Crime and mystery writers have long dallied with the supernatural. In the best books otherworldly events kindle investigations and disturb plot expectations, helping or hindering detectives. Hauntings range from barely glimpsed corner-of-the-eye presences to fully present characters with killer lines and backstories who stalk all through the pages—the type of ghosts I love to write. Ghosts are a gift to the crime writer. They resurrect buried transgressions, point spectral fingers, demand the righting of wrongs. The specters in these books may remain mysterious and unresolved, or they may be debunked as no more than smoke and mirrors or the product of a disturbed mind. Either way, they work for me. Because to drift into the realm of supernatural is to access a rich repository of our darkest, oldest fears. The supernatural confounds rationality allowing space for the uncanny, the unspeakable and the inexpressible. This list is personal; my favorite crime and mystery stories have a strong supernatural flavour and the power to unsettle, confound and thrill me as a reader.
The Hound of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
My favorite case of Holmes and Watson plays with local lore, a demonic hound and an ancient family curse. When Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead with an expression of terror on his face and the prints of a gigantic hound nearby, there are fears for the safety of next-in-line, Henry Baskerville. These fears are exacerbated by the threatening note received by Baskerville’s heir. With perfectly calibrated twists, a sublimely wild Dartmoor setting and an evocatively remote and creepy house.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
James’s novella is a maddeningly ambiguous work of genius. The story concerns a governess struggling to make sense of eerie happenings in an isolated country estate while overseeing her increasingly disquieting young charges. Subtexts appear as through a fog and the reader, like the governess, trembles toward the darkest of interpretations. With sinister sub-textual ripples, moments of profound menace and foreboding and sentences skewed with multiple meanings. Is this a case of malevolent haunting or a descent into madness and obsession?
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” so goes the stunning opening line that leads us into another wonderfully drawn country estate and the story of the haunting of the second Mrs de Winter by the first. The narrator, a gauche and uncertain new bride walks in the footsteps of Rebecca, renowned for her sophistication and beauty, who died in a tragic boating accident. Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper who remains unwholesomely committed to the dead Rebecca, is a sublimely sly antagonist.
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
There is a propulsive beat to the narrator’s account of murder and dismemberment in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic Gothic story. It leads us onward, clear-sightedly and without a note of remorse and with scant motive to the act of murder: “Object there was none. Passion there was none.” Despite the procedural unfolding of the action of the murder our ambiguous, unreliable narrator, ultimately remains a mystery to us and to their own self. The narrator may claim to be sane but is nonetheless haunted by the heartbeat of the dead old man, killed perhaps for no more reason than having a disturbing vulture-like eye.
Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg
This nightmarish blend of murder and the occult follows Harry Angel, an investigator of the hard-boiled, private eye variety. Angel takes the case of missing crooner Johnny Favorite and falls headlong into a disturbing world of voodoo, sex and violence where nothing is quite what it seems and he’s in danger of losing more than his life. For it turns out that Favorite kept some unusual company and had an interest in the otherworldly. Against a backdrop of 1950s New York, Hjortsberg fashions a wonderful, twisted, supernatural noir. Complete with a sharp plot, tortured humour and moments of visceral horror.
The Casebook of Carnacki The Ghostfinder by William Hope Hodgson
A collection of stories rather than a novel but then I had to include this early supernatural sleuth. Carnacki is a bachelor with time on his hands, a ghost-finding toolkit (including the wonderfully named ‘Electric Pentacle’) and a liking for recounting the details of his cases over a glass of something after dinner. The cases may feel formulaic and the Edwardian prose might seem a little antiquated, but for me this doesn’t detract from the fun in figuring out whether or not a real live ghost is behind the phenomenon Carnacki is investigating. Is it all smoke and mirrors or are there dark and terrifying spectral forces at work?
Ghost Story by Peter Straub
Four old friends gather to tell each other ghost stories. They share a secret, deep in their past, which has always haunted them and doesn’t seem to want to stay buried. Now something seems to be picking them off one by one. Straub’s sprawling, sometimes infuriatingly slow-burning plot is peppered with spikes of breath-holding suspense in a snowed-in small town setting. This rangy, menacing story balances a twisted mystery, themes of guilt and retribution and heaps of supernatural horror.
The Cure by Carlo Gébler
“Are you a witch, or are you a fairy – or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”
This remarkable novel tells the story of the murder of Bridget Cleary and the resulting trial and conviction that followed her death. Bridget was accused of being a witch in 19th-century rural Ireland and burned to death in her home by her husband and his nine accomplices—who then tried to cover up her murder. Gébler’s storytelling floats between the participants, conjuring a disturbing, insular, world. The local doctor treats Bridget for ‘nervous excitement and slight bronchitis’ but her husband, Michael Cleary, is still at a loss to explain Bridget recent disappearance and strange behavior. Cleary’s seemingly innocent belief in fairies finds a dark and sinister outlet as, supported by his immediate acquaintances, he begins to suspect his wife is a changeling. The resulting attempts to banish a demonic doppelgänger and bring about the return of the real Bridget had shocking and tragic consequences.