I’m not a huge fan of spooky season. I love the fall, but haunted houses and horror films are definitively not for me. What I do love though is a good eerie setting, and I’ve always enjoyed Gothic novels. Give me a heroine exploring abandoned corridors and opening dusty wardrobes and, I’m a satisfied reader. And “what’s making that creepy noise in the attic” is about as scary as I’m willing to go. Today I’m sharing 8 (because I couldn’t just choose 5) of my favorite books that feature that kind of haunted house. I took a few liberties on my definition of Gothic, but each of these books is fantastic eerie read and features a fantastic spooky house. Happy spooky season and happy reading!
*The Darkling Bride by Laura Anderson
I read The Darkling Bride when I was on a bit of an anglophilic historical fiction kick a couple years ago and I really enjoyed it. Taking place in the Irish countryside at the hauntingly beautiful Deeprath Castle, the novel follows Carragh Ryan as she is tasked with cataloging the expansive library by current owner Aidan Gallagher. As Carragh works she uncovers multiple sinister histories in the Gallghers’ past including the details of Aidan’s parents’ violent death and the mystery of the so-called Darkling Bride whose presence haunts the estate. I found this to be a satisfying mystery that didn’t sacrifice atmosphere for plot development. Anderson’s work would be great for fans of Kate Morton.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
If you need a bit of a palate cleanser after you’ve read all these spooky house reads (or maybe even before), Jane Austen is here for you. Northanger Abbey is an unbelievably funny parody of the Gothic novel that was so popular in Austen’s time. Our heroine is Catherine Morland, a very sweet and kind protagonist who is also unbelievable oblivious about the real world around her. Catherine adores Gothic novels and wants nothing more in life than to stumble upon a body in the closet of a crumbling manor home. When she’s invited to stay at Northanger Abbey, Catherine cannot believe her luck and feels that she is about to become the Gothic heroine she was always destined to be. Catherine’s growth throughout the story is a true coming-of-age in that we want her to shed her naivety while feeling saddened for the loss of her wide-eyed belief in stories.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
I considered not including Jane Eyre because it’s so obvious, but then I remembered there’s pretty much nothing I love more than writing about Jane Eyre so here we are. If you haven’t read Jane Eyre, a desire to understand the root of the spooky house trope is as good a reason as any to finally give it a shot. In this book, Brontë follows Jane from her traumatic childhood as an orphan ward of an evil aunt and an abused pupil at an unyielding school to her role as governess at the eerie Thornfield Manor (I could write a whole page on the name of the house along, but I’ll spare you). While Jane is coming into her own and contemplating all that she wants from life, she’s also struggling to identify her feelings for her employer Mr. Rochester and to figure out his attitude towards her through the layers of his manipulation and mockery. Oh, and there’s a ghost in the house. Or at least a presence that laughs madly in the night and tries to burn Rochester alive in his bed. While I’m not a reader who considers this one of the great classic love stories, I do adore this book, and October is the perfect time of year to find yourself at Thornfield.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Rebecca is beloved by so many readers, and it’s for good reason. A loose reimagining of Jane Eyre, this book manages to nail all the right Gothic tropes while depicting remarkably relatable characters. The narrator and protagonist of Rebecca is an unnamed narrator (in the feminist vein of The Yellow Wallpaper-another creepy house story!) who’s swept into a new life by the charming and rich Maxim de Winter. The new Mrs. de Winter is unsure of herself in Maxim’s stately yet wild family estate, Manderlay. This is only made worse by the manipulations of Mrs. Danvers, a housekeeper eternally devoted to the former Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, and one of the best villains in 20th-century literature. As the narrator becomes less and less secure in her relationship and more and more obsessed with Rebecca, the house begins to take on a sinister life of its own. The twists in this one feel very contemporary for such an old novel and this is one of those classics that’s very reader friendly.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Most readers know Jackson from her oft-taught short story “The Lottery,” or maybe from the successful Netflix adaptation of her novel The Haunting of Hill House. I haven’t read (or watched) Hill House because I truly can’t handle legitimately scary things. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, on the other hand, is weird and creepy but still suitable for sensitive souls like myself. This is the story of two sisters, Constance and Kitty, who live alone in their large home and completely isolated from their small town after their parents’ mysterious death. When their cousin shows up he causes previously buried tensions between the sisters to arise and long-held secrets to emerge. Jackson wrote this book while living in Vermont. Her husband was a professor at Middlebury, but as one of the few Jewish people in the small town, she felt ostracized by the community around her. In this novel, she truly captures the isolation, fear, and paranoia that comes with being made an outsider.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
There’s a lot more to this book than it’s gothic haunted-house setting and, because of that, it feels almost dismissive of it to include it in this list. Beloved is not a "spooky" book-it's a haunting story and a literary masterpiece that deserves careful attention and emotional commitment. But I wanted to include it in this list because the house at the heart of Beloved is so important. In fact, the house is so crucial that it’s become one of the most famous opening lines in literary history: “124 was spiteful. Full of baby’s venom.” I mean, what an opener. And as Morrison returns to echo this line at the beginning of each section of the novel, it becomes clearer that understanding the layers of this house is essential to understanding the novel as a whole. And it doesn’t take readers of Beloved long to realize that this house really is haunted, not just by a ghost but by characters’ memories, some sweet, but mostly horrifying. Morrison uses this conceit to comment on the legacy of slavery in American, particularly Black American, life, but this is also a seriously good ghost story. It’s chilling and eerie and unsettling and, well, haunting. I personally think this is one book everyone should read in their lifetime, but it’s also very triggering, and I would definitely recommend that every reader do a little research before they pick this one up.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
I’d heard about this book for years before finally deciding to pick it up. Once I finally did, I couldn’t put it down. The Thirteenth Tale is a total page turner of a frame story that introduces some truly unforgettable characters and unspeakable tragedies. The story begins when Margaret, a struggling biographer, is invited to interview the elusive and renowned author Vida Winter in the hopes that Margaret with write the official Vida Winter biography. While Margaret sees this is an opportunity, Vida does things her own way: she refuses to answer Margaret’s questions directly and parcels out the story of her life as just that, a story. It’s hard to say much about this book without giving things away but there’s an eerie house, troubled children, deeply unsettling trauma, and twins...that part's important! This is a spooky book that communicates an unwavering belief in the power of stories to redeem and transform.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
The Little Stranger was my first Sarah Waters book and I read it because my department and I had put it on the summer reading list for our Honors British Literature class. It wasn’t the best pick. The students hated it and had no idea what was going on, but I absolutely adored it and will be forever grateful to that pedagogical error for bringing Sarah Waters into my life. In The Little Stranger, Waters introduces Dr. Faraday as he’s called to the gigantic and crumbling Hundreds Hall to attend a patient. Faraday grew up in the vicinity of Hundreds and has been fascinated with the estate since childhood. As he grows closer to the family he’s caring for, Faraday becomes less and less certain he can trust his senses. Unsure if the house is truly haunted or if something even more sinister is going on, Faraday’s obsession becomes the reader’s as well. I love books about an English estate in trouble (a la Brideshead Revisited or Downton Abbey) and will read anything in that vein no matter the tone. While I’m not sure I understood exactly what happened in this book, this subject in Waters’ hands was a total delight.
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*Starred books were graciously gifted to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.