Minimalism is a mode of horror that tends to get overlooked. Horror, by its nature, is usually a maximalist thing, especially the vast and lurid excesses of subgenres like “hardcore” horror and splatterpunk. Even the dense and lavish fantastical realms of folk horror and gothic horror pull out all the stops and use every tool at their disposal to scare you. But there are still plenty of short, effective horror stories for when you might be strapped for time or just don’t feel like getting into a longer work.
Here are ten compact tales of terror, upsetting as they are brief, guaranteed to terrify or unnerve you in four pages or less. And since I’ve been known to over-write (just look at this intro), I’m going to try to introduce you to each of these stories in just two sentences. So without further ado:
“The Tunnel” from Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, Ben Loory
Ben Loory can do in two sentences what would take most people two paragraphs. “The Tunnel” is a good example of this, a nightmarish burst of adolescent body-horror about a boy exploring a mysterious tunnel in the woods that will leave the reader taking deep breaths once it’s finished, and there’s just enough left to the imagination to fill in all the unsettling blanks.
“Action!” from The Ghost Variations, Kevin Brockmeier
The Ghost Variations is full of beautiful, strange, sad, and sometimes hilarious stories that all run about two or three pages, a quick hit of ghost fiction that stays just long enough for the reader to process what just happened before moving on to the next. “Action!” comes about halfway through, a nice, tense character sketch with a nasty finish, and one of the more unnerving tales Brockmeier offers for scrutiny.
“Fingers” from Tiny Nightmares, Rachael Heng
A horror story with a bit of a folktale flavor, this one about a village where, if someone ventures into the deep mud patch on the outskirts, they’re grabbed by a mysterious creature with long, gnarled fingers. It manages a slow build around the creepy sensation of someone’s ankles being grabbed, and a chaotic burst of overwhelming horror as a last-second punch when Heng reveals just what the creature actually is.
Editor’s note: read our full review of Tiny Nightmares here.
“Name Brand Cough Syrup” from The Secret Goatman Spookshow and Other Psychological Warfare Operations, Jonathan Raab
“Cough Syrup” is one of several bizarre short takes that serve as palate cleansers throughout Raab’s psychedelic chamber of offbeat horrors, brief interludes that flesh out the world he’s created even further. Despite its single-page length, this story gives us government conspiracies, a riff on a classic horror-fantasy trope, and manages to pack all of that into a singular compact ramble.
“No Matter Which Way We Turned” from Song for the Unraveling of the World, Brian Evenson
Evenson (whose new collection The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell published this summer) begins this bizarre alien abduction story by describing its victim, a young woman who got abducted by aliens–but only the front half. While that on its own plays with the line between body horror and humor, the insane and futile ways her friends and neighbors try to fix things and are somewhat resigned to the situation make this one a lot of fun to read, even if I’ll never get the final visual out of my head.
Editor’s note: listen to this story for free as part of Nightfire’s Come Join Us By The Fire collection here.
“The Last Slice” from The Toilet Zone Number Two, Vivian Kasley
“The Last Slice” is a bizarre and quirky take on a familiar premise: Man meets woman, man brings woman back to his place, man comes to the horrifying realization that he got much more than he bargained for. But the way this three-hander is played, from the slam-bang pacing to the prominence of the hero’s pet parrot to even the inciting incident for the horror involving a pizza, creates a weird sense of frenetic, offbeat comedy without getting too “lolrandom.”
“Butterflies” from Mouthful of Birds, Samanta Schweblin
Schweblin, an author known for her short, nightmarish stories and novellas, sets up a relatively simple premise, first making you empathize with a butterfly as a man unwittingly tortures it, and then immediately going for a gutpunch as you realize what’s actually been going on. It also sets a bright contrast: the daylight setting and the innocence of an average school day contrasted with the almost casual sadism and unwitting torture of the brief single-page story.
“Community Property” from A Nest of Nightmares, Lisa Tuttle
Tuttle’s penchant for the ominous helps quite a bit with this tale, as the details come on slowly–an unhappy couple, their adorable but frightened dog, and the dissolution of their relationship by degrees. It’s not a story that lets one sit easy, especially not people who love animals, but it’s almost ruthlessly effective in its mundane, domestic horror.
“Wasp and Snake” from Furnace, Livia Llewellyn
Within three pages, Llewellyn smashes anything cool about cybernetics to pieces, subjecting her heroine to a significant degree of body horror and extreme steampunk body-modification. Keeping the reader rooted in Wasp’s internal monologue as she’s modified and sent on her mission is nasty enough, but it’s the final twist of the knife that truly sends “Wasp and Snake” from mere deconstruction into full-on horror, ending on a gruesome and deeply uncomfortable note.
“The Schoolmaster” from Nox Pareidolia, David Peak
A brief, nightmarish sketch from an anthology of absolute nightmare fuel, Peak’s story draws its power from the lingering atmosphere of dread and the way no questions are answered. Sure, the local boys are “torn apart by wild dogs,” but that doesn’t definitively answer the question of what happened, and the appallingly brutal measures the town takes in response only add to the horror, making for an upsetting read.