For Books’ Sake Halloween – Top 10 Scary Short Stories
30th Oct 2014
So if you’re of a more nervous disposition and tales of horror and gore are really not your cup of tea, look away now. If not, read on... But perhaps make sure the doors are locked first!
The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Although originally published in 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper still remains the stuff of nightmares!
The main character is a wife suffering in the aftermath of what appears to be a nervous breakdown. She is made to stay in an upstairs room by her husband in order to rest and take her mind of her illness. Desperate to write, but forbidden to do so, the woman spirals into madness, prompted by the lurid yellow wallpaper that adorns the walls of the room.
‘There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down…up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere.’
As well as being a truly terrifying depiction of mental unravelling, there are subtle feminist undertones such as the exploration of the domestic role as a prison, or the relationship and treatment of women and illness during the nineteenth century. Not to mention she has completely reaffirmed my distrust of patterned wallpaper!
Far North – Sarah Maitland
British writer Sarah Maitland, focuses strongly on the feminine experience, and gives surprising and intriguing twists to familiar spooky tales.
For me, Far North is the stand out story from her collection Far North and Other Dark Tales.
Based on an Inuit myth, it depicts two desperate women in the frozen north attempting to survive against all odds. As the world gets darker and the weather gets worse, one of the women acts with terrifying consequences. It’s all about jealousy, revenge and isolation – pretty much the perfect combination for a horror story.
Where Are You Going and Where Have You Been? – Joyce Carol Oates
Ever feel a bit jumpy when you’re home alone? Do you hear a bang and instantly think someone has broken in? If so, this scary short story is probably not for you, unless you want to be scared witless that is!
I am a huge JCO fan and this is probably one of my favourite short stories. Where Are You Going and Where Have You Been? is a creepy, tense story about a vain and superficial teenage girl, Connie, who skips a family outing to stay home alone, but gets an unexpected visitor.
It put me in mind of eerie slasher movies like Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer, where the teenage protagonist gets chased by a knife wielding manic, except this is far more subtle and infinitely more terrifying. There are no weapons. There are no threats. There is only the paralysing terror Connie feels.
‘She cried out, she cried for her mother, she felt her breath start jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend was stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness.’
The Lottery – Shirley Jackson
Jackson’s story is horror at its sneakiest. She paints a bright, cheerful picture to start. It’s a beautiful sunny day and the whole town is gathering together. They’re drawing for something and you wonder what it is – a prize, perhaps?
But it’s not until the last few paragraphs that Jackson decides to hit you over the head with the horror hammer and what we find out is truly terrible. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.
Not long after its publication in the The New Yorker, disgusted readers sent complaint letters and some even cancelled their subscriptions. For me, the best horror stories are like looking in a mirror, we can see ourselves – or our society – reflected in the world of the story. I guess this was the case for America and The Lottery in the 1940s!
The Evening and the Morning and the Night – Octavia Butler
So many horror stories involve children. For me, these are the most terrifying. There’s something so unsettling about disturbing events involving those who we perceive to be innocent.
The Evening and the Morning and the Night is another story that deals with control and isolation. A generation after the introduction of a cancer cure, the children of those who used it begin to develop a genetic disease whose symptoms involve an uncontrollable desire to hurt themselves and others. After another generation, the patients have learned how to delay the onset of symptoms by means of a life with restrictions.
The Fifth Child – Doris Lessing
The Fifth Child is technically a novella but it is still classed as short fiction. A contemporary Gothic horror story, it focuses on the birth of a baby – the fifth child – who is seen as sub-normal.
I first read this book as part of my MA and remember being utterly horrified by it. I couldn’t sleep for days and winced at the descriptions of the foetus kicking violently in the womb.
There is something so utterly horrifying in the way a couple’s carefully orchestrated domestic bliss is destroyed by the birth of a child they cannot love. He is ugly in appearance, strong and ferocious, and incapable of affection. As he grows he becomes increasingly violent.
“He sat shivering, like a wet, cold dog, in spasms, and he went through a series of movements, unconsciously, the vestiges of reactions from that time. A hand went up to shield his face, and he looked through the spread fingers as if this hand could protect him.”
Lessing prays on our most innate fears – our inability to love our children – or worse, our children’s inability to love us.
Like Daughter – Tananarive Due
Like Daughter is one of those scary short stories that stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. As with all great horror stories, Due takes unthinkable subjects and explores what “could happen.”
In Like Daughter, the protagonist, Denise, goes to extremes in an attempt to escape and change her own broken childhood by recreating herself via cloning. Slightly more extreme than Dolly the Sheep!
Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers – Elizabeth Stott
Released in 2013, Touch Me with Your Cold, Hard Fingers, was printed by independent publisher Nightjar Press as a chapbook story, and is included in the Salt Publications Best British Horror, 2014.
Not only is this a decidedly disturbing tale of isolation and a wonderfully written piece of fiction, but Nightjar only print limited edition single short-story chapbooks by individual authors so it’s sort of a collector’s item as well!
When Charlie Sleeps – Laura Mauro
When Charlie Sleeps is another excellent short story taken from the 2014 edition of Salt’s Best British Horror. This is a tale about three women who have to care for a monster in a bath tub. So far, so Ghostbusters, right?
But then comes the twist. The monster seems to be an integral part of London. When he is happy, London is peaceful, but when he is angry, London descends into absolute anarchy.
Wonderfully creepy and unsettling stuff!
The Specialist’s Hat – Kelly Link
Kelly Link’s ghost story made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It’s about two twin girls who live together in a haunted mansion with their neglecting father.
With their mother gone, the girls are left to their own devices, creating their own games – including the creepy “Dead Game.” Link has been praised by modern fantasy writers for her diverse and twisted tales, with The Specialist’s Hat winning the 1999 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction.
What an incredible list – this will keep us suitably freaked out for a while! Which scary short stories would you add to our reading lists?
[Image Credit: Brit Austin on Flickr]