For years, the notion that Erik Larson would write fiction seemed like it could only ever be fictional itself. With the success of The Devil in the White City, The Splendid and the Vile, and other riveting true stories, his name has practically become synonymous with his genre: narrative nonfiction.
But as Larson tells Mental Floss, he also “really [loves] a good ghost story.” And while doing research for his 2006 book Thunderstruck—about Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of a wireless telegraph system and how it helped nab murderer Hawley Harvey Crippen—he came upon the makings of a great one.
“There was this really funky material about the late 19th-century obsession with ghosts and the afterlife,” Larson says. While researching, he read up on the Society for Psychical Research, an organization founded in 1882 that investigated psychic and paranormal phenomena. The group even had a committee dedicated to the study of haunted houses—“all deadly serious,” according to Larson.
One of the co-founders of the society’s American branch was philosopher and psychologist William James (brother of writer Henry James), a lifelong skeptic who left room for the possibility that someone could eventually scrounge up proof of the supernatural—in which case he’d happily change his tune. Larson feels this way, too. “Do I believe in ghosts? No,” he says. “But I’m in the camp of those who would like it if there were ghosts.”
“James took the position that there was something about our psyches that needed to know that there was an afterlife, or needed to know that there was the possibility that ghosts existed. It also dovetails with some of this physical research that posits that there are multiple states existing in the same place at the same time, and that stuff is [fascinating],” Larson says. “Is there another realm where there’s another Erik Larson who’s exactly like me, only he looks like Clark Gable? I’m open to the possibility of these things.”
In the midst of a book tour for Thunderstruck, Larson began penning a story that imagined what one of James’s investigations into paranormal (a word Larson loathes for its current “cheesy” connotation) activity might have looked like. The project was stop-and-go for years, in part because Larson worried that publishing fiction would “blur, for lack of a less technical term … my brand for readers.”
He also wasn’t sure where to publish it—he considered a serialized release or even posting it for free on his website. But without a clear answer, Larson just kept choosing to delay. “I’m always fond of quoting Jimmy Buffett, a sort of defining maxim of my life, which is ‘Indecision may or may not be my problem.’”
Then, a wholly new format appeared on the market: the audio original. Releasing his story only on audio seemed perfect for two reasons. For one, Larson explains, “it’s so different, so out there, that it stands by itself. It’s not like you're gonna go into a bookstore and see my last book about Churchill and right next to it, you’re gonna see a fictional ghost story.” Secondly, “ghost stories are ideal for telling aloud,” he says. “What I love about this being an audio original is you can literally read this in the dark.”
No One Goes Alone follows James and a lively cohort as they unlock the secrets of an allegedly haunted house on the fictional Isle of Dorn in 1905. It’s not based on a true story, but Larson did draw heavily from history to form his characters and plant them in a convincing Edwardian setting and storyline.
“My intention in writing it out on my website would’ve been to have footnotes. And my intention still with the audio original was to have footnotes until my youngest daughter, who directs podcasts, said, ‘Well, Dad, it’s kind of hard to narrate footnotes.’ It was kind of this little miniature revelation which my kids often deliver to me,” he says. “So I abandoned that, but I do have a sourced essay at the end of this audio original which I, in fact, narrate, just to sort of show what’s real and what’s not.”
Getting to make stuff up for the first time in his career was equal parts difficult and liberating. “Frankly, this process gave me renewed respect for writers of fiction, because I think fiction is a whole lot tougher than nonfiction,” Larson says. “With nonfiction, yeah, you’ve got to do the research and so forth. But if you like doing the research, then it’s not a big deal. But with nonfiction, the story is there. … The more bizarre things are in real-life history, the better it is for me, because I can put them in a book and people have to believe it, because they were real. But the paradox is that in fiction, the more unbelievable it is, the less readers buy it. So … you’ve got to have this sort of illusion of plausibility with fiction.”
Nailing that illusion of plausibility is, of course, all the more tricky when you’re dealing with ghosts, vampires, or whatever other fantastical elements you’ve chosen to include in your scary story. Here are seven “pleasantly, deliciously scary” books by authors who have pulled it off, recommended by Larson.
These entries have been edited for clarity.
1. The Changeling // Victor LaValle
“Basically, it’s about a new mother who is the wife of an antique bookseller, and she commits an absolutely shocking crime, then disappears—sending our hero off on a search for her through all these forgotten corners of New York, in a landscape that gets ever more dark and mysterious. And then, yield to the end: this singularly unexpected surprise. It’s also a fantastic tour guide of forgotten locations in New York. It’s quite scary; there’s a supernatural element there.”
