It’s that time of year again, when the pumpkins come out, the fake cobwebs are hung and we feel that dormant urge to be chilled, thrilled and spooked to our bones. Get out your flashlights, because a scary story awaits — actually, make that fifty of them. Now, there’s more to scary stories than goblins, ghouls, blood and your general horror — here there be monsters of many kinds, existential and literal, extraordinary and everyday. And remember: like beauty, fear is in the bloody eye of the beholder. So whether you yearn for classic horror or literary fiction guaranteed to make your skin crawl, read on. If you dare!
“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” Harlan Ellison
Ellison’s 1967 cult classic is a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi version of hell, in which the last four survivors on the planet are tortured by a vindictive and all-powerful computer. Get ready for the future, humans. Read it here.
“The Veldt,” Ray Bradbury
Bradbury has a number of scary stories to choose from, including the famous and existentially terrifying “There Will Come Soft Rains,” but I always come back to “The Veldt.” What’s more terrifying, the lions, the house or the children? Read it here.
“The Infamous Bengal Ming,” Rajesh Parameswaran
Originally published in Granta’s Horror issue, this might be the most terrifying love story you’ll ever read. A tiger falls in love with his keeper and expresses it the only way he knows how. Then, he escapes, to inflict his love on other creatures of the world. Love is scary stuff when you have fangs. Listen to it here.
“Two Houses,” Kelly Link
A bunch of people sitting around in a space ship telling ghost stories in varying shades of creepy and bizarre. Of course, they may or may not be in a horror story themselves. Maureen (that’s the ship) will have to decide.
“Snow, Glass, Apples,” Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is another writer with a number of scary stories to his name, but this one simply haunts. Vampiric, murderous Snow White and her necrophiliac Prince Charming: lips as red as blood. Read it here.
”The Other Place,” Mary Gaitskill
Many of Gaitskill’s stories are disturbing — bizarre situations, violent sexuality, a strange neutral stance towards it all — but this one, about a father who sees his own fantasies about murdering women in his son, is a real horror story for 2014. I shudder. Read it here.
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” Joyce Carol Oates
One of the scariest short stories of all time, and not a supernatural creature in sight. Perhaps a monster, though. “Just two things, or maybe three.” Read it here.
“The Signal-Man,” Charles Dickens
A classic, gloomy ghost story from a master of the form. Read it here.
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Gilman’s classic of feminist literature tracks the mental state of a woman locked away with “slight hysteria” and her descent, so confined, into actual psychosis — first believing there are people living in the wallpaper, then believing she is one of them. Terrifying on so many levels. Read it here.
“In the Penal Colony,” Franz Kafka
My personal favorite of Kafka’s stories won’t jump out and scare you like boo, but it will deposit a metallic chill at the base of your spine for days to come. It concerns a torture device that kills the convicted persons (all accused are convicted) by hewing the law they’ve broken into their bodies. But somehow this horror isn’t even the most terrifying part — but I’ll let you read it to find out what is. Read it here.
“The Monkey’s Paw,” W.W. Jacobs
You really can’t have a list of great scary stories without this classic, whose influence can be seen all over culture, both scary and not-so. You probably already know how it goes, but in case you don’t, I’ll just say this: be careful what you wish for. Read it here.
”Flowers for Algernon,” Daniel Keyes
Yes, one of the most disturbing novels of all time started out as a short story. Hang on to your minds, friends.
“The Tell Tale Heart,” Edgar Allan Poe
Poe is the stranger-king of gothic horror, and this is him at his best, with a murderous narrator being driven slowly mad by the beating of his victim’s heart under the floorboards. Read it here.
“The Road Virus Heads North,” Stephen King
There are about a hundred King stories that could have made this list, but I find this one particularly chilling — at the very least, it’s the scariest story about a painting that you’ll ever read. That’s right, Wilde, I said it. Read it here.
“Terra Incognita,” Vladimir Nabokov
A descent into feverish madness deep in “the wildwood of a hitherto unexplored region.” Reality shifts and bends, but death takes a solid stand.
“Casting the Runes,” M.R. James
It’s hard to pick just one from M.R. James, the undisputed master of the modern ghost story. But let’s say this one, perhaps the most likely to disturb your dreams — or at least your relationship with your pillow. Second choice: “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, Lad,” featuring, among other things, one of the greatest horror story titles ever written. Read it here.
“The Dunwich Horror,” H.P. Lovecraft
Again, again, a writer with hordes of scary stories to his name — but this is one of his very best and scariest. Read it here.
“Out of Skin,” Emily Carroll
Emily Carroll is a master of the creepy comic. This one might be her most horrifying, a tale of women risen from the dead. It will infect your soul, and also your house. Read it here.
“Dress of White Silk,” Richard Matheson
Matheson is one of the spooky greats, and this ambiguous, upsetting tale is a personal favorite. “Grandma locked me in my room and wont let me out. Because its happened she says. I guess I was bad.” Can’t go wrong with scary children.
”The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson
This is one of those stories that you can’t say too much about for fear of ruining it. Suffice to say that it’s one of the most existentially disturbing tales ever written, and will likely worry you until you die. So, go read it right away. Read it here.
“The Screaming Skull,” F. Marion Crawford
A deft monologue that begins with a practical sea captain who finds part of a mysterious skull, and ends leaving the reader wondering just how complicit he really is — in the skull’s existence, in the skull’s wailing, in his own death.
“The Open Window,” Saki
Okay, so this one isn’t actually that scary — unless you’re the parent of a teenage girl, perhaps. But it is a masterful send-up of the genre that manages to elicit both a chill and a giggle. Read it here.
