The 55 Best Short Horror Stories of All Time

While everyone reading this may not relate, I find I have less and less time to sit down and take in a good novel these days. Between keeping up with kids, work, and life in general… time is short. This is exactly why short stories have been where I get my horror fix lately!

Table of Contents Show
The 40 Very Best Short Horror Stories of All Time

Short-form horror has had a fantastic resurgence and continues to grow even more (not that it ever truly went anywhere). Just long enough to make an impact, but not too long so the scares stay fresh, some of these stories are benchmarks of horror while others are still in the early days of their residency.

Ranging from one page to nearly novella length, these stories will thrill and chill in around one hundred pages or less. Be warned though, a quick read could leave you with a lifetime of fear.

(I’ve set a limit of two stories maximum per author, so some may show up twice but the stories are just too good not to include!)

Home Delivery by Stephen King

Story featured in the book: Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Volume I

Nightmares & Dreamscapes

King has put his spin on every kind of horror trope while making his own. Home Delivery is his interpretation of a zombie apocalypse told from the perspective of one young pregnant widow in an isolated island community.

King’s zombie outbreak takes more inspiration from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, with the plague even bringing back already dead and buried bodies and being caused by a strange alien object hovering near the earth. There’s a terrible battle between the people of the island and their former loved ones who claw their way from the local cemetery. Despite how dark everything starts, there’s a hopeful gleam at the end, surprising for King.

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Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad by M.R. James

Story featured in the book: Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories (The Complete Ghost Stories of M. R. James, Vol. 1)

Four Ghost Stories: “’Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’”; “An Episode of Cathedral History”; “Casting the Runes”; and “The Diary of Mr. Poynter”

Over a hundred years later and this M.R. James story still holds as one of the creepiest stories ever written. A man staying at a small seaside inn finds a strange whistle with odd inscriptions on it. Naturally, he blows the whistle, causing a stereotypical sheet-ghost haunting which is somehow still terrifying.

The atmosphere is dreadfully cold and dreary, with the slightest supernatural hints before going into a full-blown ghost story. 

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The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Story featured in the book: The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper

Terrifyingly real, The Yellow Wallpaper is a first-person account of a woman suffering from postpartum depression, and the lengths her husband went to “cure” her by locking her in a room where she would slowly lose her sanity.

For as much as this story is studied and analyzed in schools, the horror of it becomes more evident as you grow older. The scariest part is that things like this still happen.

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The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood

Story featured in the book: Algernon Blackwood Classics Collection: The Wendigo

Algernon Blackwood Classics Collection: The Wendigo, The Willows, The Centaur, Incredible Adventures, The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories

It’s on the longer side and closer to novella length, but Blackwood’s The Wendigo is a crucial work of folk horror that takes a legendary creature from Native folklore and makes it even more terrifying.

Four men on a moose hunting trip come across the evil Wendigo, barely escaping with their lives. The forest is dark and twisted while nothing can be trusted, giving a terrifying and tense story that still brings chills.

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Technicolor by John Langan

Story featured in the book: The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies

The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies

Langan took some experimental styles to task in his collection The Wide Carnivorous Sky, but Technicolor is one of the best examples of the style working towards an amazing payoff. Told through a college professor’s lecture on Poe’s The Masque of Red Death, things take a cosmic turn as the professor recounts how Poe wrote the story.

What follows is a winding conspiracy of the supposedly true origins of the Masque, and the professor’s sinister intentions for teaching the students about it.

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Flowers of the Abyss by Thomas Ligotti

Story featured in the book: Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe

The signature Ligotti nihilism with his uncaring cosmic deities. Following an unnamed schoolteacher who goes to investigate the new resident of a tragedy-stricken house that finds much more than he bargained for.

While the history of the house and descent into a massacre that happened there is briefly touched on, Ligotti stays away from the bloody details to focus on what caused the madness, as well as the new inhabitant of the home that may be more than human. A short read, but you’ll want to leave the lights on for a while.

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At the Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft

Story featured in the book: The Great Old Ones: The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft

The Great Old Ones: The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft

Can’t really do a best-of-all-time list without At the Mountains of Madness. The calling card for cosmic horror and inspiration for generations of authors to come was one of the first appearances of cosmic gods beyond our world, and damn it was effective.

A party of Arctic explorers stumbles upon an ancient and terrifying evil frozen in the glaciers. While the terrors of the cold swirl around them, their sanity threatens to break just by seeing the creatures.

