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20 Must-Read Horror Short Stories

Carolina Ciucci

Contributor

Carolina Ciucci is a teacher, writer and reviewer based in the south of Argentina. She hoards books like they’re going out of style. In case of emergency, you can summon her by talking about Ireland, fictional witches, and the Brontë family. Twitter: @carolinabeci

Amazon Original Stories

Germany has all but lost WWII. For Uwe, who has spent the war caring for his widowed mother, this is a relief. But for others in his village, the fight is not over yet. Inspired by talk of power and his village’s werewolf lore, Uwe joins a resistance unit preparing for the arrival of Allied soldiers. But when the men’s violent rampage takes a devastatingly personal turn, Uwe must grapple not only with his role in their evil acts but with his own humanity. Read or listen to this terrifying short story from Alma Katsu free with Prime.

Horror is a curious sort of genre. Think about it: we voluntarily seek out stories that will make us feel strong negative emotions, and we lavish praise on those stories that scare the crap out of us. A good rule of thumb: it’s a good horror story if you go to sleep that night with your bedside lamp on, and/or have nightmares based on it. But why? Why do we do actively pursue being frightened?

People’s interest in horror is nothing new; on the contrary, it’s as old as humanity itself. As a result, for as long as we have been interested in human behavior, we’ve been interested in this fascination with fear. H.P. Lovecraft nailed it when he said that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Indeed. But I’d venture that it’s not only fear of the unknown. It’s fear of an unknown that we cannot control. Otherwise, stories about magic schools wouldn’t be so beloved: magic is unknown to us, but tales of magic schools offer us the chance to corral it, thus taking away that what makes it frightening.

Because this love of horror is so old, there are countless horror short stories that are worth at least one read. Alas, I have a limited space here, so I’m only going to recommend 20. I chose to mix classic horror short stories with more recent works, in order to paint as varied and comprehensive a picture as possible. If you’re new to the genre, consider using this only as a starting point. If you’re a seasoned veteran, I hope you find at least a couple of stories that will make you burn through your electric bill. Shall we?

General content warnings for rape, murder, misogyny, and more.

Cover of Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo

“The House Made of Sugar” by Silvina Ocampo in Thus Were Their Faces, translated by Daniel Balderston

Cristina has some superstitions. For example, she never wants to live in a house with a history. But is it really superstition if the ghosts are out to get you?

Cover of Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson

“Riding the Red” by Nalo Hopkinson in Skin Folk

Little Red Riding Hood, rape culture, internalized misogyny, and puberty, all wrapped up in one tidy package. This story may very well be the scariest thing I’ve read in years.

Cover of The Lottery and Other Stories

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson in The Lottery and Other Stories

This is the story that reshaped the way I look at horror: Jackson doesn’t need any supernatural elements to craft a tale as chilling and terrifying as the most accomplished ghost story.

Cover of The Classic Horror Stories by H.P. Lovecraft

“The Outsider” by H.P. Lovecraft in The Classic Horror Stories

No list of horror short stories would be complete without Lovecraft. Along with Poe, he’s probably the master of horror; and this story, exploring what happens when the monsters aren’t who you’d expect, shows why.

cover of Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez; illustration of flames

“The Inn” by Mariana Enríquez in Things We Lost in the Fire, translated by Megan McDowell

Enríquez’s work may feature supernatural elements, but their real horror lies in the real, human parts of it. In this story, death doesn’t stop the last dictatorship in Argentina from continuing to spread terror.

Cover of Nightmare Magazine Issue 37

“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong in Nightmare Magazine, Issue 37

Sometimes, you’re the monster. In this incredible story, Wong explores the implications of having a monster within yourself.

Cover of Nightmare Magazine Issue 120

“The Gold Coin” by Clara Madrigano in Nightmare Magazine, Issue 120

The supernatural isn’t, in and of itself, terrifying. But when somebody with less than stellar intentions learns to wield it? That’s when we fall squarely in horror territory.

Cover of Nightmare Magazine, Issue 98

“Introduction to the Horror Story, Day 1” by Kurt Fawer in Nightmare Magazine, Issue 98

We’ve all likened having to sit through class with a horror story once or twice. Lucky for us, most people don’t mean it as literally as the students of this Introduction to the Horror Story module.

