Best Ghost Stories

by John J. Miller on May 27, 2010 · 55 comments

in Blog Posts

  • Sumo

Tomorrow night, I’m taking a couple of my kids on a Park Ranger tour of graves in the Prince William Forest Park. We’re supposed to bring flashlights. I’m guessing we’ll hear a couple of ghost stories.

What’s your favorite ghost story? Here are a few I like:

  • “The Moonlit Road,” by Ambrose Bierce: A haunting, from three perspectives. Written in 1907, but post-modern in the best sense of the term.
  • “The Vane Sisters,” by Vladimir Nabokov: An NRO reader pointed me to this one a while back. The ending is fiendishly clever. It’s also a trick. I missed it completely and discovered its true meaning by reading around on the interwebs.
  • “Behind the Stumps,” by Russell Kirk: When I guest lectured on Kirk at Emory University a couple of years ago, I asked the students to read this. It’s like M.R. James transplanted into rural Michigan and its message is deeply conservative.
  • “The Advent Reunion,” by Andrew Klavan: Watch his video narration.

Post your favorites in the comments section.

  • Peter Straub’s novel, GHOST STORY.

  • J

    It is not a short story, but check out The Visitors by one of the famous Benchley’s…..excellent read.

  • janet ney

    Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort…he’s the best horror writer around…

  • John

    “The Room in the Tower” or “Mrs. Amworth” by E.F. Benson.

  • Abbe

    Since you have a picture of Shirley Jackson alongside this story, I’m sure you’re aware of her fabulously creepy book, The Haunting of Hill House. It’s amazing that a story in which almost nothing actually happens can be so shudder-producing.

  • Gary Griffiths

    “The Woman in Black” by Susan Hill. A classic English ghost story – was a terrific play as well, running in London for years.

  • Patrick

    “The Upper Berth” by Francis Marion Crawford.

  • Grant

    “The Adventure of the German Student,” by Washington Irving.

    Creepy story set during the French Revolution.

  • Eustace G.

    Turn of The Screw by Henry James. Can’t get a much better than perfection.

  • My favorite is probably a cliche, but what can I say, I re-read ‘A Christmas Carol’ every year.

    Most overrated is ‘A Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James. I just don’t get it.

  • Jim W.

    “Smee” by A.M. Burrage.

    And any M.R. James, with “O Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” “Number 13,” and Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” being among the best.

  • Mark L

    Frederick Forsyth’s short novel “The Shepherd” — a tale about an RAF pilot lost over the North Sea in the 1950s.

  • rfitz3

    M.R. James’ “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” – not very scary, but very original – the title alone gives me the shivers

  • Tony Rabig

    “Smoke Ghost,” by Fritz Leiber, and Leiber’s novel OUR LADY OF DARKNESS are well worth a look. Stephen King’s THE SHINING (the book, not the movie) also. M.R. James has been mentioned here before, I think, so no need to list some of his titles. You might also want to check out William F. Nolan’s “Dead Call.” Nolan doesn’t get the kind of press that the rest of these names do, but “Dead Call” is a delightfully creepy short story, just the thing for the campfire circle, especially if you can plan to have somebody’s cell phone ring just after you’ve finished reading it…

    Bests to all,


  • It’s not your normal ghost story, but I’ve always been fond of ‘The Open Window’ by Saki.

  • Mark L., thank you for reminding me of The Shepherd. I loved that book, but had completely forgotten about it

  • Bleepless

    Try “The Beckoning Fair One” by Oliver Onions.

  • John F. MacMichael

    I’ll second the recommendations for M. R. James and Fritz Leiber above. I would also recommend Avram Davidson’s short novel “The Boss in the Wall”. Don’t read it if you are spending the night alone in an older house.

    Russell Kirk was, of course, a master of the ghostly tale. Of his short stories, I would especially recommend: “Sorworth Place” and “What Shadows We Pursue”.

  • Merri W

    Anything by M . R. James. His stories scared me so much when I was a teen-ager that I would never read them except during the daytime when the whole family and the dog were around.

  • Mike O’Connor

    Peter Straub has been mentioned already, but I’d pick his novella MRS. GOD as being particularly shudder-inducing.

