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9 ghost stories to chill your blood

I love a ghost story, especially at this time of year. The Victorians and Edwardians set the bar high: often the pace was slow and creeping with lengthy but engaging prose pulling the reader in towards the dreaded isolated house or locked door. Told in the first person through diaries and letters, these books would have me checking my wardrobe before bed and securing all the windows lest a shadow creep up outside my house and leave wet footprints across the floor.

The mantel has been passed down through the years and some more recent books have become instant classics such as Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. Not to be confused with Gothic crime, where horrors lie in a purely rational solution, ghost stories feature the unexplained and inexplicable. The best ones let the reader’s imagination do all the work, using the power of suggestion to plant the seeds of terror. Here are my favourites.

My favourite ghost stories

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

If you love ghost stories and haven’t read The Woman in Black I would be astounded. It’s a perfect ghost story and deservedly legendary – a classic to be savoured on chilly evenings when you’re happily surrounded by your nearest and dearest. I wouldn’t recommend reading it at any other time as it’s simply terrifying!

Susan Hill has that remarkable way of letting her readers’ imaginations run riot. The past life of Jennet Humfrye is cleverly told and is tragic on so many levels. This book has everything: an isolated location that’s dangerously hard to get to and a malevolent spirit that heralds the death of innocents. Just thinking about it sends shivers up my spine, so moving on swiftly…

Ghost Stories by M R James

Ghost Stories by M R James

With his ghost stories, James’s intention was to ‘let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage’. Each of these terrifying tales works on that premise, taking the seemingly ordinary and making it unforgettably terrifying: pictures, dolls’ houses, a branch tapping on a window – all highly suggestive of supernatural forces at work.

M R James wrote his ghost stories to entertain friends on Christmas Eve – however I think they are perfectly suited to Halloween and this collection is great to dip in and out of.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Four seekers have arrived at the rambling old pile known as Hill House: Dr Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of psychic phenomena; Theodora, his lovely assistant; Luke, the future inheritor of the estate; and Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman with a dark past. As they begin to cope with horrifying occurrences beyond their control or understanding, they cannot possibly know what lies ahead. For Hill House is gathering its powers – and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Twice filmed as The Haunting, and the inspiration for a new ten-part Netflix series, this book is a powerful work of slow-burning psychological horror.

Touched by Joanna Briscoe

Touched by Joanna Briscoe

A very creepy offering from Joanna Briscoe, the Crales have moved from London and they now live in a small English village in a cottage which seems to be resisting all attempts at renovation. Walls ooze damp, stains come through layers of wallpaper, ceilings sag – and strange noises emanate from empty rooms. Then, one by one, her daughters go missing.

Haunting and creepy, the suspense in this story will grip you right until the very end. The language is poetic and highly evocative, creating a highly atmospheric novella in which it becomes difficult to distinguish between the earthly and the supernatural. Seriously unsettling stuff.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

Jack Millar’s diaries documenting his cursed expedition to Gruhuken in Norway are chilling in the extreme. Setting up camp in a location they’ve been warned against, his party of five soon becomes four, then three, then two, until he is left alone on a remote outpost recording weather readings at a time of year when the land is completely shrouded in night. Sound lonely? That’s the least of his problems as he soon encounters a malevolent spirit that really doesn’t like to share.

Beautifully written, the descriptions of the landscape alone make you want to visit Norway. But perhaps only in the summer.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

One of the earliest works of ‘detective’ fiction, with a narrative woven together from multiple characters, Wilkie Collins partly based his infamous novel on a real-life eighteenth century case of abduction and wrongful imprisonment.

Considered to be one of the greatest examples of Sensation fiction, this twisty plot is packed full of drama and suspense. It’s a truly exceptional work which delves deep into the themes of identity and insanity – and once I’d picked it up I just couldn’t put it down.

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse

I was drawn to this book by its beautiful cover, and soon realised what a brilliant, compulsive story I’d found. The perfect read for a cold winter’s evening, its long, flowing prose and intricate descriptions are reminiscent of classic Victorian ghost stories.

More mournful and haunting than scary, The Winter Ghosts is a highly atmospheric, deeply moving tale about two lives touched by war and transformed by courage.

The Small Hand by Susan Hill

The Small Hand by Susan Hill

Adam Snow is returning home when he takes a wrong turn. He stumbles across a derelict Edwardian house, and compelled by curiosity, approaches the door. Standing before the entrance, he feels the unmistakable sensation of a small cold hand creeping into his own, ‘as if a child had taken hold of it’.

It is very hard not to fill this entire list with Susan Hill books. The Small Hand and The Doll are both excellent ghost stories that stay with you long after you reach the final page. The Small Hand edges in front for me because of the beautifully haunting locations and settings for this short yet enthralling tale. It’s chilling, unnerving and wonderfully elegant.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger by Sarah Walters

The passage of time and the class system are under the microscope here. The story focuses on the Ayres family, a family of good standing who have fallen on hard times. While their estate, Hundreds Hall, decays around them the Ayres are plagued by a persistent spirit, seemingly determined to drive them insane.

The ending of this book has left many readers with questions as to the origin of this ball of evil energy and Waters has previously stated that she scattered clues to it’s creator throughout the book ending by saying: ‘the spikiest of these is the book’s last line’ – might be time for a reread.

How many of these spine-chilling ghost stories have you read? Any of your favourites that haven’t made my list? Let me know in the comments below.

Lynsey Dalladay

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6 Comments

    Loved The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse -a beautifully haunting book of loss . For eerie tales Susan Hill’s Dolly, The Small Hand , The Woman In Black are hautingly evocative night tales that are beautifully captured

    The Woman in Black and The Haunting of Hill House are true curl up by the fire classics.
    I’d also recommend Andrew Pyper’s ‘Lost Girls’; ‘The Demonologist’ and ‘The Damned’ for real draw you in horror

    ‘Candlenight’ by Phil Rickman. Also ‘The Man in the Moss’ by the same author. He is seriously underrated and I personally love both his standalone and his Merrily Watkins series.

    I find ghost stories a tricky thing – what scares one person, leaves another cold. So, although I definitely agree about Dark Matter, I didn’t find either the Woman in Black, the Woman in White or anything I’ve read by MR James scary at all. My personal favourite is Tiffany Murray’s Sugar Hall, in which the ghost of a black slave boy hunts the house he lived and died in.

    M R James, The Woman in Black, The Woman in White and Dark Matter. Susan Hill’s The Mist in the Mirror is another good one, so is James Herbert’s The Magic Cottage with its lyrical descriptions of the New Forest.

    The woman in black by Hill and the shining by King…plus now I must find The Doll & The Small Hand by Susan Hill thanks..

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