“I do not believe in ghosts,” Edith Wharton once wrote, “but I am afraid of them.” Writers turn to ghost stories not just for chills and fear but also because they’re a powerful medium for reckoning with memory and history. Many classic ghost stories involve a forgotten trauma that’s resurfacing or a repressed disaster that’s returning. The ghost clings to things left undone and unsaid; it demands witness, accountability, or restitution. For much of America’s history, powerful forces have attempted to bury the country’s violent past—the stain of slavery, the Native American genocide, and so many other smaller acts of terror. The ghost-story genre allows those silenced voices a say. Toni Morrison’s Beloved remains the best-known example of this, but it is by no means the only great work built around a ghost.
Here is a collection of other fascinating stories about ghosts, in which characters are confronted by unresolved pain that erupts into the present in sometimes frightening but always illuminating ways. Not all of these ghosts are terrifying—some are even comedic—but all of these books will cling to you long after you’ve put them down.
Ghosts, by Edith Wharton
In addition to the novels she’s famous for, Wharton (like Henry James) wrote ghost stories throughout her career; this recent collection from NYRB Classics includes 11 of them from 1902 to 1937. Wharton was always an acute observer of social mores and hidden power dynamics, and she used tales about ghosts to further explore the psychic damage those structures inflicted on individuals. In “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” for example, the protagonist is hired as a maid in a gloomy house where the previous maid has died. Soon enough, she begins to see the ghostly apparition of the woman she’s replaced. With a mood similar to James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” Wharton here tells a tale of how domestic servants were used up and seen as replaceable by the upper class—and the uncanny consequences of such attitudes.
Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko
Next to Beloved, no other American novel has used ghost metaphors to deliver such a devastating critique of American history. Tayo, half white and half Laguna Pueblo, is a veteran of World War II. Back in New Mexico, he’s haunted by the ghosts of his dead family members, by what he’s seen in war, and by the ecological damage inflicted on the land he once understood. A punishing drought has settled in, mirroring the spiritual desolation in Tayo, whose sickness can be healed by neither white doctors nor Pueblo medicine (“There are some things we can’t cure like we used to,” the old man Ku’oosh tells him). Shot through with gorgeous writing about the American Southwest, Ceremony is by turns lush and harrowing, built on the idea that white people are actually the conjurings of witches—and that handling their presence will require new kinds of rituals. Published in 1977, it remains a stunningly eerie meditation on a country full of ghosts.
White Tears, by Hari Kunzru
To call an old recording “haunting” is cliché, but Kunzru’s White Tears takes this idea literally. Two young, white music lovers in New York City, Carter and Seth, stumble upon one of Seth’s field recordings of an otherworldly blues song. He can’t remember making it, but he and Carter remix it into their own composition, giving the singer the name Charlie Shaw. Kunzru’s interest is ultimately in the effects of appropriation, using a ghost to examine the long legacy of white exploitation of Black culture: Once Carter and Seth learn that their fictitious blues musician is somehow real, and vengeful, they realize that stealing from the past has repercussions. As the previous person followed by Charlie’s “ancient and bloody” voice tells Carter, “Charlie Shaw wants something from you, and it’s something you don’t want to give. You’ve crossed the line and now you have to prepare yourself.”
Taaqtumi: An Anthology of Arctic Horror Stories, edited by Neil Christopher
The natural world is out of balance—sometimes subtly, sometimes horrifyingly—in this collection of contemporary stories primarily by Indigenous writers and published by the Inuit-owned Inhabit Books. Individuals conjure spirits best left alone, indulge in unnatural appetites, and learn the price of forgetting traditional wisdom. In Aviaq Johnston’s “Iqsinaqtutalik Piqtuq: The Haunted Blizzard,” a teenager named Inu is caught at home alone in a storm that appears from nowhere. Over the phone, her mother reminds her that it’s just weather, but Inu isn’t entirely convinced: “She’s too grown up to remember the scary parts of our land. The scary things that hide around us.” The town’s elders, after all, have warned her that sometimes such events bring danger or worse, and no amount of her mother’s faith in science can stop whatever is calling out to Inu from behind the shower curtain—or protect her as the curtain is slowly pushed aside. Each of the stories in Taaqtumi warps reality in surprising and often terrifying ways, a reflection of the unsteady relationship between nature and human culture.
