From folklore with added fright factor to otherworldly modern tales, we present a selection of titles from the Booker Library that tap into our darkest fears of spectres and spirits
‘Ghost stories,’ as Susan Hill, author of The Woman in Black, once said, ‘are a way of exploring the boundaries between life and death, between the known and the unknown, between order and chaos’. A master of the craft, the Booker Prize judge (1975 and 2011) and two-time nominee (1970 and 1972) is all too aware that a good ghost story can tap into the darkest fears of the human psyche, taking us to a world beyond our understanding.
For centuries, the genre has carried an enduring appeal for book lovers - whether you’re partial to a jump scare or an absorbingly eerie atmosphere. While there’s a rich canon of classics and commercial favourites to plunder, beyond the tropes of haunted houses and chain-rattling apparitions there’s also a wealth of more contemporary ghost stories, with modern writers keen to reclaim and subvert the genre. By using the supernatural as a metaphor to address real-world issues, they are pushing the boundaries of what a ghost story can be - the effect of which is often far more affecting than a traditional tale of spooks and spectres.
So join us as we delve into the Booker archives to select the best ghost stories with a literary twist.
Revered for her prowess within the bounds of historical fiction, namely for the Wolf Hall series, Hilary Mantel’s heartland was, perhaps surprisingly, the gothic. Here, in this dark hinterland, she excelled in telling haunting tales of human nature with a bleak edge.
It was her 2005 novel Beyond Black that saw her first longlisted for the Booker Prize - a suburban noir about a medium Alison Hart, who is tormented by the dead she sees all around her. With her cynical sidekick Colette, Alison tours the psychic fairs of small commuter-belt towns in southern England, while concealing the terrors the afterlife really holds from her wide-eyed clients (‘the true nature of the place beyond black’, Alison says, is not a place to be desired). She is haunted by a ‘spirit guide’, Morris, a snivelling man who played a part in her traumatic childhood - a trauma which still has a grip on her. But while this all sounds rather grim, Mantel carefully imbues her writing with her trademark wit that elevates the novel beyond the sinister and sets it apart from typical ghost stories.
Beyond Black was our Book of the Month for April 2023. Read more about it here.
When Shehan Karunatilaka began work on The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, he thought ‘a ghost story where the dead could offer their perspective seemed a bizarre enough idea to pursue’. He began by studying supernatural folklore and collecting ghost stories while intertwining these with his own experience growing up through the Sri Lankan Civil War in the 1980s. When he was finished, Karunatilka had crafted that offbeat idea into the novel which went on to win the Booker Prize in 2022.
Set against the backdrop of the conflict, it follows a war photographer who wakes up dead in a celestial afterlife, while in the real world his dismembered body slowly sinks into the Beira Lake, alongside countless other victims. As Maali straddles an afterlife full of the war’s lost souls, while still being able to move unseen among the living, he has just seven days to unravel the mystery surrounding his death and pass on a trove of devastating photographs to those closest to him. The Booker judges praised the book upon its win, saying it ‘dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, east and west’.
The inspiration for George Saunders’ otherworldly story about Abraham Lincoln’s son came from a very real place. It was on a visit to Washington DC where Saunders learned that the body of Willie - the 16th U.S. President’s son - was held in a Georgetown crypt. It was there that Lincoln, bereft and heartbroken, used to go to hold Willie’s lifeless body in his arms. Saunders carried this poignant image with him for two decades, before he finally put pen to paper and wrote his 2017 Booker Prize-winning novel.
Set in a liminal, purgatory-like space after Willie’s death, as the American Civil War rages in the background, Willie finds himself trapped in this waiting room while a battle erupts for his soul in the cemetery around him which is crawling with tormented souls who choose to remain next to their own bodies, rather than transition to the afterlife. Saunders’ story is a meditation on life, familial love and death, and he illustrates this devotion between parent and child in a mash-up of traditional gothic horror and a moving tale of grief.
Five pounds was all Sara Wilby’s life cost in Ali Smith’s Hotel World. A cheap bet, to see if she could fit in the dumb waiter. We meet Smith’s lead character as she plummets down the shaft to her death.
‘The ceiling came down, the floor came up to meet me. My back broke, my neck broke, my face broke, my head broke. The cage round my heart broke open and my heart came out. I think it was my heart. It broke out of my chest and it jammed into my mouth. This is how it began. For the first time (too late) I knew how my heart tasted.’
