As a kid I was obsessed with an abandoned house in the cow pasture across the street from my friend Anna's house. We never went inside, but just walking by was enough to freak me out. tThe roof caved in on the stone walls, every window was a punched-out eye, and I knew that if there was a murderer lurking around the woods at night, the murderer lived in that house. The rumors didn't help either. Local legend had it that high school boys used to hang out there until someone fell through the rotted second floor and broke his leg. No town is complete without a haunted house and the lore that comes with it. In honor of that ghoulish and seasonally appropriate fact, here are 10 haunted house novels that will scare you more than the chained-up shed at the edge of your neighbor's property or that condemned mansion behind your elementary school.
"The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson
The greatest haunted house novel ever written. Remember all those crap movies where a bunch of attractive people get together in a house that's purportedly haunted to study the frequencies, or whatever, and then they get slashed one by one (after having rampant sex with each other)? Thank Shirley Jackson. "The Haunting of Hill House" inaugurated that premise, and its first iteration is about fifty-five million times more terrifying and subtle and well-written than anything you've read or seen. Which is probably why it has been stolen and shittily adapted so many times (with a few notable exceptions-including #9). Jackson understands there's a fine line between fear and hilarity-you'll love her characters for cracking jokes to stave off their anxiety, but their glibness will also frighten you.
Still have doubts? Consider the opening: "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more."
"Rustication" by Charles Palliser
When opium-addled Richard Shenstone, the 17-year old narrator of Charles Palliser's Gothic melodrama, grabs your hand and leads you into his twisted world of sexual obsession, murder, and sadistic letters (which may or may not be Richard's doing), you won't want to let go. The newly destitute Shenstones are forced to inhabit a dilapidated old mansion where Richard's unsteady mind makes much out of rooms with beds made for people he's never met and things that go bump in the night. Though the house isn't the source of evil, it deserves lots of credit for the book's spooky atmosphere.
"The Shining" by Stephen King
The Overlook isn't a house, but it's more thoroughly haunted than any place in the fictional universe. Nobody who's read "The Shining" can forget the images from its pages--the twin girls at the end of the hallway, the magically stocked bar, the topiary animals, the party hat in the elevator, the blood-smeared walls, the naked woman from the bathtub transforming into a rotting corpse. Stephen King, puppet-master behind the world's worst nightmares.
"The Little Stranger" by Sarah Water
The once-aristocratic Ayres family is clinging to Hundreds Hall, their crumbling 18th century estate that's a relic of its former glory. After a visiting child is mauled by a typically docile family dog, strange things begin happening at Hundreds. Childish writing appears in places where various family members have reported hearing tapping; even the maids are convinced that there's something (and something possibly contagious) wrong with the house. The novel only gets creepier as the ever rational narrator Dr. Faraday tries to explain away each frightening incident with a dismissive blend of science and logic. The discord between his unsatisfying explanations and the burned walls, source-less noises and eventual violence will leave you with unsettling memories of creepy things you've dismissed--and maybe shouldn't have.
"O My Darling" by Amity Gaige
You won't find Amity Gaige's ("Shroder") first novel classified as horror on Amazon or at your local indie (well, maybe at your indie). But this story of a marriage that almost implodes after Charlotte and Clark Adair move into their "dream" home has all of the elements of a true haunted house novel: ghosts/shadows fluttering around corners, discontented characters losing their ability to communicate, intruders with nefarious intent, disembodied voices.
"We Have Always Lived in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson again! I like to think of this slim, stylistically astonishing novel as a kind of haunted house origin story. (See also: Miss Havisham, "Great Expectations.") Merricat and Constance Blackwood live with their batty Uncle Julian in a lavish house on the outskirts of town. They are the only survivors of a poisoning incident that killed off the rest of their family. The townspeople are convinced that Constance is a murderer, but is she really the one responsible for the mass killing? When the townspeople turn on the remaining Blackwoods they're forced into total isolation, entombing themselves in the home that's both their sanctuary and their curse.
"The Shining Girls" by Lauren Beukes
Harper Curtis is far more deadly than your garden variety serial killer. Harper isn't constricted by time--he can move freely between the past, present, and future, planting memories in his victim's childhoods before chasing them through the years to the moments of their gruesome deaths (which of course feel horrifyingly inevitable). The mechanism for his time travel is a House. The House is described as a being with godly power over Harper--it urges him on, inspiring the bloodlust that drives him to kill.
"Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens
When I first read "Great Expectations" as a high school freshman I completely glossed over the terrifying reality of Miss Havisham, who wears an old wedding dress and has left her mouldering wedding cake on the table for decades. Every clock in Satis House, her decaying mansion, is stopped at twenty minutes to nine-the exact moment she found out she was being left at the altar. She wears a single shoe, and eventually dies of burns (after the wedding dress catches fire). Is anything more upsetting than this? The story of Miss Havisham is the story of HOW a house becomes haunted. She's Satis House's ghostly lore. Or would be, if Satis House existed.
"Hell House" by Richard Matheson
It's clear to any Shirley Jackson fan (cough, cough) that Richard Matheson's "Hell House" owes a significant debt to "The Haunting of Hill House." But this novel, in keeping (perhaps) with its later pub date, is less psychologically unnerving than it is Hollywood in-your-face scary. It favors the holy trinity of horror tropes: Blood, Sex and Suspense. "Hell House," unlike so many Jackson knockoffs, is a fitting tribute to its inspiration--and it embellishes Jackson's storyline with scares that are all its own.
"The House of Leaves" by Mark Danielewski
Haunted house novels work best when the house is the scariest character. After returning from a trip, the Navidson family notices that there's something wrong with their home. Doors appear where there weren't any before, secret passageways seem to have been formed by someone/something with sinister intent, staircases lead nowhere. Characters report hearing a low growl, as if the house, itself, is a monster. Danielewski's novel looks more like a puzzle box than a book, with typographical hijinks on almost every page--lines of text running vertically or backwards, copious footnotes, unpredictable blasts of white space. This visual chaos exponentially increases the goose-bump factor.