What better time of the year could there be for reading ghost stories? There is a chill in the air, the nights are longer, and things start to go bump in the night. It comes as no surprise that Halloween comes at this time of the year, and ghost stories are a natural companion to this night, but did you know that ghost stories are also traditional at Christmas time and were told around Christmas Eve fires at night in Victorian England in fin-de-siècle America. A major part of the Victorian Christmas tradition is the reading of ghost stories. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is perhaps the best and most renowned example of this tradition. Still don’t believe me? Then check out fourth line of this classic Christmas carol, “Most Wonderful Time” (emphasis added):
There’ll be parties for hosting,
Marshmallows for toasting,
And caroling out in the snow.
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago.
2001 was the year that this concept was finally drilled into my thick head, I had heard it before, but it never hit home until I read Charles Palliser’s The Unburied, which bills itself as a “Victorian Christmas Ghost Story.” So, without further ado, here are The Best 10 Ghost Stories I have read. Pick them up for Halloween, save them for Christmas, read them in July at the beach for all I care. Just read them and I guarantee you’ll get chills and goose bumps with every single turn of the page:
1. Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell (New York: TOR Books, 1989). A colleague’s violent death and its apparent cause – a stolen copy of an old, never-released Karloff/Lugosi film – set film editor Sandy Allan on the trail of the tragedies which haunted its production, she finds herself threatened by an ancient force protecting secrets deeper than the 50-year-old movie. Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images is a book that will keep the Reader up into the wee hours of the morning, staring into the shadows in the corners, daring them to move. Atmosphere plays a large part of this book that relies heavily on the Reader becoming so engrossed in the story that when the things start to move out of the corners of the characters eyes and on the periphery of their vision, the Reader can’t help but look over their shoulders as well. Its a little slow to start, but once Sandy Allan starts her hunt for Tower of Fear, the story moves along at a very fast pace and doesn’t let up until the very end. As I said, atmosphere plays a heavy role in the mood of this book, and Campbell lays it on really thick, so much so that the book seems to come with its own thunder and lightning storms. What I truly loved about this story was the history that Campbell creates, not only for the fictitious Karloff/Lugosi film, but also the history of Redfield, which plays a large part of not only the film’s plot, but also that of the story Campbell is attempting to tell. The scenes Campbell has put to page as Sandy investigates the film’s history, and its connection to the Redfield family, in the town of Redfield are some of the most eerie scenes that I have come across yet. This is where the book’s oppressive atmosphere looms heaviest, especially as Sandy begins to stumble upon the sordid and macabre history of the town and its inhabitants. My only beef with Images is that while Campbell neatly wraps everything up at the end, it still remains somewhat ambiguous … although, the more I think about it, maybe that’s for the best. The best horror stories are often – in my opinion – those that make the Reader scratch his head at the end as ask “Okay, now what just happened?” and Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images is just such a story. However, all things considered, Ancient Images is a knock out horror story … a real hackle raiser. Don’t read this one too late at night, it’ll make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, and you’ll never be able to get to sleep.
2. Bag of Bones by Stephen King (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998). “I hope Bag of Bones gave you at least one sleepless night. Sorry ’bout that; it’s just the way I am. It gave me one or two, and ever since writing it I’m nervous about going down into the cellar – part of me keeps expecting the door to slam, the lights to go out, and the knocking to start. But for me, at least, that’s also part of the fun. If that makes me sick, hey, don’t call the doctor” (35). From King’s May 1999 letter to reviewers of Hearts in Atlantis. Four years after the sudden death of his wife, forty-year-old bestselling novelist Mike Noonan is still grieving. Unable to write, and plagued by vivid nightmares set at the western Maine summerhouse he calls Sara Laughs, Mike reluctantly returns to the lakeside getaway. There, he finds his beloved Yankee town held in the grip of a powerful millionaire, Max Devore, whose vindictive purpose is to take his three-year-old granddaughter, Kyra away from her widowed and impoverished young mother, Mattie. As Mike is drawn into Mattie and Kyra’s struggle, as he falls in love with both of them, he is also drawn into the mystery of Sara Laughs, now the site of ghostly visitations and escalating terrors. What are the forces that have been unleashed here – and what do they want of Mike Noonan? I found this to be one of the scariest King books to date. The scene on the cellar stairs is one of the tensest he has ever written. It makes me glad we don’t have a cellar that I ever have to go down into! King has described Bones as a “haunted love story” and it is definitely that. It is also an open and honest homage to British fiction, and heavily