13 Short Horror Stories that Blew My Mind

Hi. My name is Keri. I’m a librarian with a slight obsession with the darker side of fiction and media. I’m also a former English major, which means I have constant, frustrating urges to wax critical on things that I can no longer channel into writing 10-page papers on water imagery in T.S. Eliot’s poetry. So I’ve decided to combine the two and start a horror review blog.

I love short horror fiction. I own a huge collection of horror anthologies (my entire apartment is seriously covered in them, except maybe the bathroom, and even that’s questionable), and the release of a new Stephen Jones- or Ellen Datlow-edited collection makes my day. While longer horror novels can often be very worthwhile, I find that the short-story format lends itself best to delivering a quick, memorable scare. After all, the best horror often leaves something to the imagination, which is much harder to do over 250 pages than 25– short stories can be as surreal, ambiguous and haunting as the author desires, and that’s why they’re great.

So I’ve decided to kick this off with a list of some of my favorite short horror stories I’ve read over the past few years. A few are even available to read for free online! Read on for my list of 13 Short Horror Stories that Blew My Mind.

“The Pear-Shaped Man,” George R. R. Martin
Find it in: Dreamsongs: Volume I, George R.R. Martin; Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, ed. Ellen Datlow
I like stories that make normally innocuous things unspeakably creepy. I’m tempted to limit my commentary here to “this story makes Cheez Doodles scary,” just because that is such a ridiculous statement, and also true. I will also say that it raises the possibility that every creepy, unhygienic, overweight, socially awkward dude you’ve ever known could’ve been a Lovecraftian abomination (which may or may not be an improvement). This story plays off our fears of the other, of losing control, of becoming that which we are disgusted by, and it unsettles on a really deep level as a result– it’s also deliciously, skin-crawlingly icky, and I’m surprised it wasn’t included in that Mammoth Book of Body Horror that was just released. Also, Cheez Doodles? Never eating them again.

“The Camping Wainwrights,” Ian R. MacLeod
Find it in: The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror: Volume 20, ed. Stephen Jones
The Wainwrights are a perfectly normal family, with a perfectly normal father who engages in the perfectly normal fatherly activity of dragging the rest of the family on camping trips he is significantly more enthusiastic about than they are. Of course, this being a horror story, there’s more to it than that– but maybe not as much more as you’d expect. The “antagonist” in this story doesn’t kill anyone or beat anyone or even do anything that breaks any laws, but is somehow more chilling for all that because of the sociopathic inexplicability of his actions. The horror builds subtly to a shocking climax, and the last few lines add a creepy new dimension to the whole thing. I saw one review call this a “feminist tale of revenge,” which I think spectacularly misses the point. It’s about the horror of domesticity, the little cruelties in every family and how easily they can destroy.

“23:46 Mordren (via Bank),” Rebecca Levene
Find it in: The End of the Line: An Anthology of Underground Horror, ed. Jonathan Oliver
I found this in an anthology of subway horror stories. It’s probably a bit obscure and I’ve never read anything else by this author, but I was extremely impressed by it. Like a really twisted Twilight Zone episode, it tells the story of a man who misses his train and finds himself taking a ride to somewhere beyond normal understanding. Nothing new, but the nature of the alternate universe in which he finds himself– a world where his friends and loved ones are all smiling, hate-filled psychopaths, sort of like the Mirror Universe taken to horrifying extremes– is really creepy and well-done.

“Gardens,” Melanie Tem
Find it in: Gathering the Bones, ed. Dennis Etchison, Ramsey Campbell & Jack Dann
Some have complained that this story isn’t really horror, but it certainly chilled me. It deals with a particular psychological issue that has always equally fascinated and scared me, though I don’t want to say what it is for fear of ruining the story. The poetic, dreamlike, almost stream-of-consciousness writing style is effective in slowly revealing the disturbing truth of a very dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, and the ending is straight-up horrifying. (As good as this story is, though, it doesn’t make up for her husband’s traumatizing “An Ending,” which maybe I’ll talk about someday if I ever manage to finish it. It’s a short story, by the way.)

“Under the Crust,” Terry Lamsley
Find it in: The Mammoth Book of New Terror, ed. Stephen Jones
I am not sure I can truthfully say that I enjoy Lamsley’s work. It is not, perhaps, a pleasant experience to read one of his stories. It’s not the kind of horror you can keep at a comfortable distance; it’s the kind that crawls into your head. Nightmarish is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but few authors capture the nauseous logic of a fever dream quite this well. I would explain what this story is about, but… well, it’s hard to say, just as it’s hard to explain a half-remembered dream. There’s urban decay and body horror and Kafkaesque surrealism. It’s good. (I could also recommend his “Sickhouse Hospitality,” and the same commentary applies.)

