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Five Powerful and Ambiguous Literary Ghost Stories

The roots of fear are disparate and hard to grasp, changing from moment to moment and person to person. It might be blood and gore, vampires and zombies, or witches and vengeful spirits that make the spine tingle. But in the hands of a truly talented author, stories of human weakness, madness and the power of memory are often the most terrifying.

In recent years, established literary novelists have been turning their hand to the humble ghost story, doing away with clichés such as bumps in the night and whispers on the wind and instead exploring the supernatural as a force linked to human frailty. The authors of these novels are not afraid of ambiguity – they flirt with the supernatural while exploring the psychological, leaving it up to the reader to determine what is real and what is not.

The Little Stranger

In this masterfully atmospheric novel, Sarah Waters skilfully combines her trademark historical fiction with the tropes of a traditional gothic haunted house tale, in the process creating something new and arresting. The novel is set in a quiet English village soon after the end of the Second World War, when tradition class barriers are starting to collapse. When the narrator, Dr. Faraday, is called out to Hundreds Hall – where his mother used to work as a maid – he starts to build a relationship with the mansion’s impoverished but upper-class inhabitants. When inexplicable incidents begin to terrorize the family, Dr. Faraday dismisses their fears as mere superstition, but a friend of his has a more disturbing suggestion: is the family being haunted by a dark manifestation of the subconscious? Slow-paced but compelling, the novel skilfully interweaves the inexplicable with the historical. As the social fabric that has given them their status unravels around them, the Ayres find that it is not just their way of life that is under threat, but their very existence.

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The House at Midnight

When it first came out in 2008, several reviewers compared this novel to Donna Tartt’s sublime debut The Secret History. There are similarities – Lucie Whitehouse’s focus is on a tight-knit group of friends in their 20s and the tiny frays in the threads that bind them together that begin to snap under pressure. But the similarities end there. When Lucas inherits a beautiful manor in the English countryside from his uncle, a wealthy and charismatic art collector who unexpectedly committed suicide, the friends begin to spend their weekends partying in its many rooms. Only the narrator, Joanna, senses that the house may prove to be more of a curse than a blessing. The House at Midnight is not strictly a ghost story – like Daphne du Maurier’s gothic masterpiece Rebecca, it’s a novel that explores the power of memory and the ways in which the secrets of the dead can haunt the living as surely as any phantom or demon.


This novel is a delightful, self-aware romp rife with haunted house tropes – from unexplained smells, to invisible friends, to mysterious noises in the walls – that plays with conventions to create a thoroughly contemporary take on the gothic novel. Set in the early 1960s in a Hertfordshire village, the story takes place over one long, hot summer. Housewife and mother of five, Rowena, moves to the village with her husband, who works in London. Having turned his mother out of her cottage and purchased the house next door, the couple attempt to join them together. But it’s almost as though the building is against them. Mysterious damp patches appear and the walls refuse to be torn down. Meanwhile, the children are running wild. Having formed a friendship with the local builder and his wife, they spend less and less time at home. Eventually the eccentric Evangeline – who dresses in Victorian clothes and has “rain for hair” – and Rowena’s doll-like favorite, Jennifer, disappear completely. Is something supernatural at work, or are there real-world forces preying on children in this sleepy English village?

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The Possessions

The subject of mediums and spirit possession are old tropes of the ghost story, but in this novel they are given new form and scope. The book is narrated by Edie – short for Eurydice – who works at the Elysian Society, a place where lost young souls give up their bodies to the dead. The “bodies,” as they are called, are not mediums in the traditional sense. No special skills or affinity for communication with the spirit world are needed. They simply take a pill called a 'lotus' and black out. When they awake, they remember nothing of what passed between the spirits who inhabited their bodies and the customers who paid to speak with them. When Edie meets Patrick and begins to channel the spirit of his wife Sylvia, who drowned in a tragic accident, she finds herself taking risks as she ventures deeper into the spirit connection than ever before. As the mysteries surrounding Patrick, Sylvia and Edie herself are gradually revealed, this novel takes the idea of possession – in its many senses – in a new and haunting direction.

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Grief Cottage

A departure from gloomy mansions and quaint English villages, this novel is more in keeping with the Southern Gothic tradition. A beautifully written work of literary fiction, it is a departure for Godwin, a veteran novelist who turns 80 this year. When 11-year-old Marcus loses his mother in a car crash, he is sent to live with his great-aunt Charlotte on a small island in South Carolina. A reclusive artist, Caroline paints the same derelict cottage again and again. Marcus soon finds himself drawn to the ruin, known as Grief Cottage because a teenage boy and his parents disappeared while staying there half a century earlier. When Marcus sees an older boy standing in the doorway of the cottage he is convinced he has seen the ghost of the lost teenager and begins returning to the cottage each day to speak his secrets aloud. This novel is particularly subtle and open to interpretation but as the tension builds towards the dramatic climax and Marcus’ loneliness and anguish grow, the supernatural and the real become increasingly hard to differentiate.

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India Stoughton is a British journalist who has been writing on books, art and culture since 2011. She is currently based in Beirut and writes for publications including The Economist, 1843 ... Show More