Saturday, November 19, 2016

The 10 best Haunted House novels for a horrifying Halloween at home


The creaking doors, the soft thud of footsteps on loose floorboards, the draft that chills to the core, the rustling drapes in some room that sounds remarkably like whispers, and – always – the glimpse of something moving just out of the corner of the eye.

Through well-worn narrative devices, the signatures of haunted houses are immediately familiar to anyone who has ever heard a ghost story. They endure because the feeling of being vulnerable in a home – a structure where one is meant to be the most secure – is scary as hell.

For me, when I think about haunted houses, the 1936 image of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall leaps to mind. One of the most famous photos, if not the most famous photo, of a supposed ghost ever taken is of the spectral form of Lady Dorothy Walpole descending the staircase of Raynham Hall in Norfolk. While the photograph is considered by many to be a fake, it is nonetheless striking and lingers in my mind.

At first, the idea of finding something like her floating around at night in a dusty old manor is unnerving, but as my imagination spins out possible scenarios of a Lady Walpole-like ghost moving through a wall, making noises when I’m home alone at night, or breathing cold, dead breath on my sleeping form, the eeriness becomes fuel for an especially messed-up nightmare.

That’s what a good haunted house story can do: slowly reveal itself like a vapor, and unfurl into a terror-inducing resident in your unconscious. With that in mind, join me as I recommend the best haunted house novels to stop your heart while you relax at the hearth.

10) Burnt Offerings (1973)
By Robert Marasco

This isn’t one you will hear talked about near enough, and that may be due to the fact that Marasco wrote one stage play (the terrifying Child’s Play, about a Catholic school with a demon problem), and only two novels before his death in 1998. But Burnt Offerings’ legacy is certainly felt in the 1970s haunted house horror subgenre – and Stephen King has spoken of its influence on The Shining. It begins in Queens, N.Y., where the Rolfe family seeks to escape the city’s oppressive summer, they find a "too good to be true” inexpensive rental in Long Island. The catch is the owners, the Allardyce siblings, require the Rolfes to send a meal tray to their elderly mother who resides in the house (but who never emerges from behind her strange door). The house seems to stoke strange obsessions in the family. The father dedicates himself to repairs of the house, but has flashes of violence, such as when he violently tries to make his son “man up” in the swimming pool. The mother takes to cleaning endlessly, is absorbed in the photos of expressionless people outside Mrs. Allardyce’s room, and is falling in love with the house because it fills a void in her life. The house seems to gaining a life of its own, almost restoring itself just as it destroys the family. It was adapted into a movie of the same name starring Karen Black, and Oliver Reed, in 1976.

9) Coldheart Canyon (2001)
By Clive Barker

Hollywood star Todd Pickett needs to hide away a bit after undergoing major plastic surgery to return his looks to their former glory. To recoup and heal in private, his agent sets him up with Coldheart Canyon, an old Hollywood mansion unknown to most, but a den of hardcore debauchery for the 1920s jetset. Faced with a door to a realm where no desire is too extreme, Pickett has to unravel the mysteries of the house, deal with his biggest fan who shows up, and encounters the ghost of the silent film starlet who once live in Coldheart.

8) The House Next Door (1978)
By Anne Rivers Siddons

Not all haunted houses are old mansions with a violent past; some are modern-day structures popping up in the upscale burbs of Atlanta. The affluent narrator and her husband become friendly with the talented architect building the “house next door” in their neighborhood. But their admiration for his work fades as nasty business befalls any who move into the home. The house itself appears evil all on its own without seemingly having any good reason, and even one character wonders aloud who has ever heard of a haunted contemporary home less than a year old.

