This is the trouble in telling ghost stories: You've got to keep the tension building without showing the ghost, and once you bring on the revenant, you had better nail it, or the whole show is shot. So in the spirit of the season (so to speak), here's the most spooktacular ghost story I've read, one whose ghost is everywhere and nowhere: Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.
Hill House opens:
No live organism can continue for long to exist under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
Creepy things happen at Hill House--midnight wall-banging, bedside visits from hand-holding specters, self-slamming doors--and so ghost-hunter Dr. Montague has brought together a small group of people with a history of supernatural experiences, in the hopes of inducing otherworldly manifestations from the house. Of the four, Eleanor is particularly sensitive (both to poltergeists and perceived slights), and soon becomes the focus of Hill House's evil intent.
Or does she? The best ghost stories aren't solely about things that go bump in the night; they're also about the things that go bump in your head. There are a lot of ghosts doing the Macarena in Eleanor's skull, and in Hill House she seems to have found the perfect mate (she often recites the phrase "journeys end in lovers meeting"). That opening sentence can just as easily be used to describe Eleanor--outwardly inflexible, inwardly inchoate, and everywhere utterly alone--and as the plot escalates, it's never made explicit who's zooming whom. In a pivotal scene, the guests discover a message scrawled on the wall: HELP ELEANOR COME HOME ELEANOR.
(Get out of the house. Go home. Only Eleanor can help Eleanor.)
(Hi. This is Eleanor speaking, and I could use some help.)
(Hill House: Darling Eleanor, you're already home.)