When you write spine-tingling stories for a living, where do you turn for a good chilling tale? That’s what we asked novelist Jennifer McMahon, and she responded with six of her all-time favorite ghost stories. So lock the door, turn on all the lights, and get ready to stay up all night!
“The Monkey’s Paw,” W. W. Jacobs: This short story terrified me as a kid. I reread it as an adult and it scared me even more. I love the be-careful-what-you-wish-for message. And that knocking at the door when the son returns is absolutely heart-stopping! I get chills just thinking about it.
Beloved, Toni Morrison: A novel about being haunted on so many levels; by the choices people make, by the horrible things inflicted upon them. The mother-daughter relationships in this book are heartbreaking and the vengeful little girl ghost is unlike any character I’ve met. When we realize how and why this little girl died, it’s like ice water in your veins. And of course the prose is masterful–Morrison didn’t win the Nobel Prize for nothing.
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson: I am a huge Shirley Jackson fan and this is one of her greatest novels…the ultimate haunted-house story. It has one of my favorite opening lines of all time: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” One of the things I love most about this book is the questions it leaves you with: Is the house truly haunted or is it all Eleanor’s disturbed imagination? Or is it Eleanor and her madness that are affecting the house, feeding it, making awful things happen? Whatever the answer, it’s a brilliant, atmospheric, creepy-as-hell book.
Ghost Story, Peter Straub: This novel terrified me! Four old men made a terrible mistake years ago and someone (or something!) is determined to make them pay. I love how richly layered this book is; so many chilling stories entwined, all coming together to form a web that makes terrifying sense at the end.
The Shining, Stephen King: Long before we had cute little Haley Joe Osment saying he saw dead people, there was Danny Torrence and his friend Tony, who saw horrible, horrible things at the Overlook hotel. Can a place be evil? It sure can, as proved in this classic. I have been afraid of topiary sculptures ever since (you should have seen me cringe and take a step away at the Mickey Mouse topiary at Disney!)
The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters: A wonderful, gothic haunted house novel by one of my favorite writers. There are plenty of truly scary happenings–a docile dog is inexplicably provoked to maul a girl, mysterious writing appears on the walls, strange voices come through old speaking tubes–as well as masterful explorations of class and romance in postwar Britain. Waters ratchets up the tension and leaves the reader questioning the very nature of hauntings and the haunted and how they feed each other.
Jennifer McMahon’s new novel, The Winter People, is now available in hardcover from Doubleday.