As we get deeper into October, the night’s get cooler and the dark of evening comes fast. If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace, maybe you’ve got some logs burning when those long shadows close in. In short, it’s fantastic reading conditions. And when it’s dark outside and the flames are flickering, nothing’s better than a classic horror short story to make you put down your cocoa and wonder why the crickets stopped.
Below are ten such classic horror short stories to consider. They’re some of my favorites.
One caveat I established for this list (by the arbitrary power vested in me by virtue of “It’s-my-damn-blog”) is that each story had to be at least 35 years old to be included as a “classic.” Also, some authors appear more than once, but what can I say, they were the kings of their age (no pun intended… no, seriously).
Listed by reverse chronology, the tales below range from nearly forty years old to over one hundred and seventy-five, proving that a good scare is timeless.
Survivor Type by Stephen King (1982)
Shipwrecked on a desert island, a doctor does unthinkable things to his own body in an effort to survive. A gruesome depiction of one character’s descent into ravenous madness, Survivor Type is a story that I still think of with a shudder even though I haven’t re-read it in over twenty-five years.
Gray Matter by Stephen King (1973)
A grotesque monster, missing persons, and an ending that hangs over characters and reader alike with delicious dread… and all because of a bad can of beer.
Graveyard Shift by Stephen King (1970)
A team of workmen on the midnight shift are sent to clean out the basement of a decaying textile mill only to discover that the rats below have thrived for generations in an ever-evolving horde. Descending downward through the sub-basement levels like a Dante inspired videogame, the rat-creatures grow more terrible with each encounter. I first read this in high school right around the time I was doing some work cleaning out the dirt-floor crawlspaces under my local church. Yeah… great timing on that.
Cool Air by H.P. Lovecraft (1928)
A young man develops a relationship with an expert physician who saved him from a heart attack. He follows the doctor’s experiments with interest, but why is it always so cold in his chambers? And what is that smell? A great story with a horrifying payoff at the end.
The Rats in the Walls by H.P. Lovecraft (1924)
A man returning to his rat-infested ancestral estate begins to suspect a dark history in both the place and his family. Scratching ‘neath the floorboards, scratching in the walls. But when you descend to find the source, is the madness in the caverns… or in the man?
Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft (1922)
Several of Lovecraft’s tales involve the resurrection or sustained animation of corpses (The Thing on the Doorstep, The Outsider, Cool Air, et al) but none have had the enduring legacy of Herbert West – Reanimator. There’s a reason for that. First published as a serial in the magazine Home Brew, Reanimator introduces Lovecraft’s answer to Victor Frankenstein in Herbert West, a crazed academic set on untying the bonds of death itself. If you’re only familiar with West through the ReAnimator movies (which are gleeful, manic fun in their own right), then you owe it to yourself to check out the original work.
The Statement of Randolph Carter by H.P. Lovecraft (1920)
The literary equivalent of “found footage”, Randolph Carter’s police statement on the last moments of his missing mentor is a haunting tale of what may lurk in the ancient catacombs beneath a cypress swamp. I love The Statement of Randolph Carter. I even have delusions that someday I’ll film my own adaptation of the work. (If you’re a film student looking to make a short, let’s talk about it.)
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
One of my favorite horror tropes is evidence of prior madness in a setting, and how it gradually manifests in the current tale. The main character’s obsession with the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom-cum-prison in this tale builds to a satisfyingly macabre climax. For those familiar with Gilman’s own experience with the non-consensual “resting cure” that passed for mental health treatment in her era, the effect is even more mortifying.
The Middle Toe of the Right Foot by Ambrose Bierce (1890)
Men lure a murderer back to the scene of his decade-old crime, but what waits for him there is no man. One of Ambrose Bierce’s best stories, the end of this piece is effective and chilling. And it features a couple of my favorite horror tropes, but you’ll to read it to see what they are.
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)
A classic that we’re all familiar with, but whose potency endures despite it’s fame. What is the tell-tale heart? Is it an accusation from the grave? A figment of the narrator’s imagination? Is it truly supernatural torment, or merely the fevered product of a guilty mind? Read, and decide for yourself.
That’s all for now, Folks. I’ve still got more posts planned for October. I just did My Top 5 Werewolf Movies (with Honorable Mentions), and we’ll talk about zombies and the alien menace, too.
In the mean time, if you’re looking for more great horror adventure stories to read this Halloween season, I humbly suggest my own. Shadow of Wolves and Hail of Brimstone are both available in multiple formats from Amazon (I’m especially fond of the audiobook!).
Until Next Time!