Ghosts: Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can’t escape them in literature. We’ve been telling spooky stories ever since we were painting on cave walls—and now, millennia later, our obsession shows no signs of waning. But a ghost story is rarely just a ghost story. Rather, the spirits often symbolize the more nebulous things that haunt us, from trauma to secrets to unsolved mysteries. Contemporary ghost stories have edged their way into psychological horror territory, lending themselves to fractured minds and haunted house settings.
To revel in the spooky side of fall, we’ve rounded up ten of our favorite ghost stories, which exemplify all that the modern version of such stories can do and be. These novels make us think; they ask us to interrogate our past and question our prejudices. They’re also really, really scary, so keep the lights on while you read, lest you start looking for ghosts around the dark corners in your own home. (And if you need more terrifying page-turners after, check out our favorite horror books as well. Many of these have been adapted into works for the screen, no less haunting.)
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
One night in February 1862, as the Civil War ravaged the United States, Abraham Lincoln snuck into a tomb at Georgetown Cemetery to cradle the body of his 11-year-old son, recently dead of typhoid fever. This historical fact was the catalyst for Saunders’ miraculous imagination, turned loose on a fictive landscape both supernatural and historical. After his death, Willie Lincoln awakens in the bardo, a spiritual limbo between death and rebirth, where he encounters a veritable Greek chorus of spirits. Trapped in the bardo by his father’s grief, a confused and uncertain Willie is counseled by the spirits, who share their stories of love, death, and remembrance. Saunders links the overwhelming grief of one historically important man to the suffering and salvation of all in this polyphonic story of our shared humanity.
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
If you’ve seen the Netflix series of the same name and haven’t read the source material, described by many as the greatest haunted house story ever written, it’s past time to dive into The Haunting of Hill House. In this seminal classic, written by the queen of creep, four seekers arrive at the dilapidated Hill House, where spooky phenomena abound, to participate in a parapsychological study. Jackson’s genius lies in the linkages she makes between haunted houses and haunted minds, which crescendo into an unforgettable ending. Whether you’re a first-time reader or a dyed-in-the-wool Jackson fan, The Haunting of Hill House remains a master class in horror fiction.
The Shining, by Stephen King
King’s landmark ghost story, published way back in 1977, legendarily cemented his bona fides in the horror space. The novel opens with a fresh start for Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who’s packed his family off to the Overlook Hotel, an isolated resort in the Colorado Rockies. As the new off-season caretaker, Jack plans to get his life back on track, but the haunted hotel has other ideas. Danny, Jack’s five-year-old son, is blessed (or cursed) with a “shining”—a psychic gift that allows him to see the hotel’s malevolent ghosts, who want to possess him. When Danny proves too tough a mark, they turn to Jack, teeing up a bloodchilling showdown between a snowed-in family and the spooks who want them dead. Through the haunted house trope, King explores Jack’s personal demons—and delivers an unforgettable thrill ride of paranormal activity.
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
When Beloved was published in 1987, literary critic John Leonard wrote, “I can’t imagine American literature without it.” Decades later, Morrison’s masterpiece remains as essential to the U.S. canon as ever. Set in post-Civil War Ohio, the story centers on Sethe, a woman who escaped slavery eighteen years ago, but still hasn’t found freedom from its horrors. Sethe is haunted by the disturbing apparition of Beloved, the nameless baby daughter she killed long ago to save her from a life in chains. Years later, Beloved has come from “the place over there” to claim retribution for the life that was taken from her. Tormented by grief and love, Sethe wrestles with the impossible choice she made. Written in dense, poetic prose that verges on the sublime, Beloved is a masterwork about remembered trauma, both personal and national.
Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix
Who says ghosts have to live in creaky Victorian houses? In Hendrix’s wildly inventive Horrorstor, the scene is set at ORSK, an IKEA-esque furniture superstore. When strange acts of vandalism start occurring, three employees form an overnight patrol to investigate, but what they find defies belief: wannabe ghostbusters, an unhoused man living secretly in the store, and yes, real ghosts. As these scrappy patrollers square off against the sinister ghosts who want to imprison them in the showroom forever, Hendrix delivers both a palm-sweating horror story and a laugh-out-loud satire of retail. If you’ve ever wished an eternal curse on IKEA while constructing their furniture (who among us hasn’t?), then Horrorstor is the novel for you.
Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Set in Mexico circa the 1950s, Mexican Gothic opens with an alarming letter: newlywed Catalina writes in desperation to her cousin Noemí, claiming that her husband is poisoning her, and that “fleshless things will not let me go.” Glamorous and tough Noemí travels to High Place, the countryside home of Catalina’s new husband, Virgil Doyle, to investigate. There she encounters the “essentially macabre” Doyle family: English aristocrats who colonized the mining town where High Place is situated, and their frightening patriarch, a dastardly eugenicist. Plagued by frightening visions of ghosts and violence, Noemí plots to make her escape with Catalina, but High Place won’t let them go so easily. In this dreadful and spellbinding novel, Moreno Garcia delivers Gothic horror at its finest, with a brilliant layer about the scourges of racism and colonialism.
Infidel, by Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell
In a run-down apartment building, Aisha, a Muslim woman living with her white fiancé and his daughter, begins having strange dreams about the building’s past. Not too long ago, a Muslim neighbor hoarding explosives in his apartment caused a catastrophic accident, leading to a rise in Islamophobia among the building’s multiracial residents. The explosion awakened hateful spirits that feed off xenophobia; now, Aisha must turn to her neighbors to defeat the ghosts tormenting her. In this modern reimagining of the haunted house trope, the authors illuminate chilling truths about the monsters that live within and without humanity.
Experimental Film, by Gemma Files
Struggling with her son’s autism diagnosis and axed from her teaching job, Lois Cairns’ life takes a turn for the worse when she becomes obsessed with a snippet of silent film that may hold the key to a century-old mystery. Lois believes the film proves that an eccentric socialite, who vanished under mysterious circumstances early in the 20th century, was in fact a pioneering female filmmaker. Lois’ all-consuming investigation into the mystery revitalizes her career, but puts hers and her family’s lives on the line, because the past doesn’t want to stay dead. Suspenseful and thrilling, Experimental Film meshes old world folklore and modern filmmaking to argue that every movie is a ghost story.
The Third Hotel, by Laura van den Berg
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When Clare arrives in Havana to attend a horror film festival, she finds her husband Richard there, dressed in a white linen suit she’s never before seen. There’s one other problem: Richard was killed in a hit-and-run months ago. Grief-stricken and astonished, Clare follows Richard through the bustling streets of Havana, slipping into a dissociative state that sends her spiraling backward into the past. “Maybe a person became even more themselves when away, liberated from their usual present tense,” Clare wonders. In this slippery novel of liminal spaces and second selves, van den Berg weaves a lyric story about tourism, marriage, and grief.
The Removed, by Brandon Hobson
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Each year, the Echota family gathers for a bonfire to mark the Cherokee National Holiday and the memory of their son Ray-Ray, a teenager killed in a police shooting. On the fifteenth anniversary of Ray-Ray’s death, the annual bonfire sees the family members’ private grief transform into something elemental and new. As reality and the spirit world blur, Hobson braids the Echotas’ loss with the traumas of their heritage, ceding parts of the story to an ancestor named Tsala. Tsala recounts his own murder for his refusal to be removed from his homeland, while thousands of other Indigenous people forcibly walked the Trail of Tears. Steeped in magical realism and Cherokee lore, Hobson’s mystical story of injustices old and new is a poignant act of reclamation.
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