Top 10 ghost stories

From Toni Morrison’s desolate tale of slavery’s legacy to Alice Sebold’s vision of heaven, Louise Doughty selects the best books that defy disbelief

Anthony Gregory (Peter Quint), Thomas Delgado-Little (Miles) and Natalya Romaniw (Governess) in Benjamin Britten’s opera version of The Turn of the Screw.

Ambiguous metaphors … Benjamin Britten’s opera of The Turn of the Screw at Glyndebourne. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Ambiguous metaphors … Benjamin Britten’s opera of The Turn of the Screw at Glyndebourne. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Last modified on Wed 28 Aug 2019 07.08 EDT

Let’s start with the biggest problem for anyone writing a ghost story: does your ghost actually exist? Maybe there is going to be some other explanation: the person seeing the ghost is going mad, or being driven mad by someone else. Perhaps the ghost is a manifestation of grief, or being faked by a criminal who will be unmasked when you whip off the white sheet like Scooby-Doo? You can’t fudge this one.

In the case of Platform Seven, I answered that question right at the start by having the whole novel narrated by a ghost – that of a young woman who has died on Peterborough railway station and finds herself trapped there until the mystery of her death is solved. That created other problems, though – what could my ghost do? Could she move objects, pass through walls?

It’s surprisingly hard not to make a narrator-ghost appear twee. The minute your ghost talks about whisking from one place to the next, or floating along a pavement, they sound like Casper. Suddenly, there are a lot of verbs that can only be employed with the greatest of caution. The very best ghost stories get you to suspend your disbelief because whatever the nature of their manifestation the rationale for that ghost existing is entirely convincing: here are some of them.

1. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
This great testament to the horrors of slavery opens with a haunting. “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.” In the Nobel prize-winning author’s most famous book, the ghost of a baby killed by her mother to save her from slavery is a malicious sprite but also a metaphor for the way in which the great evil of slavery haunts its victims after abolition, haunts the history of America and should haunt us all. To write it “was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts”, Morrison said, talking of the “the chaos of the needy dead”. When Morrison’s death was announced at the beginning of August, many commentators cited Beloved as one of the greatest novels of all time. If you haven’t read it yet, what’s wrong with you?

2. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)
No list of ghost stories could exclude this Victorian classic set in a remote country house. A governess has care of a young boy and girl, two orphans, who she comes to believe can see the ghosts of a man and woman maliciously haunting the house. One of the intriguing aspects of reading this unresolved story is that, seen through modern eyes, its ambiguities offer themselves up as metaphors for child neglect and sexual abuse within the home.

3. Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan (2015)
Ghost stories from different nations provide a cultural barometer of sorts. Ghosts have a strong presence in Indonesian culture and the white tiger that inhabits this story is not only the phantom inside the young murderer Margio but also a literal tiger that can be seen by the villagers. This short, intense and beautiful book was selected for the Man Booker International longlist, making Kurniawan the first Indonesian author to be nominated. Is it really a ghost story? Who cares?

4. Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry (2017)
This award-winning non-fiction account of the 2011 tsunami that claimed tens of thousands of lives in Japan isn’t strictly a ghost story either, but it’s a stunning account of how the living are haunted by the need to reclaim their dead. Parry concentrates on the tragedy of Okawa primary school, which lost all but two of its children. Many of his descriptions will haunt you: for me, it was the bereaved parents training themselves to operate mechanical diggers so they could excavate silt and mud for the bodies of their children long after the official search had given up.

5. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (2017)
This polyphonic tale of multiple ghosts won the 2017 Man Booker prize – not bad considering it was Saunders’ first novel, although he was already a highly acclaimed short story writer. It concerns the grief of President Abraham Lincoln for his young son William and is an entertaining and heartbreaking reminder that grief afflicts the poor and the mighty in equal measure.

6. Dark Matter by Michelle Paver (2010)
This wonderful adult novel from the author of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness proves what an endlessly inventive writer she is. It opens, like many another ghost story, with the discovery of a journal, in this case written by Jack, a wireless operator on an Arctic expedition that takes place in 1938 as the clouds of war are gathering in Europe. The group set up camp in a remote bay, but as the polar winter and endless night close in around them, they realise they are not alone …

Saoirse Ronan in the 2009 film verion of The Lovely Bones.
Mawkish but affecting … Saoirse Ronan in the 2009 film version of The Lovely Bones. Photograph: Paramount/Everett/Rex

7. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002)
This story from the afterlife narrated by the ghost of a 14-year-old murder victim was an instant bestseller when it was published, and was made into a mawkish but still affecting film by Peter Jackson starring Saoirse Ronan. Susie Salmon watches from her own personal heaven as her family grieve and the police fail to catch her killer. In lesser hands it could have been sentimental but such is Sebold’s skill and observation that you go with the flow and are desperate for young Susie to find peace and justice for her family.

8. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009)
A doctor is called to Hundreds Hall, the dilapidated mansion belonging to the Ayres family. Have they simply fallen on hard times like so many aristocratic families of the postwar era, or is there something more sinister going on? Waters takes her intimate knowledge of Victorian gothic and combines it with all her usual skill to create something both knowingly traditional and utterly modern in its portrayal of family secrets and class.

9. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1983)
One of the most famous modern ghost stories thanks to its hugely successful stage and film adaptations, Susan Hill’s novel has lost none of its shocking gothic power. Set in the sinister Eel Marsh House, cut off from the world entirely when the waters rise over its causeway, a solicitor called Arthur Kipps tries to unravel the affairs and deadly history of the house and its owner, the deceased Mrs Drablow. But the woman in black will haunt him forever.

10. Hotel World by Ali Smith (2001)
Five narrators haunt this joyous and inventive book, beginning with the ghost of a young woman working as a chambermaid who dies after climbing into a dumb waiter on the fourth floor just to prove she could fit. The cord snaps and down she goes and her descent is an apt beginning for a novel that rushes headlong through an investigation of grief with a glorious shout of “Woooo-hoooo” (its opening phrase). This is a novel that proves that ghost stories can go anywhere and be anything: enchanting, poetic and even funny. It is truly the most malleable of forms.

Platform Seven by Louise Doughty is published by Faber and Faber. To order a copy, go to Free UK p&p on orders over £15.

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