The best ghost story books can be read at any time of year, but I think they become extra spooky when read around Halloween.
I am a huge fan of horror novels and ghost stories are a passion of mine. I’ve selected five novels which I think are the best in this genre:
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Shining by Stephen King
Hell House by Richard Matheson
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
Bag of Bones by Stephen King
As an added bonus I’ve included an excellent collection of short stories by Joe Hill, 20th Century Ghosts, which includes several ghost stories as well as other strange tales.
I will warn you though, after reading these ghost story books you may have to sleep with the light on…..
Best Ghost Story Books – Novels
Best Literary Ghost Story Novel
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, is credited with inspiring many subsequent horror novelists including Stephen King. Jackson achieves a subtlety in her prose that invokes a sense of fearful anxiety rather than the over-the-top gross-out effects typical of more recent horror fiction.
Dr. Montague, a paranormal investigator, organizes a ghost-hunting expedition to Hill House in hopes of finding scientific evidence to prove the existence of ghosts and poltergeists. He invites with him bohemian artist Theodora and Eleanor Vance, newly freed from a decade long stint caring for her ailing yet domineering mother. Both women have been chosen because they have experienced paranormal events in their past. Luke Sanderson, heir to Hill House, accompanies them as well and there are two caretakers who prepare the meals yet refuse to spend the night in the house.
Hill House, at first glance, looks just like any other house. But as the characters interact with the house and each other, they realize they are not alone. Most of the happenings at Hill House tend to revolve around Eleanor and what makes this book so scary is that we never really see what causes the characters to become so afraid.
The Haunting of Hill House stays with you long after the story is finished. But what you need to figure out is whether or not there is any haunting actually happening or if all the events merely occur in Eleanor’s head.
A Classic Ghost Story Book
The Shining by Stephen King is a classic ghost tale and if you haven’t read it you should. The 1980 movie directed by Stanley Kubrick is excellent but deviates from the novel (enough to have completely annoyed Stephen King).
Recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance accepts a position as winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, a remote Colorado resort deserted throughout the winter, with hopes of piecing together his life and family. His alcoholism and ferocious temper have caused a rift with his wife, Wendy, injured his young son, Danny, and cost him his job as an English teacher. He hopes to put all this behind him over the winter and write a new play.
Overlook chef Dick Halloran recognizes the telepathic ability of Danny, called ‘Shining’, and tells him about the strange happenings within the hotel. Dick tells Danny that nothing he sees will hurt him but he can contact him psychically if anything goes wrong.
However, Dick has underestimated the powerful effect Danny’s ability has on the spirits within the hotel. Nothing can prepare the Torrance family for what lies ahead and nothing will ever be the same again.
The Scariest of Ghost Story Books
You may already be familiar with Richard Matheson from the movie I Am Legend, starring Will Smith, based on his novel of the same name. Hell House is based on a similar concept as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House but there is nothing subtle about this novel.
Multi-millionaire William Reinhardt Deutsch is near death and afraid. He commissions physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett and his wife Edith, physical medium Benjamin Franklin Fischer and spiritualist medium Florence Tanner to spend one week at the Belasco House – the world’s most haunted house – and report back to him whether they find any evidence of life after death.
Belasco House was built by Emeric Belasco, named ‘Evil Emeric’ for his perverse tendencies (he once murdered a cat to see if it had nine lives and he was sent away for sexually assaulting his sister). The house was given the name “Hell House” because Emeric Belasco used to throw wild parties for his wealthy friends and over time these parties degraded into drug-infested orgies filled to the brim with hellish acts of abuse and cannibalism. It is said the ghosts of Belasco’s guests haunt the mansion.
Each of Deutsch’s four guests have their own reasons for being there – Dr. Barrett wants to test out his new electromagnetic machine, Edith is there to support her husband, Florence desires to cleanse the house of all evil and Benjamin, the sole survivor of a previous expedition, just wants the $100K. But Belasco House has other plans and attempts to corrupt each character by exploiting their weaknesses and pitting them against one another.