Hotel World is a macabre read, but then again, Ali Smith never did do ‘nice’. Her narrative follows Sarah as she tries to make sense of her death, roaming places to which she has a connection, and after a brief period of haunting her own family, she returns to the Hotel Grand to reunite with her decomposing body. Smith’s wider story is populated by the voices of four other women, women with damaged souls whose lives interconnect. Her narrative is experimental, with each of their monologues varying in style and rhythm while they muse on life and death. Hotel World was Ali Smith’s first book to be nominated for the Booker, back in 2001. She has since been nominated a further three times.
Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny was the first Korean work of speculative fiction to be listed for the International Booker Prize when it made the longlist in 2022. It’s a collection of short stories that straddle the boundaries of sci-fi, magical realism and horror, while dabbling in the supernatural, which Chung has laced with an overarching, fable-like narrative that points a finger at the patriarchy. In ‘Home Sweet Home’, Chung uses the classic narrative device of the haunted house to comment on capitalism, while ‘Reunion’, set in Poland with the shadow of the holocaust lurking in the background, uses the sighting of a ghost to address generational trauma. While Cursed Bunny reveals some uncomfortable truths about society, hidden amongst the bleak plotlines and the twists and turns are lyrically written morality tales, that, combined with Chung’s razor-sharp social commentary, show what it is to be human in a world that often feels like its set up to fail you.
For a quintessential ghost story, look no further than Sarah Waters’ postwar set The Little Stranger, where things go bump in the night from within the crumbling Hundreds Hall. The Georgian manor in the 1947-set story is the beating heart of this novel - it’s home to the Ayres family, who seem to be haunted by a malevolent presence, within the fading grandeur of their estate.
Waters carefully and deliberately escalates tension as we unravel the sinister secrets of the house and the family. Like many great ghost stories, much of The Little Stranger’s terror is psychological rather than physical, and it’s this suffocating sense of disquiet that consumes the family from within, where the novel thrives. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009 and went on to be adapted to film in 2018 starring Ruth Wilson and Domhnall Gleeson.
Set in a small town in coastal Indonesia, the beginning of Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger - the very first lines, in fact - include a brutal death, revealing both the victim and killer. It’s a bold subversion of almost every crime novel - here’s what most writers would offer up in an entire novel, before you’ve even turned the page. The perpetrator is a 20-year-old man, now a murderer, yet he remains at the scene, claiming the blame lies at ‘a tiger inside my body’ - a vengeful supernatural spirit that is passed through generations.
Kurniawan weaves the fantastical with the oral folkloric traditions of Southeast Asian culture, borrowed from his own childhood and Javanese communities where tigers are said to be guardians of their families. In such places, the supernatural and the natural world happily coalesce, much like in the novel. Longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2016, Man Tiger beautifully weaves together a spellbinding mystery, rich with iconography, to create a novel with almost magical qualities.
Just before she won the Booker in 1979 with Offshore, a slip of a novel about the houseboat community on the Thames, Penelope Fitzgerald wrote another deceptively simple story about a newly-opened bookshop in a sleepy provincial town. At its helm is Florence Green, a misfit amid a village of window twitchers who are aghast at the proposal of change. While Florence battles the hostility of the locals, the 500-year-old damp-infested building begins to take on a life of its own. Said to be inhabited by a ‘rapper’, or a poltergeist, it begins to slowly terrorise Florence, shaking windows, rattling teacups, and knocking on walls. A cash register with a stoic ‘ding’ is installed to drown out the noise, with Florence determined that the village will not get the better of her. Longlisted in 1978, Fitzgerald’s book is a black comedy laced with Shirley Jackson-levels of unease.
In her 2021 shortlisted collection of stories, Mariana Enríquez explores the darker side of contemporary Argentina, highlighting the country’s political and social unrest through a cast of crooked witches, unruly teenagers, homeless ghosts and hungry women. The first short story shows a woman’s addiction to cigarettes that leads her to a dangerous encounter with a mysterious figure. ‘The Cart’, unleashes a curse in an isolated rural area, while in ‘Back When We Talked to the Dead’ a group of friends use an Ouija board, with terrifying consequences.
It’s clear Enriquez revels in fear, but where the author excels is when combining the genre with themes of class struggle, gender inequality, and corruption; her stories serving as a powerful reminder of the real-world issues that haunt our societies.