Think ghost and what comes to mind? A sheet-draped apparition trailing forlornly through a cobweb-strewn mansion, perhaps? Everyone loves a classic, but in this feature, PW also looks at stories that broaden the definition to include blood-hungry mist, AI in the afterlife, and more.

Taking shape

“Ghost stories have roots in the protofeminist gothic novel tradition—subverting the passive construction of what it means to be female, mixing wish fulfillment with fear of this very feminine power,” says 47North senior editor Adrienne Procaccini. She cites The Witch’s Lens by Luanne G. Smith (47North, Oct.), in which the title character’s power manifests in the ability to capture the souls of the dead on film. Petra Kurková, left alone while her husband fights at the eastern front during WWI, sees ghosts in the background of the photos she takes as she wanders the city at night. Her magic catches the attention of a mysterious man assembling a supernatural team to save the world.

A plethora of specters populate Jeanette Winterson’s new collection, Night Side of the River (Grove, Oct.). In one story, a widow spends time in a metaverse vacation home with an upgraded version of her “miserable bum” of a husband; in another, a staged ghost tour goes off the rails. The tales are “satisfyingly disconcerting,” according to PW’s review; as Winterson’s longtime editor, Elizabeth Schmitz, v-p and editorial director at Grove Atlantic, explains, “She plays with the liminal space between life and death—she’s fascinated with the way technology can disrupt the natural order.”

The natural order, and the grisly physicality of it, is at the bloody heart of Where the Dead Wait by Ally Wilkes (Atria/Bestler, Dec.). Thirteen years after a failed Arctic expedition, William Day, its most beaten-down and reviled survivor, must reckon with the things he had to do to make it out alive. Wilkes’s ghosts are far from gauzy manifestations floating down hallways. “As a research topic, I was really into the concept of gruesomeness—when a human body becomes just a body, rendered down to flesh and bones and parts,” she says. “I was grappling with the dichotomy between the spiritualist/séance idea, where after death you’re wise, perfected, living on an astral plane, and the other idea—what if you’re stuck in this decaying flesh?”

Others favor the cerebral over the corporeal. “I’m interested in the idea of haunting oneself,” says Tin House editorial director Maisie Cochran, who acquired Hazardous Spirits by Anbara Salam (Oct.). Evelyn Hazard is a housewife wrestling with the devastation wreaked by the Great Influenza epidemic in 1920s Edinburgh, when one day her husband confesses that he can commune with the dead. Can she trust that he’s telling the truth, or has her husband lost his mind? “She’s contending with real spirits and ghosts,” Cochran says, “but you can haunt yourself more than any ghost possibly could.”

In Lisa M. Matlin’s psychological thriller debut, The Stranger Upstairs (Bantam, Sept.), therapist Sarah Slade mistrusts her own mind when she moves into a Victorian house in Melbourne that was the scene of a 1960s murder-suicide. Her marriage is falling apart, her career is at a precipice, and as Matlin says, “shit gets bad really quickly.” The author, a mental health advocate, is particularly interested in how Slade’s mindset overlaps with the haunting; when people refuse to get help, she says, “You repeat what you don’t repair.”

Another Victorian home is at the center of the action in Carissa Orlando’s debut, The September House (Berkley, Sept.). Orlando, a horror movie fan and psychologist, says the novel began as something of a thought experiment: “I started writing with the idea that someone lives in the most haunted house you can imagine and they’re just totally fine with it.” When Margaret’s dream house turns out to be not just haunted but “incredibly, exponentially haunted”—especially in September, when the walls start to bleed—she’s determined to stay put. “Instead of fleeing for the hills,” Orlando notes, “she finds out how to make it work—how to coexist with the dead and haunted things that live there.” PW’s starred review said, “This utterly original haunted house tale is a joy.”

Tales from the crypt

Some authors look to the ghosts of stories past and give them new (after)life. Tim Powers, with My Brother’s Keeper (Baen, Sept.), reimagines the lives of the brilliant and eccentric Brontë siblings, who famously lived in a house on the moody Yorkshire moors, mere steps from the town cemetery. In Powers’s telling, which PW’s review called “a treat for Powers’s fans and Brontë lovers alike,” the family is haunted by their great-grandfather’s murder victim, and ghosts sustain themselves by snatching breath from the living.

