To quote a song from my elementary school music class days, Halloween is coming, and that means it’s the perfect time to delve into a spooky book, and what better than a good haunted house tale? So here are my six favorite books for when you’re in the mood to be haunted, spine-tingled or just plain terrified by creepy domiciles. Bear in mind that my whims are subject to change, and if you asked me tomorrow my answers might be slightly different. And by this time next year? Fuggedaboudit. But as of today these are my choices for the best haunted house (or, more accurately, haunted building) stories . . .
6. Stephen King – The Shining: Yeah, maybe this one is overplayed, but it’s still one of King’s best in my opinion, to the point where many of its more effective moments have become positively iconic. But I feel it fair to warn you in advance that, while many consider King to be the undisputed modern master of this genre, I disagree. He may be the most recognized name in the genre, and is certainly one of the most prolific, but in terms of straight-up scariness I think he kind of peaked early. As a writer I find he is rather mediocre–not that he doesn’t have his moments of beauty and power. Where King excels, however, is as a storyteller (and yes, they are very different things–more on that later). Nevertheless, since his work is so ubiquitous, and because I’ve read a ton of it, he is well represented on this list. In fact, as you will soon discover, I tend to gravitate to the same authors over and over again because, well, I find that by and large writers either have it or they don’t.
Anyway, back to The Shining. Although it’s actually about a hotel, this story is at heart a haunted house novel, a subgenre that every career horror author eventually gets round to, and as haunted house novels go, this is one of the best. Since most horror fans know the story well enough, I’m not going to spend time discussing the plot. What I will say is, there are certain qualities that have long been established as paradigmatic to the haunted house subgenre, mainly that the house has to be big, old, abandoned or mostly so, isolated and creepy, and in this case the “haunted house” has all of these qualities in spades. More importantly, the characters have to be believable. King was a young writer at the time he produced this, with only two other published novels under his belt, both of which, although pretty good in their own right, had yet to launch him into the pop culture stratosphere like The Shining did. The character of Jack Torrance, an aspiring and troubled writer who drags his young family up to the Overlook Hotel with him while he serves as its winter caretaker, is thus rooted in what King knew best and is highly believable, and that makes all the difference here.
Another factor that gives the story an edge is that it was in a sense a transitional novel for the ghost story itself. Born of the Gothic genre, traditionally these works have been about the upper classes, for who else would occupy the old decrepit manses and castles that most frequently served as settings for the earliest ghost stories? In The Shining, the Gothic setting remains (albeit slightly updated), but the victimized family are undeniably working class folks, rendering the story much more accessible to the average reader. Stephen King is thus largely responsible for bringing the supernatural out of the bleak, moldy towers of the moneyed and noble Old World and into the New, almost quite literally, and I think this fact largely accounts for his ongoing popularity with the masses.
Even so, I still follow his work and still enjoy it, even if I feel that its creator–as the wealthiest genre writer on the planet and one still clearly nostalgic for the days of his youth–has somewhat lost touch with what made his early horror work so effective in the first place. Not to worry: Mr. King has traded in his working class street cred for an increasingly rich and thoughtful imagination, and that’s not a bad trade-off at all. For me his outstanding strength remains his sheer creativity, and because of that I find his most compelling work isn’t his horror fiction but his dark fantasy, crowned by the epic masterpiece series The Dark Tower. Which brings me to my next choice . . .
5. Stephen King & Peter Straub – Black House: This second collaboration between King and Straub and a sequel to their first collaboration The Talisman I think can be read and enjoyed on its own, but it is highly recommended that you at least read The Talisman and a few of the Dark Tower books (as it uses terminology, characters and themes from these), and preferably Hearts in Atlantis before tackling this one.
As I said earlier, the haunted house is a mainstay of the horror genre, so they need to have a strong and original hook for me; this one has it in that the Black House is not so much a traditional haunted house as a horrific way station between worlds that has been polluted by the ectoplasmic grime left behind by certain dark travelers who have used it. The central villain of the story is the Fisherman, who styles himself after one of the most disturbing real-life serial killers in history, Albert Fish, hence the nickname, but the Fisherman is merely a pawn of a much greater evil, a recurring demonic being who goes by many names throughout the King canon but is here known as Abbalah.
