Ghosts stories provide some of the richest reading experiences, because there’s seldom a time I’m not in the mood for one.
I ramp up my ghost story reading in October, and then again at Christmas, when so many of the classic English ghost stories were either written or published. Halloween, naturally, is Ghost Story Central, and there’s a placidity in nestling down with a fine ghost story as the rest of the world forks over cash for Halloween costumes. I am sure there is fun to be had there, but it would take one passel of highly persuasive monsters to persuade me that it’s more fun than ghost story fun.
In that pleasantly frightening spirit, let’s look at 10 scary stories that are well worth your time, which you can read online. Some are by authors you almost certainly know, though I bet you don’t know these particular stories—said the Crypt Keeper—and some are by authors that, like a lamenting lost spirit, I bemoan that hardly anyone knows. But now we can all know them together. To the charnel house!
10. “August Heat” by W.F. Harvey
Remember those Halloweens where the air doesn’t yet have the bite in it that we associate with cooler temperatures? You feel it in the wind, either teeth or no teeth. This is a story for those warmer Halloweens. W.F. Harvey wrote during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. He grew up wealthy in Yorkshire, was a Quaker, and ghost-story historians tend to categorize him as a writer of minor classics. “The Beast with Five Fingers” is his best-known work, but I prefer this one. Sometimes, a writer just gets an idea that is a killer idea. It will seem simple to this writer, produce thoughts of “why didn’t I think of that long ago” and “why don’t I think up more like that,” but most writers—unless they’re Shakespeare—know that these types of ideas rarely come around. Harvey must have felt that way when he wrote “August Heat.”
The plot: An artist sketches a criminal in court who is then sentenced. To what punishment, we are not exactly sure. This artist, James Clarence Withencroft, shaken by the events of the day, goes on a walk in the hot early evening. On his stroll, he comes to the shop of a stonemason named Charles Atkinson. To Withencroft’s surprise, Atkinson looks exactly like the man he has sketched earlier in the day. The stonemason, meanwhile, has been carving a headstone. The date of Withencroft’s birth is upon it; the decedent’s death is chiseled as being for that very day. The two men get along, and communicate their fears to each other. Both are beyond weirded out, but they hit upon a solution. Will it work? This is a ghost story, and it’s not a ghost story. Sometimes, those are the very best kinds.
Ghost story bonus! Here’s a 1945 radio adaptation of “August Heat”
9. “Smee” by A.M. Burrage
No one knows good old A.M.—short for Alfried McLelland—Burrage anymore, but he could flat out write. One of his specialties was YA fiction for British lads, though he wrote a most grown-up book, under a psydeonym (as it was that shocking) about his time in the trenches of WWI. It’s called War is War, as pithy a synopsis as anyone has ever provided. You cannot go wrong with any of his ghost stories, but start with “Smee.” The title is a conflation of the words “It’s me,” said in earnestness and fear, but not a very threatening form of fear, for this is the kind that originates from a holiday gathering.
You’ve seen variations on this narrative, but Burrage started it. We love Halloween and Christmas so much in part because they encourage us as adults to tap into the so-often-dormant child who still resides within us. The adults of “Smee” play a version of hide-and-seek, but there is one among their number who ought not to be, which makes you wonder how often that has happened in your own life, perhaps, with you being none the wiser—to date, anyway.
8. “Kecksies” by Marjorie Bowen
Marjorie Bowen wrote in an awful lot of genres—historical romances, biographies, histories, with some ghost stories worked in for leavening. She also had a slew of pseudonyms, the most famous of which was Joseph Shearing. So if you think you’ve read something by him, you’ve really read something by our Ms. Bowen—who had an ending to her own life not unlike something out of a ghost story, when she fell mysteriously in her bedroom at Christmastime 1952.
