A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. 1843.
Christmas used to be the time of year to tell ghost stories, both in Western cultures and in many other parts of the world during those longest nights of the year. Charles Dickens’ tale of a miserly man who finds redemption through the help of undead spirits is a timeless holiday classic that has never been out of print. Lucky for the equally Scrooge-like amongst you, this haunting novella can be read for free online at several archive sites.
The Turn of the Screw and Other Tales by Henry James (1898). 2010.
Henry James is often said to have been one of the greatest writers in the English language and his ghost stories are still considered some of the best ever written. In Turn of the Screw, a governess looks after two children on a remote estate while their single father works in the city. She begins to see two apparitions on the property, and slowly comes to believe the children are communicating with the ghosts she feels are evil. This Broadview edition includes an introduction and appendixes that will probably haunt you for the rest of your days. Containing samples of James’ relevant nonfiction, his inspirations, reception, and “Study of the Supernatural in Nineteenth-Century England and America.”
The Oxford Book of Ghost Stories by various (1829-1981). 1986.
Lets face it, there are more collections of classic ghost stories out there than there are actual ghosts. This book was assigned to my “English Ghost Stories” class at Vancouver Island University. I highly recommend it, because there are samples from many great ghost-story writers including Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells, M. R. James, and others. It also includes more contemporary tales, such as one by T. H. White. Most other collections contain some of the same writers found in this book and in my next choice, but aren’t as complete a collection as the two titles I am recommending here combined.
Great American Ghost Stories by various (1824-1916). 2017.
Many of the authors that didn’t make it into the English book can be found in this one, without duplicates of the same stories. Writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Along with the Oxford book, I believe this collection offers the best sample of classic ghost stories available. The “Sources” section contains images of the authors. Even though their names were not as well known to me, it was a good reminder that women have always written ghost stories too.
Pigeons From Hell by Robert E. Howard. 1938.
There are a lot of pulp fiction stories out there, more than I could ever hope to read. One of my favourite pulp authors, though, is Robert E. Howard. Best known for creating the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre (Conan, for example) and for blending different genres (weird westerns, etc.), he also published several horror stories during his short lifetime. Some of them push the boundaries of what would be considered appropriate today, which might be why he’s not as well known as his buddy H. P. Lovecraft. “Pigeons From Hell” is my favourite horror story by Robert E. Howard. Stephen King praised this tale as being one of the greatest ghost stories ever written. It can also be read online for free.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. 1959.
You’ve watched the Netflix series three and a half times just so you’ll never have to read the book. Wrong! I liked the series, believe me, but I can’t even draw parallels between the book and the show. A character was named Shirley and so is the author. Oh yeah, and there’s a house. I tell people that the show is set in the same universe — well, sort of — but that it has nothing to do with the novel. The first paragraph of the book is so dark and beautiful that it’s worth the price alone. Shirley Jackson personified the house, which was a brilliant decision. She then convincingly isolated a group of people to experience — well, no one knows exactly what they experienced. You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Showcase Presents: Ghosts Volume 1 by DC Comics (1971-1973). 2012.
As important as it was to have a pulp fiction sample on this list, so too was something representing the world of comic books and graphic novels. This collection includes eighteen original comic books from the early 1970s, reformatted into black and white tales of sheer terror. Skeletons, ships, soldiers, and giant spiders… this volume has it all. Many of the stories are morality tales, so cheaters and swindlers generally get their due. There will probably never be a volume 2, and less and less copies are available for purchase online, so if the book interests you the time to buy it is now. This volume is worth it for the cover alone. Most book covers are nothing short of a lost opportunity in comparison.
The Shining by Stephen King. 1977.
I never read The Shining until this year. Why would I? Stanley Kubrick’s film haunted my childhood well enough on its own. I’m not sure who decided it was a good idea for me to watch the movie as a kid, but it had a lasting impact. Even to this day, whenever I see ghost sisters standing in a hallway asking me if I want to play with them forever I will immediately turn tail and run. While the book does have parallels to the film, the differences are comprehensive. Jack Torrence’s wife Wendy is described as a smoke-show, inanimate objects come to life to wreak havoc, and the ending is completely different. Like Hill House, the Overlook Hotel is also personified. The language around race is rather disconcerting, though, which is something I hope gets updated in a future revised edition.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. 1983.
