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Looking for ghost stories? Here are 5 new YA books that will haunt you

Meghan Collins Sullivan

As Halloween creeps ever closer, I find myself trying to make the season last as long as possible. From strolls through a local graveyard to getting lost in a corn maze to watching black cats frolic in my pumpkin patch — I'm fully embracing this time of peak haunting.

And we're fully prepared to help you make the most of it, too! Here you'll find five new Young Adult releases that all deal in ghosts. Some of them are genuinely terrifying, some more benevolent, but all are guaranteed to provide an atmospheric glimpse through the veil.

When Ghosts Call Us Home

When Sophia was 12, she starred in a found footage horror movie made by her older sister Layla. Filmed in a mansion called Cashore House that their parents were renovating, Vermillion depicts Sophia being terrorized by a ghostly presence. Years later, Sophia is certain that the terrors she witnessed during filming were all fake. But the movie's ardent fans have other theories, and when Layla goes missing, Sophia dives into the internet underworld that Vermillion has spawned.

Convinced that her sister can be found, Sophia agrees to go back to the place that has haunted her to star in a follow-up film. But the director has his own reasons to be obsessed with Vermillion, and his tricks are much less subtle than Layla's were. The longer that Sophia spends at Cashore House, the more she begins to understand that her entire understanding of Vermillion is based on lies and forgotten memories, and it is only through remembering the truth that she can hope to find her sister.

It's not often that a book creeps me out enough that I decide to stop reading it at night and finish it in the daylight, but Katya de Becerra's When Ghosts Call Us Home really got under my skin. Sophia's unreliable memories and gaps in time create an eerie, dream-like feeling that is hard to shake. Rather than relying on the more standard Victorian trappings, Cashore House is a sort of art deco nightmare, enwreathed in an aura of early Hollywood Golden Age parties, séances, and broken ballerinas. It's a setting that lingers in the mind long after the book draws to a close.

The Voice Upstairs

Wil and Ed were never supposed to become best friends. Ed is the only living son of the lord of the manor, and Wil is his butler's granddaughter. Both outcasts — Ed for shrinking in the face of his family's cruelties, Wil for her uncanny ability to communicate with ghosts and predict when people are going to die — they find solace in each other's company.

When a series of murders leads Wil to suspect that something bad is happening up at the manor, she takes a job as a maidservant in order to use her abilities to investigate. As Wil and Ed unravel a mystery that spans back to before they were born, they will unearth secrets that will either push them even closer together or tear them apart.

I went into this book already a fan of Laura E. Weymouth's work, and I think this is her best book yet. Part murder mystery, part ghost story, and part love story, it manages to create the brooding, romantic atmosphere of an early 20th century manor house tale without ever romanticizing the setting. Indeed, it is deeply critical of the upper-class characters and their abuses of power, highlighting the experiences of the people who so often remain silently below stairs in costume dramas. The supernatural mystery at the book's heart has a lot of twists and turns, the friendship blossoming into (rather anxious) love is bittersweet, and the gothic trappings feel just dire enough to make this the perfect atmospheric October read.

The Spirit Bears Its Teeth

Silas has grown up in a world that insists on seeing him as a young woman, and one whose only value lies in the ability to mother violet-eyed Speaker boys who can peer beyond the veil and communicate with the dead. The Royal Speaker Society controls everything in his world, and when he is caught trying to steal the credentials that would allow him to live independently, he is locked away with girls who have supposedly succumbed to veil-sickness at Braxton's Finishing School and Sanitorium.

Braxton's is immediately revealed to be a horror-show of abuse and rigid, unfeeling rules, but Silas quickly realizes that something even more sinister is happening. Girls are disappearing, and when their ghosts begin haunting Silas, he realizes that he must do something to help them, even if it costs him everything.

Like Andrew Joseph White's debut novel, Hell Followed With Us, this is a furious book. It is terrifying because the ghosts are the least horrific part of the story, and the cruelties and abuses that the powerful enact against the marginalized are all the worse for being rooted in real history. Readers should be prepared for intense medical horror that does not shy away from the gory details.

Silas is immensely compelling as an autistic, trans protagonist, and I was riveted to his story. Instead of pandering to any sort of genre conventions, The Spirit Bears Its Teeth bleeds earnestly upon the page. I respect its commitment to rage — as well as to the intense hope of finding kindness and a gentler life on the other side of it.

If I Have To Be Haunted

Cara wishes that annoying, popular, golden-boy Zach's antics were the worst of her problems. But no, she can see the dead, and she's caught between the wishes of her grandmother's ghost and those of her overly strict mother. Her grandmother wants her to embrace becoming a ghost speaker who helps spirits pass on. Her mother wants her to hide the fact she can see them at all and focus on being the "perfect" Chinese-American daughter. Cara just wants to get through a day without fighting with Zach.

Then she finds him dead in the woods, and his ghost begs her to help him. He has one week to cross into the liminal world of monsters and spirits and find a cure that will restore him to life, and the only way he can succeed is with the help of a ghost speaker like Cara. She reluctantly agrees, catapulting them into an epic journey through a dangerous and fantastical world that might make ghosts of them both.

Of all the books on this list, Miranda Sun's is definitely the most rollicking and fun, though it does offer up a few grotesque moments here and there, including a weirdly humorous encounter with a cannibal willing to eat flesh and spirit alike. It has the wild characters and episodic structure of an animated series, and the ghosts are just one more supernatural element alongside a host of other creatures, spirits, and general oddballs. The enemies-to-lovers romance will appeal to fans of the trope, and the elements of family legacy and feeling torn between different expectations provides a strong support beneath all the madcap adventures. If you want your ghosts more quirky than creepy, this is the seasonal read for you.

Bittersweet in the Hollow

Something bad happened a year ago, but Linden James can't remember it. She knows that she went into the woods on a night when she shouldn't have, and she knows she disappeared, only to be found with a head injury and no recollection of where she'd been. She and her sisters were already outcasts in the small Appalachian town of Caball Hollow because of their uncanny abilities, and ever since the accident, even Linden's friends avoid her.

When one of her former friends turns up dead on the anniversary of Linden's disappearance, it seems too strange to be a coincidence. Looking for answers, Linden begins to dig into her town's history and finds uncanny connections between missing people, her own family's abilities, and the legendary Moth-Winged Man who is said to roam the nearby forest. But it's only through remembering what truly happened on the night she went missing that she will be able to put a stop to whatever is haunting Caball Hollow.

There's something about Appalachia that makes small town stories of generational magic and forest lore feel completely plausible, as if the ancient mountain range that runs through it carries some essential kernel of mystery that we can't help but believe in. Kate Pearsall's Bittersweet in the Hollow makes the most of its setting, taking a fantastical premise full of witch girls, ghosts, and an original cryptid and peppering it with enough down-to-earth folk magic to make it feel like a comforting cup of herbal tea. The details and the lyrical yet accessible writing are what set this debut apart from other small town murder mystery YA novels, and although the ghosts in this one are secondary to the plot rather than central, it nonetheless has the perfect eerie feel for an autumn read.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.

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Caitlyn Paxson
[Copyright 2024 NPR]