10 Great Spooky Stories

For me, the greatest form for the spooky story is, in fact, the story, the short story.  I know there are exceptions (a recent good one was Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box), but in general I find the novel too long a form to sustain the subtle, delicate kind of scares I particularly like.  Movies can do it, but they rarely do.  So with Halloween coming, here’s a list of ten spooky short stories I love.  I won’t call them my favorites—that would be a much longer list.  Feel free to add to it.

Again, I’ve left out stories that aren’t chilling in some way.  Henry James is one of my favorite writers and The Turn of the Screw one of his best works, but it’s not that scary.  Neither is A Christmas Carol, another favorite of mine. 

One of my favorite collections.

Without further ado:

  1. Lost Hearts by M.R. James.  M.R. James is the greatest ghost story writer who ever lived.  I could’ve named any of half a dozen of his as his best, but this one is as chilling as any.  A little orphan boy is taken in by a kindly professor…  but for what purpose?  As always with James, it’s what you don’t see that frightens you.  You can get his books free on Kindle.
  2. The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs.  Though James is the greatest ghost story writer, the greatest English ghost story of all time was by Jacobs, most of whose other work is forgotten.  An unassuming English couple find a relic that gives them three wishes.  You’ve probably seen some version of this story on TV or in the movies, but none tops the original.  Ten perfect pages of prose.
  3. The Room in the Tower by E.F. Benson.  Benson was famous for his Mapp and Lucia comic novels, but he was a prolific writer of expert and frightening scary stories.  The opening pages of this one grab you by the throat.  It’s about that place where dreams become reality, in the worst possible way.
  4. Ringing the Changes by Robert Aickman.  Aickman was one of the few modern masters of the ghost story, undeservedly obscure.  Some of his stories are a little literary and hard to follow, but this one is clean and clear and sticks with you a long time.  A tourist comes to a small English town where the bells just won’t stop ringing…  until they do.  The Cicerones is another great one of his.
  5. Children of the Corn by Stephen King.  One of the scariest short stories ever written.  When King first broke upon the scene, he was derided as “post literate” by high-falutin critics.  But I knew him on sight as one of the greats of the genre and so he is.  His short stories are his best work.  This is his best short story, included in Night Shift, a classic collection.  A couple stops in a small Nebraska town…  I’m scared just thinking about it.
  6. The Open Window by Saki.  This story is unique.  You can read it a dozen times and still take pleasure in it.  Scary, insightful, funny.  Saki—H.H. Munroe—was a sophisticated teller of witty tales but I think this is his masterpiece.  A man suffering from a nervous breakdown travels to the home of distant relatives hoping to regain his calm.  Bad move.
  7. The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen.  Bowen was a novelist who is said to have written masterfully of the Blitz.  This is a story of a woman who promised her love forever to a soldier who never came home.  But should she keep her promise?  Very scary ending.  Not to be confused with Daemon Lover by Shirley Jackson.
  8. Ligeia by Edgar Allan Poe.  This is essentially a study for the more famous Fall of the House of Usher.   From a purely literary perspective, Usher is by far the more complex and accomplished work.  But Ligeia is simpler, more straightforward and just plain scarier.  As so often in Poe, a man falls in love with a woman who dies…  but he just can’t let her go.  Read Usher too for the comparison.
  9.  August Heat by W.F Harvey.  Hit the link and you can read this online.  Short, beautifully written, spookay.  An artist goes for a walk and meets a man carving a name on a grave.   And oh yeah, it’s really, really hot.
  10. The Body Snatchers by Robert Louis Stevenson.  RLS was one of the greatest writers ever and this is just beautiful.  The romance and mystery of the opening scene have never left me.  It’s inspired by Burke and Hare, the famous Scottish killers who found that they could supply doctors with fresh cadavers by the simple expedient of killing people.  But Stevenson gives it a twist.  Wonderful stuff.

That’s my list.  Would love to hear more.  The first person to recommend a great ghost story I’ve never heard of wins a free nocturnal visit from me after my death.

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  • http://www.google.com/profiles/tetreaultvision Joe Tetreault

    Modesty, I am sure, prohibits you from recommending your own Christmas themed ghost story, which I thought was excellent both in content and presentation. Since you’re the teller of that particular tale, I’m guessing that precludes me from the haunting.

  • Joewall77

    “The October Game” by Ray Bradbury. Wonderful, horrible story about a dad & his kid’s Halloween party. The last line will stick with you well past October.

  • Edski

    I just love the Monkees take on the Monkey’s Paw!

  • http://www.facebook.com/funnymanmichaelhutchison Michael Hutchison

    I know it isn’t a short story, but as a kid I loved the John Bellairs book “The House With A Clock In Its Walls”, which has 3 or 4 very chilling scenes.

  • Ellen

    I loved M.R. James’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad – heck I loved all of M.R. James’s short stories. I guess I don’t get Henry James. Trying to read one of his books is like trying to wade through cold molasses. Henry James books do make good movies though (The Heiress, The Innocents).

    How about Oliver Onions story, The Beckoning Fair One?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QAFWJRVNI2Y5DLU5VVDKPXT3PA Sherlock

    Where’s the love for H P Lovecraft?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QAFWJRVNI2Y5DLU5VVDKPXT3PA Sherlock

    Or “Who Goes There?” Admittedly Sci Fi but spooky as heck.

  • Tbard79

    Russell Kirk published a book of ghost stories in 1979 called “The Princess of All Lands.” Very literary and intelligent, from a founding editor of National Review, among many other accomplishments. Scary stories, featuring not just likeable, but GOOD protagonists encountering natural and supernatural evil.

