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Things that go bump in the night

I'm a sucker for ghosts, real or imagined. Australian author John Harwood's first novel, ''The Ghost Writer," is a first-class creeper, a literary ghost story in the Victorian tradition. In it, Gerard Freeman is haunted by his mother's stories of growing up in Staplefield, an English countryside full of ''chaffinches and mayflies and foxgloves and hawthorn." He grows up in Mawson, Australia. ''Instead of mayflies we had Portuguese millipedes, uncountable armies of them, coming up out of the leaf litter when the autumn rain set in, armoured, segmented, swarming towards the light. In winter, if my father forgot to spray the paths, inside walls would turn black overnight." This rich and ghastly image comes before we've even gotten to the ghosts.

Gerard lives with his parents, suffocated by his mother's paranoia, ignored by a father who disappears nightly to the basement to run toy trains in an elaborate landscape devoid of human figures.

To staunch his loneliness, Gerard corresponds with ''pen friend" Alice Jessel. She tells Gerard she's an orphan, crippled by a car accident that killed her parents. At first she signs her letters ''your invisible friend," and soon ''your invisible lover."

The English majors among us recognize this homage to ''Miss Jessel" in ''The Turn of the Screw." Like Henry James's novella, Harwood's tale turns on whether ''Miss Jessel" is who she seems.

Gerard's mother's stories of Staplefield abruptly stop when he asks her about a photograph and a book he finds while snooping on her dressing table. Eventually he reads the ghost stories in the book, written by his great-aunt, the ghost writer of the novel.

Freed by his mother's death, Gerard journeys to England in search of ''Staplefield" and Alice Jessel. The reader feels increasingly unmoored as the past Gerard uncovers mirrors his great-aunt's ghost stories. Present, past, and ghost story fuse into a single terrifying truth in this richly evocative, satisfying novel.

Another kind of ghost story is ''The Madman's Tale," by John Katzenbach. In this beautifully written, thoroughly engrossing thriller, the ghosts are in the head of Francis Petral, a former mental patient, and the tale is written in pencil on the walls of his apartment.

Francis receives an invitation to attend a reunion at the nightmarish Western State Hospital near Amherst, where he was once committed. ''The past is a runaway jumble of dangerous and painful memories. Why would I want to go back?"

And yet return he does. He wanders about the grounds, stalked by ''ghosts of memory." A fellow former inmate urges him to write what he remembers.

Francis returns to his apartment to feverishly write and descends into madness. His story begins with the murder of a young nurse and the arrival of prosecutor Lucy Jones. A survivor of a brutal slasher who scarred her for life, Jones is convinced the murder is the work of a serial killer-rapist hiding in the institution. She enlists Francis's help.

The villains are psychiatrist Dr. Gulptilil (called Gulp-a-pill by the inmates) and social worker Evans (a.k.a. ''Mister Evil"), who deserve Nurse Ratched awards for evil psychiatric hospital staff. They would happily drug witnesses into oblivion to sweep under the rug the inconvenient murder and deaths that follow.

This novel is filled with characters that stay with you, patients like the bombastic, oversize Cleo, who can quote every line of Shakespeare's ''Antony and Cleopatra." The claustrophobia and powerless terror of being in a locked ward are made all too real.

Spooky seances, ouija boards, nights spent cavorting in Mount Auburn Cemetery, and mourning jewelry made of human hair take center stage in ''Mansions of the Dead," Sarah Stewart Taylor's second series novel featuring Sweeney St. George, Boston-based professor of art history with a soft spot for the traditions of death.

Sweeney investigates the death of one of her students, Brad Putnam. The young man is found nearly naked, tied to his bed, a plastic bag over his head, with several pieces of distinctive 19th-century mourning jewelry made from human hair pinned to his underwear.

The investigation takes Sweeney into the past as she seeks to understand the woman who made the jewelry and the man whose hair it contained. It's a story of grief and remembrance, and its pleasures include the explication of the ''cult of mourning" that overtook America in the wake of the Civil War, and grief as we experience it today.

Hallie Ephron is coauthor of the Dr. Peter Zak series of psychological mystery thrillers by G. H. Ephron.

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