In many ways, The Woman in Black comes across as having been written a century earlier. The opening chapter is of a family telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve during the Victorian era. It is narrated in the first person using language and terminology reflecting the times. A woman’s recent death has solicitor Arthur Kipps rummaging through her possessions in order to settle her estate — probably not the smartest undertaking in a marsh-locked mansion cut off from the outside world during each full tide. The book is short enough to read in a single sitting, which might be why it’s a personal favourite. I felt the movie was an excellent adaptation, but it was criticized for being too traditional. Apparently, people wanted higher stakes and more gore, which never made sense to me.
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. 2007.
Joe Hill is the pen name of Stephen King’s son Joseph Hillström King. He is not related to Susan Hill or named after Shirley Jackson’s haunted house — just to be clear. Heart-Shaped Box is an impossible book not to love. Both unique and contemporary, it’s unlike any ghost story I’ve ever read. A creepy-old heavy metal musician collects macabre artifacts he purchases online while dating formerly molested groupies in their twenties. A recipe for disaster! The protagonist comes across as believable, but also pathetic and comedic at the same time. Hill’s voice is unique, but King’s influence is apparent at times. There are so many beautiful phrases and visually-iconic moments that I hope a faithful adaption to film will be made someday. It’s a memorable story to say the least.
Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake. 2011.
Kendare Blake was born in Korea, lives in the United States, but set her Young Adult story in Canada. I started reading teen ghost stories after taking a YA writing course at Vancouver Island University. Anna Dressed in Blood has been my favourite discovery so far. Cos Lowood is an unusual teenager, because he hunts and kills ghosts that have murdered people — a gift he inherited from his deceased father. After he and his mother move to Thunder Bay, Ontario, he hears of a powerful ghost unlike any he has faced before: a god-like, age-appropriate (not taking the 50+ years of her being dead into account) hottie he sort-of develops a thing for. The book incorporates urban legends and folklore, which is additionally cool. It also includes suitable amounts of teenage angst. There’s plenty to love about Anna Dressed in Blood, other than the awesome cover.
Seven Crow Stories by Robert Wiersema. 2016.
This collection of ghost stories and fictional retellings of urban legends should be more widely read than it is. A phantom hitchhiker, crying walls, and a deal with the devil are just some of the motifs found in this book. I first came across Robert Wiersema’s work after taking one of his writing courses at Vancouver Island University. Admiring his mutual love of fairy tales and all things dark, I decided to read some of his books. Canadians, admittedly, generally don’t always appreciate home-grown short story collections or genre fiction (other than several non-ghostly Indigenous titles). In the case of Seven Crow Stories, this is a shame, because as much as it deserves to be on a list of “Best” ghost stories, I might never have come across it. I’m glad I did, though, because it allows me to add a bestselling Canadian author to the list with stories primarily set in British Columbia.
Phantoms: Haunting Tales From the Masters of the Genre by various. 2018.
This is the best collection of contemporary ghost stories by multiple authors I’ve ever come across. There have been scores of traditional, indie, and self-published ghost story compilations published over the years. In almost every case, there are generally some really good stories mixed in with several not-as-good ones. Before reading Phantoms, I had never come across a group of ghost tales I was this impressed with. I bought it after seeing Joe Hill’s name on the cover and recognizing some of the other author names, like Kelley Armstrong, M. R. Carey, and John Connolly. This collection of ghost stories will not disappoint you. (Unless you don’t really like ghost stories, in which case I’m totally confused as to why you read this whole post, but grateful you’re this brave at least.)
Like any other “Best” list out there, these selections are primarily based on personal taste and the writing I’ve been exposed to. I might add more titles over time, but if I’ve missed one of your favourites I’d appreciate it if you shared the title in a comment below. I’d love to hear your ghost story recommendations and I’m sure others would too.