Halloween isn’t solely about horror movies–Halloween is also great for disturbing short story or two. Or ten.
Personally, I don’t always have time to read the latest horror novel or unearth a classic gothic ghost story. So I settle for a shorter but no less unnerving story. For me, a good creepy short story is like a deliciously morbid morsel. For others, a short horror story is an easy way to step out of one’s comfort zone.
There are countless horror short stories, and I sure haven’t read them all. However, I did compile a list of ten of my absolute favorites, along with links for you to read them right now!
“The Yellow Wallpaper” – Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
Read it HERE
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is part of the grand tradition of horror literature that tackles feminist issues. In this landmark short story, an unnamed woman and her husband have moved into a rented house for the summer. The woman has just given birth to the couple’s child, and her husband, who is also a doctor, oversees the woman’s recovery. Part of his instruction is to prevent the woman from “straining” herself in any way—she can’t go outside, she can’t physically exert herself, and she can’t do anything that requires mental effort. For her “recovery,” he confines her in the house’s abandoned nursery, which is lined with hideous peeling yellow wallpaper. Resisting her isolation, it’s not long before the woman becomes convinced that there is a horrifying woman trapped in the wallpaper, watching her. “The Yellow Wallpaper” will give you plenty to think about while also making you shudder.
“The Dunwich Horror” – HP Lovecraft (1929)
Read it HERE
In the little backwoods community of Dunwich, the Whateley family are outsiders. Old Whateley, the ancient patriarch (and a rumored sorcerer) lives outside the town with his deformed albino daughter, Lavinia. When Lavinia becomes pregnant, the townspeople whisper that she is not pregnant with any human child. Sure enough, her son, Wilbur, is a disturbing and fearsome child, growing at an alarming rate and achieving adulthood within a decade. The family lives in their decrepit house from which a foul stench emanates. No one dares venture close to the house, where it’s rumored scores of cattle are devoured by someone. Or something. It’s not long before Lavinia goes missing and Old Whately dies, leaving Wilbur in charge of the house and the evil presence that inhabits its walls. One of his own favorite stories, Lovecraft said that “The Dunwich Horror” was “so fiendish that [Weird Tales editor] Farnsworth Wright may not dare to print it.” Lucky for us, Wright did print it, ensuring that “The Dunwich Horror” disgusts and unsettles generations to come.
“Terra Incognita” – Vladimir Nabokov (1931)
Read it HERE
Vladimir Nabokov continues his expert use of the unreliable narrator in this creepy, feverish slow burn. In “Terra Incognita,” the main character Vallière and his friend Gregson are on an exhibition through a dense jungle when their porters disappear with all their supplies. They are hopelessly lost on the wilderness with Cook, an untrustworthy member of their crew. Overcome with fever, Vallière begins to hallucinate wildly. Something is very wrong, and the escalating tensions between Gregson and Cook will only lead to more trouble. “Terra Incognita” is a dizzying, lush story of a man losing his mind to sickness, helpless to defend himself from the twisted machinations of the jungle.
“Pigeons from Hell” – Robert E. Howard (1938)
Read it HERE
Hailed by Stephen King as “One of the finest horror stories of our century,” “Pigeons from Hell” is a terrifying tale of vengeance. Two Yankee gentlemen decide to travel into the deep South on vacation. After a particularly grueling day of traversing the dense southern forests, the men stop to sleep at an abandoned plantation. In the middle of the night, one of the men is brutally slaughtered in his sleep. The other man flees the house, barely escaping with his life. The surviving man, along with the town sheriff, investigates the evil lurking in the plantation and uncovers a deadly revenge plot. “Pigeons from Hell” is deliciously creepy and very horrific in places, like the best southern gothic stories should be.
“The Lottery” – Shirley Jackson (1948)
Read it HERE
This short story made me fall in love with short stories. “The Lottery” is the story of a quiet, unassuming town and the salt-of-the-earth folk who live there. One day, when the children do not have to attend school and the men do not have to work, the townspeople gather for an annual ritual called, “The Lottery.”
