The cover illustration shows the headless ghost of a 13-year-old boy walking down the stairs.
Duane Comack and his friend named Stephanie Alpert, love to scare the neighborhood children. They do this by pulling pranks, such as looking into windows while wearing masks, placing rubber body parts on window-sills, and also howl and shake bushes, making it seem as if a wolf is nearby. The two twelve-year-old best friends are known as the Twin Terrors of Wheeler Falls. Though it is possible they have assigned the name to themselves, as nobody seems to know it is them causing these problems.
On Halloween night, Duane dresses up as the grim reaper and peeps into Stephanie's window, while she changes into her costume. She scares him, but he claims to have only been stretching. He was very excited to see her costume this year, since every year she sets the bar higher than the previous. Such as last year when she randomly chose to dress up as an iceberg lettuce. Suddenly a giant cat-like creature attacks Duane.
But it is just Stephanie in her Halloween costume. Deciding not to trick-or-treat this year, Stephanie and Duane go around scaring other children instead. They have so much fun that Duane wishes they could scare children every night. Stephanie then informs him that it doesn't have to be Halloween in order to scare children. She then asks if he understands what she meant. There's only one place in their neighborhood that the children refuse to scare, and that's the Hill House, which is haunted. The house is called Hill House because it is on a hill and also on Hill Street.
Though the two children refuse to haunt around an actual haunted house, they do love to take the tour, especially if it is lead by their favorite Hill House tour guide, Otto. Otto is a bald man with black eyes and a booming voice and the children never get tired of hearing him retell the story of how Hill House became haunted.
The house was built two hundred years ago by a sea captain. On the day construction finished, the captain was called out to sea, leaving his wife behind in the big dark house all by herself. He never came back from his voyage in the flesh. But a year after he left, his ghost appeared in the house to see his bride. Calling out "Annabel!" over and over, he got no response, as his wife had fled the house in his absence. Over the next hundred years, families would report hearing the ghost crying out for his Annabel until the day the Craw family moved in. Thirteen-year-old named Andrew Craw was a nasty child who would play tricks on his servants and throw cats out of windows. One night, Andrew discovered a secret room in the house. Inside the secret room, he found a lit lantern and the ghost of the sea captain.
The sea captain now sported a long white beard and curved fingernails. Andrew tried to escape the ghost's clutches, but the sea captain was irate that his hiding place had been discovered, and so in retribution he pulled off Andrew's head and hid it somewhere in the house. The ghost of the sea captain hollered out for Annabel one more time and then disappeared forever, leaving behind a new ghost in the mansion, Andrew. Andrew still haunts Hill House, searching every room for his missing head.
This story instantly strikes with both Duane and Stephanie. One evening around 10:00 PM, the two tricksters are out scaring the neighborhood again. They put chicken bones in a mailbox, considering how creepy it would be for somebody to reach inside and feel bones. They finish their night of pranking with a regular stop to classmate named Benjamin Fuller's house. Every time they go scaring, they always throw rubber spiders onto Benjamin's bed through his open bedroom window, then happily watch as he freaks out and falls out of bed.
After tossing the spiders, Stephanie tells Duane that she has a brilliant idea, one much more brilliant then tossing rubber spiders in a window. Scaring the game children over and over is beginning to lose its appeal, they need a new challenge... that challenge should be to go to Hill House, sneak off during a tour, and find the ghost's missing head.
Hill House's last tour is at 10:30 at night, so Stephanie and Duane make it to the house just in time. Otto greets them at the door and they join the last tour group, of which they are the only non-adults. Otto once more tells the story of how Hill House became haunted. A little more about the story is then revealed. After Andrew lost his head, his twelve-year-old younger sister, Hannah, went mad. She collected porcelain dolls and Otto leads the tour into her old bedroom upstairs. The room is still decorated with hundreds of identical dolls, and Otto tells the group that for the next eighty years, Hannah never left her room. She would spend all day in a rocking chair in the corner, playing with her dolls. Otto also reveals that Andrew's mother also met an untimely death in the house, falling down the stairs.
Stephanie and Duane try to separate from the tour, after seeing Hannah's room. But a strange blonde-haired boy, wearing a turtleneck, suddenly appears in the middle of the group. The strange boy will not stop staring at them and Stephanie only shrugs it off, encouraging Duane to just do the same. The two children sneak away into the dark upstairs hallway, as Otto leads the rest of the tour group downstairs.