A Unique Ghost Story
Joe Hill is now widely known as Stephen King’s son, Joseph Hillstrom King. He chose to write under the pen name ‘Joe Hill’ because he wanted the freedom to make mistakes in his early writing career, as all writers do, and he wanted to succeed on his own terms. He wanted his work to be published because it was good, not because he was the son of Stephen King. I think you will agree with me that Joe Hill’s writing speaks for itself.
Heart-shaped Box is his debut novel and it tells the tale of retired rock star Judas Coyne, a cynical man who refers to his girlfriends by the state they are from rather than their name. He has a penchant for collecting macabre memorabilia including a hangman’s noose, a snuff film and drawings by serial killer John Wayne Gacy. When the opportunity arises to buy a haunted suit from eBay, how could he resist?
The suit arrives in a black heart-shaped box and the ghost appears hell-bent on destroying Jude and those around him. Eventually Jude and Georgia, his current live-in girlfriend, are forced to flee to save their lives and unravel the mystery surrounding the murderous ghost.
There are numerous rock n’ roll references throughout the book including the title, named for the Nirvana song, Jude’s dogs are named Angus and Bon after the AC/DC’s Angus Young and Bon Scott, and the book is divided into four parts named after famous songs: Led Zeppelin’s ‘Black Dog’, AC/DC’s ‘Ride On’, Nine Inch Nail’s ‘Hurt’ and Pearl Jam’s ‘Alive’.
My Favorite Ghost Story Book
Many readers consider The Stand to be Stephen King’s magnum opus. For me, Bag of Bones holds that honor. This is an incredible story that intertwines grief, greed, ghosts, mystery, intrigue and revenge.
Novelist Mike Noonan has a severe case of writer’s block – even walking close to his laptop invites an intense case of vertigo. This has happened ever since the sudden death of his beloved wife, Jo, four years before. Gripped with fear from recurring nightmares set at their summer house, Mike sets out to face his fears and hopefully find closure.
The first portion of this novel is set in Derry, Maine, the fictional town featured in Stephen King novels It, Insomnia, and Dreamcatcher. Most of the major events take place near Dark Score Lake, TR-90, Maine, at Mike’s summer house, named ‘Sarah Laughs’ after famed blues singer Sarah Tidwell.
After relocating to Dark Score Lake, Mike quickly befriends Mattie Devore and her three-year old daughter Kyra and is inadvertently drawn into an ugly legal dispute with Max Devore, a wealthy tyrant who owns the town and will stop at nothing to get his way.
All the while, Mike discovers that ‘Sarah Laughs’ houses more than just the memory of Sarah Tidwell and his wife. Powerful forces are escalating and threaten to destroy the town. Can Mike solve the mystery and find peace for both himself and the spirits of Dark Score Lake?
Best Ghost Story Books – Short Stories
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill is an excellent collection of short stories – both ghost stories and other strange tales – originally published in horror magazines such as Subterranean Magazine, Postscripts and The Third Alternative.
The ghost stories included in this collection are:
20th Century Ghost – A chilling yet beautiful tale about a girl who haunts the movie theater where she died during a showing of The Wizard of Oz
The Black Phone – A kidnapping victim finds a disconnected black telephone in his captor’s basement which enables him to contact the ghosts of the other victims.
Last Breath – A unique museum that houses the ‘last breath’ of various people including the late Edgar Allen Poe
Dead Wood – This is my personal favorite. A short short story (less than two pages) about the physical manifestations of a ghost tree. Beautifully written.
Scheherazade’s Typewriter – Bonus short story found in the ‘Achknowledgments’ section. A girl is haunted by the ghost of her father, who has the habit of writing stories on his old typewriter.
Other weird tales include a Kafka-esque story about a boy who wakes up only to discover he is a giant insect, a story about what it may have been like to grow up as vampire hunter Abraham van Helsing’s son, and a tale about a Horror anthology editor who finds himself in the midst of a horror story of his very own.
I hope you’ve found your next spooky read among this list of excellent ghost story books.
Happy Hauntings and Sweet Dreams (muh-ha-ha-ha!)
1) Haunted House, Public Domain image from Pixabay.