I don’t want to give away anything else, since the unfolding of the ritual is what makes the story good and creepy. Just know that this story sent shock waves through the literary world upon publication. The New Yorker, which was the first publication to run “The Lottery” received hundreds of subscription cancellations and thousands of angry letters condemning the story. It was accused of promoting communism and anti-democratic sentiments. It was banned in schools and libraries all over America, and was even banned in South Africa. It is one of the most influential short stories in American Literature and should not be ignored.
“The October Game” – Ray Bradbury (1948)
Read it HERE
In this gruesome Halloween tale, a man’s resentment and hatred towards his wife and daughter takes a turn to tragedy. You’ll never look at peeled grapes and cold spaghetti the same way again. I don’t want to give much more away, except this: Bradbury was the master of the gut-punch short story, and “The October Game” is no different. This story is shocking, revolting, and deeply disturbing.
“The Midnight Meat Train” – Clive Barker (1984)
Read it HERE and go to page 8
New York City is a city of nightmares in this horrifying short story from terror maestro Clive Barker. A series of bizarre, troubling murders plague the cities subway system, where the victims are discovered stripped, shaved, and drained of blood. The police have no leads and absolutely no way to stem the increasing body count. When he accidentally falls asleep on the train, protagonist Leon wakes up in a nightmare, having stumbled into a hellish citywide conspiracy. Once you get on the Midnight Meat Train, there is no disembarking. Barker’s attention to grotesque detail has made him famous, and he does not let up in this story. The body horror is the real star of the short story.
“The Paperhanger” – William Gay (2000)
A slow-burn gem of a horror story, “The Paperhanger” is a heartbreaking, horrific short story from William Gay, who inherited a literary world bequeathed to him by the likes of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. In “The Paperhanger,” the young daughter of a prominent and wealthy doctor and his trophy wife abruptly vanishes. The girl was last seen playing amid the construction on the couple’s new home, but none of the men know what happened to her and they are cleared of wrongdoing by the police. Having never recovered her body or gained closure, the doctor and his wife drift apart, eventually divorcing to continue their ruined lives alone. It isn’t until years after the disappearance that the mother learns the devastating truth about what happened to her child.
For days afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking of this story. This story will mess you up. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
“A Study in Emerald” – Neil Gaiman (2003)
Read it HERE
Normally, I’m not one to enjoy fantastical reinterpretations of classic stories, because I think it requires a degree of care many are unable or unwilling to observe, not to mention that uprooting the story from its chosen time and place is disrespectful to the author. But Neil Gaiman surprised me and proved me wrong on this occasion. In “A Study in Emerald,” Gaiman weaved together Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes stories. A reinterpretation of “A Study in Scarlett,” “A Study in Emerald” follows an unnamed doctor as he recounts his time working with an unnamed detective on the brutal murder of a German noble. The murder is so high-profile that the Queen becomes involved, instructing the doctor and the detective to find the culprit at once, for the sake of the Great Old Ones, who now rule humanity. As the doctor and the detective investigate deeper, they come across a “tall, languid” man and his devoted companion. Nothing is ever as it seems in this short story, and it will have you guessing until the end.
”The Other Place,” Mary Gaitskill (2011)
Read it HERE
In this brutally honest, dark short story, an unnamed narrator recounts his experiences with his violent, sexual fantasies of women. With these thoughts of hurting and violating women filling his head, he explains how he spent his teenage years as a voyeur and stalker, always wishing he could have the courage to kill a woman. After a harrowing encounter years before, the narrator has gained control over his fantasies. But he worries he has passed them on to his son, who engages in his own yearnings for bloody violence. “The Other Place” will get under your skin and stay there, a steady reminder that even people who have never killed before are capable of intensely terrifying thoughts.