“Gossip says she hanged herself from the turret on the tower, but when you have a house like Hill House with a tower and a turret, gossip would hardly allow you to hang yourself anywhere else.”
― Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
The Dwelling by Susie Maloney
A novel in parts, The Dwelling is the tale of 362 Belisle Street and a series of its inhabitants. The story is linked together by a framework about the location’s realtor, who can’t imagine why such a charming and well priced home can’t seem to keep its owners happy. Like the best haunted house stories, 362 Belisle Street is as much of a character as any of the humans on the page, and the house’s intentions remain a perplexing mystery for much of the novel.
Not as widely known as some of the other stories on this list, I first heard about this novel in one of those rambling obscure book discussions people have online and sought it out on a whim. I probably would never have run across it otherwise and I’m glad for whatever internet stranger recommended it, because it’s a superb and haunting novel that, unlike many scary stories, comes to an emotionally satisfying end without resorting to cheap thrills.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
If your only exposure to Shirley Jackson is a half remembered high school reading of her phenomenal short story, “The Lottery,” you are doing yourself a disservice. Jackson was a phenomenal and prolific writer whose interests lay beyond the occasional stoning of townspeople. She also wrote humorous, proto-Erma Bombeck stories about her family, children’s books, scads of short stories, and six literary novels. One of these, The Haunting of Hill House, is one of the finest American haunted house novels ever written. Beautifully lyrical and at turns frightening and desolate, this is some of Jackson’s finest work in an admittedly illustrious career.
A motley assortment of strangers are assembled to investigate the infamous Hill House, a site that is burdened by a history of murders, suicides, and assorted tragedies. While you may find the bones of the story familiar as it’s framework has been borrowed for numerous haunted house tales since it’s publication, don’t expect to guess how the story turns out. Two movies and a play have been based on the novel since it appeared in 1959, when it was a finalist in the National Book Award competition. If you’re going to cheat and go for the movie over the book, my recommendation is the 1963 version starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, which goes for the atmosphere of dread the book evokes rather than cheap jump scares.
The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddon
When I was but a wee horror fan, I picked up a copy of Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s non-fiction guide to the horror genre. Given my age, Stephen King was basically a god, so if he recommended that I read something, I read it. From him I found Shirley Jackson, learned about Grand Guignol, and a little novel by a woman named Anne Rivers Siddon. I vaguely knew who the author was and associated the covers of her books with North Carolina beaches and feminine watercolors. She’s not someone I would have pegged as a horror novelist.
But I am delighted I took King’s suggestion to search out The House Next Door, a powerful haunted house story set not in New England nor not in a decaying mansion, but in sunny suburbia in the guise of modern architecture. Colquitt Kennedy, the next door neighbor of the titular house, narrates the novel in three parts as a series of terrible tragedies occur in the beautiful new house that graces their neighborhood. It’s terror in sunlight, full of dread and uncertain footings, which is my favorite flavor of the supernatural. Steer clear of the inferior movie adaptation — the book is far more powerful than the movie would lead you to believe.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Though written in 1983, The Woman in Black is consciously written in a dense Gothic style. More of a novella than a novel, you could knock this book out in a single reading, but you’ll probably need some time to set the book aside and stand in a patch of sunlight or something equally warming.
After the death of Alice Drablow, a young lawyer, Author Kipps, is sent to clear out her remote house and settle her estate. What he discovers is that Eel Marsh House is the subject of local legend and blamed for a rash of children’s death, a curse of some sort enacted by a mysterious Woman in Black. Alice’s Eel Marsh House is a dark and imposing estate, complete cut off from town every evening by the rise of the marsh waters. Kipps endures increasingly disturbing evenings at the house as he attempts to unravel his late client’s estate, becoming drawn into the local legend against his will.
Adapted twice for film, most recently in 2012 with Daniel Radcliff in the lead role, The Woman in Black was also adapted for the stage and is the West End’s longest running show.