Haunted: 11 Novels with Emotional Ghosts

When the past won’t stay where it belongs…

The ancient Greeks believed that the boundary between the land of the living and the underworld of the dead was permeable. Orpheus and Odysseus both made it to Hades and back, and their experiences were traumatic. (Orpheus bungled his wife’s rescue mission and Odysseus spotted his mother, who he didn’t know was dead.) Humans have been obsessed with animating and interacting with the deceased — in other words, with ghosts — forever. Our fascination with breaking down the boundary of this life and the next results, in part, from the fact that we humans are so permeable ourselves. We don’t truly let anyone or anything go; every experience penetrates our consciousness and stays there, threatening to come back and make us feel all over again.

Ghosts are problems, emotional knots to be untied (no ghost is sticking around to see who wins the Giants game), which makes them popular devices in literature. Of course, hauntings come from endless sources. Characters can be haunted by ex-lovers, lost parents, or bad life choices. Being haunted simply means a forced reckoning with your past — which, depending on your life, can be much more terrifying than seeing dead people.

In that vein, here are 11 novels with emotional ghosts, plus a few dead people moving furniture, because it’s Halloween season, after all.

1. Artful by Ali Smith

This enchanting book is delightfully strange and essentially Ali Smith — she took four talks which she gave at Oxford University on Comp Lit and put them into a ghost story. We open with the narrator speaking to her dead lover, a ghost who has maintained some proprietary instincts about the apartment. The ghost is there, puttering around, stealing TV remotes, and slowly decaying. By mixing essay, meditation, word play, and love story, Smith achieves an original, sincere picture of loss.

2. Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

Another hybrid tale, this debut is a poignant mix of novel, fable, and prose poem. When a man’s wife dies suddenly, he and his two sons are faced with the challenge of processing the titular grief. Help comes to them in the unexpected form of a supportive yet rather sassy crow. But that’s the thing about grief — being in its throes can feel like being sucked into a hallucinatory alternate reality, one where you might just find solace in a large, smelly, talking bird.

3. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño’s episodic novel is the story of two poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, who are on a quest to find Cesárea Tinajero, a Mexican poet considered to be the mother of Visceral Realism. But it’s also about young male artists coming of age, Mexico City in the 1970s, and the impressions that we leave behind. Belano and Lima themselves become ghost-like — for much of the book we learn about them through others people’s glimpses, tales, brief encounters, and lingering fragments of memory.

4. Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante

Those who only know Ferrante from the Neapolitan series might be surprised that her other novels tend to be slim, intense works that take place over a short time frame, in this case, a few days. Troubling Love is a both a mystery and a meditation on parent-child relations, as the narrator, Delia, comes back to Naples for her mother’s funeral. Investigating why her mother committed suicide, Delia is sucked into the smelly, passionate, vulgar world of Naples and must confront uncomfortable truths about her childhood that have haunted her for years.

5. Outline by Rachel Cusk

A writer is in Athens to teach a course; we know that she is a mother and divorced, but that is about the extent of the information that Cusk gives us in this ingeniously crafted novel. Though short on names and details, the past of the narrator, and the people she speaks to, reverberate through every sentence. Reading this novel makes you realize how much of the present is spent talking about the past.

6. Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

A butler goes on a car journey to see an old colleague, and as he passes through the bucolic English countryside, he recounts his career working at Darlington Hall from the heydey of the great English houses through their decline after World War II. Ishiguro’s works tend to be preoccupied with the immutable past, but I found Remains of the Day to be especially devastating. Stevens, the narrator, captures the battle between regret and acceptance that we all must suffer when the past didn’t go as planned, when it feels incomplete, suddenly over, and we realize, only too late, that we would do it differently if we could do it again.

7. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

You could say that the characters in this Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel are haunted by an exclamation point. After the death of mamma Bigtree, the Bigtree family park deteriorates from a thriving allegator wresting park (!) to an empty relic of the family’s once happy past. As in other pieces written by Russell, characters also attempt to find literal ghosts in the creepy, watery world of the Thousand Islands off the coast of Southern Florida.

8. Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Bill Clegg’s novel isn’t just content with one ghost; it has many. The day before her wedding, a gas explosion kills June Reid’s daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, her boyfriend, and her ex-husband. Clegg explores such an overwhelming magnitude of loss in a surprisingly quiet, thoughtful way.

9. Old Filth by Jane Gardam

This is the first book of Gardam’s series starring Edward Feathers, or Old Filth (from the saying, Failed In London Try Hong Kong), a Raj orphan who grew up shuttled between England and the colonies. When his wife Betty dies, the stiff, proper Feathers, who is in retirement in England, is pursued by memories of their life in Hong Kong. Like Stevens in Remains of the Day, Feathers is haunted by a past which he has idealized but is starting to show its flaws.

10. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved uses a literal ghost to create one of the most powerful images in literature. Sethe, a slave who escaped a brutal planation in Kentucky, is haunted by the baby she killed rather then allow her to be sent back into slavery. The haunting extends to the figurative level, as every character is plagued by what they’ve experienced in the ugly, hellish world of slavery.

11. Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy

Roy’s atmospheric novel features a wide cast of characters but at its center is Nomi, a young woman who returns to the seaside town of Jarmuli to investigate her past, particularly the Guruji — leader of a large ashram — who sexually abused her when she was a child. Guruji is the ghost here, and though he’s gone he continues to influence her, from her inability to connect with her foster mother to the way she dresses herself as a punk.

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