“The Sloan Men,” David Nickle
Find it in: Monstrous Affections, David Nickle; or read or listen for free!
I heard the Pseudopod version of this story and immediately hit up Barnes & Noble to buy Monstrous Affections, the author’s first and only short story collection (a worthwhile purchase, incidentally, even if none of the other stories quite lived up to this one). Most of the stories in Affections deal with some form of love, and this is a meet-the-parents tale that takes a turn for the extremely bizarre, when talking to her beloved boyfriend’s mother opens our protagonist’s eyes to the fact that there is something very wrong with the man she is slavishly devoted to. The author’s stated inspiration for this story is the old chestnut about “nice guys”– “why do women date horrible, abusive men instead of me,” basically– which I strongly dislike, but the story works on another level for me. If you’ve ever done stupid things for love, if you’ve ever been crazy head-over-heels for someone you later looked back on and thought “…ugh, what was I on?” this takes that idea to its furthest extreme in a way that is simultaneously horrifying, blackly hilarious, and cathartic.

“Granny’s Grinning,” Robert Shearman
Find it in: The Dead That Walk, ed. Stephen Jones; The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror: Volume 21, ed. Stephen Jones
I really, really love Doctor Who. This is actually relevant, because Shearman’s written a lot of Who stuff, including the incredibly creepy “The Chimes of Midnight,” which was my introduction to the Big Finish audio dramas I am now hopelessly addicted to. He’s now making a name for himself in the world of short horror fiction, and I could not be happier. This is a really bizarre little story, interesting because its central conceit requires a magical-realism-esque suspension of disbelief– it’s set in a world exactly like our own except that children play with “monster suits” that actually transform them temporarily into zombies, werewolves, vampires and such, and this technology is never explained or put in any kind of context. Somehow, it works, and is used to great effect in the most disturbing twist ever. I seriously spent the last half a page with my mouth dropped open. That is actually a thing that happens in real life, apparently. Who knew.

“Heavy-Set,” Ray Bradbury
Find it in: Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales
An older choice, and perhaps an obscure one from one of the masters of short genre fiction. Bradbury wrote so much that was so brilliant, but for this list I’m focusing on stories that shocked me, stories I couldn’t get out of my head after reading them, and this definitely qualifies. Like several of my other choices, it barely seems to qualify as horror on the surface– it’s the simple story of one Halloween night in the life of a woman and her physically-strong but mentally- and socially-immature adult son. But for all that nothing much actually happens in the story, the narrative is brimming with menace and dread. The subtle horror of this tale is in the warping of the mother-son relationship’s natural progression, the way the son’s quietly awful refusal to grow up and “fly away” stifles and strangles his mother, who is too weak, physically and emotionally, to push him out of the nest. My initial interpretation of the ending was probably more horrifying than intended given my modern sensibilities (or… possibly just my sick mind?), but its ambiguity is chilling either way.

“Family Bed,” Kit Reed
Find it in: Dogs of Truth: New and Uncollected Stories, Kit Reed; or read for free on the SciFiction archives
A disturbing satire of “attachment parenting” and other smothering trends in childcare, this twisted little story follows the Dermott family, who love each other so much that they all sleep in the same huge bed every night. They’re famous on television for their heartwarming familial devotion– but of course the reality is nowhere near as idyllic, and the lengths to which Mother and Father go to preserve their perfect little family are expectedly horrifying. This is just a fun, macabre black comedy, with some social commentary on messed-up childrearing and reality television giving it an extra bite.

“each thing I show you is a piece of my death,” Gemma Files & Stephen J. Barringer
Find it in: The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two, ed. Ellen Datlow; or read for free at Apex Magazine
The whole “haunted meme” subgenre of technological horror (in the vein of The Ring, Pulse, One Missed Call and countless other Asian horror films/remakes of Asian horror films) is overdone. The modern-epistolary, mock-documentary format, presenting a story in transcripts, reports, journal entries and such, is also overdone (although I will probably never get tired of it). And not capitalizing the title of your story is so very, very pretentious. Despite all that, this creepy tale of the “Background Man” works, and works really, really well. It’s a great example of how new life can be breathed into a tired genre through good writing and a stylish presentation.

“The Rising River,” Daniel Kaysen
Find it in: The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One, ed. Ellen Datlow
I heart unreliable narration. Along with epistolary style and twist endings, it’s one of those literary devices that I can never resist. This story has two of the three. It takes your typical “girl who talks to ghosts” concept and twists it into a surreal, ambiguous narrative worthy of a David Lynch short film. Upon rereading it, I think I may have entirely misinterpreted the ending the first time around… but really, it’s hard to tell. That’s part of the reason I like it.

