Top 5 Ghost Novels


RebeccaDaphne du Maurier

I was introduced to this book by my aunt during a lull in a family vacation. Ever since, Rebecca has remained one of my favorite novels. Daphne du Maurier is widely considered the 20th century successor to Charlotte Bronte. Both Charlotte and Daphne lived mainly secluded lives in which storytelling and fantasy served as a release. And they both published early and achieved wild success.  Rebecca was originally published in 1938 and have never gone out print. The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where the unnamed heroine is swept off her feet by the debonair widower Maxim de Winter.  After a surprise marriage proposal, Maxim whisks his bride back to his estate, Manderlay. However, Manderley is shrouded in a terrible secret and the shadow of Rebecca de Winter (the first wife) haunts the new Mrs. de Winter’s every step. Perhaps the greatest aspect to this novel is the atmospheric writing that evokes a spooky feeling. And Mrs. Danvers is one of the creepiest villains on paper. However, the greatest achievement is the characterization of Rebecca. Or not having a single line of dialogue, she really pops off the page and influences all the other characters’ actions. While this is not a traditional ghost story, Rebecca evokes an eerie feeling long after the last sentence.

Rebecca, Little, Brown and Company, 2013, ISBN 9780316323703

The Turn of the ScrewHenry James

Henry James was fascinated with the ghost story genre during his literary career. However, James was not a fan of the stereotypical ghost story filled with screaming transparent caricatures. Instead, he preferred to create ghost stories that depicted everyday reality in an eerie light. Hence, the publication of the now classic novella The Turn of the Screw in 1898. This story depicts a very young woman’s first job as a governess for two strange and distant children at a forlorn estate. Her initially pastoral existence soon takes turn for the worse when she becomes convinced that her charges are consorting with evil spirits. However, in her effort to shield the children from harm, she ends up endangering their lives. The brilliance of this story lies in its ambiguous narrative. If the ghosts are real, than the governess’ tragic efforts to shield her charges are noble. However, if the ghost are actually illusions, then the governess is insane. Despite the greatness of the narrative, the novella suffers from extremely dense language. While the book is only 120 pages it feels a lot longer. Ghost stories rely upon a suspenseful and compact narrative. James infuses the story with a lot of tension but the antiquated language does detract from the pacing.

The Turn of the Screw, Penguin Books, 1998, ISBN 9780140620610

The Legend of Sleepy HollowWashington Irving

This was the first ghost story I ever read. While enjoyable, I was more frightened by Rip Van Winkle. Anyways, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was written while Irving was still living in Birmingham, England. Sleepy Hollow was originally published in 1820 in a collection of 34 essays and sort stories called The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Few stories have managed to continually capture the imaginations of generations of readers. Set in New York’s Hudson River Valley, the narrative contains elements of horror, romance, and comedy. Schoolteacher Ichabod Crane is content being a bachelor until he sets his eyes upon Baltus Van Tassel’s farm. Crane imagines how happy hi life would be if he owned a farm. So he decides to court Van Tassel’s daughter, Katrina. However, Katrina is also being pursued by the formidable Brom Bones. Soon strange events being to occur in the normally peaceful Sleepy Hollow. Irving’s tale is a classic for a reason, the headless horseman manages to remain mysterious and creepy. I thoroughly enjoy rereading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow on a semi-regular basis. Even though none of the characters are sympathetic or relatable. Ichabod is a greedy social climber, Katrina is a hopeless flirt, and Brom is a bully. But, Irving is a master storyteller and the narrative is engrossing.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Wildside Press, 2004, ISBN 9780809594085

The Woman in WhiteWilkie Collins

I absolutely adore this novel. This was one of the first novels I ever read by Collins and it remains my favorite. The Woman in White was written in 1859 and is Collins’ fifth published novel. It is widely considered to be one of the first examples of the mystery novel genre and a foundational text in sensation fiction. Collins’ novel is suspenseful and sometimes horrific. The narrative containers everything: intrigue, jealousy, murder, adultery, and ghostly figures. When the novel was first published, it was extremely commercially successful but was shredded by the critics. Modern literary critics are much more lenient and consider The Woman in White Collins’ best novel. In this book, Walter Hartright has a frightening encounter with a ghostly figure on his way to his new job. Walter is employed as a drawing instructor to Laura Fairlie. While engaged in this endeavor, he becomes embroiled in the intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his conniving friend Count Fosco. Soon everyone is questioning their sanity as they maneuver around the corridors of an English country house and the local madhouse. This is a classic psychological Gothic ghost novel. The Woman in White is considered groundbreaking due to its split point-of-view narration. There are four narrators throughout the story and it takes a while to determine who is telling the truth.

The Woman in White, Penguin Classics, 2003, ISBN 9780141439617

The Thirteenth TaleDiane Setterfield

This is a modern gothic tale about ghosts, family secrets, books, and familial ties. The Thirteenth Tale is a story meant for a book lover, most of the action occurs in libraries and book stores. Setterfield infuses tragedy, romance, stormy nights, and wintry moors into the narrative with great effect. There are two narratives depicted in the book: one tells the life of biographer Margaret Lea and the other is the story author Vida Winter tells to Margaret. At some seemingly random intervals these narrations are interrupted by letters or notes from supporting characters. Unlike the other novels listed, The Thirteenth Tale does not even try to be realistic. There is a strong fairytale element to the story and this infuses a sense of mystery into the writing. Time is not important to the events in the book. These characters could exist now or a hundred years ago.  While this lack of time does become mildly irritating, this trick does allow the reader a certain amount of imagination. Sometimes it is more fun to imagine a certain time period then read a detailed description. I certainly enjoyed reading this book and will probably re-read it eventually. However, this is Setterfield’s debut novel and it suffers from a lack of tension. I would have liked a slightly more suspenseful ghost story.

The Thirteenth Tale, Atria Books, 2006, ISBN 9780743298025