Haunted house stories usually share a few common elements: an oppressive atmosphere and feeling of being trapped; a grand but dilapidated house that’s basically a character in its own right; and, of course, malevolent ghosts that make things go bump in the night. But some authors take these conventions and give them a twist, treading a rather more unconventional—and sometimes downright weird—path.
The following five novels don’t depict your typical haunting. But rest assured (unlike the poor characters in these books), I won’t spoil the surprise of exactly what makes these stories strange and unusual…
The Elementals (1981) by Michael McDowell
The words “haunted house” tend to conjure up an image of a mist-shrouded old manor on a dark October night. Michael McDowell’s Southern Gothic tale The Elementals certainly features the expected edifice—in this case, a rundown Victorian house—but rather than mist, it’s being swallowed by sand, and instead of being set during the autumn, the story takes place during the sweltering heat of an Alabama summer.
Each summer the wealthy McCray and Savage families withdraw from their busy lives to relax in their beach houses, which stand on a spit of sand on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Along with the two houses that the families inhabit, there is also a vacant third house on the beach that is slowly being subsumed by a sand dune. The McCrays and Savages know that something is wrong with this slowly deteriorating house but they choose to ignore it—but that all changes when teenager India McCray visits the island for the first time and starts to investigate the strange happenings within its walls.
McDowell’s evocative descriptions of the heat and the beach make this the perfect haunted house story to pick up during the warmer months of the year, and the spooky atmosphere he creates proves to be just as oppressive as the unrelenting summer heat.
A House With Good Bones (2023) by T. Kingfisher
T. Kingfisher isn’t afraid to inject a little humor and weirdness into her horror novels, and A House with Good Bones delivers on both fronts. Main character Sam is an archaeoentomologist, which involves studying dead insects found at archaeological digs. The dig site she’s been working at is put on indefinite pause but she’s already sublet her room, and so she decides to stay with her mom until she can go back to sifting through dirt looking for bug husks.
When Sam arrives everything seems a little off. There’s a vulture watching the house, her mom seems jumpy and has stripped the decor of personality, and the beautiful rose garden planted by her Gran Mae (the previous owner of the house) is suspiciously insect-free. As Sam investigates the bizarre changes in her mom and the house, she’s forced to confront the insidious roots put down by her long-deceased grandmother. It’s a slow burn, but the eventual climax of the novel is delightfully unhinged.
The Handyman Method (2023) by Nick Cutter and Andrew F. Sullivan
The Handyman Method sees Trent, Rita, and their son Milo move into a brand-new home in an as-of-yet unfinished housing development. There are a few things that already need to be fixed, but instead of getting a professional in, Trent decides he can tackle the problems himself with the help of a series of how-to videos by a YouTuber called Handyman Hank. Under the influence of this malevolent DIYer, Trent undergoes some Jack Torrance-esque personality changes, but the novel doesn’t follow in the footsteps of Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) for long…
Nick Cutter and Andrew F. Sullivan—whose writing styles blend seamlessly together—use this supernatural online haunting to dive into the very real-world horrors of toxic masculinity. Trent’s descent into patriarchal madness is painful to witness, but it also provides occasional moments of hilarious satire. The novel manages to be fun, thrilling, twisted, and harrowing all at once.
Along with its cutting social commentary, The Handyman Method also offers up some truly stomach-churning body horror (which sometimes involves animals), and the brutal and bloody imagery will linger in your mind long after you’ve turned the last page.
Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Mexican Gothic starts out feeling like a classic haunted house story. Noemí receives a worrying letter from her cousin, who has recently married and moved into a grand manor house that looms menacingly over a struggling Mexican mining town. Noemí sets off to make sure that her cousin is okay and finds that High Place is everything you’d expect from an old mansion with a ghost infestation—the once opulent house now feels like as if it’s rotting around its inhabitants, and an eerie atmosphere has settled over the building and its grounds.
Noemí isn’t made to feel welcome by the Doyle family, but she refuses to leave until she can figure out what’s going on. Through that process, the novel delves into the horrific legacy created by colonial exploitation and deep-rooted misogyny and racism. Noemí might not be easily spooked by the apparent ghosts or the sinister family, but she may be dealing with an even deeper evil.
No One Gets Out Alive (2014) by Adam Nevill
You may have seen the 2021 film adaptation of No One Gets Out Alive, but regardless of whether or not you liked it, the book is worth a read because it goes in a completely different—but equally unconventional—direction.
In the novel we follow Stephanie, who is down on her luck and in need of a cheap place to stay. She comes across 82 Edgehill Road—a large, decrepit house with rooms to rent—and while she gets bad vibes from Knacker McGuire, the creepy landlord, the price is undeniably right at just £40 (around $50) per week. On her first night there she experiences a few possibly paranormal incidents, but she doesn’t have the money to do the smart thing and leave.
Trapped by circumstance, the frights provided by whatever is haunting the house aren’t even the worst of Stephanie’s problems. It’s Knacker and his equally disgusting cousin that she really has to watch out for…at least to begin with. (Content warning for sexual violence.)
Have I missed your favorite stories that offer a twist on the classic haunted house narrative? Leave your own recommendations in the comments below!
Lorna Wallace has a PhD in English Literature and is a lover of all things science fiction and horror. She lives in Scotland with her rescue greyhound, Misty.