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The White People by Arthur Machen

Story featured in the book: The White People and Other Weird Stories (Penguin Classics)

The White People and Other Weird Stories (Penguin Classics)

Machen is an underrated god of horror fiction, creating stories like The Great God Pan among others. The White People is one of his best, with the framing story of two men discussing the found journal of a young girl.

The journal follows the girl as she slowly descends into a world of witchcraft and sorcery, eventually coming to a head as she appears to strengthen her ability to conquer pagan magic. The end result is a chilling revelation that throws everything built up into orbit.

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Quitters, Inc. by Stephen King

Story featured in the book: Quitters, Inc.

Quitters, Inc.

Sometimes you’ll do anything to break an addiction, even if it means agreeing to have your family tortured in front of you for relapsing. That’s the basic premise of Quitters, Inc. as King follows one man determined to quit smoking.

The methods are extreme and only escalate as the story goes, pulling the naive man into a conspiracy far beyond his control. The punishments doled out are harsh, and only escalate as the treatment goes on, with the danger only being very evident after the characters are in way too deep.

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Duel by Richard Matheson

Story featured in the book: Duel

Duel

One of Matheson’s greats that would inspire a ton of stories to come follows one man driving across the desert who ends up besieged by a very aggressive semi-truck.

This one is more of an action thriller but the horror of someone doing all this for kicks is what sets it apart. Matheson’s pace is breakneck at the slowest and only speeds up as it goes.

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Procession of the Black Sloth by Laird Barron

Story featured in the book: The Imago Sequence: And Other Stories

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories

The standout from Barron’s The Imago Sequence, Procession of the Black Sloth is a descent into hell seen by a private eye sent to investigate one company’s labor camp in a foreign country. The cosmic horror mixed with a noir-ish investigation story brings together a bleak entry in Barron’s Old Leach mythos.

Sloths are usually cute creatures, too. Not here though. Here they’re terrifying representations of eldritch beings beyond our understanding, but at least they’re still slow.

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The Butcher’s Table by Nathan Ballingrud

Story featured in the book: Wounds: Stories

Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell

The Butcher’s Table is on the longer side of the spectrum, gravitating toward novella length, but it’s so damn unique and I couldn’t put it down once I started.

Pirates transporting a Satanic cult to the borderlands of Hell is the basic premise, but the pirates run into so many terrifying obstacles and horrors you think you’ve seen it all by the time they reach their destination. Things get so much worse as the cult effectively is trying to make a map of the underworld. Pioneers, just not the kind anyone asked for.

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The Summer People by Shirley Jackson

Story featured in the book: The Lottery and Other Stories (FSG Classics)

The Lottery and Other Stories (FSG Classics)

The Lottery is what always gets studied in schools, but The Summer People is one of Jackson’s masterpieces when it comes to the tense and unknown.

An older couple decides to stay longer in their little summer home instead of leaving as they usually would. Except things don’t go as planned and the townspeople who they thought were friends may not be nearly as nice as they appear.

There’s a creeping sense of cold dread in the sun-drenched pages, leading to an ending that, while you can see it coming,f is still just as strange and dreadful as it would be in the dark cold of night.

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The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe

Story featured in the book: Edgar Allan Poe – The Complete Works Collection

Edgar Allan Poe: The Ultimate Collection

Poe has plenty of shorts to choose from that get the blood pumping with horror, but The Pit and the Pendulum is so terrifyingly bleak and cruel because of the history it’s based on, and the rumored execution method the Spanish Inquisition supposedly used.

All told from the perspective of one man tied up in the pit, watching as the pendulum drops ever so slowly to slice him through. The story relies more on realism than Poe’s other works, and the setting is just dreadful.

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The Near Departed by Richard Matheson

Story featured in the book: The Best of Richard Matheson

The Best of Richard Matheson (Penguin Classics)

This one takes maybe two minutes at most to read, but it’s all about the setup leading to that very last line where Matheson sticks the gut punch.

A man visits a mortician’s office to arrange a funeral for his wife. As the mortician asks questions and begins to understand things, a horrifying truth comes out.

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There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury

Story featured in the book: There Will Come Soft Rains (Tale Blazers)

There Will Come Soft Rains (Tale Blazers)

A bleak tale with no actual human characters. There Will Come Soft Rains is essential Bradbury, giving an all too possible description of a lone house standing long after man has destroyed itself.

Bradbury’s voice and language are so simple here it almost throws off the desolation of the story. This is a world barren of any survivors, with shadows burned into walls from nuclear bombs. The worst nightmares of man come to life, while nature moves on without care.

