There’s nothing quite like a good haunted house story. Among horror’s most recognizable and venerable tropes, the “haunted house” has scared readers since Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published back in 1764. These stories often take a locale of typical comfort and familiarity—often with a sense of mystery and intrigue—and dial in on the history and lore of what happened in such spaces. When a home has its own history, it carries with it the wonder of who had occupied those rooms long ago. This eeriness distorts the supposed safety of the home.
Over time, haunted house stories have morphed and eschewed convention as often as they have channeled the aforementioned past—written tomes offering no end to unpredictability. When it comes to innovation of the “haunted house” trope, a few touchstones come instantly to mind. Books like The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and a personal favorite of mine, The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons provide strange and innovative takes on abodes with a darkness all their own.
We took a deep dive into some of the more underrated—yet unforgettable—haunted house books. These books approach the subgenre in unique and disorienting ways—and they're guaranteed to send chills down your spine.
The Spite House
The recently released debut novel from author Jonny Compton has been making waves among horror enthusiasts and with good reason: it’s a satisfyingly refreshing take on the Gothic haunted house story. Here we see equal parts desperation and despair bleed into a tale about trying to recover from a terrifying past.
Eric Ross discovers a caretaker gig at the Masson House, reportedly one of the most haunted places in Texas. He takes the gig and brings along his two daughters. The idea here is that he needs to find proof of paranormal activity, the owner upping the stakes. It’s among the many fascinating narrative choices Compton makes in The Spite House that effectively turns the whole haunted house trope on its side. It’s as though Compton reinvented The Shining for the 21st century.
A bit different (and by different, I mean really different), Jaybird is a heartbreaking graphic novel by Jaakko Ahonen—quietly released almost a decade ago with little fanfare. Though you can read it in probably 20 minutes, its impression on you will haunt you forever.
Jaybird is a solemn and solitary tale of a scared anthropomorphic jaybird willfully hiding from the outside world in a big house. He cares for his dying mother, who never spares him a chance to criticize and scare him from leaving the house. Of course, the house itself has its own secrets, and in many ways, it psychologically teases and torments the poor bird to the point of a shocking discovery that will utterly break your heart. This one gets under your skin in a very different sort of way.
Perhaps one of Bret Easton Ellis’s less popular works, Lunar Park demonstrates the merging of autofiction and the supernatural—the tone of a memoir coupled with the suspense of a haunting. In the story, Ellis is a middle-aged best-selling author named Bret living in the suburbs in his very own McMansion—complete with the so-called American dream of wife and children and no limit to consumer products. Recovering from various addictions and doubts, Bret quickly discovers that something is haunting that carbon copy mansion of his, with everything from flickering lights, odd messages, and a Furby-composite toy coming to life.
Lunar Park stands out among Ellis’s body of work as the one time the author decided to dive headfirst into his love for horror, particularly the haunted house, while still carrying along his laconic voice and trademark affinity for self-inspection.
The Grip of It
There’s a sick thrill in the thought of willfully living in a haunted house. In Jac Jemc’s novel, The Grip of It, we see personal anguish paint itself across the contours of the conventional haunted house story. The story goes like this: James is temperamental, seemingly always switching jobs and looking for a way to get rich quickly. Julie wants to believe that their troubles can be fixed, and part of that maybe delusion is to uproot and move into a new house outside of the bustling city, in a small town where they can start anew.
Of course, the house itself is readying to offer its own impossible expose: a la House of Leaves, there are impossible spaces within the home, a sense of claustrophobia that matches how James and Julie feel about their relationship. What’s so innovative and interesting is how Jemc uses the haunting as a metaphor (and sometimes far more literally) for the unraveling of a romantic relationship. The inner space becomes projected on what conventionally is thought to be safe.
Just Like Home
The haunted house trope and personal history go hand-in-hand. In Sarah Gailey’s novel, Just Like Home, what is deemed “home” takes on layers that have more to do with family bonds and family secrets. Vera has been estranged from her mother and family for a long time until she is called back to her childhood home to care for dying mother. The same mother turns out to be quite the horrible person, not the only one at the center of this story.
Gailey adds additional layers (literal and figuratively) by way of introducing other characters inhabiting the various spaces from the house, including an artist that is mining Vera’s family history for their own fame. Just Like Home bends the trope in all four directions and proves that memory is just as menacing as any ghost when it comes to home and family history.
You Should Have Left
You Should Have Left is an utterly original take on two age-old tropes, the “writer struggling with writer’s block” and, of course, the haunted house. Kehlmann takes the well-mined territory and offers his own weird take. A writer rents an AirBnB for his wife and daughter to stay in for a week. He’s focused on writing a sequel to bestselling screenplay of his called Besties, but in very Stephen King Secret Window fashion, things don’t go according to plan. The writer gets lost in the house, impossible given how logical its floorplan at a glance; he suffers from nightmares and has frequent arguments with his wife. Dream and reality blur and the writer begins to see in the house his own fears and doubts.
Kehlmann masterfully crafts the events in the form of the writer’s diary, and in doing so, it feels at times almost like a found object. There’s a film adaptation of the book starring Kevin Bacon but don’t bother yourself with that, at least not until you finish reading the novella. You’ll emerge from the reading experience feeling like you’ve combed through the unknown corners of the human psyche.