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.
Without further ado:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.