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Click by Brian Evenson

Story featured in the book: A Collapse of Horses

A Collapse of Horses

A rollercoaster of an unreliable narrator waking up in a hospital, unable to remember what he’s done to get there or why so many people are coming to talk to him. That’s all you need to know before starting one of Evenson’s finest shorts.

Everything is shown in such brief, fading glimpses that you’ll just be collecting your bearings by the time the point of the story clicks in your head, much like it does for the narrator.

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The Hospice by Robert Aickman

Story featured in the book: Cold Hand in Mine

Cold Hand in Mine

A Lynch-ian fever dream about a man becoming lost and low on fuel in the countryside, stopping at an elderly hospice facility for the night to gain his bearings. 

Things get weird from there, with the hospice being odd in more ways than just creepy old people.

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Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates

Story featured in the book: High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories 1966-2006

High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories 1966-2006

Oates makes one of the creepiest stories possible with no supernatural elements at all. A young girl sees a strange man who follows her home when she’s alone, demanding she gets into his car and comes with him. The book escalates into tension and despair as the audience knows his intentions and feels helpless to stop them.

As with most terrifying stories about humans, this one is based on a real-life case, The Pied Piper of Tucson.

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Pigeons From Hell by Robert Howard

Story featured in the book: Pigeons From Hell

Pigeons from Hell: The Classic Tale Of Murder, Madness and Voodoo

Despite the name, there is not actually a pigeon from hell. Disappointing, but the story itself is fantastic with a dilapidated southern gothic setting.

Two men happen across an old abandoned plantation while traveling, only for one of them to be killed in the night by an unseen presence. The remaining man and the local sheriff desperately try to clear his name while figuring out what exactly is happening at the plantation.

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The Quiet Boy by Nick Antosca

Story featured in the book: The Girlfriend Game

The Girlfriend Game

A modern Wendigo story that will keep you wondering if what’s happening is really what we’re seeing. A teacher in a sleepy town realizes that one of her students may be more than they let on, and things soon begin to unravel out of control.

(The Quiet Boy was actually published for free online by the author, so I’ve included a link to his short story collection The Girlfriend Game which includes more great stories!)

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On Skua Island by John Langan

Story featured in the book: Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters

Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters

A mummy story with a Lovecraftian twist as a professor is invited on a military intelligence mission to an isolated island. The archeological mission quickly turns into a chase for survival off of the island in the last third. Everything is perfectly put together with a steady climb right before the rug gets pulled.

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Fast Zombies Suck by Brian Keene

Story featured in the book: Blood on the Page: The Complete Short Fiction of Brian Keene, Volume 1

Blood on the Page: The Complete Short Fiction of Brian Keene, Volume 1

One of Keene’s more comical works takes a hardcore zombie fan who may or may not be a little too prepared for the undead apocalypse. Only four pages, with fun gore, homages, and some dark laughs.

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Shiva Open Your Eye by Laird Barron

Story featured in the book: The Imago Sequence: And Other Stories

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories

Barron’s first professionally published short story was just a hint at his Lovecraftian leanings, giving a story all too ready to jump into the dark chasm of the unknown. Told from the perspective of an aging man who is suddenly visited by a private investigator, suspected of making people go missing.

There’s not so much of an ongoing plot as just a rumination on the old man’s part about the life he’s lived, which is far longer than he lets on. As things escalate the audience is slowly brought into the fold of reality where the old man lives, somewhere between earth and the cosmos.

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The Color Out of Space by HP Lovecraft

Story featured in the book: The Great Old Ones: The Complete Works of H. P. Lovecraft

The Great Old Ones: The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft

A classic of Lovecraft and one of his best-known stories, The Color Out of Space challenges readers to imagine something they’ve never seen, something that seems impossible and in turn makes everything around it impossible.

Something unnatural falls from space and onto a small farm, causing the landscape and nature around it to become corrupted and twisted as one family slowly breaks down with it.

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Son of Celluloid by Clive Barker

Story featured in the book: Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

A convict on the run hides behind a movie screen at a local theater, except he dies there and never leaves. Somehow, nobody finds his body, and weeks later a creature born of his corpse and audience emotions begins stalking moviegoers after hours.

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Pig Thing by Adam Nevill

Story featured in the book: Some Will Not Sleep: Selected Horrors

Some Will Not Sleep: Selected Horrors

A family moves to a new area and things don’t quite seem normal, especially not when a monster starts looking through their windows at night. 