Stephanie leads the way as the two begin exploring the other rooms. They come across the Green Room, so-named, because of the green vine-pattern of the wallpaper. Otto had told them that one time a couple had spent the night in the green room and when they woke up, they had to appear on the Tonight Show. Also they awoke with purple rashes all over their bodies, rashes that medical experts from around the world were unable to diagnose. The two move on to Andrew's bedroom.
They look among his antiquated toys and canopy bed for the ghost's head, but to no avail. The two are about to leave the room when they both spot the ghost's head in the corner of the room. The head slowly rolls over towards the two and Stephanie begins to freak out, as she didn't think they'd actually find the ghost's head. Duane bravely picks up the head only to discover it is a wooden bowling ball.
Duane, taking the opportunity to remain looking brave, suggests that they go upstairs into the rooms not on the tour to search for the head.
The two walk up the stairs, past the No Visitors sign and arrive to a bare room only lit by the moonlight. Duane and Stephanie make their way to a narrow door on the far wall that leads into another room. Duane tells Stephanie that it looks like all the rooms are connected and she tells him to be quiet so the ghosts will not hear them. Some sparse furniture and a sewing machine are the only features the two can make out in the dim room. They slowly keep walking through the upstairs until they hear a thud behind them. Then another. Spinning around, they see four yellow eyes low to the ground. A pair of cats. In the windowsill, more cats.
Gradually the children realize the floor is filled with various cats and the animals start to run around in the dark, tripping Stephanie. Duane drags her out of the room and into a dark hallway away from the cats, closing the door behind them. Having had enough scares for one night, the two agree to find the stairs and leave the house. The two work their way around the labyrinth hallway, searching in vain for the stairs.
At the end of the hall, they hear many voices coming from behind a closed door. Duane and Stephanie figure this is the tour group, despite the fact the tour never goes up to the third floor and they rush into the room, only to find it empty. They begin to worry that they have somehow stumbled upon the living area of the ghosts who dwell in the house. Remembering what happened to Andrew Craw when he stumbled upon a ghost's living area, the two quickly make their exit from the room. They move from room to room, searching for a way downstairs.
Finally they find a staircase and they make their way down just as Otto is making his way up. He then escorts them back to safety to rejoin the tour. Otto's coworker Edna, a white-haired elderly woman, had taken over for Otto, while he went to look for the children. The three meet up with the rest of the tour inside Joseph Craw's old study. They notice a fire burning in the fireplace.
One night after Andrew's death, Joseph Craw came into his study and rested by the fire. When his servants found him the next day, all that was left were two of his charred hands, still gripping the marble mantelpiece.
Since they had heard all of the stories before, Duane and Stephanie decide they will leave the tour early and just go on home. On their way out they spot the odd, blond child again who stares at them as they leave. Outside, Stephanie's scarf gets stuck on a branch and as Duane untangles it but suddenly hears voices asking if they've found the missing head. At first, Duane thinks Stephanie was playing a trick on him but her attention is focused on the blond boy once more. Who somehow made it outside and was again staring at them. The boy denies saying anything and tells the two that he followed them outside to see if they had found anything interesting in the house. They had not but the blonde reveals that he has seen a ghost inside Hill House.
The boy introduces himself as Seth and tells them that he had snuck in one night after hours. Sneaking past the night watchman, Seth had spotted an old woman standing at the top of the stairs, her eyes burning bright red. As she floated down the banister, the woman howled like an animal and her red eyes left a red trail behind her like the tail of a comet. Stephanie gets very excited suddenly, as she wants to see this and the three agree to meet up the next night at midnight and sneak into Hill House to see if they can spot more ghosts.
Walking back home, Duane expresses doubts about Seth. Which makes Stephanie accuse Duane of only being jealous because Seth is far more brave then he himself.
The next night, Duane's parents are fast asleep, allowing for Duane to sneak out. He and Stephanie's parents are both heavy sleepers. That explains why they were able to run around town at 10:30 at night. Stephanie is waiting for Duane at the end of the driveway and the two make their way to Hill House as freezing rain begins sprinkle. Seth is waiting for them outside the back entrance and he tries to trick the two into thinking a ghost attacks him, but Duane and Stephanie aren't impressed by his weak trickery.
