What to Read When You’re Surrounded by Ghosts


First, remain calm. Trust your senses. What you’re perceiving is no more or less real than what other people can perceive. Just because these ghosts appear only to you doesn’t mean they’re any less legitimate.

Second, discern what you’re dealing with. Different books on this list will prove helpful for different kinds of hauntings. A bitter poltergeist won’t respond to the ideas in The Invention of Morel, and a confused child won’t act like the creature in Carmilla.

Third, call on your compassion. In most cases, ghosts are compelled, just as humans are, by their own motivations, their own obsessions. Understand these obsessions, and you understand the haunting.

You can’t stop it, but you can be kind. What else is there, in life or death?

The books below will assist you in achieving these three important steps, which will help you to survive your haunting, and/or help your ghost to move on. (This is not your responsibility—even if you were responsible for the ghost in one way or another in life, a ghost’s obsessions in death belong to them alone—though they may well be your problem.)


Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc
Use this book to understand romantic and sexual love between two girls of high school age, and how the ghosts in our memories never desert us. It has been criticized for its purple prose by people who have no romance in their souls—or who have never been teenage girls. It was made into a surprisingly respectful and interesting film by Radley Metzger in 1968.


Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children by Shelley Jackson
Do not question your need for this book if you are surrounded by ghosts. It is at once a handbook for speaking to the dead, a harrowing, propellant story of greed and ambition, and a commonplace book of spiritualist apocrypha. Riddance should have been the talk of the book world, and of the supernatural world, when it came out; the living and the dead must correct this error at once. Also, buy the hardcover if you can.


The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Read this book to comprehend the futility of speaking back to ghosts, and the significant distinctions between what a ghost wants and what a living being wants. The ghosts in this novella are not traditional chain-shakers, but the same principles apply. It’s a slow burner despite being short, so have patience and pay careful attention.


Here by Richard McGuire
Comprehend the lives that come and go across a millennium. Listen to the inanity of most speech. Feel joy and rage in communion. Watch the decay of the world and those who live in it. Know whose graves you walk upon.


The Grip of It by Jac Jemc
This book is crucial for those experiencing chaotic, disruptive hauntings, those whose hauntings are not the haunted’s fault (after reasonable investigation), or those who are at personal risk due to a haunting. It’s never clearer than in these pages how a haunting fails to fit with a mortal understanding of the world. The Haunting of Hill House still spooks readers after seventy years in print; The Grip of It is a postmodern version of Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece.


The Natashas by Yelena Moskovich
Understand that the world is not a tidy, seamless room like the inside of an egg, but a weird and untamed phenomenon like the nest of a mad bird. Pockets of the inexplicable exist everywhere, among music and sex and nighttime; let dreams explain what roils beneath the orderly scrim of conscious life.


Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, edited and introduced by Carmen Maria Machado
Discover desire and hunger in the bodies and spirits of women, as tantalizing as it is dangerous. Be sure to pick up the Lanternfish Press edition of this classic vampire novel introduced by Carmen Maria Machado. Her introduction has ghosts of its own.


The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová by Kelcey Parker Ervick
This book—a work that would exist as a poor shade of itself, or not at all, without hybridity—offers a portrait of a real human being in a thousand tiny fragments: quotes, visual collage, art, poetry, memoir, erasure, palimpsest. It organizes a life in multiple dimensions and it portrays a beloved through many lenses. No beloved has only one aspect, and this book proves it.


The House, the Haunts, the Manner of All Things by duncan b. barlow and thaniel ion lee
If your haunting is focused around a place rather than a person, and you feel the need for something more elliptical than The Grip of It and more gruesome than Here, this book fits the bill. A skillful combination of lyrical storytelling and exhaustively detailed illustration.


Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus by Gayle Brandeis
Use this book to understand the lives victims had before they encountered their killer. Grieve for and marvel at those lives and their ends; understand why the dead may need to speak, or shout. Listen to the emptiness on these pages: space above and below speech, quiet between lines of poetry, caesuras of lost opportunity.


Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers
Indulge in the Victorian tradition of ghost stories without having to read dusty, difficult books. All anthologies are a mixed bag, but these authors truly love what they’re doing, and they speak in old voices extremely well.


Savage Conversations by LeAnne Howe
Read this book if you are being visited by a malevolent ghost, whether human or inanimate, and cannot understand why. Your culpability may become clear with further self-examination. Or it may not. Either way, you will have absorbed this critically important perspective on historical figures, madness, ghosts, and the inherent violence of the white American legacy.


And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Katharine’s forthcoming novella, Ceremonials, out from KERNPUNKT Press on February 11!  – Ed.

Ceremonials by Katharine Coldiron
Ceremonials is a twelve-part lyric novella inspired by Florence + the Machine’s 2011 album of the same name. It’s the story of two girls, Amelia and Corisande, who fall in love at a boarding school. Corisande dies suddenly on the eve of graduation, but Amelia cannot shake her ghost. A narrative about obsession, the Minotaur, and the veil between life and death, Ceremonials is a poem in prose, a keening in words, and a song etched in ink.

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Hobart, the Normal School, the Southern California Review, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator. More from this author →