Pig Thing is a classic creature feature with a wild climax. The creature in question is a terrifying abomination, and you’ll be checking to make sure curtains are closed tight before bed.

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Magdala Amygdala by Lucy A. Snyder

Story featured in the book: Soft Apocalypses

Soft Apocalypses

I have to wonder at this point if Snyder had a premonition of the 2020s when writing this around 2012, with the themes of a world-ending plague happening while people move on with life as usual.

Except for the world-ending plague in this case is zombies. Not full-on, mindless zombies, mind you, but ones who can still think, act, and function as long as they get a certain amount of human sustenance each day. It’s so bleakly dystopian while flipping the zombie genre on its head.

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The King in Yellow by Brian Keene

Story featured in the book: Blood on the Page: The Complete Short Fiction of Brian Keene, Volume 1

Blood on the Page: The Complete Short Fiction of Brian Keene, Volume 1

Keene takes the idea of Chambers’s King in Yellow and turns it into a special, secret play put on in an old theater. The story follows an unsuspecting couple who end up in the crowd for one of the show’s most riveting performances, featuring some guest stars who haven’t made appearances in quite some time.

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Down to a Sunless Sea by Neil Gaiman

Story featured in the book: The Neil Gaiman Reader: Fiction

The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction

Short, dark, and full of despair. Gaiman’s story will hit like a gut punch in just a little over a thousand words. A man walks down to the Thames River on a rainy day to find a widow standing on the docks. There he hears her story, about her son lost at sea.

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The Same Deep Waters as You by Brian Hodge

Story featured in the book: I’ll Bring You the Birds From Out of the Sky

I'll Bring You the Birds From Out of the Sky

For being such a short story, Hodge accomplishes a lot here. Taking the basic lore of Innsmouth from Lovecraft, Hodge follows a woman with the gift to talk to animals who has been recruited to speak to the Deep Ones, strange fish-like former residents of the town who are now held captive by the United States military.

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Notes From the Dog Walkers by Paul Tremblay

Story featured in the book: Growing Things and Other Stories

Growing Things and Other Stories

Tremblay takes a more experimental approach to this short, told in a series of emails to the protagonist, a teacher receiving updates from a dog walker. Thing is, the dog walker isn’t all they seem to be and things are taking a scary turn.

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A Short Stay In Hell by Steven L. Peck

Story featured in the book: A Short Stay in Hell

A Short Stay in Hell

Another story on the longer side inching toward novella, Peck gives as much of a philosophical tale as a horror one. When a devout Mormon dies and finds out he backed the wrong god, he must spend his time in hell searching an endless library for the book of his life. 

Hell is just as problematic as earth, despite being relatively clean and nice on the surface. This one will leave you thinking after the last page about just what may be worth it for temporary salvation.

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The Monkey’s Paw by WW Jacobs

Story featured in the book: The Monkey’s Paw

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The old saying “be careful what you wish for” in short story form. After coming into possession of a mystical Monkey Paw that can grant wishes, one man decides to test fate for a lark. After the first consequence of his wish though, it escalates into something more terrifying than he ever imagined.

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The Sleep of Judges by Jeremy Robert Johnson

Story featured in the book: Entropy in Bloom: Stories

Entropy in Bloom: Stories

A man goes on a carnage-fueled spree of revenge after drug dealers kidnap his son. Everything goes upside down in the process, and lands him in an even bigger nightmare he could have never dreamed of. Longer for a short story, but the pace immediately hits the gas and doesn’t let up.

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Red Goat Black Goat by Nadia Bulkin

Story featured in the book: She Said Destroy

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Don’t hire a goat as a babysitter is the surface-level message of this story, but below that is a terrifying folk horror from Indonesia that follows a new babysitter hired to look after a couple of strange children.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the house wasn’t surrounded by feral goats and the inside wasn’t terribly cold and filled with the smell of corpses. Things steadily get worse as the goats make their presence more known and a terrifying evil moves in.

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The Night Cyclist by Stephen Graham Jones

Story featured in the book: The Night Cyclist: A Tor.com Original

The Night Cyclist: A Tor.com Original

A chef whose only love is cycling happens across a grisly murder on his way home one night along the bike paths. While giving background on the narrator and his self-destructive tendencies, the mystery of the killings begins to reveal itself and show the cyclist he’s not the only one riding these paths in the dark.

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The Thing That Drifted Ashore by Junji Ito

Story featured in the book: Tombs: Junji Ito Story Collection

Tombs: Junji Ito Story Collection

It’s not a horror list without at least one Ito entry, and The Thing That Drifted Ashore is one of the legendary artist’s most chilling works of cosmic horror.