The main protagonist, as in The Talisman, is Jack Sawyer, who was a 13-year-old boy in the earlier novel but is now a retired policeman still haunted by his experiences in the Territories of The Talisman. He is drawn to the town of French Landing, Wisconsin, where the Fisherman does his grisly business and near where the title house is located, to investigate the crimes of the Fisherman after the killer himself sends Jack a macabre memento of his twisted deeds. As one might expect, this new adventure opens up old wounds for Jack. But that’s where all predictability ends.
As an avid devourer of classic lit as well as genre stuff, for me one of the novel’s highlights is its several clever allusions to certain works of well known authors like Poe and Dickens (I mean, in case you didn’t notice, the reference to the latter’s Bleak House is right in the title), and Straub and King seem to compliment each other very well. Straub is, for my money, easily the better writer of the two, and it is hugely entertaining to see what he does, albeit tangentially, with the apocalyptic carnival that is the Dark Tower saga; even with King himself prominently along for the ride it is clearly Straub’s voice that guides this work and makes it so compelling. This book is much darker than the Dark Tower series as a whole, and that’s a plus because it more than justifies the intrusion of Straub into King’s universe.
4. Clive Barker – Coldheart Canyon: I’ve been a fan of Barker’s writing since high school, when I discovered Cabal, a novella that spoke to me for a variety of reasons, and Weaveworld, a novel that, along with the later Imajica, probably informs the style and spirit of my own work more than any other.
Being the nervous kid that I was, I came to horror pretty late by the standards of most hardcore fans of the genre I know, who seem to have been reading King and Koontz in preschool. While I had been reading sci-fi for awhile, I didn’t pick up my first adult horror novel until age 15. I don’t even remember what it was called or who wrote it; it was an atrociously written book about evil plants or something and I don’t think I even managed to finish it. Then I read Stephen King’s The Stand (still my all-time favorite standalone . . . sort of . . . King novel) and the rest was history.
Anyway, what really impressed me then, and still does, about Mr. Barker’s prose was how incredibly and consistently beautiful it was. He could write about the ugliest concepts–a man raping a wall, pigs eating people, a young girl’s nether regions served on a plate–and make them sound almost elegant, but in a dark (very dark) way. And then there was the sheer crazy inventiveness of it all, which certain other writers may have, but very few have the skill to serve it up with Barker’s trademark classiness and dazzling way with words. In addition to this, being an illustrator and painter and being involved in his youth with the theater, Barker understands how to render his horror in a visual way even in text, and that’s why he remains my favorite horror author to this day.
Coldheart Canyon may not be his best work, but that isn’t saying much. Everything he’s written has been at least readable, and most of it is of high enough quality to appeal to the most discerning of literary tastes while still remaining true to its genre roots, and a good deal of it, especially the above-mentioned dark fantasy novels Weaveworld and Imajica, I would say transcends genre ghettos altogether. While this novel doesn’t necessarily do that, it is still one of the better haunted house stories out there and is not to be missed if you’re a fan of Barker’s work at all.
It’s set predominantly in turn-of-the-21st-century Hollywood, in a long-abandoned Art Deco-era mansion that once belonged to notorious silent film star Katya Lupi. As Todd Pickett, an aging actor recovering from a botched facelift, retires to the out-of-the-way Coldheart Canyon to avoid the prying paparazzi while he heals, he finds himself to be less than alone there as the ghosts of roaring twenties Hollywood have come out to play, and they very much want him to join them.
Once more this isn’t your standard haunted house fare, as the source of the house’s power lies in something much older, a lovely wall mosaic imported from Romania which opens onto a realm called the Devil’s Country. Even by the standards of the age Lupi’s parties were decadent, and anybody who was anybody was there, but the real draw for them was the secret room and its portal to the Devil’s Country, where all of their deepest–and darkest–desires could be fulfilled. Unfortunately, there was a price, for once you’ve been to the Devil’s Country, it will never let you go.