echoes Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca, but instead of a wicked woman being mistaken for a good one (as in Rebecca) in Bones, a good woman – recently deceased Jo Noonan – whose newly revealed secret life causes her husband to doubt his complete trust of her. Vindictive millionaire Max Devore also evokes Rebecca‘s Maxim de Winter. Bones was King’s first authentic ghost story since Pet Sematary and revisits Derry and Castle Rock. Bag of Bones boasts an ancient curse, dazzling sequences of mind-boggling and horrifying paranormal activity, as well as a couple of the most memorable villains with which King has ever blessed us. Again, as in The Dark Half, Misery, “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” Desperation, The Tommyknockers, The Shining, etc., etc. King has made his main character a successful writer of mysteries. One of my favorite aspects of Bag of Bones are the little “insides” that King gives, with repeated references to Thad Beaumont (and, of course, George Stark) from King’s The Dark Half, and William “Big Bill” Denbrough from It. Both characters – like Mike Noonan in Bones – are successful writers, and because King has Noonan comparing himself to these two, it lends a kind of odd credibility to Bones by playing it off of The Dark Half and It. Further adding to that sense of credibility is a cameo appearance by Ralph (and mentioned in passing) Lois Roberts, the main characters from King’s Insomnia, itself a novel of the ill-fated town Derry; there is also the Dark Score Lake connection with Gerald’s Game, and many more, linking Bag of Bones to Dolores Claiborne, The Tommyknockers, Needful Things, and “The Sun Dog” (in Four Past Midnight). Michael Noonan’s narration on the writing process and the publishing world makes one wonder how much of King himself is in Noonan, and how much of Noonan’s experiences are autobiographical. According to King, “Bag of Bones contains everything I know about marriage, lust, and ghosts,” and the last 300 or so pages of the book contain some of King’s best writing to date. Bag of Bones is an incredible ghost story that will – at the risk of a bad pun – haunt the reader even after having finished the last page. This one is perfect for cold winter nights.
3. Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1973). The Rolfes – Ben, wife Marian, son David, and Aunt Elizabeth – are a pleasant family from New York seeking to escape from the doldrums of a summer in their Queens apartment. They find a beautiful old country mansion on Long Island – restful, secluded, with pool and private beach – perfect, for the right people. But their “perfect” summer home hides terrors beyond their wildest imaginings. During that long summer the house becomes a nightmare from which there seems to be no escape. For all those folks who have at times felt that their home and possessions owned them, rather than the other way around; for those folks who love a good haunted house/possession tale; and even for those readers who simply enjoy a well-told thriller of a pageturner, Robert Marasco’s 1973 novel Burnt Offerings will be a real find. This was Marasco’s first novel in a sadly unprolific career; he came out with only two more titles – Child’s Play, a drama, in 1970, and Parlor Games, a Gothic-style mystery, in 1979 – before succumbing to lung cancer in 1998, at the age of 62. A real loss, if Burnt Offerings is any indication of the man’s skills. In this work, we meet Ben and Marian Rolfe, a nice, ordinary couple from Queens, who, with 8-year-old son David and elderly Aunt Elizabeth in tow, rent an aging mansion on Long Island’s North Fork. This property is let for the unbelievably low price of $900 for the entire summer, with one proviso: the renters’ mother will remain in her room for the duration, but will stay out of sight and be quite low maintenance. Marasco then begins to gently turn the screws, and before long, horrible things start to transpire, or do they? Marian becomes obsessed with keeping house, while her hair quickly grays; Ben starts to physically abuse his son uncontrollably and to suffer morbid hallucinations; and Elizabeth, once spry, starts to age at an alarming rate. And that is just the start of this amazing story. Marasco writes extremely well; it is hard for me to believe that this was his first novel. Yes, he is sometimes guilty of the faults of a beginning writer, such as an occasional bit of fuzzy writing and some instances of poor grammar and punctuation (granted, those latter are more the fault of Marasco’s editor). But what he excels at is beautifully rendered, realistic dialogue; I’ve seldom read better. Perhaps I should also mention here that this book was chosen by no less a luminary than Stephen King for inclusion in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s excellent overview volume Horror: 100 Best Books (which is where I first heard of the book). It is easy to see the influence that Burnt Offerings had on King’s similarly themed The Shining, which came out four years later. Although perhaps not as chilling as King’s novel, or Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House (but then again, how many books are?), Burnt Offerings can even hold its own in that august company. The folks in Richard Matheson’s Hell House go through no greater horrors than the Rolfes do, either. The Rolfes are a sweet couple, and the reader roots for them, and hopes that they come through their ordeals okay. But with the creeping, living forces of the Allardyce mansion ranged against them, the odds are certainly not in their favor! Anyway, let me just say that I more than highly recommend this book to any and all interested readers.