“I borrow largely from G.K. Chesterton,” Powers says. “If you’re being haunted by the ghost of Uncle George, Uncle George doesn’t know anything about it. You’re seeing an animate shell, a cast-off snakeskin, cast off during the drama of death. It can wander around, have some degree of articulateness, but it’s not an actual person and not very bright.”

Barbara Ann Wright’s romantasy Haunted by Myth (Bold Strokes, Dec.) gives Helen of Troy—too often used as “a prop, a cardboard cutout,” Wright says—her own agency: she runs a sanctuary for the last mythological beings on Earth. Her work puts her in the path of Chloe, a ghost hunter who believes Helen is responsible for the recent spate of specters coming to life.

Several authors mentioned Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House as an inspiration, including three-time Bram Stoker Award winner Gwendolyn Kiste, whose next novel is The Haunting of Velkwood (Saga, Mar. 2024). Talitha Velkwood and two childhood friends are the only ones who survived the night that everyone else on their street turned into ghosts. In the 20 years since, what’s become known as the Velkwood Vicinity has been impenetrable to mourners, documentarians, and lookie-loos alike, but Talitha returns to see what’s behind the veil.

Elizabeth Hand, a longtime Hill House fan, was tapped by the Jackson estate to write a retelling. In Hand’s version, A Haunting on the Hill (Mulholland, Oct.), playwright Holly and her partner, Lisa, rent a Gothic house to rehearse an adaptation of a Jacobean play about a woman who was burned as a witch. Soon, Hand says, the house starts “messing with their heads.”

“I wanted to lean into the dynamic that’s there in the original book between Eleanor and Theodora, the implied homoerotic attraction,” she explains. “I wanted to play with the notion of how the house itself is a character.”

The weight we carry

When asked about the current popularity of ghost stories, nearly every author PW spoke with mentioned the pandemic.

“It made us aware of our own mortality,” says David R. Slayton, whose Dark Moon, Shallow Sea (Blackstone, Oct.) is set in a preindustrial fantasy world where the murder of the moon goddess leaves the souls of the dead without a path to the underworld; every night they rise, mistlike, to seek the blood of the living. “Death is the unknowable—the one mystery we can’t pierce,” Slayton says.

The pandemic’s death toll also resonates thematically with Wright. “Horror stories reflect the fears of the public at large,” she says. “In the aftershock of the pandemic, people are afraid of disappearing; what happens if we die, and no one thinks about us anymore? It’s comforting to think we might see our loved ones again in some form. The dead don’t die forever.”

Some see the claustrophobia of being stuck at home permeating new fiction. “People were stuck in a domestic space for a long time,” says Hand, who pored over Jackson’s original Hill House drawings when sketching out her own book. “Houses as story settings are very potent, as arenas or stages where people can reenact their fears and anxieties.” Wilkes agrees: “These books were conceived and written during lockdown, when we were all confined to the four walls of our own houses with no escape, which is a perfect haunted house narrative.”

Novelist Louisa Morgan says she’s experienced apparitions in her own life, including a poltergeist that followed her teenage son around. “People want to be reassured that death is not the end,” Morgan says. “Energy can’t be destroyed.” The eponymous psychologist in her forthcoming The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird (Redhook, Nov.) flees 1970s San Francisco in the hope of escaping the literal ghosts that have plagued her since childhood. On an isolated island, she meets a woman on the run from an abusive husband and discovers that her curse—or gift—may be of help.

“Ghost stories speak to how we grapple with and inherit trauma,” says Dutton senior editor Pilar Garcia-Brown, who acquired A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens by Raul Palma (Oct.). Palma’s debut, Garcia-Brown says, is “a postcolonial look at questions of debt, regret, reckonings with the devil, haunting, the Byzantine system that immigrants are forced to navigate, set in the multicultural city of Miami.”

Kiste, too, sees such tales as tied to collective pain: “American authors are dealing with our historical legacies of oppression, and we’re trying to find a way forward.” Ghosts, she says, are about “the weight we carry with us.”

Cochran cites a more general anxiety and sense of dread as fueling the surge in spectral stories. “I feel haunted by the events of the world in the last six years,” she says. “When you can channel that fear into fiction with a beginning, middle, and end—when you can put the book down and talk to people about it—it’s a healthy and satisfying way to deal with the fear.”

Liz Scheier is a writer, editor, and product strategist living in Washington, D.C. She is the author of the memoir Never Simple.

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