What to Read When You’re Haunted


In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff tells his dead Cathy, “Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” He wants to be haunted—and sometimes we do, too.

Here’s a list of books to read when you’re haunted: when you want to be, when you don’t, and when you want it both ways—to take pleasure in the pain of it.


Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Of course Wuthering Heights. Here is Mr. Lockwood, recovering from a heartache of his own foolish making when he gets snowed in at Wuthering Heights, a lonely house swept with windy “wuthering” weather and occupied by the dark Heathcliff and his complicated web of hostile family members. Lockwood spends the night in Catherine Earnshaw’s room—the love of Heathcliff’s young life—when that wuthering wind causes a branch to break through the window—or is it a hand? – as a ghostly voice pleads, “Let me in!” Here is the ghost that Heathcliff longs for. But it won’t appear to him— not yet, and not for many pages of love and longing and misunderstanding and spite. Heathcliff will wreck fortunes and ruin women and try to make a whole new generation pay for the loss of his beloved Cathy. Her death leaves him in the abyss and her absence drives him something close to mad, until the end of the book when he tries to join her. Read Wuthering Heights when you, like Heathcliff, want to be haunted—for better or for worse, regardless of cost, and for as long as you can stand it.


Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” From that iconic first line we’re draw into Manderley, a house that has been abandoned, a house that has been haunted—by Rebecca, the narrator’s husband’s dead first wife. Beautiful Rebecca, impeccable Rebecca. The unnamed narrator is young and plain and socially clumsy in comparison. But things are not always as they seem at Manderley, and an accidental discovery reveals that what haunts us is not always deserving of the attention we give it. Read Rebecca if you’re ready to divest yourself of ghosts that provoke jealousy and pain.


Beloved by Toni Morrison
In her introduction to Beloved, Toni Morrison writes that to invite both herself and her readers into the “repellant landscape” of slavery “was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts.” And when these ghosts speak, what a story emerges. From the first line—“124 was spiteful”—we enter another house with a deeper haunting: by the dead, the missing, the lost. A mother has chosen death over slavery but only one of her children is actually killed. What happens to the rest? And when the dead child comes back, how will she be received? And at what cost? Sethe might want to be haunted by her beloved daughter but what does the daughter want? This is a book to read when hauntings feel all too real.


When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams
When Terry Tempest Williams’s mother is dying she tells her daughter, “I am leaving you all my journals. But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.” Williams promises. About a month later it is time. She finds them—“three shelves of beautiful clothbound books”—but when she opens them, they are blank. Six blank pages follow this revelation, to give the reader a taste of what Williams herself experienced. But then Williams’s words return in a mediation on voice and silence, on erasure and the written word. The blankness that comes after death is one that we can never fill. But Williams uses that blankness to find new ways of thinking, of speaking, of writing. Read When Women Were Birds when you have been felled by loss, haunted by blankness, and are ready to regain your footing and your voice.


The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston
The family that comes from China in the 1930s finds that America is full of ghosts—White Ghosts, Black Ghosts, Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts, Hobo Ghosts, Public Health Nurse Ghosts, and Social Worker Ghosts. These ghosts are part of their daily lives but one daughter is also haunted by specters of the past: the legacy of Fa Mu Lan, as well as her father’s dead sister, who is not to be spoken of. So many lessons this daughter learns: about sex and secrets and shame and spite. But the real punishment, she says, is forgetting. She can’t—or won’t—forget. But sometimes remembering comes with a cost. Read this book when you want to remember without being haunted, to own your ghosts but also keep them at bay.


Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Sometimes ghosts don’t haunt; instead, they inspire. Gene Luen Yang’s two-part graphic novel Boxers & Saints is set in China in the time of the Boxer Rebellion. In Boxers, village boy Little Bao loves to watch the gods of the opera when they come to perform every spring. One year he sees a girl whose face reminds him of one of the opera god’s masks and falls in love with her. But daily life leaves no room for romance, especially when white missionaries come and violence follows. Little Bao joins a band of rebels and is visited by one of the gods, who then possesses him as he fights. Then, other gods possess other fighters. The illustrations are glorious as this band of warriors sweeps across the country, unstoppable—until they bring their fight to what was then Peking.

