The best ghost stories...

by Tim Vasquez
I have long been a fan of bona fide ghost stories. I grew up reading mostly reading standard English ghost stories about haunted hotels, lighthouses inhabited by phantoms, and so forth. Nowadays, very little along these lines have been written, with most horror titles taking a psychological, monster, or oddity slant (e.g. Stephen King and his offspring). The rest are mostly pulp novels designed to sell sex and gore. What can I recommend to true ghost fans? May I suggest these titles, of which you can click on any to purchase through Amazon.

Nazareth Hill
Ramsey Campbell, 1998
Set in a suburb of central England, this is a fresh, modern haunted house story. A real estate company has just developed a block of apartments inside what many centuries ago was an insane asylum. Eight-year old Amy Priestley's dad brings the family to the vacant building and lifts her up to have a look inside one of the windows, and she is startled by a ghost lurking in the shadows. Self-denial gradually blots out the memory over time. Years later she is age 16, and she and her widowed father move into the building. Almost immediately she starts hearing strange noises and seeing inexplicable shadows lurking in the dark. Her rational but haphazard search for the truth leaves her increasingly shunned from friends and neighbors, and her father reigns in control over her with an iron-fist, perhaps with the help of the house itself. I was apprehensive of this book when I first started on it because I'd seen reviews complaining about the slow pace of the story. In hindsight though this book is not designed for the typical American with a short attention span. The point isn't to finish the book but to immerse yourself in the mood, in Campbell's elaborate writing style, and in the refreshingly original set pieces. Unprecedented depths of terror will be lurking to give you a ride you won't soon forget. It's almost sacrelige that this book is nearly out of print after just three years.
Her father [opened the bedroom door to prove to Amy the rooms were not haunted and] swung around to glare at her. "What is it now?" Amy couldn't speak -- couldn't move. The back of her right hand had touched the wall, and felt not wood but cold bare brick. That was why she had gasped and stumbled away from the wall, but it wasn't why she was paralysed now. The dim walls of the windowless room were peeling and patchy with moisture, and so was the face of the figure that had reared up beneath the unlit bulb. It was taller than her father, and thinner than anything except bones could be.

The Shining
Stephen King, 1977
Most of us have seen the immensely popular Stanley Kubrick adaptation of this all-American ghost story on film, and it ranks among my favorite. It's the tale of a married couple and their psychically gifted, impressionable five-year old son who spend the winter isolated on a Colorado mountaintop to take care of a large luxury hotel, and their confrontations with things that persist as part of the hotel's checkered history. It wasn't until recently that I read the original novel by Stephen King, and I enjoyed it in a different way. The novel and film can't be compared because they share very little in common and take on very different perspectives. The novel is an omniscient look at a deepening insanity of all three characters -- the father's inexplicable urges to do the hotel's will, the wife's growing helplessness to protect her son, and the child's own deep-rooted fear of the hotel conveyed through nightmares and visions. The hallmark of this book lies in the ripe unfolding of Stephen King's self-admitted style: terror from an intangible darkness that lies just millimeters beyond our own day-to-day sense of reality.
Danny's vision
Another shape, looming, rearing. Huge and rectangular. A sloping roof. Whiteness that was blurred in the stormy darkness. Many windows. A long building with a shingled roof. Some of the shingles were greener, newer. His daddy put them on. With nails from the Sidewinder hardware store. Now the snow was covering the shingles. It was covering everything. A green witchlight glowed into being on the front of the building, flickered, and became a giant, grinning skull over two crossed bones. "Poison," [imaginary friend] Tony said from the floating darkness. "Poison."
Now he was in a room filled with strange furniture, a room that was dark. Snow splattered against the windows like thrown sand. His mouth was dry, his eyes like hot marbles, his heart triphammering in his chest. Outside there was a hollow booming noise, like a dreadful door being thrown wide. Footfalls. Across the room was a mirror, and deep down in its silver bubble a single word appeared in green fire and that word was: REDRUM.