“The Ball Room,” China Mieville, Emma Bircham & Max Schaefer
Find it in: Looking for Jake, China Mieville; The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror: Volume 17, ed. Stephen Jones
Remember when I said I liked innocuous things becoming scary? This is a horror story about a ball pit. I don’t know why it took three people to write a horror story about a ball pit, but they certainly did something right. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that one of them is China Mieville. I would say I’m never going in a ball pit again, but I’m far too large and old to do so anyway. But… you know, if I wasn’t. I’d avoid them, is what I’m saying. On account of the ghosts.

Bonus mention: “Pirates,” Mark Garland
Find it in: Bruce Coville’s Book of Aliens: Tales to Warp Your Mind!
Reaching waaaaay back for this one. Coville’s children’s anthologies were a huge influence on my reading habits as a kid, and probably did a lot to spark my love of short dark fiction. I have no idea who this author is or if he ever wrote anything else of note (Internet searches suggest… not really), but this story is one of the earliest I can remember reading and thinking “holy shit” (possibly in more age-appropriate language). There’s probably a lot of nostalgia-goggles going on here, and I can’t find my copy to reread it with adult eyes, but the last sentence was so chilling that it’s stuck with me over the years. Because the book’s out of print and you’ll probably never read it, I’ll tell you that it was something along the lines of “Pretend we exist.” Brr.

So that was enlightening! I learned that in addition to my stated love of surrealism, unreliable narrators, “ordinary horror” and epistolary style, apparently I also really enjoy tales of dysfunctional families. Worrying! I also originally had something in here about how I don’t normally like female horror authors, but I removed that once I realized that 5 of my 13 stories were written by ladies at least in part, and there were others I could’ve included. So I guess really what I was trying to say is that I don’t like Caitlin Kiernan or Poppy Z. Brite. Sad but true.

More on that later, maybe. Also upcoming– a few movie reviews, a few book reviews, something on creepypasta… In the meantime, on the off chance that anyone at all is reading this, share your favorite short stories below!

2 thoughts on “13 Short Horror Stories that Blew My Mind

  1. Barry says:

    I’m trying to come up with a list of 50 all-time favorite short stories. I’ve only made it to about 32 so far.

    I’m a sucker for a twist ending – the nastier the better. One thing that makes a short story memorable for me is just how shocking it is, so be warned if you track down any of these!

    “Oh, What A Swell Guy Am I” – Jeffrey Osier – the first Borderlands anthology from 1990 had many great stories, but this might be my favorite.

    “Bait” – Ray Garton – I actually let out a moan of disgust on the last page when I saw where this one was going!

    “On Edge” – Christopher Fowler – warning: if you have a fear of dentists DO NOT read this!!

    “Last Kiss” – Norman Partridge – other stories by Partridge – “The Mojave Two-Step”, “Bucket of Blood”, and “Coyotes” are not bad, but “Last Kiss” is my favorite by him. Nice twist ending!

    “Over His Head” – Bruce Jones – very nice/nasty twist ending!

    “Don’t Ask Jack” – Neil Gaiman

    “Where Angels Come In” – Adam Nevill – my favorite haunted house story

    “Tradition” – Cathy and Gary Davies – nice darkly funny Halloween short story

    Authors with more than one story…

    Richard Christian Matheson
    - Goosebumps
    - Where There’s A Will (w/ Richard Matheson)

    F. Paul Wilson
    - Soft
    - Cuts

    Robert R. McCammon
    - Doom City
    - He’ll Come Knocking At Your Door – I love stories set on Halloween night and this one is pretty good

    John M. Skipp
    - The Long Ride
    - The Spirit Of Things – another good Halloween story

    Clive Barker
    - The Midnight Meat Train
    - Son Of Celluloid

    William F. Nolan
    - The Halloween Man
    - The Yard
    - Fair Trade

    David J. Schow
    - Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy
    - Bad Guy Hats
    - Scoop Bites The Dust

    Stephen King
    - Weeds
    - Grey Matter
    - The Ledge
    - Graveyard Shift

    Joe R. Lansdale
    - My Dead Dog Bobby
    - Drive-In Date – warning: very shocking and disturbing!!
    - The Pit
    - Night They Missed The Horror Show

  2. prospero says:

    The best short horror story I’ve ever read was “The Goat Cutter” by Jay Lake. Literary. Profound. Horrific.

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