Short Story Classics
There is something pleasurable about being scared – about telling ghost stories around a campfire, or reading a scary novel by flashlight. Frightening movies, television shows, books, and even video games continue to permeate our culture. When gothic fiction first emerged in the late eighteenth century (with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto), the movement was defined as a sort of pleasing terror. The elements of gothic fiction have broadened in the centuries following Walpole’s classic novel, and the emergence of the short story, in particular, has led to countless chilling tales.
Below are ten (spoiler-free!) must-read frightening short stories. To make this list, the story must be less than sixty pages and exemplify the pleasing terror associated with the gothic genre. They each can – and should – be read in a single sitting.
10) “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving (1820)
When Ichabod Crane, a capitalistic outsider, threatens the idyllic, peaceful existence of Sleepy Hollow, the gothic emerges. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” begins with a love triangle between the superstitious, Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel, and Brom Bones. As the two men compete for Katrina’s love, the stakes rise, and the supernatural elements become increasingly apparent. Since the story’s publication in 1820, the Headless Horseman has taken on a near-mythological stance in American culture, and Irving’s classic tale uses ambiguity and wit to deliver an effective conclusion. Though “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” doesn’t quite have the brooding atmosphere of the following tales, its cultural relevance remains unparalleled.
9) “Mars is Heaven!” by Ray Bradbury (1948)
This supernatural science fiction tale follows the first flight to Mars. The crew is surprised to find a familiar suburban town filled with deceased members of their friends and family. At first glance, the crew believes that they have discovered Heaven, and they are quick to embrace the white picket fences of this nostalgic and seemingly perfect world. It is easy to be lulled into the romantic writing, but Bradbury’s superb prose and expert pacing indicate that something much darker is lurking beneath the façade. This frightening story has an unforgettable resolution, and the story holds up surprisingly well.
“Mars is close to Gwenny’s heart!”
8) “Don’t Look Now” by Daphne du Maurier (1971)
At the start of this intriguing short story (and the longest one on this list), a couple is vacationing in Venice. It becomes clear that their trip is taken under doctor’s orders to calm the grief-stricken, Laura, who recently lost her daughter to meningitis. The tension is almost immediate. During the opening scene in a restaurant, twin psychics tell Laura that they can see her deceased daughter sitting at a nearby table. Du Maurier is able to weave numerous plot points together in such a way that the reader constantly questions whether an external or internal threat is the true culprit. Likewise, the twisting, spiraling canals of Venice add to the unease, and the landscape becomes a character in itself. Fans of du Maurier’s classic novel, Rebecca will find a lot to love here. Both stories show the author at her very best.
7) “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)
Hawthorne provides a fascinating look at Puritan New England in “Young Goodman Brown.” In this dark tale, Goodman Brown sneaks off into the woods at night, where he observes and participates inceremonial witchcraft. There’s a dreamy, surreal quality to the work, which adds to the intrigue. Like many of the stories on this list, the actual events are hazy, and the reader must speculate whether or not they even occurred. The entire story unfolds during a short time frame, until the concluding paragraph, which outlines the remainder of Goodman Brown’s life. The ending is especially bleak, providing the consequences of losing faith – and the favor of God – in a religiously binding society.
6) “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs (1902)
Three magic wishes – what can go wrong? We’ve all seen this trope played out time and again in literature and in popular culture. But, W. W. Jacobs’ enduring, creepy tale sets the reader on edge from the opening lines, and the feeling of dread rarely subsides. When the White family receives a cursed monkey’s paw, they can’t help testing it out. What begins as an innocent, skeptical wish for two hundred pounds escalates into something macabre and irreversible. The story is highly atmospheric, and it builds to a near-inescapable tension. “The Monkey’s Paw” is a classic horror story brimming with a sense of loss and ominous foreboding. This one comes highly recommended.
5) “The Lovely House” by Shirley Jackson (1950)
Shirley Jackson is a master of the supernatural. “The Lovely House” (sometimes anthologized as “A Visit”) is easily the most subtle story on this list, and it might not even been deemed supernatural until a second read. On the surface, the protagonist, Margaret, spends her summer vacation at a mansion with her friend, Carla Montague. The story has an unnerving tone, especially when Margaret’s mother is around; the mother is constantly working on the numerous tapestries that line the mansion’s hallways, and she seems especially cold and distant. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that there is something much more complicated transcending the ordinary events, suggesting a lingering entrapment within the confines of the mansion. Fans of “The Lovely House” should also try Jackson’s effective gothic novel, The Haunting of Hill House (1959).
4) “Prey” by Richard Matheson (1969)
What Shirley Jackson shows through subtlety, Richard Matheson illustrates through flat-out terror. At the start of this tale, the protagonist, Amelia, brings home a Zuni fetish doll as a gift for her boyfriend. “Prey” is an unrelenting story in which the heroine is harassed by a possessed doll named He Who Kills. Unlike the phantoms of the preceding stories, Matheson takes a tangible object, brings it to life, and unleashes the terror upon the young, trapped Amelia. “Prey” was famously adopted for the final segment of the 1975 television movie, Trilogy of Terror. While the movie feels dated at times (containing an inescapable 1970’s vibe), the short story remains timeless.
3) “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1907)
In this subtle story, two travelers sail down the Danube River by canoe. They grow tired and dock at an island in order to rest for a day or two. Immediately, Blackwood creates a sense of unease by personifying nature. The willows surrounding the island seem to live and breathe, and Blackwood’s prose indicates that something sinister is at work. As the travelers set up camp, they are haunted by odd noises, and stranger yet, the willows seem to move around on their own accord. The story picks up as the two characters begin to distrust one another, and the tension continually builds. Blackwood also introduces science fiction elements when the travelers speculate on the nature of the supernatural. “The Willows” has it all, and it remains a dark and layered narrative.
2) “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
Here is a story which demonstrates that the phantoms of the mind are often more frightening than any supernatural manifestation. Like numerous Poe stories, Gilman uses an unreliable narrator to elicit tension. In this eerie tale, the narrator is suffering from hysteria following the birth of her child (a modern-day postpartum depression). As was the belief at the time, she is forced to remain on bed rest in order to cure her depression, and her time spent in isolation only heightens her sense of paranoia. What follows is a disturbing descent into madness, as the protagonist becomes fixated on the yellow wallpaper that lines her bedroom walls. The final image is extremely unsettling, and it lingers in the imagination. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is also notable for its function as an early feminist work, critiquing the harsh nineteenth century attitudes towards women’s mental health.
1) “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe (1839)
When “The Fall of the House of Usher” was first published in 1839, Poe proved that the gothic narrative could thrive in very short fiction. Unlike the spiraling, lengthy gothic novels that preceded Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” accomplishes the same brooding atmosphere and effective resolution in just fifteen pages. The story begins as the narrator approaches his friend, Roderick’s decaying estate. He learns that Roderick and his twin sister are suffering from dual illnesses and an unending melancholy. When Roderick’s sister, Madeline dies, the story takes a dark and unexpected turn, culminating in an incredibly tense climax. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is simply a masterpiece of short fiction, and a must-read for those seeking a frightening short story.