What better way to cap off the spooky season than with a good ghost story? TMR reader Nicole VanderLinden has compiled a list of contemporary stories and novels about ghosts, haunts, and the generally unsettling. Can you brave the whole list?
Mark Mayer’s “The Clown”: It’s not easy being a clown—especially if you’re a homicidal clown working a day job as a real estate agent who’s “amicably divorced, amicably depressed.” This and the other stories in Mayer’s collection Aerialists explore what Carmen Maria Machado describes as “an abiding weirdness and darkness, a fascination with the sinkholes in the back of the mind.” In any event, we’ll never look at open houses in quite the same way again.
Carmen Maria Machado’s “Descent”: Here is the tale of a book club gathering, which descends into a chilling story of a high school teacher who attempts to fold in two survivors of a school shooting, which descends into one of the girls’ recounting of her experience, which descends even further. “Descent” would be a chilling story without any supernatural elements, but the ending, which riffs on classic urban legends a la “The Hitchhiker,” adds a spookier dimension to this tale of real human horror.
Caitlin Vance’s “The House”: Every kid knows the everyday fear of being unseen and unheard by adults, but in this piece of flash fiction, Vance takes the disconnect further, exploring the shaky foundations of trust and reliability through a child narrator entering a strange house. Sometimes, what haunts us most is not knowing where our reality picks up from another’s, especially from those who are supposed to protect us.
Steven Millhauser’s “Tales of Darkness and the Unknown, Vol. XIV: The White Glove“: From Millhauser’s Story Prize-winning collection We Others: New and Selected Stories, “Tales of Darkness” takes the classic woman-with-a-mysterious-ribbon-around-her-neck tale and updates it with a boy, Will, who can’t stop thinking about the one white glove his friend Emily wears day and night. Emily’s secret (what’s under the glove?) should, of course, be hers to share or hers to keep, but in a cutting and human examination of consent and manipulation, Will can’t accept that. And neither, it turns out, can we.
Helen Oyeyemi’s “Is Your Blood as Red as This?”: “Blame it on growing pains,” Radha, one of the story’s narrators, says early on, “or on the ghost I share my bedroom with.” If you like your ghosts more fanciful than fearsome, “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” from Oyeyemi’s celebrated What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours delivers not just ghosts that give advice, but puppets with varying degrees of agency—the story’s second part is, in fact, narrated by one of said puppets. In this strange tale of a puppeteering school that’s far from conventional, almost everything is fluid, from gender to humanness to feeling. Oyeyemi’s ghosts may not haunt in the typical sense, but they do disorient and captivate.
Jeff VanderMeer’s “No Breather in the World But Me”: Something terrible happened last year, though it’s hard to remember exactly what. And something terrible is happening again—the less on that point, probably the better.
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo: In a quiet crypt, in the midst of deep national turmoil and unfathomable pressure, Abraham Lincoln cradles the body of his dead son. Meanwhile, Willie—the son—lingers with a cast of lonely and disoriented Beetlejuice-esque ghosts inhabiting the bardo, or the state between life and rebirth. Saunders’ novel is as emotionally stunning as it is inventive, as he explores the ways in which we become stuck and unstuck through tragedy and triumph.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen: Although not technically a horror or ghost story, Eileen is an unsettling portrait of an old woman retelling the story of her youth, when she lived in squalor with an alcoholic father and worked as a secretary at a prison for boys. Eileen is hardened and vulnerable, resentful and hopeful. She likes “books about awful things—murder, illness, death,” and when she meets the beguiling, sophisticated Rebecca, her story springs into motion. Eileen takes brutal turns in its telling, but the titular character demands that we take it in on her terms, with spellbinding results.
Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (excerpt): Four women—a biologist, a psychologist, a surveyor, and an anthropologist—enter Area X, an abandoned area of Earth that has become uninhabitable for mostly unknown reasons. What happens next is like Stephen King’s The Mist meets John Carpenter’s The Thing, but on a grander scale, with more unknowable elements. The best part? It’s just the first installment in the Southern Reach Trilogy.
Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House: Flournoy’s debut novel kicks off with a haint—a malevolent ghost—who tries to drag a central character out of the Turner family home. But is this haint real, or is he part of the family lore, and where does the intersection matter most? And what does it mean to be haunted? In The Turner House, generations of a black family living in Detroit wrestle with place, legacy, a city’s economic decline, and yes, occasional (though sometimes disputed) visits from the spirit world, though Flournoy ultimately raises the question of how much ghost stories require actual ghosts.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves: Part haunted house story, part existential thriller, House of Leaves is, at its most basic, the story of a family that moves into a house only to discover that its inside is bigger than its outside. Spooky but simple, right? Far from it. House of Leaves is literature’s answer to found footage films, and one flip through its pages will tell you that you’re in for a wild ride.
Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “124 was spiteful,” begins Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning tour de force. Set in Cincinnati shortly after the Civil War, Sethe and her daughter Denver attempt to build a life despite being haunted by an angry revenant. Morrison’s masterful examination of family, the enduring trauma of enslavement, repression, grief, and regret has haunted readers since its publication in 1987.
By Nicole VanderLinden