“The Willows,” Algernon Blackwood
Another famous one, and an important early story in the weird fiction genre, “The Willows” tells of an ominous boat trip that rapidly deteriorates into the strangest and most terrible of adventures. It was a personal favorite of Lovecraft, who wrote of it: “Here art and restraint in narrative reach their very highest development, and an impression of lasting poignancy is produced without a single strained passage or a single false note.” Read it here.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor
Not a horror story, of course, but a deeply horrifying one, that will convince you, if only for a moment, into accepting O’Connor’s grim outlook on humanity. Listen to it here.
“Green Tea,” Sheridan Le Fanu
Featuring the most upsetting devil-monkey ever committed to paper. Read it here.
“The Green Ribbon,” Alvin Schwartz
Schwartz is the man behind everyone’s favorite childhood creep-fest Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which I had, horrifyingly, on audiocassette. “The Green Ribbon,” though, is the most memorably disturbing of his retellings — that or “The Big Toe.” You know what I’m talking about. Listen to it here.
“The Bloody Chamber,” Angela Carter
Carter’s take on the Bluebeard myth is a gorgeous, frightening story of sexual violence, deception, and the marriage bed — terrifying to any girl who hopes that her future husband will not try to decapitate her.
“Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne
Trust creepy old Hawthorne to spin a tale about a girl turned to poison and have it leave you shivering. Read it here.
“The Pelican Bar,” Karen Joy Fowler
This story, which won the Shirley Jackson Award in 2009 and a World Fantasy award soon after, is a frankly chilling story of a teenager sent away to a torturous correctional facility in which the girls, when they’re not disappearing, are forbidden to speak. Even scarier: the story is based on an actual reform school for children.
“Dapplegrim,” Brian Evenson
Evenson’s retelling of the Norwegian folktale “Dapplegrim” is bloody and obsessive, a weird mix of mind control and fairy tale, with a spine made of slaughter.
“The Midnight Meat Train,” Clive Barker
Barker’s entire Books of Blood omnibus could probably be on this list, but as a representative, please accept the grisly, gory, splatterporn subway ride that is “The Midnight Meat Train.”
“Miriam,” Truman Capote
Well-spoken, strangely dressed children are simply the creepiest. Read it here.
“Dial Tone,” Benjamin Percy
A weird, building horror story that bends time, space, and your mind. You’ll never receive a call from a telemarketer in quite the same way again. Read it here.
“Le Horla” by Guy de Maupassant
An 1887 horror story full of madness that was published shortly before Maupassant was hospitalized — for insanity. Read it here.
“Caterpillars,” E.F. Benson
This story will give you the creepy-crawlies — literally: “Then I saw that the grayish light of the bedroom came from the bed, or rather what was on the bed. For it was covered with great caterpillars, a foot or more in length, which crawled over it. They were faintly luminous, and it was the light from them that showed me the room. Instead of the sucker-feet of ordinary caterpillars they had rows of pincers like crabs, and they moved by grasping what they lay on with their pincers, and then sliding their bodies forward. … Then, as I looked, it seemed to me as if they all suddenly became conscious of my presence.” Read it here.
“The Demon Lover,” Elizabeth Bowen
A dark, tense story that will return to your mind every time you have to keep an appointment you’d rather not — especially if it’s with your dead lover.
“The Echo of Neighborly Bones,” Daniel Woodrell
The first line of this story tells it all: “Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn’t seem to quit killing him.” In fact, this whole collection will leave you uneasy, wary of other people and sharp edges.
“Black Man with a Horn,” T.E.D. Klein
Lots of horror writers have nodded to Lovecraft in their work, and many have also directly contributed stories to the Cthulhu mythos. One of the best of these is Klein’s “Black Man with a Horn,” a slow build of a terrifying story, in which an aging horror writer and old associate of Lovecraft’s meets a demon he thought was only imaginary. Also essential Klein reading: his novella The Events at Poroth Farm.
“Details,” China Miéville
Miéville is a master of the mash-up, and this brilliant story is no different — mystery and horror and psychological thriller all in one. The devil’s in the details.
“A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner
Very early Faulkner, very creepy Faulkner. Read it here.
“The Landlady,” Roald Dahl
Another entry from the secret life of Roald Dahl — a creepy little story about a man who visits a hotel whose proprietor has a delightful little hobby: taxidermy. Read it here.
“The Boarded Window,” Ambrose Bierce
Another scary horror classic. “There is a point at which terror may turn to madness; and madness incites to action.”
“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” Karen Russell
In this deeply unsettling story, a group of kids find an exact replica of a boy they’d mercilessly teased tied to a tree in their favorite hangout spot. You’ll be thinking about that doll for months, guaranteed. Read it here.
“Lukundoo,” Edward Lucas White
The most horrible skin disease in the world has to be the one where tiny men erupt out of pustules all over your body and want to kill you. Read it here.
“Pigeons from Hell,” Robert E. Howard
Despite the hokey title, this one is truly terrifying, and also cited by Stephen King as “one of the finest horror stories of our century.” Read it here.
“Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” Conrad Aiken
Winter is coming. Read it here.
“Sticks,” Karl Edward Wagner
A horror classic that never fails to unnerve. The story, and in particular the titular sticks, have also been cited as an influence by the creator of True Detective, if that’s any indication of what you’re dealing with here.
“Don’t Look Now,” Daphne du Maurier
A terrifying sneak of a short story to remind you why Maurier is the queen of the gothic nightmare.
“The Babysitter,” Robert Coover
Reading this story is like seeing something horrible out of the corner of your eye, or through a cracked window, and continuing to look and look and search and wonder and then, and then… Read it here.
“He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door,” Robert R. McCammon
A slow burner of a scary story — and set at Halloween to boot.