Haunted Towns – When Communities Go Bad

Written By Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two children, several birds, a snake, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in several publications, and is also available in her short story collections Wolves & Girls (2023), and Six Dreams About the Train (2021).

The horror genre is full of haunted houses, but beyond the creaking, sighing, bleeding walls of those buildings, there are also haunted towns. These are places where something uncanny, something twisted, something possibly evil (and sometimes hungry) lurks beneath the everyday. I’m thinking about places like Village of the Damned, Silent Hill, Twin Peaks, Stephen King’s Castle Rock, Gatlin from Children of the Corn, and that unnamed European village from Resident Evil Village, just to name a few.

Several books I’ve read lately feature haunted towns. In The Briar Book of the Dead by Angela Slatter (which I reviewed for Psychopomp earlier this year), the witch-governed village of Silverton is largely unaware of being haunted until the town-steward, Ellie Briar, gains the ability to see and speak to the dead. And in Christopher Barzak’s novella A Voice Calling (published by Psychopomp) a chorus of voices from the town where the (definitely haunted) Button House is located, tells the story of the terrible house in their midst and how the shadow cast by that house has tainted and twisted the fate of their community through the years.

Adding to my list of haunted literary locales, I present to you three books I’ve read recently that feature three very different haunted towns.

Cinderwich, by Cherie Priest

“That dead woman—she wore a groove in this town. Everyone who visits here, everyone who just passes through…they all fall into her story. Some of ’em stay here, trapped. Even the folks who get to leave, they always take some part of her with ’em.”

In Priest’s novella, Kate Thrush and her former college professor, Dr. Judith Kane, travel to the tiny, barely-there town of Cinderwich, Tennessee, hoping to finally solve the mystery of what happened to Kate’s aunt Ellen who vanished without a trace decades ago, before Kate was even born. Ellen wasn’t just Kate’s aunt. She was also, once upon a time, Judith’s lover and her unexplained disappearance has haunted Judith into her old age. Now, Judith has found a newspaper article which mentions that the desiccated corpse of a young woman was found wedged in a treetop in the town of Cinderwich around the time of Ellen’s disappearance. Kate and Judith (both of them deliciously salty investigators, by the way), meet up in Cinderwich, and soon realize that there are deep and dark mysteries lurking in both the town’s past and its present.

Priest infuses the tale with a chilling, creeping, ever-growing sense of dread, and the story, like the town of Cinderwich, is full of great characters, including the various ghosts that haunt the town, the woods (and the motel); and the women (*cough* witches*cough*) that seem to both try to help and hinder, Judith and Kate’s investigation. In true haunted town fashion, there are ghostly currents pulling at the fabric of reality in Cinderwich, and the town’s grip on the two outsiders tightens like a vice the deeper they dig into the mystery of the dead woman in the tree.

Withered, by A.G.A. Wilmot

“I said you’re trapped,” Amara repeated. “This town isn’t suffocating; it’s cursed. I’m cursed, you’re cursed, we’re all cursed.”

In Wilmot’s Withered, the link between a haunted house and the haunted town that surrounds it is at the very heart of the tale. After some very rough times, 18-year-old Ellis and their mom move to the small town of Black Stone, hoping for a fresh start and a place for Ellis to recover. While Ellis does their best to get their life back on track and find a new job and maybe even make new friends, they soon realize that the house they’ve moved into is haunted (just like the locals have been implying from the get-go). Worse, when Ellis, and their new friend Quinn, dig into the house’s mysterious past, they discover that the whole town of Black Stone is not just haunted, but might be the epicenter of an otherworldly battle, a duel, of sorts, that affects and threatens everyone in the community.

Wilmot deftly weaves together the stories of the ghosts and the living, the past and the present, the house and the town, as Ellis and Quinn get closer to the truth about Black Stone. There’s a wicked-sharp sense of humor running through this story, but there’s also a sincere and gentle thoughtfulness to the way the mystery plays out. Ellis’s experience with anorexia, grief, and depression subtly mirrors the supernatural struggles of the story, deepening the emotional impact of revelations to come. This is horror with empathy and purpose beyond gore and jump scares.

The Bad Ones, by Melissa Albert

“Palmetto is a strange town. More than you’d think for a place that has two Chili’s.”

“People die. Sometimes badly, sometimes young. There are tragedies every day, everywhere. But there’s a death in our town’s history that for some reason became legendary.”

In Albert’s supernatural horror novel, The Bad Ones, four people in the town of Palmetto disappear without a trace in a single night. One of those people is a high school girl named Becca, and when Becca’s estranged best friend Nora tries to figure out what’s happened to her, she finds deep cracks and dark shadows in her own and Becca’s life. She also finds what seems like a series of clues left behind by Becca, and these clues lead her deep into the town’s past where sinister secrets and powerful forces lurk, sometimes hidden in plain sight.

The Bad Ones is a story with many layers. It’s about the joy and pain of intense friendship (toxic, semi-toxic, and otherwise). It’s about the everyday horrors of high school, it’s about grief and loss and trauma, and it’s about the transformative, liminal magic of imaginative play and storytelling. It’s also about the town of Palmetto, a place haunted by the bad things that have happened (and keep happening) there; a place where buried secrets have caused a great darkness to take root, spread, and fester. Part of that darkness involves a local legend of a goddess who played a pivotal role in one of Nora’s and Becca’s childhood games. The way Albert captures the sometimes-confining nature of small town life, and the way she puts the weight of the tale on the intense and complicated friendship between two girls, made this story hit me right in the solar plexus.

Bonus short story picks if you want a quick trip to a haunted town:

  • The Third Expedition” by Ray Bradbury (part of The Martian Chronicles, and originally published under the title “Mars Is Heaven!” in Planet Stories in 1948)
  • Black Fanged Thing” by Sam Rebelein, published in Shimmer
  • Small-Town Spirit” by Frances Rowat in Fireside Fiction