Gathering and sharing ghost stories over Christmas time is a long-held tradition, going much further back than A Christmas Carol. For some reason the season that leaves us trapped indoors all the time lends itself well to haunted house stories. The haunted house is a classic horror staple because there’s something just so wrong about the idea of our safe, warm home becoming a source of terror. These are nine of the best haunted house stories to send a festive chill down your spine.
1. The Fall of The House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allen Poe is a giant of Gothic horror, known for the dark, mysterious tones in his poetry and short stories alike. From The Raven to The Tell-Tale Heart, if you haven’t spent a rainy night curled up with one of his chilling tales, you’ve probably at least written about him in school. This tale is one that carries the same bleak melodrama he is famous for.
Our unnamed narrator visits his childhood friend, the heir of the dwindling Usher clan. He finds him looking after his ailing sister, with both he and their house looking worse for wear. Their stately home has become a dilapidated wreck, with an evil, otherworldly atmosphere. As his sister’s health declines things go from bad to worse and the supernatural elements begin to show themselves. The grim, oppressive sensation only intensifies as we realise the sickness may be within the house itself.
2. The Turn of The Screw by Henry James
A governess is employed to work at an isolated country house looking after two children while their uncle is away. Despite the obvious warning sign of her predecessor’s suspicious death, she moves right in. It’s not long after that that she begins to see the ghosts of the house’s dead staff around the grounds. Their inexplicable connection with the children, who are almost as eerie as the ghosts, hints at something more sinister under the surface. Evil is hinted at but not much is said explicitly and the whole story is told through a letter, making the account all the more questionable.
Henry James’ mastery of the psychological novel utilises the power of silence, creating a sense of uneasy confusion to start the tension building. There’s much more depravity than you’d expect from a book this old, and moral corruption is a big theme in James’ works. The novel also has one of the earliest examples of the creepy child phenomenon in horror.
3. The Diary of Mr. Poynter by M.R. James
M.R. James is often considered the master of the English ghost story. He was incredibly prolific, with many of his stories being adapted by the BBC for Christmas throughout the seventies. The Diary of Mr Poynter is unusual for a haunted house story in that it’s not the house itself that starts off haunted. Unlike your typical ancient mansion, the protagonists’ home is newly built and free of unfinished business. The haunting comes in the form of a diary picked up by the protagonist and the bizarre design found inside. It’s through this hair-like pattern that a kind of haunting is infused into the house.
The story has James’ two key ingredients for horror: atmosphere and climax. The uneasiness caused by the pattern keeps building, pushing the tension to breaking point, until it reaches the horrifying peak of the story.
4. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Considered one of the best horror novels of the 20th century, The Haunting of Hill House has become the definitive example of the haunted house story. The book spawned numerous imitations over the years and Stephen King even dubbed it one of the two great horror novels of the past 100 years.
Four associates move into an old mansion with a dark past as part of a supernatural experiment: a fragile young woman with poltergeist experience, an occult scholar, his possibly-psychic assistant, and the young man set to inherit the house. Not long after they settle in, the house begins to sow its supernatural oats, and the new residents start to experience doors slamming for no reason and written messages appearing on the walls. This is only the beginning and as its powers grow, the house begins to feed off of one of the inhabitants.
The novel unfolds in a subtly unnerving way, committing to classic terror rather than horror. There’s a clear link between the house the human psyche, and the house itself is even described as “not sane”.
5. The Shining by Stephen King
Okay, so it’s a hotel, not a house, but people live in it and it’s definitely super haunted. Cemented in cinema by Stanley Kubrick‘s adaptation, this is arguably the most famous Stephen King novel. It was based on King’s own experiences battling alcoholism and his stay in the allegedly haunted Stanley Hotel.
Struggling writer and recovering alcoholic John Torrence moves into the Overlook Hotel with his family after taking on the job of Winter caretaker. As his son begins seeing ghostly apparitions, the hotel takes hold of John. The family has no escape from the hotel’s influence, as they are helplessly snowed in.
Even if you love the movie, the book offers a somewhat different story. Nicholson‘s Jack is named John in the book, and is a more complex character than we get to see in the film. Many of the movie’s iconic moments pan out differently in the novel too, giving a new lease of like to film’s familiar tale of cabin fever turned violent.
6. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson
Anson’s story is based on the horrifying ‘real-life’ events of 112 Ocean Avenue. In 1974, in an old Dutch colonial house in Amityville, Long Island, Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot dead his parents and siblings. In December 1975, the Lutz family moved into the house. They lived there for only 28 days before moving out, citing paranormal activities.
The book focuses on the experiences of George and Kathy Lutz, who move into the house with their three children and are soon terrorised by slime oozing from walls, demonic, pig-like imaginary friends and mysterious bite marks.
When the book was released it attracted controversy for capitalising on and fictionalising real peoples’ experiences. While the events of the book may have been embellished, it’s touted as one of the scariest portrayals of the paranormal in America.
7. The Woman In Black by Susan Hill
Despite being written in 1983, this story is crafted as an homage to the traditional Gothic novel. Set indeterminably in the past, young solicitor Arthur Kipps is sent to a small town to settle the affairs of a recently deceased woman. At her funeral he sees the mysterious figure of a woman dressed in black and it’s only after this that things take a turn into unnerving. He realises the townspeople refuse to talk about the woman when questioned. Obviously, he decides to stay in the newly deceased’s house. Once there he is subject to a number of increasingly alarming experiences, seemingly linked to the woman in black.
This is a slow-burning psychological horror that spends time building up a sense of intrigue and suspense. While Hill makes use of loads of Gothic images like seeping fog and the crumbling mansion, she keeps the pull towards Kipps’ increasingly frightened mind.
8. House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
A twist on the classic haunted house genre, House of Leaves is part novel and part film studies essay. The book has a Russian doll narration style, the story being told through multiple characters. A film-maker and his family move into a new house in the country, only to discover rooms mysteriously appearing that bend the dimensions of the house. We later learn that those who uncover this secret have a tendency to lose their minds and even we get a taste of this through the book’s own changing dimensions.
The novel really plays with the words on the page and will get you flicking to footnotes and turning the book upside down as you read. The text-bending power of the house is present right from the beginning and an empty page with just one word on it becomes far scarier than you’d think.
9. Slade House by David Mitchell
Another interesting twist on the sub-genre, Slade House toys with the idea of ghosts and their haunts. The story started as a Twitter-fiction called The Right Sort, used to drum up publicity for Mitchell‘s genre-bending The Bone Clocks. Although the story on Twitter was unsettling enough, it was later fleshed out into a full novel.
The plot stretches from the late seventies to the present day, where once every nine years, a person is invited into the eponymous house, from the outside merely a tiny cast-iron door down a nondescript ally. Once invited inside by the strange inhabitants, the new guest is trapped. By the time they figure that out however, it’s already too late.
If you’ve already read The Bone Clocks you’ll probably guess early what’s really going on here. As with all Mitchell books, there are fun little nods to his other works and it’s surprisingly comedic underneath the thrill.