I’ve always been a big fan of ghosts; I’ve cherished many a spooky read I’ll remember at night in the dark on a dash across the house. There’s something fascinating about ghosts being formerly-human apex predators with very specific grievances, their powerful energies focused on the darkest of emotions and motivations. But what of the ghosts who are friendly? The ghosts who remember humanity? The ghosts with goals that (largely) don’t involve hanging around in the dark, scaring unsuspecting humans, but instead aim to help and be helped by them?
In fantasy, there’s often the opportunity to put a face—and a purpose—to a spectre.
When I wrote my debut The Undetectables, there was no question of the inclusion of a ghost with substance (and Theodore Wyatt contains substance in spades—or so he’d tell you himself). As the trope goes, ghosts are essentially a manifestation of a human spirit with something keeping them tethered to the mortal plane. Getting to see that humanity play out—dramatically, erratically, or helpfully in some way—is one of my favourite things to read.
Rummaging through my shelves (and digging through my Kindle), I assembled a group of titles I’ve loved where a ghost and a human forge an unlikely bond, move toward a common goal, or even—if somewhat reluctantly—become friends.
Here are five books featuring an unlikely alliance with a ghost.
Grave Expectations by Alice Bell
For everyone who has ever asked ‘where are all the ghosts from the noughties?’, look no further. This is a hilarious cosy crime meets urban fantasy mash-up that had me cackling all the way through. Teenage ghost Sophie is all too happy to help medium Claire talk to other ghosts—as long as Claire doesn’t mind a heavy dose of sarcasm, her ever-present velour tracksuit, and her disdain for most of Claire’s hobbies. Of course, Sophie’s reasons for hanging around Claire are deeply mysterious—nobody knows where her body is, there’s no logical explanation as to why Sophie would be tethered to her living best friend while said friend is now in her thirties, and, most worryingly… how come Sophie doesn’t remember how she died? When Claire (and therefore, Sophie) is brought to a posh manor by an old acquaintance from university to entertain her family with a séance, Claire stumbles upon another ghost—a skeleton, really—and a year-old mystery that Sophie is determined they’ll solve together.
Masters of Death by Olivie Blake
Listen, if I was the ghost of a problematic billionaire who then had a vampire real estate agent come in and try to sell the house I was murdered in from underneath me, I too would be both furious and dramatic about it. Tom Parker (THE FOURTH!) just wants to know why he died, and he certainly doesn’t want anyone living in his house. With Tom’s repeated attempts to thwart Viola Marek (the aforementioned vampire), she hires medium (and godson of Death) Fox D’Mora to help her get rid of Tom. I mean, help him move on to the afterlife. But when demons, a few angels, and a godling turn up, it soon becomes clear that much bigger things are at play, forcing Tom to decide whose side he’s actually on. And also, why do all the Tom Parkers in his family die such a horrible death?
Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune
Wallace Price cannot be dead. He certainly cannot be dead wearing casual Sunday-in-the-legal-office clothes. He most certainly cannot be dead, because if he was dead, more people would be at his funeral. He’s brought to a highly unusual tea shop run by Hugo, a reaper who wants to help Wallace cross over, even if Wallace is not ready to go. Told from the POV of the ghost in question, the unlikely alliance between ghost and the human(-of-sorts) is an utterly heart-crushing romance, as well as a deep delve into the depths of what makes us human when we’re no longer living. It emotionally destroyed me, and that’s why I’d recommend it wholeheartedly. After all, who doesn’t love a book that has the redemptive essence of A Christmas Carol in a very, very queer, fantastical setting?
The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope
Ghosts are everywhere in this historical heist fantasy, and not all of them are good—but ghostly grandmother Mama Octavia, who only Clara can see, guaranteed this book a spot in my top five. Set in 1920s Washington DC in Black society at the height of prohibition, this historical heist fantasy is full of folk magic, richly drawn and highly immersive. Clara’s character can see ghosts—Enigmas—that can grant wishes, but with a very steep cost attached. Cursed by a spirit who helped her in her darkest hour, Clara takes a challenge that promises her freedom if she’s successful. Mama Octavia, her grandmother who also had Clara’s second sight, spends a lot of her ghostly time meddling in Clara’s affairs, but keeps up Clara’s lessons in using her magic, imparting wisdom and utterly unsolicited opinions on the new friends Clara brings home.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
What do you get if you have a trans brujo, a traditional Latinx family who don’t accept he can do magic, and a ghost-summoning ritual he’s performing to solve a murder close to home? You get former school bad boy, Julian Diaz, hanging out in Yadriel’s bedroom, and he won’t go home. He’s also dead, if that helps. In this YA paranormal fantasy (with a mystery at its heart), Yadriel is forced to team up with Julian in order to solve the murder (something Yadriel does not want to do). In exchange, Yadriel is tasked with finding out what happened to Julian, in the hopes it’ll help him cross over peacefully (something Julian does not want to do). This book is gorgeously, perfectly queer, has a fantastic magic system, and as time goes on, the ghost and human start to grow on each other in a way that made my heart explode a little bit.
Courtney Smyth (they/them) is a chronically ill writer of stories, both long and short, from Dublin, currently living in the West of Ireland. They have had a number of short stories published in Paper Lanterns Literary Journal, and appeared in The Last Five Minutes of a Storm anthology from Sans Press. They have been writing about ghosts, demons and murders since they were ten and have no plans to stop. They can be found yelling about books on Twitter and Instagram @cswritesbooks.