Author of The Upstairs Room Kate Murray-Browne shares why she has always been fascinated by ghost stories and her recommendations for the supernatural tales you should be reading this October.

I grew up with ghost stories. My grandmother and great-aunt were great believers in the supernatural, and stories about premonitions or mysterious figures crossing the room at night were part of my childhood. I sought out these stories but with a fascination mired in fear: for a long time, I was more afraid of seeing a ghost than almost anything else.

When I decided to write The Upstairs Room, my novel about an uninhabitable house, I gritted my teeth and turned back to spooky stories, from old favourites and classics to more peculiarly unsettling novels. To mark the approach of Hallowe’en, here’s a selection of the books and stories I was thinking about as I wrote. 

The Woman in Black

Susan Hill’s classic is in some ways the opposite. The horror is almost baroque: a woman with a wasted face, a house separated from the town by a causeway, a rocking chair with a mind of its own – and a ghost with genuinely evil intent. But Hill elevates these tropes to much more than the sum of their parts and the subtle touches are equally brilliant: the eerie names (Eel Marsh House, Crythin Gifford, Jennet Humfrye) and the ever-so-slightly-off toys in the nursery (‘a monkey made of leather and a cat and four kittens knitted from wool, a furry bear and a bald doll with a china head and a sailor suit’).

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Shirley Jackson’s deeply unsettling novella starts with a trip to buy groceries – and the darkness in the mundane and domestic (from Merricat’s strange ritualistic objects to the arsenic in the sugar bowl) continues throughout the novel. Jackson perfectly captures the very specific fear embodied by ordinary things and uses levity and comedy to devastating effect.

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The Little Stranger

I first read this novel on holiday, in possibly the least frightening setting of all time – a time-share apartment in Mallorca. It was the exact opposite of Hundreds Hall, the ancestral home slowly killing its inhabitants, and yet I still remember lying awake at night thinking about the moving shaving glass. Here, the possibility that the psyches of the inhabitants are actually causing the strange events, rather than inventing them, is entertained, along with more rational and more ghostly explanations – and Waters keeps them all in play perfectly until the very end.

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Broken Harbour

The hint of the supernatural in Tana French’s detective series is so artfully woven in, the two genres come to feel like a perfect fit. The crime scene in Broken Harbour – a suburban house on an unfinished estate outside Dublin – has an atmosphere as oppressive as any haunted house, the peculiar noises in the attic are just as chilling and what French leaves unexplained is as disturbing as the grisliest post-mortem.

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The Turn of the Screw

I read this many years ago in an attic room in Cambridge, and the memory of just one image (Miss Jessel sitting in the governess’s chair) frightened me more than the children in peril. It now strikes me as very Jamesian to invoke such terror with the subtlest infringement (is this the most benign, civilised thing a ghost could do?) It was also the first unreliable narrator I’d encountered in a ghost story. Hilary Mantel argues that all ghost stories need a ‘blunt literalist’ to provide ‘the voice of scepticism’, but a narrator with questionable sanity can be useful too: were the ghosts real or was she (it is often a ‘she’) going mad?

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'The Yellow Wallpaper'

This question is perhaps least ambiguous in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – the narrator tells us she is suffering from ‘nervous troubles’ right from the start – but in a sense it doesn’t really matter. The wallpaper, ‘a smouldering, unclean yellow’, and the malevolent shapes it harbours (‘the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down’) aren’t any less frightening for being the product of someone’s disturbed mental state.

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