  • There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding by Russell Kirk

  • Jane V

    Among Edith Wharton’s ghost stories are several that I like, including “Kerfol” and “All Souls.” H.G.Wells wrote some good ones, especially “The Thing in No. 7.”

  • I’m glad I’m not the first one to mention M. R. James. I’ve read all of his Collected Ghost Stories, many of which are available on a free audiobook at (look up _Ghost Stories of an Antiquarian_). James was, in fact, a real antiquarian himself, and his stories are masterpieces, using first-person narratives of discovering ancient, haunted objects, with enough mystery left in the descriptions of the horrible creatures and ghosts to keep you terrified by your own imagination. I’ve reread his collection countless times over the past decade or so.

  • Charlos

    Anything by Robert Aickman. Anything by Ramsey Campbell. If you run across an affordable copy of the all-too-rare “Lord of the Hollow Dark” by Russell Kirk (what a title!) grab it. Aickman edited a series of “Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories” volumes that’s indispensable. A number of Victorian Brits wrote great ghost stories, wasn’t anything held against the genre then: Edith Wharton and L. P. Hartley’s ghost stories can be had in one volume each.

  • Charlos

    “Songs” by Sarah A. Hoyt, in the collection “Crawling Between Heaven and Earth.” And may I highly recommend “Passage” by Connie Willis without spoiling it by explaining WHY it’s a ghost story?

  • “Smoke Ghost,” by Fritz Leiber, and Leiber’s novel OUR LADY OF DARKNESS are well worth a look. Stephen King’s THE SHINING (the book, not the movie) also. M.R. James has been mentioned here before, I think, so no need to list some of his titles. You might also want to check out William F. Nolan’s “Dead Call.” Nolan doesn’t get the kind of press that the rest of these names do, but “Dead Call” is a delightfully creepy short story, just the thing for the campfire circle, especially if you can plan to have somebody’s cell phone ring just after you’ve finished reading it…

    Bests to all,


  • Tim L.

    God bless John for promoting “The Vane Sisters”.

    Please read it. Check it out at your local library in “Nabokov’s Quartet” or, do as I did, and buy “The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov” and get it and a compendium of masterful prose on the cheap.

    Trust me. I’ve forced friends and family to read it. After they grudgingly complied, they loved it and “got the chills” when they learned the “trick” (as John calls it). And don’t look up the solution on the internet. That’s cheating. Do as John did and try to solve it. I dare you.

  • Shelley H

    “The Rag Thing”, a short story by David Grinnell. We read it out loud every Halloween, along with “The Upper Berth” by F. Marion Crawford.

  • And for some real ghost stories (via audio podcast)
    Anything Ghost from Lex Wahl.
    I realize you were probably going for literature, but…

  • NJR

    “The Mark of the Beast” by Rudyard Kipling.

  • For me, anything by M.R. James. “Canon Alberic” has already been mentioned, so try “Casting the Runes.”

    The best non-James story: “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. Don’t play with Mother Nature!

  • NJR

    Also, “Pickman’s Model” by H.P. Lovecraft – Lovecraft has a number of them, but I wasn’t sure if he would qualify under the “ghost story” label or simply “weird horror.”

  • “BURIED DEEP,” about a boy forced to visit his now-dead grandfathers mansion outside New Orleans, to collect whatever valuables he might have before selling the place.

    The grandfather wasn’t a neighborhood favorite, however, and might even have been a witchdoctor.

    Strange things start happening to the boy once they arrive, leading to the shocking ending.

  • Steve Schier

    “Off the Sand Road” by Russell Kirk is the best horror story I have ever read. It is also one of the best short stories I have ever read.

  • Hank Davis

    To give credit where it’s due, I’ll mention that “The Rag Thing” was written by the late Donald A. Wollheim, who wrote short stories under the name David Grinnell. Another creepy story by Wollheim/Grinnell is “Mimic,” which was was given the Hollywood treatment a bit over a decade ago without completely ruining it. I should say that both stories are effectively scary, but not really *ghost* stories.

    Speaking of the great M.R. James, I’ll put in a plug for “Count Magnus,” “The Ash Tree,” “The Haunted Doll’s House,” “The Mezzotint,” and “The Treasure of Abbott Thomas.” “Casting the Runes” is another good one (and, against all odds, became an excellent movie as Curse of the Demon/Night of the Demon), but it’s not really a ghost story. But anytime you want a list of great _demon_ stories . . .

