Sonia Gensler didn’t always like ghost stories, but today she drops by Unbound Worlds to discuss which books and movies helped fuel the obsession that led her to write her spooky teen novel, The Revenant. A former high school English teacher, Sonia now writes full time in Oklahoma. The Revenant is her debut novel. Learn more at www.soniagensler.com.
My fascination with ghost stories is a relatively recent thing. In the past I avoided spooky books and films because they invaded my dreams and stole away sleep. But once I found stories that focused on characterization as much as the chills and thrills, I couldn’t get enough. (I still have to watch scary movies during the day, however!) The Revenant, a gothic mystery set in a haunted boarding school, grew out of this new obsession with ghostly tales.
Sonia’s Top Ten Ghost Stories (Books and Film)
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898) and its 1999 TV adaptation: A young woman risks her livelihood and sanity to save two children from the clutches of a vengeful ghost. This story features many of my favorite things: repressed Victorian governesses, mysterious aristocrats, English manor houses with dark secrets, and so much more.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959) and its 1963 film adaptation The Haunting: A classic story of psychological terror in which a doctor invites a group of people – each of whom has some experience with the paranormal – to a ghost watch at a haunted house. The film departs from the original story but is by far the best adaptation and well worth watching.
The Changeling (1980 film): A widowed composer rents a mansion so that he can work in quiet and solitude, but the resident ghost will not leave him alone. This film is slightly dated and a few of the effects are cheesy, but I adored the languorous cinematography and the truly eerie atmosphere.
The Others (2001 film): a woman obsessively monitors her light-sensitive children while waiting for her husband to return from the war. This one tops the list in terms of setting – the Channel Island of Jersey makes a gorgeously creepy backdrop to this haunted house tale. Watch for parallels to The Turn of the Screw.
Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp (reissued 2007): A teen girl must protect her young niece from a malevolent ghost. This classic tale for middle grade and teen readers has some truly creepy moments.
El Orfanato (2007 film): A woman purchases the orphanage in which she was raised, planning to turn it into a home for special-needs children. When her son disappears, she must face some dark truths about the orphanage’s past. This character-driven film is truly spooky but also beautifully poignant. Highly recommended. (Spanish with English subtitles)
The Eclipse (2009 film): A quirky Irish film about a man haunted both by his dead wife and his living father-in-law. Another character-driven film, this film is slower-paced but does offer strong performances and some genuinely chilling moments.
Breathe: A Ghost Story by Cliff McNish (2009): A boy and his mother have recently moved into an old farmhouse, but only the boy can see the resident ghosts. This very suspenseful middle grade ghost story presents the ghostly characters and their conflicts in an innovative way.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2010): In post WWII Britain, a doctor is called to a crumbling country house to attend to an ailing maid, but he soon becomes obsessed with the family and its seemingly haunted home. This is a wonderfully atmospheric tale from one of my favorite modern authors of gothic literature.
The House of Dead Maids by Clare B. Dunkle (2010): Written as a “prequel” to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, this book for teens goes a long way to explain why Heathcliff was such a messed-up dude. Deliciously creepy! I’d love to see it adapted to film.
Sonia Gensler grew up in a small Tennessee town and spent her early adulthood collecting impractical degrees from various Midwestern universities. A former high school English teacher, she now writes full time in Oklahoma. So far, her husband and cat are putting up with this. The Revenant is her debut novel. Learn more at www.soniagensler.com.