arrives at the Usher mansion to find that the sibling inhabitants, Roderick and Madeline Usher, are living under a mysterious family curse: Roderick’s senses have become painfully acute, while Madeline has become nearly catatonic. As the visitor’s stay at the mansion continues, the effects of the curse reach their terrifying climax.
Verdict: Poe crafted a number of genuinely magical horror tales. While The Tell Tale Heart may be his finest work, The Fall of the House of Usher (I’m fully aware that this isn’t technically a novel, by the way) is a beautiful, haunting tale that still sends shivers down the spine. Hands down one of the greatest stories ever written.
Coldheart Canyon by Clive Barker: A famous Hollywood actor loses his looks — and is drawn into the dark and twisted world of Coldheart Canyon! Following extensive cosmetic surgery, Hollywood superstar Todd Pickett needs somewhere to hide away while his scars heal. His manager finds the ideal location, Coldheart Canyon — a dream-palace hidden away in a corner of the city so secret it doesn’t even appear on a map. In the 20s, ‘A’ list stars came to the Canyon to have the kind of parties nobody was supposed to know about. It wasn’t just the wild sex and the drugs that made Katya’s parties so memorable. There was a door in the bowels of the dream-palace, which reputedly opened onto another world — the Devils’ Country — where nothing was forbidden. Nothing. With his refuge now a prison, Todd needs to get out of Coldheart Canyon. But to do that he must not only solve its mysteries but also face the powers that have protected it for seven decades, and that means stepping through the door! As a Hollywood insider with a keen eye for its idiocies and horrors Clive Barker is uniquely positioned to write this vitriolic Tinseltown ghost story. Coldheart Canyon is an irresistible and unmerciful picture of Hollywood and its demons, told with all the style and raw narrative power that have made Barker’s books and films a worldwide phenomenon.
Verdict: Somewhat unconventional by typical Barker standards, Coldheart Canyon probably won’t top too many “Best of Barker” lists, but it’s an excellent read just the same and Barker’s approach to the haunted house tale differs greatly from most sub-genre efforts. It may not receive the same love that some of Barker’s more popular novels do, but Coldheart Canyon is more than worth your time.
Neverland by Douglas Clegg: York Times bestselling and award-winning author Douglas Clegg blends dark suspense and gothic horror in Neverland, a novel of deadly secrets and innocence corrupted. What lurks within the shack? What kinds of dangerous — and deadly — games do the children play there?
For years, the Jackson family vacationed at their matriarch’s old Victorian house on Gull Island, a place of superstition and legend off the southern coast of the U.S. One particular summer, young Beau follows his cousin Sumter into a shack hidden among the brambles and windswept trees near bluffs overlooking the sea.
And within Neverland, the mysteries and terror grow…
Verdict: Clegg is a brilliant author. His prose is hypnotic and while Neverland feels as though it often greatly deviates from your standard haunted house tale, it is alarmingly effective in scaring the hell out of the reader. A single word that accurately describes the story? Unnerving.
A Winter Haunting by Dan Simmons: A once-respected college professor and novelist, Dale Stewart has sabotaged his career and his marriage — and now darkness is closing in on him. In the last hours of Halloween he has returned to the dying town of Elm Haven, his boyhood home, where he hopes to find peace in isolation. But moving into a long-deserted farmhouse on the far outskirts of town — the one-time residence of a strange and brilliant friend who lost his young life in a grisly “accident” back in the terrible summer of 1960 — is only the latest in his long succession of recent mistakes. Because Dale is not alone here. He has been followed to this house of shadows by private demons who are now twisting his reality into horrifying new forms. And a thick, blanketing early snow is starting to fall…
Verdict: Long before I read The Terror, Song of Kali or Carrion Comfort I picked up A Winter Haunting and had my mind completely blown. Hands down one of my favorite novels of all time, this one is abnormally engaging. Dale Stewart is a character you’re going to care about and the trip through horror’s halls that he embarks on is stunning on every level. A sleeper in this lineup, you need to read this novel!
A wonderful list . . . with some books I’ll have to check out. Where would you place House of Leaves (which inspired Black House by King/Straub and many other recent haunted house tales)?
House of Leaves is such an intricate, interesting read… it’s kind of hard to rank it. It’s an AMAZING piece that deserves every bit of the love it’s gotten, no doubt about it. But it’s also one of those books that I think simply will not work for some readers. Worked for me, no doubt – but I can see how some might open it and bail within 50 pages. Personally, I think it’s an excellent piece of work.
I love the list. There are some classics on there. I find ghost stories are most effective in short story format. Hence, while these are great novelss none are my personal favorite ghost stories, which are all shorter works. I do have a comment though about The Shining. While it is probably Stephen King’s best ghost novel, I think the script he wrote for the Rose Red miniseries was actually his best ghost story. I will probably be in the minority on that one, but I am just putting it out there. I totally dug the miniseries and went on to read the Diary of Ellen Rimbaur (sp?).
I also liked the Rose Red miniseries. Fun fact: Ridley Pearson, the thriller writer and a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders “rock” band with Stephen King and Dave Barry, Amy Tan, wrote the Diary of Ellen Rimbaur, and it became a #1 bestseller for him (Ridley Pearson’s books have rarely reached that high, but he’s done well, writing a Broadway musical based on his Peter Pan books and then a series of kids Disney Cruise-Line capers.
Nice piece, Matt…Out of all these I’ve only read The Shining, Amityville Horror, and ‘House of Usher. If you HAD to choose only one to introduce someone to which one would you pick?
I am probably one of the few people who would disagree about Peter Straub’s book. I actually love ghost stories but I could not get into that one. I do own it though and perhaps all these years later would find myself of a different opinion. Otherwise an excellent collection.