7) The Amityville Horror (1977)
By Jay Anson

The Amityville Horror house is one of the most famous haunted paranormal cases in America, and while widely criticized, the “story” part of this allegedly true story still makes for a good horror read. In 1974 Ronald DeFeo killed six family members in this Long Island, NY, home. A little more than a year later, George and Kathy Lutz, and their three kids moved in after getting a, ahem, killer bargain. Twenty-eight days later, they abandoned the home. During the time they were there, the family claimed they were assaulted by unseen entities. They reportedly encountered slamming doors, slime oozing from the walls, a hidden “red room,” a child’s imaginary friend (who looked like a demonic pig), physical attacks, and more. Even the priest who blessed the house said he was commanded by something to “get out.” Anson’s book launched an entire franchise of books and movies, including the 1979 film with Margot Kidder and James Brolin. Don’t dismiss this book even if you don’t believe the Lutz family’s story; taken as a horror yarn alone, the book taps into popular 1970s genre themes of cash-strapped families trying to achieve suburban dreams in a time of recession and inflation.

6) The Secret of Crickley Hall (2006)
By James Herbert

In 1943, Crickley Hall in Northern England served as an orphanage to children evacuated from London during the Blitz of World War II. The house’s tutor comes to believe the orphans are mistreated by the headmaster. Meanwhile, the plot also unfolds in modern-day 2006, where the Caleigh family has moved from London into Crickley following the disappearance of their young son. The family hears sounds of ghosts moving about the house, and the other two Caleigh children are tormented by an old man specter who beats them with a cane. But the mother becomes attached to the house after she begins to communicate with the voice of her missing son, and is reluctant to leave. The book was adapted into a 2012 miniseries, featuring Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams.

5) The Little Stranger (2009)
By Sarah Waters

Another modern book with a storyline connected to post-WWII England, this gothic story’s haunted abode is called Hundreds Hall. The 18th Century crumbling relic is home to the Ayres family, but the ghostly activity really kicks in when a child is mauled by the family dog. One of the elements that makes this book so enjoyable is the infuriating Dr. Faraday, who attempts to logically explain away every supernatural occurrence (despite children's writing mysteriously appearing on the wall and scorched walls are, y'know, totally normal!). The family’s fears intensify, and the reader joins them in feeling crazy just as the good doctor tries to rationalize everything happening around them.

4) The Turn of the Screw (1898)
By Henry James

This classic gothic story remains great, especially for fans of creepy child characters who see ghosts. In a letter read by an anonymous narrator, we learn a governess, now dead, was hired to become the caretaker of an orphaned boy and girl at a large estate. The governess begins to catch glimpses of the spirits of dead household employees roaming the grounds. She learns the children just happened to be friends with these employees when they were alive, but are they still? Also, what secret is the boy hiding about his recent past? There’s still literary debate about how much the governess was seeing vs. losing her grip on reality, but James himself said he enjoyed introducing the “stranger and sinister” elements of ghosts into mundane, daily life. Fun fact: Martin Scorsese ranked the 1961 film adaptation, titled The Innocents, as one of the scariest movies ever.

3) Hell House (1971)
By Richard Matheson

Is there life after death? Newspaper publisher Rolf Rudolph Deutsch wants to know, but the wealthy Hearst-ian figure doesn’t have time to waste since, well, he’s closing in on death’s door. So, what’s a magnate to do other than enlist a physician and two mediums, and have them join him at the infamously haunted Belasco House in Maine, aka “Hell House,” for a paranormal investigation? While clearly taking inspiration from The Haunting of Hill House, Hell House teases with suspense and terrorizes. The 1973 movie adaptation, The Legend of Hell House, is likewise a fun ride, and also written by Matheson, but check out the book first. This entry, along with the next two, make up the "big three" of the best haunted house ever...

2) The Shining (1977)
By Stephen King

I almost didn’t include King’s third published novel in this list because it is such an obvious choice, and I thought an entry would be better used for a lesser-known work. Plus, the Overlook Hotel isn’t even a house. And yet, I love this book so much, and it is so hands-down one of the best horror novels ever, that it demanded inclusion. You have no doubt heard that Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation (likewise one of the best in the  horror genre) is quite different from King’s story, and it is. It is full of creeping dread and great scares, but also tragedy and heart. Jack Torrance – troubled alcoholic, flawed father and husband, and struggling writer -- is the new winter caretaker of the historic, and notoriously haunted Overlook. In the book, he is more three-dimensional than the monster Jack Nicholson expertly played. But as the walls seem to close in, and dark forces from the hotel’s past seduce Jack and torment his young son Danny, King’s story comes to life – and brings some rather nasty hotel guests with it. Also, you’ll never look at topiary animals the same way again.

