The haunted house novel has a long, rich history. Many scholars date its inception in U.S. American literature to the late 1700s and the beginning of the gothic tradition. Names like Horace Walpole, Edgar Allan Poe, and Edith Wharton often rise up from the depths of memory.
But haunted house novels are part of the tapestry of contemporary literatures, too. Whether literary ghosts conjure rememories of Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Stephen King’s The Shining, Tananarive Due’s The Good House or Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching, the fact remains: haunted house novels are going to possess our bookshelves for a long time to come.
Interestingly, some critics have noticed that haunted house novels (and stories) have some interesting implications for gender. For instance, Emma Higgins’s scholarly work The Haunted House in Women’s Ghost Stories explores the connections between literary ghosts and gendered liminality. In fact, Melissa Edmunson has argued that the ghost story served as an entry point for Victorian women writers and “gave women a voice in a society that often disregarded women’s thoughts and opinions.” On the flip side, Ruby Brunton posits that there is a genre of haunted literature that comes out of male fear of female refusal to conform to social expectations — what she calls “wailing women” ghost stories.
Some of the works on this list are new classics in the vein of traditional haunted house novels. Others offer interesting interpretations of paranormal prose, delivering surprising specters that will linger in your imagination. Whichever book you choose to pursue, you’re in for a hauntingly good read!
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich has won innumerable awards for her writing (including the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, to name just two biggies). Her latest novel, The Sentence, is yet another engrossing read. It’s a haunted house novel…or rather, a haunted bookstore novel. Flora, an irritating customer, has died and come back to haunt an indie bookstore in Minneapolis. New employee Tookie ends up having to get to the root of Flora’s haunting. Of course, Tookie has plenty on her own plate without an annoying ghost haunting her workplace, but nobody said the afterlife had any regard for the living.
Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw
If the cover isn’t terrifying enough for you, what’s inside should be. This slim volume by Cassandra Khaw is no less chilling for its brevity. When five erstwhile friends meet up in a Heian-era mansion for the creepiest wedding ever, you know nothing good can come of it. And, of course, nothing good does. Simmering under the surface of this haunted house novel teeming with yokai are socioeconomic, romantic, and gendered tensions. I mean, the mansion’s backstory (given fairly early on, so I’m not plot spoiling here) involves a stilted bride being buried alive in the walls to await her no-show groom. Seems fitting that the present-day characters have convened for a wedding of their own…
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
It seems like Mexican Gothic is quickly becoming the go-to haunted house novel of our time. Can’t say I have a problem with this. I mean, you’ve got a rebellious Mexican socialite, her mysteriously absentee former-bestie cousin, and a haunted house on a hill that’s so foggy that Heathcliff would be jealous. I think one of the reasons this haunted house novel is so successful for me is that it embraces the gothic literary tradition while also managing to do some really fresh things with the genre. Sure, we’ve got an eerie mansion, some deeply disturbed and/or disturbing men, and the requisite graveyard. But we’ve also got mycology, feminism, and a critique of colonialism. (Bonus points if you read “The Yellow Wallpaper” along with this novel — there’s some really interesting interplay between the two.)
The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward
Mysterious teenager + her solitary father + queer Bible-reading house cat = ah-mazing. This is a genre-defying book in the best ways. It’s got the horror thing going on for sure. Definitely a chills-fest. It’s also kind of a mystery (both for some of the characters and for the reader). And it’s deeply invested in what might be considered the psychological thriller. It’s also a really good read, pure and simple. It’s no wonder the critical acclaim for this one has been so loud. If you want a captivating haunted house novel that will leave you reeling, this is a great option for you.
White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson
This YA haunted house novel delivers in spades. Captivating story with interesting characters? Check. New hometown for a protagonist with a past? Check. Unsettling house with mysterious voices, disappearing belongings, and voices in the walls? Check. And like the best ghost stories, this one has some twists. Jackson has shared that two things inspired her to write a haunted house novel: 1) a trip to Detroit and the urban legends about haunted houses there, and 2) a story of a real-life haunting in Japan that resonated with her.
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
I am obsessed with this book. It centers on the disappearance of Winnie, a mixed-race Vietnamese American woman who has moved to Vietnam in order to lose herself. There’s so much to talk about that I don’t know where to start. Option 1: the novel’s criticism of ongoing legacies of colonialism. Option 2: the incredible network of women on both sides of the grave. Option 3: hair. So much hair. Whatever aspect of this haunted house novel you zero in on, the fact remains that the haunted rubber tree plantation at the heart of this book is disturbing from any angle.
The Upstairs House by Julia Fine
Remember Margaret Wise Brown? You know, author of bizarro children’s books like Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny and The Color Kittens? Well, she’s the (first) ghost in the attic in this haunted house novel. Seriously. And it’s a really interesting read. It’s about new-mother Megan and her struggles with postpartum depression. When the nurse tells her to breastfeed her newborn daughter, Megan muses, “But it wasn’t as easy as that. Nothing about motherhood was as easy as that. This I knew from the moment they moved Clara from the bloody sheet and up onto my belly.” And so the story begins to unfold and Megan and Clara get swept up in Margaret Wise Brown’s unfinished business and all the danger it entails.
When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen
This haunted house novel is set in a small southern town in the U.S. Mira tried to leave the pain and racism in her past but has returned for her friend’s wedding at the former-plantation-turned-chic-resort. Amidst the echoes of the tortured enslaved, Mira and her childhood friends Jesse and Celine are forced to navigate their own fraught relationships as the past brings itself to bear on the present. I almost want to suggest a literary threesome: When the Reckoning Comes + Nothing But Blackened Teeth + Build Your House Around My Body. Between the three books, you’ve got two plantations, two ill-fated weddings, and three protagonists who have tried desperately to escape their pasts.
Not Afraid of These Ghosts?
Check out this post on 30 Haunted House Books That Will Give You the Creeps or this one about 20 of the Best Award-Winning Horror Novels. And if you wanted to read more about Edith Wharton, check out this deep-dive into her writing.