The five best new haunted houses in horror

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Louise Joyner left home as soon as she could, fleeing the humidity of Charleston, South Carolina, for a career in industrial design in Silicon Valley. Her brother, Mark, stayed put, his meandering and dysfunctional lifestyle patronized to his face and savaged in his absence by his family, as is so often the case with mildly disappointing scions of good Southern families. But now, Louise and Mark must figure out what to do with the relics of their recently departed parents’ lives: their father’s idiosyncratic economics research, their mother’s vast collection of Christian puppets and their house. However, some revenants will not go quietly into that good night. There are burdens this family has politely buried for far too long, and the Joyners are about to discover that some hauntings are neither stagecraft nor hellspawn. Some hauntings are homemade.

Author Grady Hendrix is a Charleston native, and How to Sell a Haunted House completely nails its Lowcountry setting. This reviewer is also a South Carolinian and can confirm that neither the idea of a Christian puppet ministry nor the actual Fellowship of Christian Puppeteers are made up. The depiction of Carolina culture is also accurate, especially Hendrix’s portrayal of how someone who grew up in it, left and then came back would perceive it: familiar and peculiar, unsettling and comforting, prompting a reckoning with how deeply strange its version of normal truly is. Hendrix only departs from this reality in one way: In no gauzy South Carolina summer that I can recall did the knickknacks acquire a vengeful sentience and wreak havoc on the strained psyches of a family’s prodigal offspring.

How to Sell a Haunted House effectively marries tropes ripped straight from the pages of a midcentury pulp magazine to a Pat Conroy-esque chronicle of Lowcountry generational trauma. Families are warm and lovely but also stifling, just like the summers; rituals are banal but also sacred, their violation the gravest of transgressions; and there are always skeletons (or puppets) in the sewing closets. How to Sell a Haunted House may be a heightened tale of horror, but it is built on something true. And it’s a lot of fun, as well.

How to Sell a Haunted House blends pulp horror with a Pat Conroy-esque chronicle of Lowcountry generational trauma—plus haunted puppets.
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Do you ever get a little creeped out when you visit your grandparents’ house? There’s something about the stillness of unused rooms and the sweet, dusty smell that can give you a slight sense of dread. But if you were to visit the Montgomery house in T. Kingfisher’s A House With Good Bones, you’d leave with more than an uneasy feeling. In fact, you might not leave at all! (Cue thunder and lightning.) 

Sam Montgomery has to move back in with her mom. The archaeoentomologist’s latest dig (she studies insects in archeological sites) has been put on an indefinite hold, but the good news is that Sam loves her mom, Edie, who lives in Sam’s grandmother’s old house in rural North Carolina. But Edie seems tired and nervous, very unlike her normal self. Sam has strange dreams about her dead grandmother, vultures circle outside all day, ladybugs spill out of the faucets and Sam swears that bony fingers touch her hair in the middle of the night. But Sam’s a scientist. Shouldn’t there be a reasonable explanation for all of this? Determined to find out the truth, Sam starts unearthing secrets about her family that were better left undisturbed. 

Kingfisher is in her element when the tension is at its highest. She keeps a narrow focus on Sam and the handful of other major characters, amplifying the sensation that threats are imminent. Danger in horror can sometimes feel arbitrary and nonspecific, but in this house, you know what’s haunting you. As things get stranger and stranger, the writing gets choppier, like Sam’s panting breath and racing heart. And Kingfisher isn’t afraid to embrace the weird: A House With Good Bones’ climax is strange, scary and unforgettable.

That being said, don’t write off this book if you’re not a horror enthusiast—A House With Good Bones is also laugh-out-loud funny. Sam’s inner monologue is full of hilarious observations about living with her mom, not having reliable internet and simply being 32. The aforementioned vultures? They have names and belong to a neighbor. The book is balanced with knife’s-edge precision between fright and humor in a way that brings Jordan Peele’s sensational Get Out to mind. You’ll be craving the next tense moment, because it means the next joke is right around the corner too. 

A House With Good Bones shares another key trait with Get Out: Both works derive their frightening power from placing reasonable people in unreasonable circumstances and forcing them to respond. It’s nerve-wracking for a character to ask “Is this real?” when faced with something strange; it’s downright terrifying when the answer is “Yes.”

Impressively weird, nerve-wracking but still laugh-out-loud funny, A House With Good Bones is another horror hit from T. Kingfisher.

Empty nester Margaret Hartman is thrilled when she and her husband, Hal, buy a gorgeous old Victorian home. But the house soon begins testing them with annual September “shenanigans”: blood oozing down the walls, creepy spirits of 19th-century children and a demonic boogeyman that even an experienced priest can’t exorcize. Margaret and Hal weather three cursed Septembers, but Margaret in particular is in it for the long haul. When Hal disappears on the eve of the fourth September and his and Margaret’s daughter, Katherine, arrives to search for him, family secrets are brought to light.

From the ghost of a murdered maid to swarms of giant flies, the house’s antics become routine for Margaret, and her wry, witty narration will also accustom readers to these supernatural events. Despite the house’s horrors, it still provides Margaret with a haven, a purpose and an emotional connection to an eerie spirit community. But when author Carissa Orlando reveals why Margaret is so good at putting out proverbial fires and quelling very real ghosts, The September House takes an unexpected emotional turn. Margaret knows that ugly secrets can be carried well beyond the grave, and it’s better to heal, forgive and protect when you can. Her interactions with Katherine are particularly tense and anxiety-inducing as Orlando explores an estranged parent-child relationship impacted by intergenerational trauma. 