Unseen City, by Amy Shearn
The Brooklyn writer Shearn’s most recent novels rely on magical realism to open up unexpected layers of New York, and her lighthearted touch belies a serious fascination with how the city works. Her third novel, Unseen City, follows Meg Rhys, a librarian who lives with her dead sister Kate’s cat—and Kate’s ghost. The ghost is hardly malevolent; to Meg, it manifests more as “a sense of comfort, a certain Kateliness in the air.” But when Meg’s forced to move, she begins to worry that her sister’s spirit may not know how to follow her. Meanwhile, she’s drawn into helping a handsome patron research a house that may also be haunted. Thrumming beneath these plotlines is a darker story, one that Meg and her new companion slowly uncover, involving the 19th-century Black community of Weeksville. In a place like New York, each generation is buried under fresh layers of gentrification, and each new developer or house-flipper is eager to erase the past in search of a quick buck. As keepers of both personal memory and a place’s history, the ghosts of Unseen City continually resurface to tell their own stories as well as those of their homes.
Hades, Argentina, by Daniel Loedel
Loedel’s Hades, Argentina details a spectral love affair between two casualties of Argentina’s brutal military junta. Tomás, a resistance spy, fled the country and has only now returned, traumatized, after democracy has been restored. He reunites with his lover, Isabel, who was killed by the regime and exists only as a ghost. During the seven years of Argentina’s so-called Dirty War, tens of thousands were killed or “disappeared.” Many victims’ families have been denied the basic closure of even knowing what happened. “You know there are no dead in Argentina, Tomás. Only disappeared,” the Virgil-esque Colonel explains before Tomás descends into the netherworld of the book’s title. In Loedel’s novel, ghosts are a language for this open wound, a way to narrate death and loss in the absence of any kind of record.
Ghosts, by Dolly Alderton
Nina is a successful cookbook author who’s met the man of her dreams—except that as soon as he’s told her he loves her, he ghosts her, not answering any of her texts and then dropping off the face of the Earth. Max has no online presence or social-media accounts, and without the usual means of keeping tabs on someone, Nina is forced to confront the fact that Max is gone. To be ghosted, Nina’s friend reminds her, is to be “haunted by someone who vanishes, you don’t get any closure,” and though Alderton’s novel has little to do with the supernatural, she nonetheless explores how those who depart without a trace leave strange holes in the world that make one’s own memories feel uncanny. How can you say what was real if the other half of the relationship is simply missing without explanation? Alderton’s novel mainly targets immature men, but in the process, she asks questions about what we leave behind when we move in and out of other people’s lives.
The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich
White Americans have long been obsessed with the idea of the ghosts of Native Americans, disturbed by construction on burial grounds and coming for revenge. It’s a kind of ghost story that allows white people to approach the horror of North America’s colonization without having to confront it directly. Erdrich’s novel inverts this trope: Her Ojibwe narrator, the bookstore-worker Tookie, finds that the shop’s most annoying customer, a white woman named Flora, has come back from the grave. Flora’s apparition flips the clichéd script. “Think how white people believe their houses or yards or scenic overlooks are haunted by Indians, when it’s really the opposite,” Tookie’s friend Asema explains. “We’re haunted by settlers and their descendants.” In life, Flora claimed Native ancestry and asserted a false kinship with Tookie; in death, she leaves behind a mystery, a book that contains a sentence so powerful that Tookie comes to believe it may have killed her. As Tookie watches the country undergo dramatic upheavals during the pandemic and amid protests after the murder of George Floyd, she must also attempt to understand what Flora’s ghost wants from her.
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