3. Bentley Little – The Resort: I’m a relative newcomer to Little’s work, but I am fast becoming a fan. I’ve read only a handful of his novels thus far, three of which I would heartily recommend to real fans of the horror genre (and by ‘real fans’ I mean those who are up for the kind of jaw-dropping mindfuck that Little so excels at). Like Richard Laymon’s stories, nothing is off limits in Little’s world, but unlike Laymon, Little keeps getting better and better with time.
Although I’ve only read a fraction of his output so far, I’ve read enough to get a pretty good sense of Little’s strengths and weaknesses. The main weakness first. As with Stephen King, Little is one of those authors who always writes in pared down everyday language, and perhaps it’s only a matter of taste but that for me is a weakness. Far too many readers (and critics) these days believe that good writing is all about story alone and any writing that doesn’t serve this in the plainest, most straightforward way is just purple prose. I beg to differ. Besides, I’m a fan of that particular color, as you might’ve guessed from the title of the blog.
At any rate, for the same reason that not every film would work as a pseudo-documentary, style is contextual and is therefore just as important for suspension of disbelief as a logical plot and believable characters. Not every piece of literature is best served by a bluntly functionalist writing style. It largely depends on the kind of story you’re trying to tell, and I think Little could stand to take a cue from Straub and spruce up his writing a bit. So could Stephen King for that matter. And every modern writer should read William Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (a novel which I’ll give a proper review for in due time) to understand how important characters’ voices are and how these are enhanced by the writing style that best compliments POV characters.
Now for Little’s strengths. First, the author has the ability to take the most absurd ideas and turn them into something enduringly creepy if not outright disturbing. Read any one of his novels and you’ll see what I mean, but I’ll throw out a few examples: a toilet that floods a bathroom with fruit cocktail (The House), an open septic tank in a restroom just off the interstate and a banker who creates suits out of underwear for his employees (The Summoning), a group of famous letter writers confined to the tenth floor of a run-down office building (Dispatch). This novel was no exception, and so far, in my admittedly limited exposure to Little, it’s the mother of them all. There are so many crazy and disturbing ideas presented here that it makes the reader’s head spin, and most of them are tossed out as background noise rather than major plot elements, which gives one a sense that the horror isn’t character-centric and thus helps to reinforce its verisimilitude.
Little’s second great strength is his mastery of pacing. He knows how to build horror slowly, starting with odd but seemingly unmenacing little details and scaling them up until by the end all hell is unleashed, and that is The Resort in a nutshell. A side note: my gripe with most modern horror, at least on film, is the cheap thrills quality its creators too often mistake for real dread, in all its jump scare-filled, red herring-abundant, suspense music-drenched (non)glory. Moreover, Bentley Little’s world is darker than that of Stephen King and certainly darker than that of someone like Dean Koontz. Little’s horror is gritty, messy and organic, and the finales of his novels are more often than not completely devastating to the reader. This isn’t your grandpa’s horror fiction. Give it a try.
2. Peter Straub – Shadowland: Yep, like his Talisman coauthor, Straub has contributed to the haunted house tradition all on his own too, and it’s a doozy. This is an early Straub novel and one of his most powerful. The hook here is that the haunted house isn’t really haunted by ghosts but rather by the workings of its owner, a world-famous magician whose tricks and illusions turn out to be rooted in real sorcery. After tragedy strikes at a preparatory school attended by teenaged pals Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale, necessitating an early summer break for the unfortunate school, the boys pack off to the titular Shadowland, the sprawling, secluded Vermont estate of Del’s uncle Coleman Collins, at one time the most famous magician in the world but now gone to seed and plagued by the consequences of his own dark deeds and his reliance on alcohol to cope with his disturbing powers.