The September House pulls inspiration from classic settings such as the Bates Motel, Rose Red, the Overlook Hotel and Hill House, but Orlando’s characterization of the old Victorian is fresh and fascinating. The house serves as an analogy for the deterioration of family and mental health, with the collapse of a person’s mind being more terrifying than any specter lurking in the shadows. Some of the body horror moments may feel familiar, but Margaret’s delightfully matter-of-fact voice puts a new spin on even the oldest of tropes, and the novel’s horrifying events unfold at a furious pace. The September House is a riveting adventure that will grab you by the ankles and drag you down into the pitch-black basement you’ve been warned to avoid.

Carissa Orlando’s darkly funny and unexpectedly emotional The September House follows an empty nester who refuses to leave her extremely haunted Victorian home.
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Ever since I was a kid, I have loved reading books featuring a haunted house with a creepy resident; a feisty, determined heroine; and strange goings-on that gradually turn scary. But rarely, if ever, have I read a haunted house book that features such gorgeous prose as Alix E. Harrow’s latest novel, Starling House. Early on, Harrow describes how 26-year-old narrator Opal McCoy has been dreaming of the titular house since she was a child: “I often wake up with the taste of river water and blood in my mouth, broken glass in my hair, a scream drowning in my chest. But that morning, the first one after I set foot on Starling land, there’s nothing but a deep quiet inside me, like the dead air between radio stations.” 

Opal works hard at Tractor Supply Company to try to save enough money to send her younger brother, Jasper, to a fancy boarding school. Their mother died a mysterious death, their father has never been in the picture and they live in a dingy motel room in the dying town of Eden, Kentucky. Opal is desperate to escape Eden, which offers nothing much besides two Dollar Generals and a strip-mined stretch of riverbank, thanks to the operations of nearby Gravely Power. 

The big, churning wheels of this lusciously plotted book begin to quickly turn when Opal takes a job cleaning for Starling House’s current owner, a reclusive young man named Arthur Starling. Opal finds herself increasingly intrigued by Arthur despite his odd ways and off-putting looks. But Gravely Power representative Elizabeth Baine, in hopes of obtaining the mineral rights to Arthur’s land, demands that Opal spy on Arthur and his residence, threatening Jasper’s future if she declines.

Alix E. Harrow had never written about her home state—until she left it.

Harrow invents a rich backstory for Starling House, making clever use of footnotes and even a fake Wikipedia page for 19th-century author Eleanor Starling, who married into the family and wrote and illustrated an unsettling children’s book, which may have been the source of Opal’s Starling House nightmares. Opal uncovers many different versions of the same stories about the house and its inhabitants, past and present, and the truth is hard to sort out. “The Gravelys are either victims or villains; Eleanor Starling is either a wicked woman or a desperate girl. Eden is either cursed, or merely getting its comeuppance,” she concludes.

Excellent social commentary unfolds in the matchup between feisty, sarcastic Opal and the greedy power company. Harrow has tons of fun along the way, noting in Eleanor Starling’s Wikipedia page, for instance, that “director Guillermo del Toro has praised E. Starling’s work, and thanked her for teaching him that ‘the purpose of fantasy is not to make the world prettier, but to lay it bare.’ ” Alix Harrow does just that in Starling House, a riveting fantasy overflowing with ideas and energy that clears away the cobwebs of corporate power and neglect.

Alix E. Harrow’s Starling House is a riveting Southern gothic fantasy with gorgeous prose and excellent social commentary.
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A woman in search of a husband finds one with more than his fair share of deadly secrets in the latest atmospheric, well-plotted horror novel from author Caitlin Starling.

The Death of Jane Lawrence takes place in an alternate version of Victorian-era Britain, known as Great Bretlain. The eponymous heroine is headstrong, wonderfully smart and knows that to live independently, she must wed. It seems illogical, but finding the right man would allow Jane to continue her own hobbies and pursuits, as a married woman is afforded far more freedom than an unmarried maiden.

Bachelor Augustine Lawrence, the only doctor in town, seems like a fine option for Jane. He agrees without too much fuss, under one simple condition: Jane must never visit his ancestral home. She’s to spend her nights above his medical practice, while he retires to Lindridge Hall for the evening. Eventually, of course, Jane finds herself spending the night at Lindridge Hall following a carriage accident, and where she slowly and methodically uncovers the skeletons lurking in Augustine’s closet.

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Anyone who has ever read a gothic novel knows exactly where this is going, but Starling does a magnificent, twisted job steering clear of the obvious plot beats. There are surprises galore in the secrets these characters keep and the lengths they’ll go to conceal them. Key to many a successful horror novel is having a main character to root for, one whom readers will want to see come out of everything not only alive but also stronger. Jane is absolutely that kind of character, a beacon of light in a dark world through her sheer tenacity alone, making her exploration of Lindridge Hall a white-knuckle reading experience.

Fans of Starling’s debut, the sci-fi horror novel The Luminous Dead, will find the same steadily growing sense of eeriness here, despite the markedly different setting. Jane isn’t exploring caves on an alien planet, but her journey still feels claustrophobic, almost asphyxiated by the estate’s mysterious walls. Are the horrors she senses of a supernatural nature? Or are they merely born of a man with too many internal demons? “Both” is also an option, and Starling keeps readers guessing until the very end.

For those who crave intense and detailed gothic horror, or those who just want more Guillermo del Toro a la Crimson Peak vibes in their life, The Death of Jane Lawrence is a must-read.

A woman in search of a husband finds one with more than his fair share of deadly secrets in the latest atmospheric, well-plotted horror novel from author Caitlin Starling.

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