1) The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
By Shirley Jackson

This novel by Shirley Jackson remains one the best haunted house stories of all time. The old manse Hill House has a bad habit of killing off inhabitants – so, of course it seems like a good idea (very bad idea) for occultist and paranormal investigator Dr. Montague to bring some folks along for a stay. Although phenomena begin as merely unsettling occurrences, the house is feeding off Eleanor, the sensitive waif, and getting stronger. As much as I love The Shining, I think even Mr. King would allow me to say Hill House is better, and a work of genius. The Haunting, the 1963 film based on Jackson’s story, is also pretty great, but not near as exceptional as the novel.

Bonus Picks

The Yellow Wallpaper
By Charlotte Perkins Gillman

Gillman’s story is actually a short story, but deserves inclusion in this list. This early entry in feminist literature revolves around a young woman, our unnamed narrator, who is taken to rest up at an ancestral hall/colonial mansion after giving birth. Her husband worries about her “nervous condition” and seeks to remove all stimulation. Through entries in her hidden journal, she slowly unravels in the upstairs nursery where she stays. In the room with barred windows and scratched floors, she becomes lost in the titular wallpaper. The torn, patchy paper reminds the narrator of foul things, has a “yellow” smell, and leaves yellow marks on all who touch it. She comes to believe she sees women trapped and crawling on her knees within the transforming, viney pattern. Beyond the feminist interpretation, I also like thinking of this as a gothic ghost story – as did H.P. Lovecraft, who counted himself a fan of Gillman’s chilling tale.

A Winter Haunting (2002)
By Dan Simmons

My final recommendation of best haunted house stories is the only one I’ve not even finished. I discovered Simmons’ book through research for this list, and am already finding it immensely compelling. The main character in the book is writer Dale Stewart, a self-destructive type who shatters his life as the result of an extra-marital tryst, and a botched suicide attempt. He now seeks peace in the solitude of a farmhouse in his hometown, Elm Haven. The man, himself, is haunted by his past, and seems like one of those guys who keeps trashing his own life. That trend appears to continue in the farmhouse – the setting for a horrific incident that took the life of his childhood pal Duane McBride four decades earlier – as Dale’s personal monsters take shape. The book is a spiritual sequel to Simmons’ Summer of Night, which I plan on checking out next.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Ouija legacy: Saying 'Hello' to the real history, and mystery of the talking board

(A version of this post was previously published last October)

Whether you say yes or no to the power of the Ouija board, there's no dismissing the legacy of this supposed spirit communication tool that inspires intrigue and amusement -- and sometimes fear.

For more than 125 years, the Ouija has been an all-American invention that's alternately viewed as a practical way to reach out to the beyond, a slumber party game and a great narrative device in pop culture. Some even see it as a negative creation and a potential gateway for the nastier denizens of the spirit realm to enter our turf.

Whichever way you may view it, Ouija is baaack. In the new movie, Ouija 2: Origin of Evil, opening today, the talking board returns as the focus of horror. But regardless of the Ouija's power (or lack thereof?), it is an undeniable part of our nation's history.

That history was honored last year on Oct. 14 when the Talking Board Historical Society -- led by the world's leading talking board expert, Robert Murch -- worked with the City of Baltimore to install a plaque commemorating the location of an April 1890 séance where the board was named.

Though it is now a 7-Eleven, the building at 529 North Charles Street was once the Langham Hotel boarding house. Inside, the board's first manufacturer, Charles Kennard; his attorney friend and fellow Mason Elijah Bond (who registered the Ouija/Talking Board patent); and Bond's sister-in-law and medium Helen Peters asked the board what it wished to be called during a seance. When it spelled out "O-U-I-J-A," the board allegedly said it meant "good luck." Though later stories said the word was an amalgam of "yes" in French and German.

And much like the location where it earned its name in 1890, the Ouija board has changed over the years. What is currently sold by Hasbro, and marketed as a kids game, is a cardboard platform with glow-in-the-dark letters, or a plastic planchette with an embedded black light to read the board's "hidden" messages.

