Halloween is almost upon us. In my part of North America it is the season of ghost stories, delightfully macabre tales designed to distract from the very real possibility that we may be attacked and consumed by the Great Pumpkin. Gourd-anxious readers, be assured that many authors have written divers delightful supernatural tales, tales that will successfully distract you. When you look up, you will see that the pumpkins you’ve been eying nervously are only a little closer than the last time you checked…
The Girl From the Well by Rin Chupeco (2014)
Okiku has whiled away the centuries since her brutal murder by engaging in a series of vengeance killings. The men who murdered Okiku are too dead to punish, but there is no shortage of men equally worthy of punishment. Okiku takes a particular interest in child-killers.
Simply punishing killers after the fact becomes unsatisfactory. Okiku bends her efforts toward protecting young Tarquin from the serial killer stalking him. For someone with Okiku’s abilities, the task should be trivial…except for the fact that Tarquin carries within him something against which Okiku herself has little protection.
Almost every major problem faced in this novel starts when someone tries to find a quick, convenient solution to a short-term problem. Toss a woman down a well to eliminate her, gain a homicidal ghost who’ll be active for centuries to come.
Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones (2017)
Twelve-year-old Junior’s single mother works hard for minimum wage. Junior struggles with sleepwalking, his younger brother Dino is bullied, and Junior’s mother’s boyfriend is abusive. Life is a miserable experience for Junior and his family…but that does not mean things cannot get much worse.
Cue the reappearance of Junior and Dino’s long-absent father. The reunion is unexpected, not least because the boys’ father died years before. The revenant has plans for Dino, plans that are emphatically not in Dino’s best interest. What Junior can do to save his brother is unclear; while his father is increasingly adept at manipulating the physical world, there seems to be nothing Junior can do to touch the ghost.
Among other things, this novel is a refutation of the assertion that “whatever does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Summer Ghost by Otsuichi (2021)
Summer is ghost-story season in Japan. What better time of year for suicidally depressed teens Tomoya, Aio, and Ryu to try their hand at a bit of necromancy! Will the Summer Ghost appear if the trio summons her? Or will this simply be yet another one of life’s disappointments?
Having nothing better to do with her time, murdered Ayane manifests. At least for the duration of ghost season, the trio is now a quartet. Good company for three death seekers’ final summer: the shade of a dead woman. But Ayane has an agenda of her own, and that last summer will not play out as the teens expect.
This is a ghost story. It is not a horror story.
Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland (2022)
Murdered by a lynch mob, Ophie’s father’s ghost warned Ophie and her mother in time for them to flee before their home was burned down around them. The two escape from Georgia to Pittsburgh, which is at least a bit safer for Black Americans (although it is still far from a perfect haven).
It turns out that seeing her father’s ghost wasn’t a one-off deal. Ophie discovers that she can now see all ghosts. Pittsburgh is crowded with the shades of the dead.
Also full of ghosts: Daffodil House, the wealthy abode where Ophie’s mother and now young Ophie herself work. Most of the ghosts seem indifferent to the living. A few appear helpful. As Ophie’s aunt Rose could warn Ophie, appearances can be deceiving. The friendliest ghosts could be the greatest threats.
This is a mystery novel, one in which the detective has the advantage of being able to converse with murder victims long after their demise. Not that that is necessarily enough to ensure justice in the world in which Ophie lives.
“The Hand of M.R. James” by Sarah Tolmie (Published in Sacraments for the Unfit, 2023)
The Covid-19 pandemic ended on-campus conviviality and in-person conferences for medievalist Helena. Prudence demands that Helena and her family isolate themselves within their home. Comparative safety is paid for by isolation; such social contact as Helena now enjoys occurs only via the medium of Zoom.
Rather, almost all social contact. To her surprise, Helena becomes engaged in ongoing communication with noted scholar Montague Rhodes James. Through means unclear, James’ comments manifest within Helena’s own scholarly notes. It is an astonishing conversation… not least because M.R. James died in 1936. But it’s not an unwelcome interruption to Covid isolation.
If there is one thing working on a university campus teaches me, it is that many people are completely unfamiliar with obscure historical events like the Covid-19 pandemic (which is still ongoing, though it sometimes seems that few will admit as much). Covid is a contagious, often lethal disease. For a very short time a few years ago, people pretended that containing it was important despite the inconvenience of wearing masks and the fact that empty offices made middle managers sad. Strange but true!
Ghost stories can be eerie or comforting, allusive or illuminating. The above five are but a few of the many that the dedicated reader can surely find. No doubt there are worthy ghost stories not mentioned above. Feel free to mention your favorites in the comment section below.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021, 2022, and 2023 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.