James Herbert, 1988
David Ash, a skeptical paranormal researcher, is called by the Mariell estate to disprove the existence of ghosts in a remote house in England. An excellent modern-day ghost story, simple and sweet. The story suffers from occasional predictability and I didn't like being "unfrightened" by gradually learning snippets about the ghosts. Still, this was a disturbing story with an equally disturbing ending, and the house was quite scary. If you remember the dark house scenes in The Sixth Sense, this story conjures up similar feelings of terror. James Herbert's writing style is fresh and simple, which lends to the momentum of the story.
Ash took the last step into the hall and walked to its center where he slowly turned in full circle in an attempt to get a bearing on the sound. The cellar door was ajar. The voice drifted up from its depths. Although his footsteps were soft as he approached the open doorway, the faint humming stopped. He bent close to the gap, waiting, listening, a draft chilling his face. Nothing.

Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson, 1959
Eleanor Vance, a young woman who is no stranger to paranormal disturbances, is asked to join several others in a remote New England mansion to watch for ghosts. The mansion's many structural imperfections seem to generate a brooding negative energy. An undescribable oppressiveness pervades the house, growing progressively more powerful as it sends Eleanor into a euphoric state of mind. Most ghost story buffs rank other ghost stories by this title, and I do recommend it highly. No gore, no sex, and no big scares -- just a growing sense of dread. I have no idea why the late Shirley Jackson was credited in Jan de Bont's 1999 film The Haunting; the filmmakers simply hacked out the best lines from the book and wove together a predictable Hollywood formula plot, replete with expensive special effects. Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining actually has more to do with Shirley Jackson's book than Jan De Bont's film.
"I don't stay after I set out dinner. Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before dark comes. We live over in the town, six miles away. So there won't be anyone around if you need help. We couldn't even hear you, in the night. No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that. In the night."
- Housekeeper Mrs. Dudley

Hell House
Richard Matheson, 1971
A wealthy eccentric millionaire on his deathbed wants to know whether there's life after death, so he commissions Dr. Barrett and three other researchers to study an abandoned place considered to be the Mount Everest of haunted houses. Long ago it was a massive experiment in corruption and debasement, where the inhabitants began resorting to evil and violence to survive. Now the house and its corrupt energy wait in a remote, fog-shrouded corner of Maine. I found the characters somewhat cardboard in substance and soon I felt I knew far too much about the ghost than necessary, which dulled the story for me. However this is amply compensated by a visual writing style that's impressively bleak and dreary.
Every sound was heard exxageratedly: the crackling of the fire, the infinitesimal creaking of his chair, the sound of his breath soughing in and out. The smell of the house became intense. The texture of his clothes felt rough against his skin. He could feel the delicate waft of heat from the fire. He frowned. But nothing else. What was happening? It made no sense to him. This house had to be gorged with impressions. The moment he'd walked in on Monday he'd sensed their presence like some cloud of influences, always ready to attack, take advantage of the slightest flaw, the least misstep in judgment. It struck him suddenly. Misstep in judgment! Instantly he started pulling back. But, already; something dark and vast was hurtling at him, something with discernment, something violent that meant to pounce on him and crush him. He gasped and pressed back hard against the chair, recoiling his awareness desperately. He was not in time.

H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre
H.P. Lovecraft, 1920s-1930s
H.P. Lovecraft's writing dates to the early 20th century, and his unique theme of horror suggests that our world is a tiny oasis of sanity in a universe teeming with monsters, terrors, and things that simply should not be. The Colour Out Of Space describes a remote haunted house haunted by spirits not of this world. The Shadow Over Innsmouth is a tale about a desolate coastal town that communes with unknown beings in the sea. The Dreams in the Witch House is a classic haunted house story in an old boarding house where the walls don't quite meet at the right angles and those who sleep never sleep soundly. The Haunter of the Dark is a terrifying tale about a man hunted by a violent phantom which is caged in a haunted house, and all it would take is an instant of total darkness to release it.
Gilman's dreams consisted largely in plunges through limitless abysses of inexplicably colored twilight and baffingly disordered sound; abysses whose material and gravitational properties, and whose relation to his own entity, he could not even begin to explain.
- The Dreams in the Witch House