But there is much history to the Ouija board, and the talking boards (aka witch boards) that pre-date the brand. Join me and Murch, who has consulted on the show Supernatural and both Ouija movies, for a brief tour of this mysterious, mystifying (and some would say malevolent and murderous) device.

Monday, September 26, 2016

'World's Largest Ghost Hunt' Kicks Off National Ghost Hunting Day on October 1

Check out the official press release for National Ghost Hunting Day and celebrating with the World's Largest Ghost Hunt...

Historic first National Ghost Hunting Day celebrated with record breaking “WORLD’S LARGEST GHOST HUNT” to benefit local nonprofit animal shelters worldwide. Hundreds of paranormal groups and investigators to simultaneously kick-off search for supernatural evidence at locations across the United States and around the world--
Haunted Journeys -- in conjunction with partners The Scarefest, Destination America, America’s Most Haunted, Paranormal Database, our regional ambassadors and network of participating ghost hunting teams -- is proud to announce that National Ghost Hunting Day is now officially registered with the National Calendar Day Registry, to be celebrated on the first Saturday of every October.
This celebration of the techniques and culture of ghost hunting will initiate the Halloween season annually in spectacular fashion!

On October 1, 2016, National Ghost Hunting Day will be celebrated for the first time with the World’s Largest Ghost Hunt serving as the inaugural mega event.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

New Destination America Series, 'Haunted Case Files,' Premieres August 28

Photo Courtesy of Haunted Case Files' Facebook
Destination America is quickly becoming your go-to network for paranormal programming. Debuting this August 28 is their newest spooky series premiering exclusively in the U.S.

Haunted Case Files doesn't have a set cast like most ghost hunting shows, and follows different groups as they take on some of their most challenging cases.

Destination America provides all the details in their release that's included below...

From Destination America:
From the producers of Paranormal Survivor comes the all-new series Haunted Case Files, in which ghost hunters recount their most extreme supernatural experiences – from the terrifying to the downright dangerous. Even the most hardened veterans aren’t always prepared for what they might find. These are the cases that truly tested them.

Each episode features a story from three different paranormal investigation groups, along with interviews, recreations and actual recordings of the evidence they captured.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

American Horror Story teams with Universal's Halloween Horror Nights

As reported over at, Universal theme parks are getting a double dose of horror this autumn as FX’s anthology series American Horror Story teams up with Halloween Horror Nights in both Orlando and Hollywood.

Announced in a press release yesterday, the annual event at Universal Orlando Resort and Universal Studios Hollywood will include a maze featuring chapters from the “Murder House,” “Freak Show,” and “Hotel” seasons of creator Ryan Murphy’s show.

According to the release, the temporary attraction, opening Sept. 16, will expose guests to “twisted scenes from Murder House” where “evil spirits that possess the Harmon estate” and “decades of the tortured dead who previously resided there” will be unleashed.

The release continues:

“In Freak Show, guests will join a troupe of biological misfits in a sinister sideshow where they’ll be stalked by the murderous and deformed Twisty the Clown. Finally, guests will succumb to the warped desires of The Countess after checking in to the haunted Hotel Cortez, conceived from the beginning as a torture chamber for its customers.”

John Murdy, Creative Director at Universal Studios Hollywood and Executive Producer of Halloween Horror Nights, said AHS has been the “number one requested maze” from our guests.  Michael Aiello, Director of Entertainment Creative Development for Universal Orlando Resort, commented, “It's that constant evolution that makes this popular series a perfect fit for Halloween Horror Nights – and we can’t wait for our guests to experience some of the horror they’ve seen on the show."

The opening of the attraction also coincides with Season 6 of American Horror Story, which kicks off Sept. 14. Meanwhile, AHS joins Halloween Horror Nights mazes based on other successful horror properties The Walking Dead, The Exorcist, Krampus, Halloween II, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as Freddy vs. Jason in Hollywood. Entering its 26th year, Orlando’s HHN event will also include The Repository, an “immersive paranormal virtual reality experience.”

Check out the trailer for the attraction below, and let us know if you will be headed to Orlando or Halloween for HHN. 

-Aaron Sagers