Besides having an instantly appealing, curiosity-inducing title, “Kecksies” reads like something Lovecraft might have written if he had made up his mind to try a lighter style. There’s a pleasing crispness in Bowen’s tales that keep matters moving along. In this particular one, two well-to-do men are out riding, when a storm forces them to take shelter. This they do in the home of one Goody Boyle, who has a guest already, someone who just happens to be dead. The dead fellow has something of a feud going on with one of the newcomers. Bad night, right? There is a prank that goes wrong. Let us just say that it goes quite wrong.
7. The Captain of the Pole-Star by Arthur Conan Doyle
The author who gave us the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels—as well as The Lost World—was also a masterful teller of tales, with a handful being of the ghostly variety. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had a huge amount of range, and he wanders far afield from what he’s best known for with this story of terror at sea. The ocean makes for fertile ground when it comes to the horror genre. Let us not forget that some of the scariest parts of Stoker’s Dracula—a ghost story involving a reanimated corpse—happen as ocean waves lash the Demeter. Frankenstein, too, has its memorable sequence with the iceberg-riding monster.
What we have here is a work that blends the stillness of a Frederic Edwin Church seascape, with some of the bad mojo that haunted Melville’s Ahab. The story unfolds in diaristic fashion, via the entries of the student of medicine who signed up for this journey. If you’ve read The Hound of the Baskervilles, you know how Doyle could excel at naturalistic writing, while also turning flora and fauna into characters that inform the proceedings and embed their own ghostly spirits within your mood. Same deal here, only with brine in the air.
6. The Old House in Vauxhall Walk by Charlotte Riddell
Charlotte Riddell wrote nearly 60 books, in addition to being a part owner, and the editor, of St. James’s Magazine. It was one of the more prominent literary magazines of the 1860s, back when people out in society—and not just MFA students—had a clue what a literary magazine was. If Charles Dickens knew the streets of London better than any other writer, Riddell wasn’t terribly far behind. She used that knowledge to her advantage in many of her works.
This is one of the quintessential house-out-in-the-country-is-very-bad-for-you stories, with us at some remove from the smoke-choked metropolis. A young student has hit a rough patch in life, needs to get away, and to his seeming rescue comes the opportunity to stay at the abode of the title. Read this one alone, in bed, at night, away from social media and your phone, ideally with some candlelight. I’ve found that when you do so, you are pulled right through the eaves of the old house, like they’re a strainer that parts you from your 2017 self, and ensconces you in this most untenable of situations. Which you, dear reader, get to escape from, when you reach the close of the tale.
5. “The White Old Maid” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Alas, I am willing to bet that you haven’t read Nathaniel Hawthorne since you were forced to in high school, when just about everyone reads The Scarlet Letter. But you’re missing out on some fun, and you’re also missing out on the quite real truth that Hawthorne, for some dude from the 1800s, reads quite modernly. He has voice aplenty, likes a joke, and has a pretty conversational style at times. He also wrote lots of ghost stories, and he pumped his novels full of ghostly occurrences. This was a level of invention that must have seemed full-on bonkers at the time. Fiction of this age had an emphasis on realism, just like fiction does now; only, in the case of the latter, that’s written by writers who have hardly experienced anything in life, so we’re trapped in a perpetual yawn-fest, while back in Hawthorne’s day, maybe you went to sea, perhaps you traveled the globe, fought your way in a new, teeming city, etc.
As I suggested, some of the best ghost stories are both ghost stories and not ghost stories. They make us ask, “wait… could that actually happen? Could reality as we think we know it explain away what occurred in that story?” When your answer is “technically yes, but probably no,” chances are you have a story that will stick with you, like this one. The set-up: Two young women are standing over the corpse of a deceased young man, which is lying in state. One of the women is kind, the other is haughty. The haughty one has erred in some significant way, though we’re not told how. The kinder one knows the secret, and after being asked not to do so, promises she won’t betray the other. The proud one repents to some degree—OK, a crazy degree—and starts turning up behind every funeral procession the town ever has going forward, wearing a white dress. Then, one day, everyone sees her walking down the street, in her funeral attire, only there’s no funeral. Probably not the best sign.
