6 Scary Stories to Haunt Your Waking Hours

               By now, we can all generally acknowledge that, along with films, horror is in the midst of another boom. (A Renaissance if you will). Even outside of the month of October fans and general audiences alike are hungry for horror and gaga for the Gothic in ways they haven’t quite been since the 70s and 80s. While authors like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and even Grady Hendrix may find their way onto the everyday readers’ bookshelves, it’s sometimes rarer for short fiction to get its moment in the spotlight—even if it is perhaps the more populous and traditional of the genre.

               And, yes, we could focus this list on canonical authors of horrific short fiction like Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, or Shirley Jackson. However, we have centuries of stories to sift through and why wouldn’t we focus on the past few decades instead? There are plenty of contemporary, living authors who are providing some noteworthy scares in less than fifty pages.

               So, with that in mind, make sure your door is locked, maybe turn on an extra light or two, and settle in for some scary stories that will haunt you long after the last word.

  • “Little America” by Dan Chaon. Post-apocalyptic stories can, at times, be a bit repetitive. What I love about “Little America” is that, from the beginning, it twists and turns in ways I couldn’t begin to predict and dives into the gray areas of morality such situations create. Peter, a young boy, is traveling to the titular location with Mr. Breeze, an older man. In a tense, ongoing situation, Mr. Breeze continually ties up and threatens Peter with a gun, as if he’s dangerous, despite Peter being his hostage. Over the course of the story, we learn about this apocalypse, how Mr. Breeze and Peter found each other, and the dangers lurking inside and outside of the car. This story, aside from its twists, continually pits two unlikely strangers against each other in a tense stand-off for the entire duration—an old man vs a young boy. And while we might at first assume something untoward is happening, Chaon tries to create sympathy for the characters in a world that has become increasingly unsympathetic. The descriptions of their road trip and the fine details of the car itself add onto the journey, especially as someone who has actually been to Little America. Additionally, the story is written primarily from Peter’s perspective which grants it this unique semi-childlike innocence in the face of a dangerous world; Peter is blatantly aware of some things, but the way in which he knows of others, or learns of them from Mr. Breeze, is perfect for his age and point of view. There are several points of suspense that readers will tap into, all mostly satisfied by the end, and the conclusion itself is visceral even as it cuts off at the perfect moment. Overall, this is a story where the differences in the characters pays off in so many ways.
  • “Herd Immunity” by Tananarive Due. The first time I read this story was shortly before the pandemic began. Reading it again, during and in a somewhat “post” period, I’m constantly in awe of how Due captures not only the isolation, hope, and devastation of a pandemic, but also how our broad misconceptions (even now) could be predicted in fiction in 2014. This is part of a short story cycle revolving around a worldwide virus that decimates the population. In “Herd Immunity”, Nayima encounters another survivor on the road to civilization and attempts to form a friendship with the hesitant man. She believes they’re part of the ‘naturally immune’ population that’s all that’s left these days, and tries to explain as the two bond at the site of an old country fair turned Red Cross camp. This story excels not only in how accurately it captures the zeitgeist of a pandemic, but in how it paints a relationship between two people who can’t survive with or without each other. The description of the county fair and the wreckage Nayima finds there is especially haunting, and I would imagine we have similar stories to tell in the wake of our own pandemic. The horror is similar to other post-apocalyptic stories; the tragedy is supposed to be over but keeps going, the pain never ends, and it would be easier to give up but we don’t. Unlike some of those stories, though, I think how Nayima’s hope is twisted becomes its own horror and, now that we’ve lived it, this is a story I think of often.  You can read it here.
  • “Introduction to the Horror Story, Day 1” by Kurt Fawver. This story works on so many levels and I genuinely hope that someone uses it in a creative writing course someday because it deserves that next level of meta. The pacing and tone of the story is delivered much like a college lecture where we’re breaking down how to write horror and what, exactly, is horror. However, as the story and the class continues we begin to suspect there may be more going on than should be for the average writing class. As someone who has been on both sides of the classroom, I appreciate how the story immediately transports me into this lecture. It has the give-and-take responses we would expect of a discussion between a professor and their students, but as this format unravels the clear difference in knowledge, power, and horror becomes clear. The tone and voice of our professor is reminiscent of Gothic narrators of the past, and each interruption or interjection only serves to up the suspense and tension. Additionally, on a craft level, everything they’re saying is accurate and we’re being entertained and learning at the same time. Like, the idea of taking a horror craft talk and re-structuring it into a short story is brilliant in its own way. By the time the story seems to be reaching its climax, you might have an idea of where it is going but watching it come to that conclusion is just as delicious as getting there. In the end, this is a class you might be better off auditing. You can read it here.