Seth then sneaks the two inside, then rejects the suggestion that they should turn on the lights. Informing both Duane and Stephanie that ghosts do not come out when lights are on.
Seth disappears into the darkness to get some candles, taking Stephanie with him, much to Duane's dissatisfaction. Once they return, the trio discovers via candlelight that they are in the kitchen. Seth tells the two that he took the tour again earlier in the night, and Otto told some new stories. He points to a cabinet and informs Duane and Stephanie that the dumbwaiter is haunted. But this barely excites Stephanie or Duane. Even after Seth adds that the Chef would put food on the dumbwaiter and when he would hoist it up to the second floor, the food vanished.
Sensing he's losing their interest, Seth elaborates that once a few children were visiting the house. An athletic bully named Jeremy decided that he was going to show off and he climbed inside the dumbwaiter. Somewhere between the first and second floor, the dumbwaiter stopped. The other children called out to Jeremy, but got no answer. After several terse minutes, the dumbwaiter came crashing back down to the kitchen floor. Where Jeremy had sat, there were now three covered dishes. Inside the first lay his heart, inside the second were his eyes, inside the third were his teeth. The story spooks the children even though they agree it probably is not true.
Seth leads them through the kitchen into the pantry where Duane and Stephanie walk a little ahead to investigate before he locks the door behind them. Trapping the three inside of the room. Stephanie tries to reach the handle but Seth blocks her hand and refuses to step aside before he admits he played a trick on them.
His name's not Seth, it's Andrew. He is the ghost who's haunted the house for a hundred years.
Stephanie points out that he can't really be the ghost because he has a head. But Andrew has an answer for this and he explains he simply borrowed the head he has on now, then proves it by pulling it off. Since he has to give the head back, he needs to find a new head, and after he saw Duane's head in the tour he knew he'd found the perfect one. Feeling very brave, Duane tells Andrew he can't have it. Andrew tries to plead and bargain with him, but it is no use. He forces them back against the wall of the pantry and places his hands onto Duane's head. Duane and Stephanie fall back into the wall, revealing a secret passageway and they quickly run down the passageway with Andrew pursuing them.
At the end of the concrete hall, they find a ladder leading up through a hole in the ceiling. Halfway up the ladder, the whole thing breaks into pieces and sends the two children hurtling back towards the earth, the ladder crashing into the wall behind them. Chunks of concrete fly out as a hidden room is revealed behind them. On the bed there lies a dim, shimmering head. Duane and Stephanie get very excited. They have found Andrew's head and that means, they're saved.
They turn their attention back to Seth, who is not looking at the head on the bed at all, but at the ceiling above the bed. Duane and Stephanie follow his gaze and see a spectral mass float down from above. Dressed in ancient clothing, the glowing ghost descends, headless, towards the bed. The ghost picked up the head and placed it on his shoulders. This figure, not Seth, was the real Andrew. Andrew turned around to thank the two children before disappearing into the walls.
Otto bursts in and chides his nephew Seth for taking Duane and Stephanie into such a dangerous part of the house, and also for pretending to be a ghost. Apparently, Seth pretends to be a ghost a lot. But usually, most children see right through him. The three children try to tell Otto that they did in fact see a real ghost, but Otto chooses not to believe them.
Duane and Stephanie agree that their scaring days are behind them and they decide they will chose new interest to pursue. Stephanie joins the drama club while Duane becomes a star on the basketball team. The following winter, months after their adventure, the two children are walking by Hill House and they decide to take another tour, for old time's sake. Otto happily greets them at the door and calls Edna over. As the two hosts take the children on another tour of the house, the two children realize how their experience has changed them, as they no longer find any scares in the creepy old house.
After the tour, Stephanie and Duane bid the caretakers farewell and make it about halfway down the driveway when a police car pulls up. The police officer asks them why they were there, to which Duane explains they were just taking the tour. The police officer doesn't believe them and tells them that the Hill House has been closed for three months. Stephanie and Duane look up and through the upstairs window see the ghostly bodies of Otto and Edna holding lanterns, looking out at the two children.
Cover art gallery
- The ending implies multiple things: Otto and Edna were always ghosts, just waiting for Andrew's head to be found. Or that as the house has been closed for three months, they were killed after that evening Stephanie and Duane had been there.
The Headless Ghost was reprinted once in 2004. It is currently out of print.