For Del this is an annual pilgrimage; on some level he’s always been aware of his uncle’s abilities and dreams of being his successor, but the shady Collins feels a more worthy successor is to be found in Tom, a boy who, unlike his more introverted companion, has guts and charisma and is therefore more like Collins himself. Thus begins the magician’s grooming of the boy in an intricate dance of manipulation, family intrigues and revelations of his darkest, most intimate secrets, among them the atrocities he committed to get where he is. In all of the best haunted house stories the house itself is a character, and that’s no less true here. Shadowland is a place of shadows both literal and imagined, an ever-changing domain full of the creepy accoutrements of a magician, and not one but two performance theaters built into the house, one more garish and sinister than the next. The estate is also populated with bizarre but rarely seen characters, some of whom may or may not be real, including a teenage girl–much more than she appears to be–who has befriended the boys.
As more of the magician’s backstory is revealed and Tom becomes increasingly embroiled in the seductive world of Coleman Collins, and as the scope of the danger to Tom and Del and all those connected to them and the true stakes of Collins’s games are revealed, the reader’s investment in the characters grows and with it their tension and dread.
One more thing here: Shadowland is the perfect example of what I mean about the style complimenting the story. Straub’s prose twists and writhes like a cobra about to strike–beautiful, mesmerizing and sinister. Like a good magic trick, it twists back on itself, hiding more than it reveals right to the end, and you are astounded by it and wonder how the writer pulled it off. This is literary horror in the truest and finest sense and not to be missed by anyone out for more than just gross-outs and gore or your run-of-the-mill spookhouse fiction.
1. Douglas Clegg – Neverland: As with Barker, I had the massive good fortune of stumbling upon Clegg’s work early. When I was 17 or 18 I picked up his debut novel Goat Dance while on vacation with my parents for the long, boring return trip and read it in its entirety in the back of the van on the way home. It captured me fully and haunted me for days after I finished it, yet it was merely a lead-up to what was arguably Clegg’s best novel, Neverland.
Neverland is not so much a physical place (although it does have an actual location in the form of a deteriorating shack in the middle of a forest on Gull Island, just off the coast of Georgia) as it is the state-of-mind of the principle characters, children of the Lee clan who come to stay on the island in the family matriarch’s rambling old Victorian home, rooting the story firmly in the Southern Gothic tradition, which is spot on here. But it also borrows much of its power from the cosmic horror of Lovecraft and Machen.
As Beau, his twin sisters Missy and Nonie and their thoroughly icky cousin Sumpter are drawn to the mysterious shack, with their activities centered around Sumpter’s increasingly cruel and twisted games, they invite something ancient and sinister onto the island. Along with a backwoods brother and sister who are not all there . . . in more ways than one . . . the children unwittingly perform rituals that pave the way for a monstrous force set to rip apart the island and doom the world to a new monstrous Dark Age unlike anything seen before.
While the cosmic horror aspect is delineated well enough, the real drawing card here is Clegg’s keen understanding of his child protagonists, who have every bit of the iconic resonance of the kids from To Kill a Mockingbird. One of my big pet peeves with genre fiction in which children are important or central characters is the kids’ resounding lack of authenticity. They are often there merely to serve as foils for other characters, as one-dimensional victims (kiddies are the modern day damsels in distress, it seems) or as little more than scenery to reinforce the idea that the story’s heroes are good family men and women. Even when they are major characters, whether good or evil they tend to lack dimensionality or any real sense of an inner life. None of that is true here. These children are neither perfect angels nor bad seeds in themselves, and though they are certainly playing with something beyond their ken, they never come across as mere innocent victims or spectators.
Unfortunately, Clegg is another writer whom I think peaked early, or at least he had a pretty saggy middle period, which includes a series of more traditional haunted house books set in Harrow Academy, a haunted ex-boarding school. I haven’t read much of his new work, I’m afraid, as I was put off by the mediocre Harrow series and I only have so much money to spend on books these days. Perhaps it’s time I picked up a couple of his newer works to see how he’s progressed as an author. Nevertheless, his early novels are outstanding, and this is without a doubt one of the modern classics of horror fiction. If you read just one novel on this list, make it Neverland. I dare say you won’t regret it.