13 Spooky Short Stories for Your Reading Displeasure
We here at JEC are huge fans of the old and uncanny; whether it’s tales of gothic piles haunted by past horrors or black and white movies with blood-curdling scream tracks and alarmingly intimate close-ups, there’s so much to be spooked at when old and scary combine.
For this reason, this Halloween we’ve gathered 13 of our favourite classic scary tales, complete with retro cover designs, for your reading (dis)pleasure. Mwaha.
But we’re not just telling you about them; we’ve tracked them down online (bless you, public domain!) so you can read them right here and now. Happy Halloween pretties!!
1. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
A big old empty house. Two children with a tendency to wander and see things adults can’t. A young governess hired to care for them with few links to the outside world. The Turn of the Screw, a novella by the Master himself, is an exemplar of the gothic equation for tension and terror. Just as a screw tightens as it turns, the claustrophobic atmosphere of Bly and its grounds closes in on the characters, threatening to bring everything within to desolation.
2. “Royal Jelly” by Roald Dahl
While he may be best known for his wickedly wonderful children’s stories, Roald Dahl is a master of perversion for adult readers, too. “Royal Jelly,” the first story in the collectionKiss Kiss, is a beautiful—and very brief—example of Dahl’s particular kind of creepy. An older couple are finally blessed with a much longed-for baby. When she shows signs of sickliness, her father Albert has a very unique solution . . . the outcome of which will dawn on his wife only when it’s too late.
3. “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs
You know it’s good when the whole of the English speaking world has read it as part of their high school lit syllabus. “The Monkey’s Paw” reads like folklore: on a dark and stormy night a mysterious man knocks on the White household’s door with an even more mysterious—and magical—item: a monkey’s paw. But beware, the visitor warns, the monkey’s paw is cursed. Cue the unravelling of an otherwise most conventional family unit, and a terrifying final scene that will have you weary of the front door.
4. “Philomel Cottage” by Agatha Christie
Alix and Gerald are newly married after a whirlwind engagement, much to Dick Windyford's horror. The happy couple now live at Philomel Cottage, in the country, where Alix can finally enjoy the life of a (not-so-young) married woman. But she keeps having the same dream, in which her husband lies dead and Dick Windyford stands over him, the clear perpetrator. Far worse: in the dream, she is glad—even grateful. This story is a much more internal one than the majority of Christie's work; dealing less in clues and facts than confusion an claustrophobia.
5. “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury
Lovers of The Twilight Zone and Channel 4's contemporary and remarkably disturbing Black Mirror will immediately recognize the malignant atmosphere in Bradbury's "The Veldt." Written in 1950, this story is uncanny for at least two reasons: 1) it does a remarkable job of predicting a modern world that we're currently creeping ever-closer to (if we're not basically already there) and 2) it's simply an incredible example of a time, place, and scenario that are at once deeply frightening yet utterly familiar.
6. “The Doll” by Daphne du Maurier
There's something a little Psycho-esque about du Maurier's "The Doll," but to compare Rebecca to Norman Bates (that's right, the protagonist of "The Doll' is named Rebecca . . .) would be hugely oversimplifying, not least because the tale was written in the 1920s and explores the subject of "deviant" female sexuality, a hugely taboo subject (even now). And if you like a little meta to your story, how's this: the story is written as though it is the published remnants of a journal found and shared by a third party long after the events take place. "The Doll' itself was unheard of for 70 years, published only in 2010 long after du Maurier's death when a rare book collector discovered it in a rejections pile titled "The Editor Regrets" from the 1930s..
7. “The Hand” by Guy de Maupassant
This grizzly tale, which might be called a hybrid of "The Monkey's Paw" and "The Murders in Rue Morgue" (a combination of a dangerous and seemingly magical relic and an inquest into a brutal murder with an inexplicable story to go on), is another classic on many a high school syllabus and has spawned a whole genre of horror stories on the page and the screen (Idle Hands, anyone?).
8. “The Signal-Man” by Charles Dickens
A dark, wet night on the train tracks of Victorian England.
Need I say more? You're gonna have to read it for yourself.
9. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Yellow Wallpaper has without a doubt one of the most disturbing endings of any story we’ve ever read—and we read a lot. Written in 1892, it’s a pioneer of feminist fiction, whether Gilman knew it at the time or not, and a truly shocking piece of fiction. At just 6,000 words, it’s a testament to its awesomeness that it has been published as a standalone book many times despite being the size of a mid-range short story.
10. “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allen Poe
It’s no surprise that Poe made it onto this list, and while we love “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” we thought it only right to feature Poe’s deeply poetic (and tragic) House of Usher (see what we did there, though?). In all honesty, it doesn’t much matter which of Poe’s tales you choose; you’re unlikely to be disappointed on the scores of creepy and old.
11. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Another high school syllabus essential, “The Lottery” is generally agreed to be the most famous short story of all time. Set in a fictional small town in America, it describes the events of a day famous in the town for its annual ritual. When the story was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, it was met with outrage. Subscriptions were cancelled, hate mail was sent, and the story was even banned in some countries. Both Jackson and the magazine were surprised by the outpouring, which continued for months after its appearance. While cultural reception has changed, the stories conclusion remains a deeply shocking one for first-time readers.
12. “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter
The title tale in this collection of fairytale-inspired stories, “The Bloody Chamber” is Carter’s retelling of the famous Bluebeard tale. All the gothic trappings are there, but the ending is decidedly more satisfying, at least for some.
13. “Confido” by Kurt Vonnegut
[I was going to share with you "Ed Luby's Key Club," truly the most terrifying story in Vonnegut's posthumously-published collection Look at the Birdie. Unfortunately (but understandably), it's unavailable in the public domain. Suffice it to say there's nothing scarier than the immediate and complete theft of one's personal freedoms. Seek out this excellent book, avid readers. You won't be disappointed.]
Many would posit that Vonnegut's opening story in the book, "Confido" is not a "scary story," but with a domestic setting akin to Dahl's "Royal Jelly" and technology as dangerous as Bradbury's "The Veldt," this tale is all about potential: the potential of one man's brilliant invention; the potential even good, happy human beings have for cruelty and mental disturbance; the potential of a well-meant creation to go horribly, horribly wrong; and its potential to fall into the wrong hands. Just get the whole book, okay?
That should keep you on your toes this Friday 13th! Subscribe to our mailing list for more news, reviews, and exclusive offers, straight to your inbox.