It’s that spooky time of year, when I hunt down classic ghost and horror stories freely available on the internet and post them for your reading enjoyment! Currently working on that post, but I thought in the meantime I would draw some attention to my friends at Valancourt Books, who have been doing such an amazing job reprinting classic works of horror.
In particular, I thought I would mention the great job they’ve done in bringing some of the best haunted house books back into circulation! When I first started blogging about horror, I wondered why there seemed to be so few “classic” haunted house books around. I could think of The Shining, Hell House, The Amityville Horror, and The Haunting of Hill House, but it otherwise seemed like there weren’t any others out there. It turns out that there are quite a few, but lots of them had gone out of print and been forgotten, until Valancourt resurrected them. Let’s take a quick look at some of these, many of which I’ve blogged about before!
Just a reminder: I’ve written intros for Valancourt Books, including some of the books I’ll mention here. Putting that disclaimer out so nobody thinks I’m trying to trick them, but I genuinely love the books here.
Benighted, by J.B. Priestley (1927). This old book is of the classic “old dark house” genre of tales, in which a group of people are brought together by fate or design in a sinister abode and must face the horrors within. A trio of friends are forced by a severe storm to seek shelter in an ancient mansion owned by the strange Femm family. The Femms seem to be afraid of something, and are hesitant to even let the trio take shelter with them. As the night progresses, the visitors explore the secrets of the house, and find themselves in increasing danger…
This creepy novel inspired a classic movie, The Old Dark House (1932), starring Boris Karloff; as it happens, it is currently available to watch on Shudder, and I just got myself a subscription!
Benighted contains a really excellent intro by author Orrin Grey, which first introduced me to his writing and led us to becoming friends! I’ve reviewed his Painted Monsters and Never Bet the Devil collections on this blog.
Devil in the Darkness, by Archie Roy (1978). When Paul and Carol Wilson’s Scottish highlands honeymoon is thrown off by an unexpected unseasonal blizzard, they are forced to seek shelter in a crumbling house, now filled with an odd collection of tenants. They have stumbled across Ardvreck House, which is reputed to be haunted, and the new occupants are paranormal investigators seeking to get to the bottom of the house’s mystery. The Wilsons have no choice to stay and, though things seem quiet at first, unexplained occurrences escalate to the point where it is not clear that any of them will survive!
This book is quite fascinating as its author, Archie Roy, was a world-class astronomer and a paranormal investigator himself! So the researchers in the novel act quite rationally and scientifically, a nice change from a lot of other horror novels where stupidity is used to drive events forward. Devil in the Darkness is a lovely, atmospheric novel that feels much more like a “real” haunting than many of its contemporaries. And it has an introduction written by me!
Burnt Offerings, by Robert Marasco (1973). Ben and Marian Rolfe and their son David decide that they need to escape from their stifling Queens apartment for the summer and head to the country. Marian finds an offer in the newspaper that seems too good to be true: an entire mansion and grounds for rent in upstate New York for a ridiculously low price. The only catch is that the tenants must take care of Mrs. Allardyce, the aging mother of the house owners, while they stay there. But she is low maintenance: she remains out of sight behind an exquisitely carved door, and the Rolfes need only leave her food outside the door every day.
As they begin their stay, it seems like it will be the perfect summer. But Marian becomes increasingly obsessed with the house, and Ben begins to see things that cannot possibly exist. The longer they stay, the more it seems that the house and grounds themselves are changing, too, and possibly changing them as well. What is the secret of the house, and can the Rolfes survive it?
This novel is, in my opinion, somewhat relentless! Things move along, seemingly inexorably, until the shocking conclusion. To say more than that would give it away…
The House of the Wolf, by Basil Copper (1983). The house in this case isn’t “haunted” in a conventional sense, as the title will make clear, but it is a remarkably unsettling and clever horror story! Professor John Coleridge and a group of folklorists have arrived for a meeting in the remote Hungarian village of Lagos at the invitation of Count Homolsky, the lord and owner of Castle Homolsky, also known locally as “The House of the Wolf.” When they arrive, they see that local residents have been terrorized and slain by a mysterious beast. Count Homolsky’s daughter Nadia begs Coleridge to help investigate the origins of the creature, which she is sure has been stalking her, as well.