4. Coldheart Canyon: A Hollywood Ghost Story by Clive Barker (New York: HarperTorch, 2001). Film’s most popular action hero needs a place to heal after surgery that has gone terribly wrong. His fiercely loyal agent finds him just such a place in a luxurious, forgotten mansion high in the Hollywood Hills. But the original owner of the mansion was a beautiful woman devoted to pleasure at any cost, and the terrible legacy of her deed has not yet died. There are ghosts and monsters haunting Coldheart Canyon, where nothing is forbidden. This is only my second foray into the written world of Clive Barker (I read Cabalyears ago, and have seen two or three of the Hellraiser movies), but I must say that I was quite impressed. Coldheart Canyon is a ferocious indictment of (and backhanded tribute to) Hollywood Babylon, depicted through Barker’s glorious imagination as a nexus of human and inhuman evil where fleshly pursuits corrupt the spirit. It’s also one ripping ghost story, spooky and suspenseful, as well as (I understand) a departure for Barker in that here, as never before, the fantastic mingles with the real, kind of. The book takes a long time to get started, the first 150 to 200 pages are dreadfully slow, but once the book finds its pace, it doesn’t let up. Barker entices his readers to leap into a fantastical world populated by ghostly beasts that roam the hills of a modern-day Tinseltown. His masterful descriptions of this world and the pathological behavior that occurs within it provide an eerie realism, compelling the reader to venture further. This is, in essence, a 686-page supermarket tabloid, the kind of story that would result if Billy Wilder had made Sunset Boulevard as a German Expressionist silent film, with a healthy dash of Edgar Allan Poe and Nikolai Gogol thrown in for good measure. All this notwithstanding, I think the major flaw of this book is that it is about 200 pages too long. For some reason, Barker can’t seem to let go of the story, and drags it on for too long, which results in about four endings past where one would naturally consider the ending to be. I read a number of reviews of Coldheart Canyon online, and the general consensus seemed to be that Coldheart Canyon is a feeble offering when held up against earlier Barker works such as Imajica, The Damnation Game, and Weaveworld. My reaction to that is that if Coldheart Canyon pales in comparison to earlier Barker books, than I can’t wait to dig into those.
5. Ghost Story by Peter Straub (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979). Everyone has been afraid, sometime. Everyone has felt fear close a cold hand around the heart, tug at the scalp and send the blood racing wildly. Everyone has been afraid. But none so afraid as the terror-stricken men and women of Milburn. Called by a supernatural force to answer for a supernatural sin. Sentenced in the evil heart of darkness… to live out a ghost story. This is the first book by Peter Straub that I’ve read, and – to be perfectly honest – I had a very hard time getting through it. The beginning, the first 150 pages or so, are extraordinarily tough to plod through. They are dense and seem to take the reader nowhere in particular. It seemed to me that Straub was saying, “I’ve got a story to tell, and I’m going to tell it at my pace and I’m not going to give you the good stuff, I’m not going to scare you until I’m good and ready!” And scare us he does! Once I got over that hump, and started on the back nine of the book, it raced on, and had some of the scariest scenes I have ever read. Be sure not to miss the scene with George Scales standing watch over his barn in the dead of night. Or the confrontation scene in the Rialto movie theater (The Night of the Living Dead was never before used so effectively as a backdrop). All-in-all, I was somewhat disappointed with Ghost Story to begin with, but by the time I was done, I was thoroughly impressed.
6. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving (The Sketch Book. New York: Signet Classics, 1981. 329-360). If you haven’t read this story yet, you need to drop everything you are currently doing, and run to your local library or bookstore and find this classic (for convenience, it has been separately published as a “stand-alone-story” outside of Irving’s The Sketchbook. I will tell you, that you have not read a better told, a better crafted, and a more exciting and adventurous ghost-and-goblin story than “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” I know I haven’t. I was completely under the story’s spell and utterly caught up in the tale of Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones, their rivalry for the fair Katrina Van Tassel, and the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. Fun, fun, fun. Pick this one up, pop some corn, uncork the apple cider, and cuddle up in front of a warm fire on Halloween night, gather the whole family, and read this one together. I guarantee you that it will be an instant family favorite and a long-standing family ritual for years to come.
