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Do you love Halloween? I know I do, and I’ve noticed that there are plenty of lists compiling great movies to watch during this spookiest of seasons. But, I’m here to tell you that there is some seriously good literature to read this time of year, as well. So, if you’re in the mood for frieghting fiction check out these terrifying short stories!
The Cask of Amontillado (1846)
Edgar Allan Poe
If we’re talking about Halloween, it would be criminal not to mention the work of Edgar Allan Poe. The Cask of Amontillado is a story of revenge. In modern storytelling, revenge is presented as an avenue to right an injustice. Take a character like The Punisher. His family is murdered so he, in turn, becomes a murderer. We, as the audience, rarely question this simple, aberrant form of justice.
But Poe is interested in a realistic portrayal of revenge. The kind of revenge in which small slights, when compounded, lead to violent, disproportionate acts of vengeance. There is no justice in revenge. It degrades the human soul and transforms men into monsters. Poe knew this, and he used it to create a true horror, and masterpiece.
Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems
The Lottery (1948)
Can you trust your neighbors? Your friends? Your family? These are the questions that Jackson tackles in her famous work. She completed The Lottery in the wake of World War II. Just as the world was made aware of the horrors of Nazi Germany. And men stood in front of packed courtrooms and proclaimed their innocence. They had nothing to do with those hellish crimes. They were just following orders.
In her short story, Jackson explores how blind obedience to culture, to society, to tradition can turn ugly, quick. How one community can commit horrible acts of violence in the name of security. And how that same community can turn their backs on a neighbor when it’s decided that she is the chosen one to bare all of their sins.
Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories
The Jaunt (1981)
King is a modern-day master of horror, and one of my favorite authors. His work, On Writing, is a great read for all aspiring writers. But if I’m being honest, I’m not all that frightened by his fiction. Most of his stories deal with your usual horror fare: Vampires, demons, aliens and your everyday psychopaths. I love these stories, but none of them ever gets my heart pumping. Unless you’re talking about The Jaunt.
The Jaunt- in my opinion, King’s most frightening work- has no monsters, no boogiemen, no deranged clowns. What lies at the heart of The Jaunt is pure, existential terror. I don’t want to give anything away, but consider this: What if nothing existed? Nothing but you, that is. What if you were left alone in an eternity of darkness with only your thoughts to keep you company? How do you think you would fare?
To Serve Man (1950)
Seems like humanity has forever contended with an onslaught of existential threats. Just this month, the UN published a terrifying report on the dire state of our climate. It would seem that extreme weather, social upheaval, war, and famine are on the horizon. Facing a reality like that, who needs horror fiction, right? Well, maybe you need a distraction. In that case, let me suggest To Serve Man.
In 1950 the news wasn’t much better than it is today. The world’s superpowers were hurtling towards a nuclear catastrophe, and optimism was in short supply. It’s comforting to think that every generation, deep down, believed that they would be the last. But humans keep on chugging along. For better or worse. We’re a lot like cockroaches, in that way.
Knight envisions a world where a benevolent alien race arrives on Earth offering solutions to all of our worldly problems. They’re called the Kanamits and they only have Earth’s best interests at heart. At least, that’s what they claim.
There’s an old adage that Knight may want us all to take to heart:
There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Well, maybe for the Kanamits there is.
The Masque of the Red Death (1842)
Edgar Allan Poe
I’m coming back to Poe because this is an article about horror, he has a lot to say on the subject. The Masque of the Red Death is truly bone-chilling.
Imagine, if you will, a country ravaged by plague. A disease called the Red Death. This sickness tears through the kingdom, killing off countless of its denizens. But the prince, Prospero, and his many courtiers find themselves protected by their wealth and privilege. They close the castle gates and feeling secured from the threat of looming death, they hold days-long parties.
However, Prospero soon learns: Death comes for all men.
The Whole Town’s Sleeping (1950)
Considering his background, Bradbury is a singular talent. The man never went to college and finished his most famous work on a rented typewriter, sitting in the basement of the public library. That being said, his work takes on a unique form when compared to other writers of his time. He’s more concerned with prose than plot.
However, The Whole Town’s Sleeping is a classic tale of suspense, told through Bradbury’s florid voice. Three young women are out on a stroll. Headed to the movies on a warm summer evening. The catch- there’s a serial killer stalking their quaint little town. He’s known as “The Lonely One,” and he has a penchant for killing young women. Will our protagonists survive the night without making a gruesome discovery? Or becoming one themselves?
You’ll have to read the story to find out.
Ray Bradbury: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales
The Husband Stitch (2014)
Carmen Maria Machado
The Husband Stitch. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t think I can really explain this story. Not in a way that does it any justice. Machado taps into a horror I’ll never understand (at least I hope not). The horror of not having full dominion over your own body. The horror of doctors laughing as they promise your husband that you’ll be stitched up even better than before.
As I said, it’s a fear I can’t explain, but this story, at the very least, gives me a glimpse. And, no matter who you are, it’s worth your time.
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carman Maria Machado
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1966)
Joyce Carol Oates
Maybe the most terrifying story on this list. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? is certainly the most realistic story on this list.
A true terror visits all of us, early in life. That’s the loss of innocence. Some of us are lucky enough to choose the time and place of this loss. Others are not so lucky. This is the story of a girl who isn’t lucky.
The tension is palpable in this one.
Enjoy these spooky stories, and enjoy your Halloween!
The Doll-Master: And Other Tales of Terror by Joyce Carol Oates