Who says it takes 50,000 words to scare the pants off you? Many an author packs a powerful, freaky punch in just a few short pages. Maybe it’s because with so few words, each becomes precious. You end up with lines like these, that pack a wallop because they have to:
“I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” by Edgar Allen Poe.
“’It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.” — “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson.
“You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did.” — “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains,” by Neil Gaiman.
As a sensitive child, this kind of blunt force reading trauma had a tendency to stick with me. To this day, there are still a few short stories that haunt me—or, in the case of “A Rose for Emily,” physically nauseate me. Here’s a sampling:
“The Cold Equations,” by Tom Godwin
Hands down, the single most affecting short story I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the more claustrophobic, taking place entirely aboard an Emergency Dispatch Ship on its way to a frontier planet. This particular EDS is carrying much-needed medical supplies—and a stowaway, hoping to visit her brother. The problem: the ship only has exactly enough fuel to make it to its destination based on the planned weight, not counting an 18-year-old girl. The rest is a chilling story of choices and helplessness.
“A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner
Faulkner can be a divisive reading experience. But he is the man I love, all because of that sinister sense of humor and a love for the macabre. “Emily,” with its cantankerous Southern spinster and her house of lies and secrets, has it all and some heebie-jeebies to spare. Never before has a single strand of silver hair been so gosh darn barf-inducing. It does make for a wonderful Zombies song, though.
“The Masque of the Red Death,” by Edgar Allen Poe
That scene in Hocus Pocus where Bette Midler puts a spell on all the parents in Salem and forces them to dance, dance until they die! + plague = a Poe party. “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” Someone get the
“Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Combining two fears in one—mean girls and bad haircuts—Fitzgerald manages to make looking like a flapper into a social horror story, which is extremely affecting to impressionable teenage girls.
“The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson
As Springfield’s finest news anchor, Kent Brockman, says, “The Lottery” is “a chilling tale of conformity gone mad.” You really don’t want to hit the jackpot in this rural community, because this lottery is more like an old-fashioned Panem reaping than a town-wide hootenanny.
“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read The Island of Dr. Moreau, but never trust the eccentric wealthy. Somewhere along the way greed morphs into psychosis, and before you know it their jewel-encrusted elevators no longer go to the top. And that is where we pick up the story here on young John T. Unger’s no-good, awful trip to visit his classmate’s home in Montana, atop a mountain made of diamonds, which are definitely, definitively, defiantly not his best friend.
What’s the creepiest short story you’ve ever read?