Buy it: Amazon
2. Let the Right One In // John Ajvide Lindqvist
“A real favorite of mine in terms of ‘deliciously scary’ is Let the Right One In. What’s so interesting about this book is that really while it’s terrifying—and it is terrifying—it’s about friendship. There’s an isolated boy who’s befriended by a girl vampire—important to note that this is a girl vampire only in vampire years, so she’s probably a couple centuries old—who ultimately becomes his defender and, in a very satisfying way, his avenger. That is, when she’s not tearing out the throats of everybody else. The bottom line is, though, in many ways it’s lovely, lyrical, but also completely scary. I love it.
“Just about every day I go wander several of these Olmstedian bridges [in Central Park] and I remember this scene where the little girl vampire pretends to be hurt lying under a bridge, and she pleads for help; and a well-meaning adult will go over and help her, because she’s just this little child that’s pleading for help, and she’ll kill them. Literally every time I go to those bridges I think about Let the Right One In. The first time I walked under one of those bridges, I actually took a photo and texted it to my eldest daughter, who was really into this book also, just with the caption ‘Help me!’ because that’s what the little girl says.”
Buy it: Amazon
3. Home Before Dark // Riley Sager
“A book that I read recently that I really liked was Home Before Dark by an author named Riley Sager. He really pulls off something ingenious here, and that is that it’s a classic ghost story. And, yes, it involves an extremely haunted house, full of dark events from the past. But—and I’m gonna be brief on this—it really has a very interesting twist. So both scary and ingenious. I don’t want to give too much away. I just ordered a couple more of his books from a used bookseller just because I’m curious. He’s good at plot and generating scary steam.”
Buy it: Amazon
4. The Haunting of Hill House // Shirley Jackson
“The all-time favorite, apart from Let the Right One In, is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. That’s the classic ghost story, I feel: Troubled woman joins a group of ghost hunters in a house that is rumored to be haunted, and she gets, of course, more than she bargained for. The thing that makes Shirley Jackson really such a genius is that the lingering question is, ‘Are there really ghosts in this house? Is it really haunted? Or is it her own troubled personality that is creating these perceived anomalies?’ Now, personally, my vote is ghosts.”
Buy it: Amazon
5. The Cabin at the End of the World // Paul Tremblay
“This diverged from my ‘deliciously scary’ category because this is just flat-out troubling scary. It’s really deeply troubling. It’s about a gay couple (the fact that they’re gay is immaterial) and their young daughter who are staying at a remote vacation house, where one day they are visited by a group of people who seem to be following an apocalyptic vision that requires wrenching decisions, including murder. Terrifying, terrifying, and deeply moving—I mean really troubling. There’s some vague apocalypse that has occurred in the background, and because of that or something arising out of that, [these] people feel summoned to do these things to this couple and their daughter as a way of basically saving the world. Creepy. And he makes it so plausible in that way that good fiction writers do.”
Buy it: Amazon
6. The Passage // Justin Cronin
"Another one that I really loved was The Passage by Justin Cronin. It was a three-volume series. I loved volume one, [but] did not read beyond. Basically, more vampires; the theme [is] very appropriate to what people are worried about in terms of the Wuhan lab today. And I’m not saying that concern about the Wuhan lab is at all justified; I’m just saying people have these concerns. But a bat-incubated virus escapes a top-secret government installation and turns infected people basically into savage flying vampires, who then infect most of the world, except for groups of hardy souls who devise ways of surviving. And here, too, by applying these layers of plausibility, he just really makes you believe the existence of this world full of nearly insurmountable terror. That was enough for me; I didn’t go on to read the next volumes, but it was very good.”
Buy it: Amazon
7. Rosemary’s Baby // Ira Levin
“And the last one is Rosemary’s Baby, the novel. It was written by Ira Levin in 1967. I only read it I think about eight years ago; I picked it up in a used bookstore and was like, ‘Hey, I never read the novel.’ I saw the movie, which I adored. And the novel is really good; it’s even scarier and more plausible than the film. The nice thing about prose, good prose, is that it’s really up to the reader to fill in the blanks. It’s always been a problem with filming something like Rosemary’s Baby because of the climactic scenes: How realistic can you get before it just becomes funny?
“So, the book requires you and your own imagination to do what Roman Polanski did with film visuals. But as the reader, you provide the visuals, and depending on how vivid your own imagination is, you scare yourself to death.”
Buy it: Amazon