7. The Shining by Stephen King (New York: Signet Books, 1977).REDRUM! REDRUM! “… [E]very big hotel has got a ghost” (22), and The Overlook Hotel is no exception. Jack Torrence is an out-of-work, ex-alcoholic writer, who has taken a dying grasp at a last straw offered: the caretakership of the Overlook in the Rockies of Colorado. Jack, his wife Wendy, and their son Danny will be spending the off-season (in the dead of winter) sequestered in the isolated resort. Danny soon discovers that there is more to the Overlook than meets the eye. For you see, Danny has “the shining.” That special ability that some call second sight, and will soon be working overtime at the Overlook. Because, the Overlook has more than one ghost… and the “manager” is out to get Danny. Preying on Jack’s insecurities and fears, the Overlook soon convinces Jack that he is needed by the hotel’s “management” and his initiation is the murder of both Wendy and Danny. Stephen King’s The Shining is the ultimate in haunted house stories, and… for me is the scariest of all his works. Claustrophobic and intense, King pulls no punches in dealing with such themes as alcoholism, spousal and child abuse, and – of course – a good old fashioned ghost story. It is an engrossing story that takes the reader on a roller coaster ride of emotions. King’s writing in this novel is superb and the book is structured as a five-part tragedy (it was originally conceptualized as a play), “Prefatory Matters,” “Closing Day,” “The Wasps’ Nest,” “Snowbound,” and “Matters of Life and Death.” The dichotomy of Jack’s character is especially fascinating… the unfeigned love that he feels for both his wife and son, and yet the uncontrollable descent into madness and murder that the Overlook plunges him into. My first exposure to The Shining was a MAD Magazine parody of the Stanley Kubrick film. From there, I purchased the book when I was in the seventh grade, and read it for the first time that summer while my family was vacationing at Lake Tahoe. It scared me then… it has scared me each time I have read it since… and it scared me when I read it this time around. Usually, I read late into the night... but with The Shining, I couldn’t bring myself to read it much past midnight. It truly is the scariest book I have ever read, and is definitely the most terrifying of King’s works. Just remember, when travelling… stay away from Room #217.
8. “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James (The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction. New York: Bantam Books, 1981. 1-104). “The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child” (3). “The Turn of the Screw” is not only an incredible ghost story, but also a first-rate psychological thriller and a truly masterful ghost story. I don’t want to give away too much about the story so as not to spoil the “fun” for future readers. So, all I’ll say is save “Screw” for a cold and dark autumn or winter night (as is appropriate time for such stories).
9. “The Wendigo” by Algernon Blackwood (Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood. New York: Dover, 1973. 158-207). My first introduction to Algernon Blackwood came from a passing reference to him in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, where he mentions the short story “The Wendigo.” I will admit that I became a bit obsessed with finding a copy of Blackwood’s short stories after that, and finally did come upon this particular tome in the $1.00 Clearance section at Half Price Books. I scooped it up instantly and, now, after having finally read it almost a year after finding it, I feel that it is one of the best $1.09 that I have spent in my literary miseducation. I have to say, that although I found it difficult to start this book, once I got into it, I couldn’t pull myself out. These are some of the best and most suspenseful scary stories that I have ever read. “The Wendigo” is an absolutely amazing story of terror and the supernatural. It is also the story that is credited with propelling the mythology of the wendigo into mainstream consciousness and around campfires throughout North America. This is a stellar collection of the œuvre of Algernon Blackwood, and the payoff at reading is worth the effort it takes to find copies of his stories.
10. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings. New York: Bantam Books, 1989. 1-20). A desperate woman traps herself in a bizarre room – where she … the demons creeping from every wall. Is it too late to fight the madness? In 1892 an unnamed woman passes the slow days of summer writing down her innermost thoughts while convalescing. Her observations focus on the strange effects of the peeling, fading, yellow wallpaper in her bedroom. I first read this short story a number of years ago – in high school, if I remember correctly, and didn’t think much of it, other than the fact that this was one weird and wild story. Now, coming back to it at a later date, I find that Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a genius. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” there is a theme of escape. Yellow for many years was the color that stood for insanity. The narrator is going insane while warning women of the pressures society puts on them. Her feelings were quite clear. She was not going to be kept from being successful, or strong, simply because she was a woman. The concept of whether or not she is insane, however, is a different story all together. She could be interpreting things much different than the actual fact, but … then … maybe she isn’t. There are so many facets to this story that to go into all of them in depth would take pages. This could be a story of feminism. It could be a story of the suppression of the medical society, or of the suppression of artistic creativity (as the narrator’s husband does not like her to write). It is also a story of the taboos, misunderstandings, and stigmas that society has foisted on those with mental illnesses. This story will give any Reader goose bumps on their goose bumps. I highly recommend it; you’ll not be disappointed.