4. “The Baron of Grozwig” by Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens had zero problem in some of his novels with halting the action for a while to tell a ghost story. I can think of no other author who does this, such that we can round up these ghost stories from his novels and view them as free-standing short stories. That’s downright Modernistic, when you think about it. This one comes from 1839’s Nicholas Nickleby, and what grim fun we have.
We meet a bachelor who enjoys a good time. Riding, drinking, oat-sowing, all of that. He gets married, and his new wife effectively grinds all of this out of him, as he enters into the routine of domesticity. This sucks sufficiently enough so that he decides one night to kill himself. “We’ve all been there,” Dickens seems to be saying. Right when he’s about to do it, this proto-Jacob Marley ghost—encrusted in various earthly things—turns up. It’s the ghost of a man who killed himelf. The apparition wears coffin plates. Eldritch haberdashery. You think he’s going to provide the cautionary tale, right? Nope! He’s into it! Let’s do this, son! Didn’t see that coming.
3. “The Book” by Margaret Irwin
A historical novelist and biographer, Margaret Irwin didn’t write many ghost stories, but this one is among the more distinctive of the genre. We all know the image of the reader unable to sleep, and so they take down a volume to help induce slumber—but end up tossing and turning as they become caught up in a narrative far removed from their life.
That’s the gist here, at first. Mr. Corbett is an affluent guy, bored by life. He’s a useful stand-in for many people today, who despise self-assessment when it is far easier to signal virtue by pointing at others, which speaks to a level of self-loathing; always better to look out, than in. That’s our Mr. Corbett, who has become adroit at predicting the patterns in the novels he reads. It doesn’t take him more than three chapters to figure out the murderer of a who’dunnit, for instance. But what if this kind of person becomes the author of their own horror story, shaping the events of a book as they read along?
2. “The Squaw” by Bram Stoker
The author of Dracula threw a lot of prose at the wall and hoped some of stuck. A lot of it didn’t; this particular set of words did. True, Bram Stoker was slicing and dicing a lot of parts of old Poe stories, but no matter. This might be his best short story.
We find ourselves in the company of an unlikely threesome—an American cowboy and an English couple walking around a torture museum in Nuremberg. Earlier, the cowboy had killed a cat, just for the yucks of it. You see where this is going. Anyway, the cowboy is really into BDSM it seems, and he likes trying out the gear in the museum. The English guy, meanwhile, is happy to help him in this. His wife finds all of it pretty uncool, and storms off. So, the cowboy gets into this one apparatus, the English guy works the lever, a random cat shows up out of the shadows, and you come away with the moral of not to murder your pet. But you knew that already. Also, BDSM and animals do not mix. Hopefully you knew that, too.
1. “The Ghost Ship” by Richard Middleton
This is my all-time favorite ghost story, in large part because I find it the most inventive, surprising, witty, clever—a ghost story that feels like it doubles as an actual friend. That is how alive it is. It was written by a man who did not even make it to age 30, suffering from depression and killing himself with chloroform. You may marvel at that when you read what I am sure you will find the funniest ghost story you’ve ever seen, but this is a humor that isn’t played for laughs, but rather to warm and enliven your very sense of wonder.
A ship lost at sea, run by ghosts, crashes into a town. It becomes wedged in the land. This is less than ideal for all involved—the living and the dead—but everyone makes the best of it. The dead going about their business, the living go about theirs, with some commerce between them, but respect on each side. There are affections, a living man joins up with the dead’s crew; sometimes the dead perceive the living, other times they do not, and vice versa. It is also the only ghost story in existence that will make you wish you had a display of turnips outside your door. I’m not saying that vegetable replaces the pumpkin as the Halloween gourd du jour, but it does for me, certainly, whenever I read this soul-hugger of a ghost story, which you should do right now.