    And more by the brilliant and prolific Fritz Leiber: “Midnight in the Mirror World,” “Four Ghosts in Hamlet” (though it’s not a particularly scary story), “A Bit of the Dark World” (more a Lovecraftian tale than a ghost story — Leiber was one of HPL’s circle of correspondents), and “A Deskful of Girls,” which may not be a simon-pure ghost story, and may not be scary, but it’s damn well unforgettable.

    Ray Bradbury has written some very scary stories, but most of them don’t involve ghosts. (Is “The Crowd” a ghost story? Maybe.) Certainly “The Handler” is, and would be effective if read aloud. “The Exiles” (in The Illustrated Man) has ghosts on Bradbury’s favorite planet, Mars, and while the ending isn’t scary, the context of the story, in terms of what the Earth has become, is horrifying.

    The Haunted Omnibus, edited by Alexander Laing (also published as Great Ghost Stories) has a nifty selection of shiver-inducers, though some of the stories aren’t really ghost stories (“The Monkey’s Paw,” “August Heat,” “The Gentleman from America,” “The Yellow Wall Paper,” etc.), scary though they are. But check out “The Screaming Skull” by F. Marion Crawford and “The Beast with Five Fingers” by W. F. Harvey, if you’re only familiar with their unfaithful movie versions. Another goodie is “The Half-Pint Flask” by Dubose Heyward. There are also several short-shorts less than a page long, if the audience wants an encore. The book doesn’t seem to be in print at the moment, but used copies of various editions are available at reasonable prices through (Unpaid advert.)

    Arthur Machen wrote several effective horror stories (“The White People,” “The Great God Pan,” and, in particular, “The White Powder”), which are up there with Lovecraft’s best. However, like Lovecraft, he apparently had no interst in writing frighteners with traditional ghosts, preferring to use more original horrors. And his stories are on the long side for reading aloud. But next time you want to spend an evening with the hairs standing up on the back of your neck, try Machen. (And Lovecraft, it should go without saying; however I didn’t say it — I typed it.)

  • Martin Morehouse

    A collection of short stories called, ‘The Peculiar Exploits of Brigadier FFellowes’, by Sterling Lanier. Particularly the story, ‘His Only Safari’. For a story that happens in broad daylight, it still gives me chills.

  • James Rogers

    “The Room In The Tower” by E.F Benson. “All Hallows” by Walter De La Mare. “The White People” by Arthur Machen.

  • Pete Doremus

    I have tormented many a niece and nephew with my hazily recalled versions of “The Monkey’s Paw”, author not remembered. Three wishes were granted, the last one just in time.

  • Tony Rabig

    One E. F. Benson that always did it for me was “Caterpillars.” Didn’t notice that one mentioned here yet, so I thought I’d toss it in.

    Re: Leiber — just about anything from the “Modern Horrors” section of his early collection NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS will fill the bill nicely; the later edition of that book includes “A Bit of the Dark World” (mentioned in an earlier post) and the chilling vampire story “Girl with the Hungry Eyes.” John Pelan has edited several collections of Leiber for Midnight House — pricey, but worth finding. One of these, THE BLACK GONDOLIER, has been reissued as an ebook by EReads and should be easy to find from Amazon, Fictionwise and other ebook retailers. When it comes to stories bringing supernatural horror into the modern urban setting, you can’t do better than Leiber. Nightshade Books has just published FRITZ LEIBER: SELECTED STORIES, which includes most of the stories that have been mentioned in this thread as well as several of his science fiction stories. A nice intro to Leiber’s work.

    Robert Bloch is also worth checking out — see his short stories “The Hungry House” (aka “The Hungry Glass” in its television incarnation on the Boris Karloff THRILLER series), and “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” Ditto Charles L. Grant’s collection TALES FROM THE NIGHTSIDE.

    Bests to all,


  • John F. MacMichael

    Manly Wade Wellman offers a distinctively American take on the classic ghost story. His collections “Who Fears the Devil?” and “Worse Things Waiting” (which won the World Fantasy Award in 1975) are treasures of the uncanny. His story “Up Under the Roof” in the latter volume is guaranteed to give the reader a grue.