Cover of The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” by Edgar Allan Poe

I know everyone raves about “The Fall of the House of Asher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and they are masterpieces, to be sure. But I read this particular story on a fateful night when I was 12 years old, never touched it again, and I still remember every detail 20 years later. If that doesn’t earn it a spot in this list, well, I don’t know what would.

cover of Mestiza Blood by V. Castro; pink overlay of photograph of a statue's face

“Night of the Living Dead Chola” by V. Castro in Mestiza Blood

The thing about horror stories: sometimes you find yourself rooting for the monster. Sometimes, you realize that the real monster isn’t the zombie, but rather the human man that she’s hunting down in pursuit of revenge. Or maybe simple justice.

Cover of Ghost Summer: Stories by Tananarive Due; photo of a young Black boy kneeling beside a lake

“The Lake” by Tananarive Due in Ghost Summer

trigger warning: pedophilia

Metamorphosis is a common trope in horror. But unlike most characters, Abbie is delighted by the change — amping the eerie factor up by a million. What makes this story a thousand times creepier though? Abbie’s predilection for teenage boys. Sexual predators are recast as lake creatures in this chilling read.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa book cover

“Welcome to the Museum of Torture” by Yoko Ogawa in Revenge

The title alone is a masterpiece of the genre. The story itself? Let’s just say that you’ll find yourself praying for a speedy breakup between the narrator and her boyfriend. Preferably in a public place. Far away from the aptly named Museum of Torture.

cover of Eleven Horror Short Stories by Horacio Quiroga, translated by Joaquin de la Sierra

“The Specter” by Horacio Quiroga in Eleven Horror Short Stories, translated by Joaquin de la Sierra

You know how, in movies, the dead or dying husband gives their blessing when his wife and his best friend fall in love? This is not what happens here. Wyoming is displeased enough to let his wife, Enid, and best friend, Grant, know about it — by sending a message all the way from the grave. Or does he?

Cover of Nightmare Magazine Issue 120

“A Girl of Nails and Teeth” by Hannah Yang in Nightmare Magazine, Issue 120

Some of the most terrifying horror I’ve ever read is a mere expansion of real-life phenomena. In this case: what happens when a mother’s love for her child goes too far?

Cover of The Best of Richard Matheson

“Born of Man and Woman” by Richard Matheson in The Best of Richard Matheson

Forget vampires and ghosts, there is no creature more terrifying than human beings. In this story, it’s not the child narrator’s apparent monstrosity that creates the horror. It’s his parents’ cruelty.

Cover of Bomb Magazine Issue 94

“The Secret Life of Insects” by Bernardo Esquinca in BOMB Magazine Issue 94 translated by Hector Luis Grada

I’m going to go ahead and let the story’s opening paragraph do the talking this time: “Two things to mention: 1) I am going to speak with my wife, two years after the last time. 2) My wife is dead; she died two years ago, in odd circumstances.”

Cover of The Vampyre by John Polidori

“The Vampyre” by John William Polidori

Before Dracula and Carmilla, there was The Vampyre. This 1816 short story introduces us to a young Englishman named Aubrey, who befriends a stranger but charismatic man…only to find out that he isn’t what he seems.

cover of The Dark Side: Tales of Terror and the Supernatural by Guy Maupassant

“A Ghost” by Guy de Maupassant in The Dark Side: Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, translated by Arnold Kellett

Every time I read this story, I’m left with more questions than answers. A classic ghost story.

Cover of Nightmare Magazine, Issue 106

“Sometimes Boys Don’t Know” by Donyae Cole in Nightmare Magazine, Issue 106

Have you ever been struck with horror by some male authors’ descriptions of women’s bodies? Cole has too. In her own words: “I just took what they started to its monstrous extremes.” The result is a wonderful horror story with an underlying thread of dark comedy.

All the Fabulous Beasts cover image

“The Sunflower Seed Man” by Priya Sharma in All The Fabulous Beasts

Both a horror story and a tale of grief, resilience and love, this short story taught me a) to be careful what I wish for, and b) that maybe my inability to grow most plants is a good thing after all.

Would you like more horror short stories before you go? What about horror novels?