In Saints, we learn the opera-mask girl’s story. Unlike Little Bao, she finds safety with the white missionaries and is visited by the spirit of Joan of Arc who guides her in her own battles. The illustrations of Joan shine golden in landscape that is otherwise muted in shades of grey. But when this girl, whose chosen Christian name is Vibiana, meets Little Bao in the bloodied streets of Peking, who—and whose forces—will win? This is a story of the power of the past to influence the then-present.


Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Clarissa Dalloway is a woman who knows who she is and what she wants, even as she reconsiders her past. She’s on her way to buy flowers for a party and while she walks through London on this errand she thinks about her youth, her lost loves. She is nostalgic without being wistful. She is aging without bitterness. She has had a passionate love but she values the space within her marriage more than the constriction of total romantic entanglement. When you want to get over being haunted, read Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf’s gorgeous language and Clarissa’s ringing clarity will show you how to reminisce without regret.


The Hours by Michael Cunningham
This is a book haunted by another book: Mrs. Dalloway. But Cunningham’s Clarissa is living in late twentieth-century New York City, not London, and she is married to Sally, not Richard, and Peter Walsh barely figures at all. And that is only one third of the story. Cunningham also tells the story of Virginia Woolf writing Mrs. Dalloway, and of Laura Brown reading it in 1950s Los Angeles. These three stories are braided together: the writer’s, the reader’s, and a contemporary version of the books characters’. If you have ever been haunted by a book, if you use reading to “calm and locate [your]self” (as Laura does), if you keep thinking about a book’s characters long after you close its cover, The Hours is for you.


“The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us” in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of advice-column answers from Dear Sugar, a column written by Cheryl Strayed that ran here at The Rumpus. But Strayed’s answers are more like essays, and the one that most speaks to hauntedness is “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us.” The question asked is a big one: How do you know if you should have a child? Strayed’s answer could be applied to any of life’s big questions. After giving some practical advice, Strayed admits that despite her contentment with her choices, there remains “her sister life”—“all the other things [she] could have done instead.” We all have a sister life and that life can haunt us because it remains unknown. As Strayed reminds us, “We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.” Read Tiny Beautiful Things when you are looking for safe harbor from whatever seas that have tossed you.


Leaving Resurrection by Eva Saulitis
So much is lost in this gorgeous essay collection by Eva Saulitis: a friend lost to suicide, a village to a tsunami, a relationship to distance, and untold life slicked over and killed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. And then there’s the loss of the writer herself, who died in 2016. But even amid these losses, so much is gained. Saulitis was both a poet and a scientist, and the way she writes about the whales she studied is keenly observant and lyrically beautiful. She writes that her essays are “transparencies, thin places, divided, stitched back together… One eye looking out at the world, on tarped body, wrapped in narratives, one brain asking what does it mean?” This is a book to read when seeking.


Blankets by Craig Thompson
Ah, the romance of first love, which is somehow always not only true love but the truest of loves. Craig Thompson grows up in Wisconsin, blanketed by snow in the winter, and by Christian conservatism all the time. Then he meets Raina at a sleep-away church camp. He visits her in Michigan over spring break and for two snowy weeks they spend their days talking earnestly, and their nights secretly sharing the same bed. Reality encroaches, and Thompson leaves confused, wondering how to reconcile desire and faith, art and obedience, betrayal and forgiveness. Thomson’s black and white illustrations in this graphic memoir show his snow-bound landscapes as well as the way his internal landscape shifts in response to both hope and rejection. This is a book to read when you are haunted by both beauty and pain, sometimes entwined, whether you want to be or not.


And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Randon’s debut essay collection, Be with Me Always, out now from University of Nebraska Press!  – Ed.

Be with Me Always by Randon Billings Noble
In a way, all good essays are about the things that haunt us until we have somehow embraced or understood them. Here, Noble considers the ways she has been haunted—by a near-death experience, the gaze of a nude model, thoughts of widowhood, Anne Boleyn’s violent death, a book she can’t stop reading, a past lover who shadows her thoughts—in essays both pleasant and bitter, traditional and lyrical, and persistently evocative and unforgettable.

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her collection Be with Me Always was published by the University of Nebraska Press in March 2019, and her lyric essay chapbook Devotional was published by Red Bird in 2017. Other work has appeared in the Modern Love column of the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. Currently she is the founding editor of the online literary magazine After the Art. You can read more at www.randonbillingsnoble.com. More from this author →