There are so many ways to tell a ghost story. Stories about ghosts can be terrifying, funny, poignant, absurd, serious. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with classic scary ghost stories, of course, but this month I want to highlight three audiobooks that reimagine ghost stories. Not all ghost stories are speculative. Some are about the ghost of who a character used to be. Some use ghosts as a metaphor to explore grief and memory. Some use magical elements to tell a story rooted in the everyday realities of the world around us. None of these audiobooks are traditional ghost stories—some wouldn’t even be considered ghost stories at all by most people—but if you listen to these books with an open mind, I guarantee you’ll start thinking about ghosts in a new way.
SUMMER SONS by Lee Mandelo, brilliantly narrated by Will Damron, is the kind of ghost story I love best: It’s full of eerie haunts and unrestful revenants, but these ghosts are not merely unsettling monsters. They represent the more complicated ghosts of grief and loss, missed opportunities and unspoken fears. It’s a satisfying Gothic mystery steeped in Southern folklore, but at heart it’s about growing up and into yourself, about how much work and courage it takes to let go of your ghosts and set them free.
Andrew is supposed to start grad school at Vanderbilt in Nashville with his best friend, Eddie. But when Eddie dies, apparently by suicide, before Andrew arrives on campus, Andrew’s first semester turns into a harrowing journey into Eddie’s past, as he tries desperately to figure out what happened. Damron’s narration of this emotional novel is nothing short of masterful. He captures all of Andrew’s grief, confusion, shame, and pent-up rage in a rough, unsteady voice. He sounds exactly like a proud, lonely twenty-something, grieving not only the loss of his best friend, but the pain of having lost him without acknowledging the love they felt for each other. The story veers wildly, from tender love scenes to drunken debauchery and wild nights of fast cars. Damron catches every swing, expertly modulating his voice and embodying the distinct tone of every scene. It makes for an unforgettable listen.
If you’re looking for a less literal ghost story, I encourage you to listen to Jean Chen Ho’s debut collection of linked stories, FIONA AND JANE. Natalie Naudus gives a fantastic performance in this book about the decades-long friendship between two Taiwanese American women. Best friends since childhood, Fiona and Jane move in and out of each other’s lives as they each deal with the challenges of growing up, falling in love, and navigating career changes and cross-country moves. The narrative moves back and forth between Fiona and Jane’s perspectives, and Naudus does a great job distinguishing their voices. She subtly changes her voice as Fiona and Jane age, which makes the audiobook feel intimate, as if it’s unfolding in real time.
There are no supernatural elements or hungry haunts in this story. Instead, it’s a beautiful depiction of the ghosts of real-life friendship. Sometimes Fiona and Jane are more like ghosts to each other than real people. They go years without speaking regularly. Then, suddenly, something happens and they become present for each other once more. Ho also explores the ghosts of childhood trauma and the ghosts of things unsaid, especially things left unspoken between friends and family members. It’s a beautifully written book about the ordinary moments that define lives, and Naudus’s thoughtful but understated narration adds to its quiet power.
Nonfiction can explore ghosts, too. In her beautiful memoir SMILE, playwright Sarah Ruhl reflects on the ghost of her old face. Her narration is as elegant and inviting as her prose. Just after giving birth to twins, she develops Bell’s palsy, a condition which paralyzes half her face and makes it impossible for her to smile. As Ruhl comes to terms with her new face and a new way of moving about the world, she offers profound insights into the ghosts that all of us carry with us: who we used to be. She ponders what it means to love something and lose it, especially when that thing is a piece of yourself. In a melodic voice full of quiet wonder, she shares funny and moving stories of motherhood, marriage, and working in theater. She also delves into philosophy, religion, the history of medicine, and the science and social implications of smiling. Ruhl’s narration is vibrant and sparkling; her interest in the world around her is obvious in her voice. This is a gorgeous audiobook that invites listeners to slow down and pay attention not only to the world as it is, but to the ghosty imprints of the past.