Whether you love or hate ghosts, you can’t avoid them in books. In caves, we’ve been telling scary stories since we were making art on the walls. It’s been more than a millennium since then, but we still love them. But most ghost stories aren’t just ghost stories. Rather, spirits are often used to show the more vague things that haunt us, like trauma, secrets, and unsolved mysteries, but not always. Contemporary ghost stories have moved into the psychological horror genre, which allows them to be set in haunted houses and haunted minds.
To enjoy the spooky side of fall, we’ve chosen ten of our favorite ghost stories, which show how modern ghost stories can do and be. These books make us think. They ask us to look into our past and question our beliefs. So keep the lights on while you read so you don’t start looking for ghosts in your own house. (And if you need more scary books to read after this, check out our favorite horror books as well. Many of these have been made into movies, but they’re no less scary.
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
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It was February of 1862, and the Civil War was raging across the United States. Abraham Lincoln sneaked into a tomb at Georgetown Cemetery to hold his 11-year-old son, who died of typhoid fever. When Saunders saw this historical fact, his mind was set free on a fictitious landscape that was both supernatural and historical. After he dies, Willie Lincoln wakes up in the bardo, a spiritual limbo between death and rebirth. There, he meets a Greek chorus of spirits. Willie is trapped in the bardo by his father’s grief, and the spirits help him. They tell him about love, death, and remembrance. During this story, Saunders connects the grief of one important person in history to the pain and salvation that all people go through and how God can help us all.
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
If you’ve seen the Netflix show The Haunting of Hill House and haven’t read the source material, which many say is the best haunted house story ever written, it’s time to start reading The Haunting of Hill House. In this book, which was written by the queen of creep, four people go to the Hill House, where spooky things happen all the time, to take part in a parapsychological study. A big part of Jackson’s genius is how she makes connections between the haunted houses and the haunted minds. This leads to a memorable ending. You can read The Haunting of Hill House whether you’re a first-time reader or a die-hard Jackson fan. It’s still a great book about scary stories.
The Shining, by Stephen King
Legend has it that King’s best-known ghost story, “The Shining,” came out in 1977 and made him a household name in the horror genre. With a new start, Jack Torrance moves to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies with his family. He is an aspiring writer and has been sober for a long time. During off-season, Jack wants to get his life back on track, but the hotel has other ideas. Danny, Jack’s five-year-old son, has a “shining,” which is a psychic gift that allows him to see the hotel’s evil ghosts, who want to take him. For help, they call on Jack. This sets up a bloody showdown between a snowed-in family and those who want them dead. Through the haunted house trope, King looks into Jack’s personal demons and gives us an unforgettable thrill ride of paranormal activity that we’ll never forget.
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
A book called “Beloved” came out in 1987, and a literary critic said that “I can’t think of American literature without it.” Morrison’s masterpiece is still as important to the American canon today as when it was first written. Post-Civil War Ohio is where the story takes place. Sethe, a woman who was freed from slavery 18 years ago, is the main character. After killing a baby named Beloved, Sethe is haunted by the eerie apparition of the child, who she killed to save herself from a life of chains. After a long time, Beloved has come from “the place over there” to get back at the person who killed her. Sethe is torn apart by both grief and love. She can’t make the impossible choice she made. Beloved is a masterwork that talks about both personal and national trauma, and it’s written in dense, poetic language that almost sounds like it’s going to be beautiful.
Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix
Who says that ghosts have to live in old, creaky Victorian homes to be ghosts? In Hendrix’s Horrorstor, the setting is at ORSK, a furniture store that looks a lot like IKEA. When strange vandalism starts happening, three employees form an overnight patrol to look into it. They find want tobe ghostbusters, an unhoused man living in the store, and, of course, real ghosts. Hendrix writes both a scary horror story and a hilarious satire of the retail industry in this book. As these scrappy patrollers fight against the sinister ghosts who want to keep them in the showroom forever, he gives us both. While building furniture at IKEA, most of us have thought about putting an eternal curse on them. If you’ve ever thought about that, Horrorstor is the novel for you.
Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Set in Mexico in the 1950s, Mexican Gothic starts with a letter from a newlywed who says her husband is poisoning her and “fleshless things” won’t let her go, so she writes to her cousin. Noemi, who is both glamorous and tough, goes to High Place, the country home of Catalina’s new husband, Virgil Doyle, to look into it. When she gets to High Place, she meets the “essentially macabre” Doyle family: English aristocrats who moved to the mining town where High Place is located and their frightening patriarch, a cruel eugenicist. Ghosts and violence start to frighten Noemi. She and Catalina plan to run away together, but High Place won’t let them go so quickly. Moreno Garcia is a master of Gothic horror in this dreadful and enthralling book. He adds a brilliant layer about racism and colonialism to the story.
Infidel, by Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell
Strange dreams about the history of the apartment building start to happen to Aisha, a Muslim woman who lives with her white fiancé and his daughter. Not too long ago, a Muslim neighbor who kept explosives in his apartment caused a huge accident, which led to a rise in Islamophobia in the building’s mixed-race residents. When there was an explosion, there were hateful spirits that thrived on xenophobia. Now, Aisha has to ask her neighbors for help to get rid of the ghosts that are haunting her. A modern twist on the haunted house story shows frightening truths about monsters that live inside and outside of us.
Experimental Film, by Gemma Files
Her son has been diagnosed with autism, and Lois Cairns has been fired from her job teaching. When she becomes obsessed with a snippet of silent film, her life takes an even worse turn. Lois thinks the film shows that an eccentric socialite who went missing in the early 20th century was, in fact, a pioneering female filmmaker who made movies. It helps Lois’ career, but it puts her and her family’s lives in danger because the past wants to stay alive. This is because the past doesn’t want to stay in the past forever. Experimental Film is a mix of old world folklore and modern filmmaking to say that every movie is a ghost story.
The Third Hotel, by Laura van den Berg
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX
Her husband Richard is there in Havana, dressed in a white linen suit that she hasn’t seen before. Clare is going to a horror film festival in the city, and she finds him there. Richard was killed in a hit-and-run months ago. Grieving and amazed, Clare follows Richard through the crowded streets of Havana. She slips into a dissociative state that sends her back to the past. Clare wonders if a person could be even more themselves when they were away from home, free from the present tense. It’s hard to say what this book is about without giving away too much. It’s about travel, marriage, and grief.
The Removed, by Brandon Hobson
Each year, the Echota family has a bonfire to remember their son Ray-Ray, who was killed by a police officer when he was a teenager. People in Ray-family Ray’s have a bonfire every year on the fifteenth anniversary of his death, and the family’s private grief turns into something raw and simple. Tsala is an ancestor of the Echotas. Hobson weaves the Echotas’ loss into their history, giving parts of the story to her. Tsala talks about how he was killed because he didn’t want to leave his home. Thousands of other Indigenous people were forced to walk the Trail of Tears. Hobson’s mystical story about injustices old and new is a powerful act of reclamation. It’s filled with magical realism and Cherokee lore.