  • John F. MacMichael

    And one more suggestion: “Feesters in the Lake” by Robert J. Leman. In the collection “Feesters in the Lake and Other Stories”.

  • Don

    One from a ghost’s point of view: “The Portobello Road,” by Muriel Spark.

  • Ramblingirl

    Any one of the series, Ghosts of Virginia, by L. B. Taylor Jr. Scary stuff.

  • Robert Aickman’s “Into the Wood” and “Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen”

    Andrew Klavan’s The Uncanny is a great novel. I wish Klavan would produce more ghost stories, either in short story form or novel length.

    Allow me to list several works by two of my favorite authors. Their ghost stories are more gothic in nature, than horrific like Dan Simmons work:

    Tim Powers: Earthquake Weather, Expiration Date, Last Call, and Three Days to Never.

    James Blaylock: “The Devil’s in the Details” (okay this isn’t a ghost story, per se, but it’s one of my favorites by the man – a great short story in which the devil attempts entry into this world through a politically correct college chapel), All the Bells on Earth, The Paper Grail, Night Relics, The Last Coin, The Rainy Season.

    Blaylock and Powers should really be more well known. I hope this post inspires a few folks to look up their work.

  • I also want to plug Neil Gaiman’s latest novel The Graveyard Book.

    And I didn’t see mentioned above Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series.

  • Ramblingirl

    I also remember, from my childhood, THE THING AT THE FOOT OF THE BED. Classic stories your children might enjoy.

  • Jenna

    I concur with the recommendations above of M. R. James. Truly he was the master.

    Love almost everything by E.F. Benson and recommend “The Confession of Charles Linkworth” for its chilling last line.

    – A. M. Burrage’s “Smee”. Its conclusion is priceless.
    – E. Nesbit’s “John Charrington’s Wedding”.
    – Dickens’ “To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt”.
    – Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher” (which later was made into an equally excellent movie starring the late, great Boris Karloff.)
    – Russell Kirk’s “Lex Talionis” and “Saviourgate”, which present both sides of the salvation coin, redemption and damnation.
    “Saviourgate” isn’t particularly horrifying, but the last line does cause a frisson of emotion. “Lex Talionis” by contrast is truly frightening.
    – Edith Wharton’s “Mr. Jones” and “Afterward”.

    I’ve also recently discovered the novels of F. G. Cottam, who weaves his hauntings out of the events and pop culture of the early 20th century. “Dark Echo” and “House of Lost Souls” are very good.

  • Andrew Batten

    Someone above mentioned Kipling’s “Mark of the Beast”, which gave me many a shiver as a boy. My father, however, took particular delight in sending us off to sleep with a reading “The Recrudescence of Imray.”

    Other kids got “Winnie the Pooh”, I got horror tales from British India. Thanks, Dad!

  • Jack

    Anything by LOVECRAFT!

    “That is not dead which can eternal lie;
    And with strange eons even death may die.”

  • Sebastian (a lady)

    When I was in the Navy, our ship’s library had a copy of A Sailor’s Valentine by Craig Moodie. There is one story in the book, about a man who dreams he is shipwrecked, only to wake up and find that his dream is coming true. I think the story is The Dream of the Whistling Pig.
    As an OOD on the midwatch, I used to scare my JOOD and JOOW (not to mention the helmsman and whatever other crew were listening in) by retelling this one.

  • Charles e daniels

    If you’re looking for ghost stories that are good for telling around a campfire while eating smores and burnt marshmallows, you’ll not go wrong with “When The Sun Goes Down, A Collection of Philmont Ghost Stories”. Perfect for scouts, as they’re scary but aren’t gruesome or gory. My scouts particularly like The Imp and The Blue Lights. The book is light and easy to carry in a backpack, and should be available at the Philmont store, The Tooth of Time Traders.

  • I also want to plug Neil Gaiman’s latest novel The Graveyard Book.

    And I didn’t see mentioned above Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series.

  • Dawn

    Any of E.F. Benson’s “spook stories” can raise the hair on the back of your neck.
    Saki wrote a number of stories with a supernatural element, which while not strictly ghost stories, are certainly hair-raising. I would cast my vote for “The Music on the Hill.”

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  • pugal selvi

    the haunted house”-pugalselvi

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