The Road to Madness
H.P. Lovecraft, 1920s-1930s
Another collection of H.P. Lovecraft's disturbing short stories which reveal that among the night and the heavens lurk unspeakable horrors. The White Ship is a very short story about a phantom ship that ferries a lighthouse keeper to exotic, romantic ports of call. Imprisoned with the Pharoahs, ghostwritten for Harry Houdini, is a fantasy story about his becoming entombed deep underneath a sphinx, exposed to the horrors below. At The Mountains of Madness is Lovecraft's classic story about the discovery of terrifying ruins in Antarctica that are not earthly.
When at last we plunged into the town itself, clambering over fallen masonry and shrinking from the oppressive nearness and dwarfing height of omnipresent crumbling and pitted walls, our sensations again became such that I marvel at the amount of self-control we retained. Danforth was frankly jumpy, and began making some offensively irrelevant speculations about the horror at the camp -- which I resented all the more because I could not help sharing certain conclusions forced upon us by many features of this morbid survival from nightmare antiquity. The speculations worked on his imagination, too; for in one place -- where a debris-littered alley turned a sharp corner -- he insisted that he saw faint traces of ground markings which he did not like; whilst elsewhere he stopped to listen to a subtle, imaginary sound from some undefined point -- a muffled musical piping, he said, not unlike that of the wind in mountain caves, yet somehow disturbingly different. The ceaseless five-pointedness of the surrounding architecture and of the few distinguishable mural arabesques had a dimly sinister suggestiveness we could not escape, and gave us a touch of terrible subconscious certainty concerning the primal entitles which had reared and dwelt in this unhallowed place.
- At the Mountains of Madness

Collected Ghost Stories
M.R. James, 1900s-1920s
It is said that M.R. James is England's best ghost story author, and I could hardly disagree. This collection of short stories comprises a glimpse at a turn-of-the-century England where ghosts still roam in the remotest, darkest corners. The Mezzotint is a tale about a dreadful copper engraving of a haunted house. The Ash Tree tells of a gloomy, rotten tree just outside of a bedroom window that becomes the source of tragedy. Number 13 is a provocative story about a hotel room that disappears and reappears at random, and what lies inside. Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come To You, My Lad details an ancient whistle that summons things that are not of this world. A Neighbour's Landmark is a tragic story of a haunted hillside and of a ghost that can find no rest. A Warning to the Curious highlights a scout leader and his troop on a ridge overlooking a banished forest, witnessing ghosts claiming their victims in broad daylight.
The sun was down behind the hill, and the light was off the fields, and when the clock bell in the church tower struck seven, I thought no longer of kind mellow evening hours of rest, and scents of flowers and woods on evening air; and of how someone on a farm a mile or two off would be saying, 'How clear Betton bell sounds tonight after the rain!"; but instead images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders and savage owls up in the tower, and forgotten graves and their ugly contents below, and of flying time and all it had taken out of my life. And just then into my left ear -- close as if lips had been put within an inch of my head, the frightful scream came thrilling.
- A Neighbour's Landmark
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The Amityville Horror
Jay Anson, 1978
It was presented as an "nonfiction" yarn about a house possessed by demons in the winter of 1976 on Long Island, however even though the story has been thoroughly debunked it still remains an excellent ghost story. The house was supposedly built on a Native American site where the insane were buried, and the hauntings contributed to a violent history developing in the house. Now a family with a fresh start has moved in. Of course it's been 20 years since I've seen the book but I remember quite well how this book scared myself and many of my friends. The movie's pretty lame compared to the book; it is mostly a collection of theatrics and does a very poor job at capturing the growing terror the characters experience.

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