  • http://naturalfake.wordpress.com naturalfake

    Try a collection called “Antique Dust” by Robert Westall.(used on amazon)

    Westall is very much in the tradition of M.R. James.

    James’ “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad” is simply brilliant. Try to find a version without pictures as the ghost is often illustrated and it spoils the effect.

    Andrew, all of your choices are excellent.

    I love Saki – he has the soul of a nasty little boy who’s idea of a prank is to slide an icicle straight into your cerebral cortex.

  • California_Girl

    I love “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Poe. It gives me shivers just to think about it. 8>D

  • Krust

    Some of these stories are available online at Project Gutenberg:
    http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page

  • Eric

    Stephen King’s “The Boogeyman,” also from Night Shift, was the scariest short-story I’ve ever read. I was literally shaking in my chair by the end. “Jerusalem’s Lot” was another goodie from that collection – really anything from Night Shift or Skeleton Crew.

    Another favorite is “The Whisperer in Darkness” by Lovecraft. Maybe not as outright scary as the others, but definitely chilling and a great yarn for the season.

  • Ellen

    Oh man – I totally forgot Lovecraft! It’s actually borderline science fiction, but The Color Out of Space really creeped me out.

  • http://mksmash.wordpress.com/ Mksmash

    Some I’ve read, some I haven’t. I’m afraid (pun just happened–honest!) “Children of the Corn” is ruined for me by already seeing the movie. Another great one that was made into two effective movies was “Who Goes There?” by John Campbell.

    Not a short story, but I recently watched a five part video ghost story that was very effective. Had to buy a subscription to see it though :P But it was worth it!

    Oh I see Sherlock (Someone of impeccable taste obviously) beat me to the “Who Goes There?” recommendation.

  • http://mksmash.wordpress.com/ mksmash

    Oh man. One of my most vivid reading memories is camping out in the back yard and reading “At the Mountains of Madness.” Awesome!

  • Augusta

    Good list Andrew – Can’t go wrong with M.R. James & Poe. There’s too many classic spookers to choose from, so I’ll offer a modern selection: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1983). It’s been a play and a BBC production as well. It takes place in the early 20th century and it’s gloriously creepy – it’s got everything a good ghost story should have without being cliche. I believe the BBC movie version can be watched on YouTube.

  • http://twitter.com/VirginiaCreeper VirginiaCreeper

    “The Jar”. It’s a short story by Ray Bradbury from his book The October Country, and was adapted for TV in “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour”.
    You can watch it for free here:
    http://www.nbc.com/classic-tv/

    Very creepy stuff.

  • Lord Shell

    I noticed a few Lovecraft aficionados, of which I also have a fond place in my heart for ‘Colour Out of Space’ and ‘The Dunwich Horror’.

    However, I was thinking of the Stephen King story that screwed with my head, namely ‘The Mangler’ (which should not be confused with the abysmal movie . . . *shudder*.) It’s a simple premise which works amazingly well. That finale still sticks in my memory, even after twenty plus years.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wjjbward Jen Ward

    Stephen King’s “The Bachman Books” had two short stories that creeped me out…one was “Rage” and the other was “The Long Walk.” I read all of the books in the collection in my late teens (late 1980′s), and those two really stuck with me for a long time.

  • Sbb19

    Good thing I don’t like ghost stories, or I would be tempted to read the Benson and it might taint Lucia and Mapp. And I can’t have that, at any price.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1579567902 Jason Gorton

    There was a great story called “Nightcrawlers” about a Vietnam Vet who roles into a highway diner bringing all kinds of trouble with him. Fantastic! They made it into an episode of the 80′s Twilight Zone.

  • Daniel C.

    I would say that King was a great of the genre. He seems to have lost something in much of his recent work. He recently published a small book with two short stories in it, titled “Blockade Billy.” I found the title story to be rather predictable and not at all thrilling, let alone frightening. And for some, his massive tome, Under the Dome was panned by several critics.

  • Pam M

    I think The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is one of my favorite scary stories. It really freaked me. I had to make sure my light was on when I went to bed. Granted I was about 13 when I read it.

  • Mfcortright

    That’s what I thought of too!

  • Mjgossman

    Speaking of Stephen King, I think one of the better modern ghost stories is Bag of Bones. The story is haunting and lovely (though the end gets a little wonky, as King tends to do) and I thought, prose-wise, it was probably his best. A great book, and a great ghost story.

  • Cavalierkate

    Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story.”

  • Maeryk

    I grew up in (and now live in another) old stone farmhouse “out in the woods”. The Rats in the Walls was probably the single sit-bolt-upright-worrying story I have ever read.

  • Pinky

    Stephen King’s “The Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French”. It’s in his collection “Everything’s Eventual”. Creeps me out just to think about it.

  • grandoldmovies

    Coming late to this thread, but I’m a ghost story lover and I agree w/your wonderful choices. MR James is the BEST ghost story writer in English; my own James favorites are “The Mezzotint,” a quiet story that builds to a horrifying revelation, and “Oh Whistle & I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” which is both frightening and tongue-in-cheek at the same time. I also recommend Wilkie Collins’ “The White Woman” (not to be confused w/his novel “the Woman in White”), about a man haunted by the living image of his wife (that one really did keep me awake at night). Plus the superb stories by Algernon Blackwood; recommend particularly “Ancient Sorceries” and “Confession,” another deceivingly quiet story that culminates in a quick, shocking climax.