- The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
I watched the West End play at the Fortune Theatre in Drury Lane three times (I also watched it staged in Eastbourne) before reading the book (some ten or more years later) and was absolutely petrified each time. Some friends disagree with me about how scary it is, but that face still haunts met!
The first time I watched it, it was a matinee show and I could only afford to sit up in the Gods where I was all alone – it was a weekday and the theatre was 98% empty. I kept imagining that she would tap me on the shoulder, or appear in the seat beside me. After the play, it was dark out although still afternoon (got to love English winters!) and I remember walking home from the tube station and expecting to see the ‘woman in black’ at every street corner.
While I find the ending of both the play and the book a tad melodramatic, the way it was rewritten for the Daniel Radliffe film is far worse.
The book isn’t as atmospheric as the play, or the story as compellingly presented, but the tension is still built very effectively.
I think it’s amazing what is achieved in the play with just two actors (not counting the woman in black) and minimal props and sets.
2. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
This is most definitely my favourite ghost story. While it’s debatable whether the ghosts are real or a figment of the governess’s overwrought imagination, this uncertainty adds to the tension and drama. Should the children be protected from malevolent spirits or from their mentally unstable caretaker? I feel a re-visit coming on as it’s been years since I last read this book and I’m curious as to what I will make of it now.
3. Ring by Koji Suzuki
The best ghost stories are never overtly scary, but deal in a slow, creeping horror that suggests itself to the reader subtly and insidiously. The Ring is especially terrifying in its evocation of suffocating desperation and panic. The book is not actually a ghost story as the ‘curse’ is generated through psychic energy. However, the movie adaptations have altered Suzuki’s story and led to the Ring and its sequels being regarded as ghost stories.
4. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
I have read this just once and remember almost nothing of this novel except that it is exactly the sort of non-explicit ghost story I like. Only hinting at evil and calling to question its charater’s sanity, the book plays with our fear of the supernatural and of madness, and explores the very fine line that divides the two states.
5. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
As I write about my chosen books, I realise that large, lonely houses and disturbed, lonely women pop up quite a bit in the ghost stories I favour. Indeed, isolated homes and their reclusive inhabitants just beg to be put in a horror story, and even in real life, they are objects of much speculation and suspicion.
I am currently reading We have Always Lived in the Castle and I think Shirley Jackson succeeds very well at creating an atmosphere of dark unease and foreboding. While there is no question of the supernatural in Castle, the situation in Haunting is more ambiguous and we are kept guessing til the end.
I’ve never seen either of the film adaptations (both titled The Haunting), but they are apparently rather rubbish.
6. Hardboiled (from the two-novella volume Hardboiled & Hard-Luck) by Banana Yoshimoto
A woman, on a solitary hiking holiday, remembers that it is the death anniversary of an ex-lover. While in her hotel room, she is visited by the ghost of a young woman who was once a guest there. The fact that she accepts the haunting calmly makes the occurrence much creepier than if she had run screaming out of there.
Loneliness and regret are the story’s main themes, and I feel that these are themes that the most successful ghost stories share, with ghosts as the manifestations of both emotional states.
7. Ashes to Ashes by Lilian Stewart Carl
8. Dust to Dust by Lilian Stewart Carl
These linked romantic-thrillers are, admittedly, pretty cheesy, but I am mightily entertained by both, so much so that I bitterly regretted returning my first copies (bought at a rental bookstore in Singapore) and ordered them through Amazon marketplace many moons later. They are comfort reads and I love the combination of sexual tension, crumbling castles and abbeys, and things that go bump in the night.
9. Dracula by Bram Stoker
Everytime I re-read this book, I am amazed at how scared I end up feeling. I think the story’s epistolary form of the novel enhances the impact of the events described as the letters, diary entries and newspaper reports give the reader a sense of immediacy and intimacy, as if you are reading the experiences of someone close to you and sharing, firsthand, his horror.
10. Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling, translated by Herbert A. Giles
This collection features ghosts, folk spirits and mythology-inspired supernatural tales featuring a whole range of characters, human and otherwise, from Ming dynasty China. Perfect for dipping in and out of, these stories madke me laugh more than shiver, but are not entirely devoid of chilling details that have, in the past, lingered and cause me sleeplessness.