It’s Not the House: 8 Great Books with Unusual Hauntings

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Liberty Hardy

Senior Contributing Editor

Liberty Hardy is an unrepentant velocireader, writer, bitey mad lady, and tattoo canvas. Turn-ons include books, books and books. Her favorite exclamation is “Holy cats!” Liberty reads more than should be legal, sleeps very little, frequently writes on her belly with Sharpie markers, and when she dies, she’s leaving her body to library science. Until then, she lives with her three cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon, in Maine. She is also right behind you. Just kidding! She’s too busy reading. Twitter: @MissLiberty

One of the most popular tropes in scary books (and television and movies) is the haunted house. And rightly so! We as humans require dwelling to keep us safe. If something is in that place making us afraid, that is scary. There are literally tens of thousands of haunted house books, and hundreds of those I could recommend. But this time around, I went for books where the ghost isn’t in the home, it’s elsewhere, and also maybe the ghost isn’t scary this time. And so I present 8 Great Books with Unusual Hauntings!

Many ghost tales have ghosts that seem to follow a set of rules. They are frightening and combative, they have an unfinished agenda that needs completing before they can move on, they only come out when its dark. (Why are so many ghosts nocturnal?) In these eight great novels, yes, the ghosts might abide by some of these things, but there’s something different about each of them. They might be a dead relative in need of your help. They might be a vengeful ghost trying to rid the world of evil. They may be the narrators of the story. In one case, the ghost is the spirit of a bookstore’s most annoying customer. Whatever their motive, these books are great!

cover of Black Water Sister by Zen Cho; illsutration of young Asian woman surrounded by red hanging paper lanterns

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

The call is coming from inside the house! Except this time the call is a ghost, and the house is Jessamyn Teoh. When Jess, broke and jobless, moves back to Malaysia with her parents, she thought her biggest problem would be telling them she’s queer. But that was before the ghost of her dead grandmother, a spirit medium, took up residence in her head. And Ah Ma is going to use Jess to settle the score with a gangster who has offended the Black Water Sister deity, with or without Jess’s permission.

cover of Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett, blue with little cartoon foxes all over it

Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett

This is my favorite book of 2022! And part of the reason I love it so much is because of the narrators. This is the story of a young woman with healing hands who moves back to her small NH town to help her dying father. There are also plots involving the ghost of a real NH naturalist, a gated forest, an expensive mail-order fox, a middle grade class, a missing former best friend, and even more. And bringing all of this to us are the narrators, the dead who reside in the town cemetery. They are funny and sweet, and I loved the rules about who gets to walk the town and who must reside in the ground.

cover of Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle De Kretser; illustration of a brown dog in front of a flowering green bush

Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle De Kretser

And this is a slight book, but one that has stayed with me since I read it. Everything is different for Frances when she and her husband move to a new city in Australia. As she takes her dog on daily walks, she observes her eccentric neighbor who wears an old-fashioned dress in a garden that doesn’t quite seem to be there…

cover of Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan; photo of person in old-fashioned dress pushing a slip through the water

Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

This is my second-favorite Amy Tan novel, after The Bone Setter’s Daughter — which everyone should read — but it has the best title. Bibi Chen had planned a spectacular trip from San Francisco to the Burma Road for 11 of her friends. But when she dies, she instead gets to experience the trip as a ghost and watch as her friends veer from her meticulous itinerary and eventually disappear on a foggy lake on Christmas morning.

cover of The Ghost Variations: One Hundred Stories by Kevin Brockmeier; illustrations of dozens of little emojis relevant to the stories in the book

The Ghost Variations: One Hundred Stories by Kevin Brockmeier

And this is exactly as advertised: 100 stories about ghosts! Brockmeier has documented hauntings of so many kinds, both literal and metaphorical, in so many different ways! It’s a speculative delight. I also HIGHLY recommend his novel The Brief History of the Dead. It’s about a limbo city populated by dead people that are still remembered by the living, and what that city looks like when there’s only one person left on the planet.

cover of The Sentence by Louise Erdrich; a repeating geometric pattern of squares and triangles in reds, blues, yellows, blacks, and whites

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

If you work or have worked in retail, this novel will sound like a horror story! Erdrich takes events such as the beginning of COVID-19 and the police killing of a Black man, and incorporates them into a year in the life of Tookie. Tookie, who was recently released from years of incarceration, now works at an indie bookstore, where one day the ghost of her most annoying customer begins to haunt the store. Tookie must try and figure out why Flora won’t leave while the world is in turmoil just outside the doors.

cover of Nuclear Family by Joseph Han; image of many different colored ribbons gathered in a bunch

Nuclear Family by Joseph Han

And this fantastic brand-new novel from Han, who was just named one of the National Book Foundations 5 Under 35 for the year, is also about family ghosts. The Chos, a Korean American family living in Hawai’i, think they are living the dream with their successful delicatessen and their daughter in college. But when a viral video shows their son, who is in South Korea to teach English, attempting to cross into North Korea, it throws their world into turmoil. What they and the rest of the world don’t know, though, is that Jacob has been possessed by the ghost of his long-lost grandfather who wants to return to North Korea and find out what happened to his loved ones.

cover of the girl from the well by rin chupeco; illustration of a ghostly girl with black hair looking into the reflection in a well

The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

And last, but not least, another fabulous ghost with an agenda tale! But this time, the ghost is a young girl who can walk in the human world. Not only that, she’s the ghost of a girl named Okiku who was murdered centuries ago, but now roams the world killing those who kill. One day when she meets a misunderstood boy who carries evil under his skin that only she can see, she knows she must help him.

If you want to read more ghost books, check out 8 of the Best New Haunted House Novels by Women, 30 Haunted House Books That Will Give You The Creeps, and 8 of the Best (Haunted) Books About Ghosts. And be sure to sign up for our horror newsletter for all things bookish and scary!