  • “It’s All the Same Road in the End” by Brian Hodge. For the longest time, I didn’t think I liked Lovecraftian fiction. Mostly because I associated it with tentacle monsters from space. The cosmic madness aspect of it wasn’t clear to me until I read this story by Brian Hodge, a prolific author of short fiction, about two brothers investigating the disappearance of their grandfather decades previous. Somehow, in its slow, tension-building pace, Hodge creates a story that weaves together elements of folk horror, family melodrama, and a touch of the unknowable cosmic. Even though much of the story focuses on Will and Clarence, with background provided on their grandfather, it doesn’t feel unnecessary or like a “trim the fat” type moment. This is a story that lingers in how it builds characters, relationships, and hovers over the setting. It comes to its ending in a naturalistic and terrifying fashion because it’s one we can see coming but not look away from. Additionally, I love how it showcases the idea of a musicologist or songcatcher, which seems like the perfect element of fantasy-realism to intersperse with something a little horrifying. Character studies like this, ones with a simple premise and goal where sometimes people are at odds, can be so satisfying because it’s easy to understand even with the additional bells and whistles. In that way, perhaps it makes sense why this story was the one that pulled me into Lovecraftian fiction in a way others before hadn’t. If you enjoy stories like Annihilation or films like Sinister then there are elements of both within, but wrapped up in the weight of a legacy and a mystery that might be better left unsolved.
  • “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado. I chose this story versus any of the others from Her Body and Other Parties perhaps because it’s her best known and perhaps because its use of urban legends and folklore makes it a story that seems at once instantly familiar, though strange. The protagonist of “The Husband Stitch” doesn’t have a name but she does have a mysterious green ribbon around her neck that her boyfriend-then-husband is fascinated by. She’s a woman who tells her own story through others, but the titular ‘stitch’ becomes her own after she gives birth to a child and receives the elective surgery without her consent. The power of stories, of boundaries and consent, and of how boys becomes men and girls become women (and what that means) runs throughout this story. Its horror is Gothic and realistic at heart, although the stories it mentions might be familiar to fans of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but the horror packs a memorable punch in the end. Machado’s use of a campfire-esque structure as a mode of storytelling, complete with instructions, makes this feel like a chapter out of a choose-your-own-adventure book, but the adult motifs and distinctly female-bodied perspective creates its own nightmare. The connection between urban legends and the truths of women’s bodies (especially health-related) is deftly woven in Machado’s words. This is a story I’ve read numerous times and, each time, I find something new to be entranced and horrified by. “The Husband Stitch” contains numerous stories within its one but, in doing so, reminds us that believing in one thing shouldn’t negate believing in another. You can read it here.
  • “We, the Girls Who Did Not Make It” by E.A. Petricone. True crime is such a big thing and it often connects with horror in interesting ways. And yet, there is still such a focus on those who commit the crimes and those who survive. In this tale, we’re told the histories and perspectives of current events from the ghosts of thirteen girls, all of whom become more real and tangible in the telling. From Sandy, the accomplice to the crimes, to Rachel, the first victim, all of the girls share information about their lives, their deaths, and their favorite colors. At the same time, they wait and watch as the fourteenth girl struggles to escape from their captors, and hope maybe this time it will be different. I love how heartbreaking this story is. By taking the focus away from the criminals and the living victim, we instead get a chance to hear about the many lives of the “girls who did not make it” and all the ways they tried to survive. The comradery, friendship, and relationships between the ghosts are interesting as well. Petricone doesn’t try to humanize the captors because the victims aren’t interested in doing so; their hatred is justified. Instead, by humanizing the girls who are largely known as victims or a body count, the story comes to life in new ways and gives each girl time to breathe on the page. The use of the ‘we’ makes them collective, but having their own moments reminds us that there is always a story before the end. By sharing their stories, they reclaim their lives from the men who killed them and that is immensely powerful and satisfying— even if it’s not a happy ending for the ghosts. You can read it here.

               If you prefer to limit your spooky reading to October then I hope you’ll consider giving any of these stories a chance. Every year, thousands of new works in short horror fiction are written and published, not counting the many centuries of work in the past. Just like with film, you can find a story for every subgenre, a haunt for every house, something to keep you up at night or send to your friends in delight.