Instead of screaming in the storm or dragging chains across the attic floor, I like my ghosts to be quiet, shadowless, full of implication. Worse than being scared by something outside oneself, in my opinion, there is the possibility that the haunted one is carrying the ghost around inside herself. The following novels evoke, for me, the awful possibility that no ghost-hunter is going to be able to rid the chamber of the Thing. It’s gone deeper than that, and it’s here to stay.
1) No list of such novels could begin without The Turn of the Screw. Henry James does, in this little novel, everything that can be done to cast a spell in language. This should have been a lark - nannying two beautiful children in the English countryside - or, it should have been a nightmare - axe-wielding madmen in the cellar. Instead, it’s neither. It’s the psychological equivalent of a cold breath whispering something you’re not sure you heard quite correctly - which you hope you perhaps did not hear quite correctly. No matter how closely you listen, you’ll never know whether what you’re afraid of is in the room, or what you believe you heard is what you heard.
2) The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns is one of the most potent and terrifying novels ever written in my opinion. Part Jane Eyre and part Carrie, the novelist moves her heroine through a troubled childhood into strange new places. The combination of the realistic with the supernatural makes for terror that is all the more terrifying because it seems possible. The reader doesn’t have a chance to stop and ask herself if girls can really levitate, or if they should… because it’s happening, as you always knew it could and would.
3) Graham Joyce has written half a dozen novels I’d put on this list, but The Silent Land is his most poetic and strangest and scariest. Every page contains a surprise followed by a gasp of recognition - until we are buried under a cold and thrilling avalanche of terrors. The pristine landscape grows more and more pristine before you realize you’re lost in it, and then the gigantic dark horse comes to the abandoned village…
4) No writer rivets and scares me more than Shirley Jackson. I still haven’t gotten over my experience of reaching the end of The Lottery during silent reading time in my high school English class, and gasping aloud. Reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle felt to me like being slowly lowered into a cold, dark lake. But in a good way. I’m not sure how Shirley Jackson slept at night, having an imagination capable of creating such people and places.
5) And just when you think it might safe to move to a remote island in the Antarctic, Albert Sanchez Pinol writes Cold Skin, and you realised that no matter where you live, that spell could drop over you, because it’s far more frightening to imagine something than to see it, to be left wondering if you saw it than to know that you did - especially if amphibians are involved, and when the writing is as precise and accumulative in detail and dread as in this novel.
Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke is out on 16th January from Hesperus Press for £8.99.