The best historical ghost stories

Katherine Clements Author Of The Coffin Path
By Katherine Clements

The Books I Picked & Why

The Little Stranger

By Sarah Waters

Book cover of The Little Stranger

Why this book?

I love a classic haunted house tale and this is Sarah Waters’ version. The story of Hundreds Hall and its poverty-stricken inhabitants, the Ayres family, has all the hallmarks of a classic gothic novel, but the book works equally well as social commentary. Set after the Second World War, everyone is haunted; by family secrets, regrets, and resentments, by the scars of war, by nostalgia for a prosperous past now faded into memory. The supernatural elements are gloriously creepy, building at a measured pace to an understated but impactful ending. The best ghost stories leave us with questions and this one has haunted me ever since. Just brilliant.

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The Woman in Black

By Susan Hill

Book cover of The Woman in Black

Why this book?

I’m picking this because it’s the first Susan Hill novel I read and it truly terrified me. The Woman in Black tells of solicitor Arthur Kipps who is sent to deal with the estate of Alice Drablow, deceased inhabitant of the wonderfully named Eel Marsh House. During Kipp’s stay, he encounters ‘the woman in black,’ a malevolent presence who haunts the house and surrounding marshland. Arthur is a sceptic, desperately trying to find explanations for the terrifying events he undergoes. The reader experiences Arthur’s building sense of unease and eventual unravelling as he begins to question everything he believes. I had to read with all the lights on!

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The Turn of the Screw

By Henry James

Book cover of The Turn of the Screw

Why this book?

This classic ghost story follows a young governess who takes up a position at a mysterious country house. She is soon plagued by the appearance of two figures she believes to be ghosts, and slowly, as past events are revealed, she understands that the threat to her and the children in her care is real. I loved the sense of growing threat and panic that is weaved into everyday events, even as our narrator becomes increasingly unreliable. I think this uncertainty adds to the fear factor – if we can’t trust our own perceptions, what can we trust? What might we do? That’s a terrifying thought. 

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Dark Matter

By Michelle Paver

Book cover of Dark Matter

Why this book?

It’s 1937 and the horrors of the Second World War are looming. Young Jack Miller, bored and in search of escape, volunteers to join a scientific expedition to the Arctic. When, one by one, Jack’s companions are forced to leave their camp, he chooses to stay through the long dark winter. But, Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark... Brrrr! If that doesn’t send shivers down your spine, nothing will! The atmosphere in this book is spectacular. Paver did her research, spending time in an Arctic cabin during the dark winter months, and it pays off in spades. The beauty and cruelty of the elements are powerfully evoked. The ghost story element is chilling and believable, but Jack is hardly a reliable narrator. We’re left with questions about his mental state, the nature of reality, and, indeed, the harsh reality of Nature. 

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Wuthering Heights

By Emily Bronte

Book cover of Wuthering Heights

Why this book?

It might not be a ghost story in the traditional sense, but I would argue that Wuthering Heights is most definitely about a haunting. I was young when I first read of Mr. Lockwood’s horrifying encounter with the spectre of Catherine Earnshaw and it gave me nightmares, but the book is really about ghosts of a different kind. 

The epic love story of Cathy and Heathcliff shows how the events of the past define our futures, and how we are haunted by our deceptions and mistakes. And as with all the other books on this list, it leaves us asking questions – about the nature of madness, the stories we tell ourselves, and our own fallible perceptions and memories. It was this book more than any other that inspired my own attempt to write about a haunting and my homage to the wild Yorkshire moors and to Emily Brontë’s masterpiece.

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