Good things come in small packages. And so do scary things. I’ve raced (and squirmed) through many horror novels in my reading life, but some of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read have been brief glimpses of terror in short story collections and anthologies.
If I were to list my favorite horror short stories, we’d be here all day. But I’ve selected a handful that continue to haunt me. Some of these stories I read years ago. Others, I picked up only recently. But I remember and think of each of them often.
If you’re looking for some bite-sized horror nuggets, I recommend each and every one.
(And if you want even more short horror recs, check out our guide to one of the masters of the form: Jeffrey Ford.)
“The Veldt,” Ray Bradbury
The first short story I truly remember reading is this parable of technology. First published in 1950, it feels stunningly relevant to our own time. A house of the future leaves parents alienated from their children and adrift in their own lives. The children, in turn, are enamored with a virtual reality playroom, which just happens to be stuck showing lifelike scenes of an African grassland — predators and all. My mistrust of Alexa and Google Home and the whole Internet of Things started here.
“Things We Lost in the Fire,” Mariana Enríquez, trans. Megan McDowell
This much more recent story has an unfortunate staying power all its own. In the title story from Enríquez’s 2017 collection, women begin a powerful resistance movement against rampant domestic violence: they set themselves on fire, publicly and proudly, across Argentina. It’s a tragic and triumphant Danse Macabre. As the women describe, “Burnings are the work of men. They have always burned us. Now we are burning ourselves. But we’re not going to die; we’re going to flaunt our scars.”
“The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson
I can’t recount my own terrors without including Shirley Jackson. I love Shirley Jackson, and I think “The Lottery” may be the most effective horror short story ever written. Jackson is at her best when she peels back the pristine surface of a place or a person to show the rot underneath. This story, first published in 1948, is the urtext for that style. It’s all there: a sleepy, picture-perfect small town, a sadistic rite passed down through the ages, and the horror of mob mentality.
“Friday Black,” Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection is a dystopia built for our late-stage capitalist society. Every story in it is harrowing and acts as a mirror to our present, but the title story takes the cake. It takes place in one of the scariest settings you can imagine: a shopping mall. As you may have guessed, the title is a play on Black Friday, which in Adjei-Brenyah’s hands is a Black Mirror episode starring bargain-hunting zombies. Disturbing and darkly funny, like the best short stories.
“The Husband Stitch,” Carmen Maria Machado
This retelling of “The Green Ribbon” is a dark and winding folktale for the #MeToo era. Fiercely feminist and gauzily dreamlike, “The Husband Stitch” probes the many ways women are denied agency over their own bodies, and their own lives. If you’re aware of the original story — and who among us doesn’t have Alvin Schwartz and his scary stories to thank? — you know how things end. But that inevitability doesn’t make the ending, or the journey, less painful.
“Patient Zero,” Tananarive Due
Due has a preternatural ability to connect you with a character in just a few short pages. I didn’t pick up Ghost Summer until this year, which was a mistake for two reasons. First, it’s a really good collection. Second, “Patient Zero” is one of several outbreak stories that are excruciating to read given our current pandemic reality. This was the most devastating for me, watching the world collapse through the diary entries of a plague’s seemingly lone survivor: a young boy in hospital isolation.