As the meeting progresses, more people are slain, inside the castle and out, and the attendees soon begin to suspect that the killer lurks among them. As they are trapped by a blizzard in the castle walls, they must work to unveil the beast before it ends them all!
This book is a bit of a slow burn, as Copper fills his novels with a lot of detail. The first half is somewhat slow-going, but after that, I found it impossible to put down! The House of the Wolf is not only a horror novel, but also a mystery, and it has a fantastic unexpected ending that made me rethink much of what I had read.
I originally read an early out-of-print edition of this book, but thanks to Valancourt it is now available for all to read again.
The Elementals, by Michael McDowell (1981). After the funeral of Marian Savage, the matriarch of the venerable southern Savage family, the Savage and McCray branches of the family decide to head down to the Alabama coast for the summer, to the remote and aging refuge of Beldame. There are three Victorian houses there: one for each of the Savages and McCrays, and a third, abandoned and slowly being consumed by the dunes. Nobody knows who owned that third house, and 13 year old India McCray decides to investigate its ruins. But something still occupies it: something not human, something that was never human, and something that is eager to claim the Savages and McCrays as it has before.
One of the joys of this novel is the detailed history of the family and each of its members. We get to know their backgrounds, and their motivations, all of which play a role in the horrors that inevitably unfold. The house itself, the main character, is a delightfully looming and sinister presence throughout, biding its time until the best moment to strike. It is creepy from beginning to end, a mixture of supernatural and family horror.
The Well, by Jack Cady (1980). John Tracker has returned to his family home in southern Indiana — The House of the Trackers — to see if his father, grandfather, or grandmother are still alive within, and get them out. Though John fled the madness of the home years ago, it is due to be demolished to make way for a freeway, and John will get a landscaping contract for the road if he can clear it without trouble.
The problem is that the house is a literal deathtrap. John’s great-grandfather, in his madness, built the house with deadly traps installed, and added to them as the years passed. His insane mission: to imprison the devil himself within the edifice, with the hidden perils keeping him at bay. John’s grandfather and father continued the mad design, and John is the only one from the outside who knows the dangers and how to avoid them. John at first comes alone, but returns the next day with his girlfriend Amy for assistance. But the pair find themselves trapped within, not only by an intensifying snowstorm outside but a sinister force that resides in the walls that has evil intentions for them both…
This novel is buoyed by its incredibly strange setting and premise, and further enhanced with a history of the house and its construction, laid out in introductory passages in each chapter. Truly a strange version of a haunted house!
Bury Him Darkly, by John Blackburn (1969). This is another book that I wrote an introduction for! Thanks to working with Valancourt, I became an expert on the horror fiction of John Blackburn, a forgotten author but one of the most successful of his time.
For two hundred years, the body of decadent artist and scientist Martin Railstone has lain in his custom-made vault, reportedly along with all of his final and greatest works. The tomb has been untouched ever since, as a strange passage in Railstone’s will is that only a descendant of his may open the tomb — even though he has no known surviving relatives. But the construction of a new dam threatens to submerge the vault forever under water, so scholars and fans of Railstone have banded together to unlock his final resting place and reveal its secrets. Each of them has their own idea of what wonders lie within, but the true secret of Railstone’s success is stranger and more horrible than any can imagine. When the vault is opened, an ancient evil is released that threatens to consume the entire world…
This book is truly strange. It fits the definition of a haunted house story, I would say, but is like no other haunted house I have seen. It fits in nicely with the themes that Blackburn regularly explores in his books, but it was only the second of his novels I read, and it all came as a delightful surprise to me. At first, it seemed to me that things might all get explained away in a simple, rational way, but John Blackburn’s twisted imagination caught me off guard!
I hope all of you can find something worth reading from this list, and have a happy and spooky Halloween!