Scientists and onlookers are dumbfounded when a massive aquatic creature the likes of which have yet to be discovered drifts onto the shore. That alone is a massive discovery but the more terrifying part is all the corpses inside, looking as if they’ve been drained of all blood. That’s still not the worst thing to come from the creature though. Ito’s artwork is great as ever, and the surprise of the story’s climax will leave you just as shocked as all the onlookers.

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Now, if you’ve read the whole list you’ve definitely got time to read some stories! Turn out the lights, pull up the covers, and make sure to keep a couple of flashlights available in case anything goes bump. Hold your breath, turn the page, and let the frights take you away in quick, terrifying bursts.

The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell by Brian Evenson

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: Leg

The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell

This is a completely ridiculous idea but Evenson makes it work- a haunted prosthetic leg. It sounds ridiculous but somehow it’s made both terrifying and hilarious in just a few pages. 

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Shiver by Junji Ito

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: Hanging Balloons

Shiver: Junji Ito Selected Stories

Maybe it’s recency bias since this is the most recent Ito story I read, but there’s not much argument about the effectiveness of the art and writing for this story. It also gets a distinction for the main character’s father risking it all for the Employee of the Month award.

The story begins with a famous Japanese pop star seemingly committing suicide. What follows is a strange series of seemingly unrelated hangings before the discovery of the real culprit- giant balloons of each victim’s head with a hanging noose attached. What follows is strange and grotesque, yet had me laughing at various points.

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Lacrimosa (in Nightmare Magazine) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: Lacrimosa

Nightmare Magazine, Issue 38 (November 2015)

The author of Mexican Gothic takes her shot at the legend of La Llorona, told through the perspective of a Mexican immigrant. While it’s a very short, maybe five to ten-minute read, it establishes a sense of encroaching dread that builds to an immense level for so few words.

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The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: The Redfield Girls

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All: Stories

This story sticks with me because of the dreamlike quality it takes on. A yearly reunion trip for a group of teachers, with one bringing her niece along. There’s just such a surreal feeling around the entire story with disturbing dreams from the main character foretelling the dark events that unfold, with a supernatural twist to follow.

The entire collection it’s included in is fantastic, and a great example of Barron’s style. This one just hits that sweet spot of horror, grief, and emptiness that can only come from loss.

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The Box by Richard Matheson

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: Button, Button (The Box)

The Box: Uncanny Stories

Button, Button is one of Matheson’s most grounded, yet most disturbing stories. A man comes to a couple’s door, holding a singular button that gives them the choice- press it, and receive $50,000, but someone they don’t know, somewhere, will die.

Matheson does his usual of exploring human nature breaking down, but it’s the twist at the end that just gives it that beautiful chef’s kiss to the ending.

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I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream: Stories

Harlan Ellison was both one of the best writers and the biggest jerks to ever live. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream might be his opus when it comes to short fiction, and deserves a place in both sci-fi and horror history.

A supercomputer becomes sentient, deciding the only way for peace on earth is to exterminate man, but it also keeps a few around just for kicks. What follows is like if The Matrix was run by HAL from 2001, with all kinds of horror being inflicted on the remaining few survivors.

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Who Goes There by John W. Campbell

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: Who Goes There

Who Goes There?: Filmed as The Thing

The inspiration for John Carpenter’s horror classic The Thing, Who Goes There? is a short piece of isolation horror mixed with Lovecraftian and sci-fi. There’s paranoia aplenty with no telling who could be a human or alien creature. Despite the short length, it hits a slow-burn thriller vibe as the horror grows.

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The Books of Blood by Clive Barker

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: Rawhead Rex

Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barker’s Books of Blood are six volumes worth of everything from the grounded terror of occult serial killers to entire cities of people forming into massive humanoid amalgamations to find love. These shorts are a rollercoaster.

Rawhead Rex is the apex of Barker’s madness. An ancient Pagan being is released from its tomb in the European countryside, proceeding to go on a massacre of the neighboring town. It’s bloody, violent, and paced at a speed that could shred flesh from bone.

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The October Country by Ray Bradbury

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: The October Game

The October Country: Stories

Less is more for Bradbury. The October Game is one of his few works that went into a straight horror path, with no sci-fi or fantastical elements obvious to the reader. The book instills a loathing for the father character, someone so hateful of his family that he’ll do anything.

The best part is this is a completely bloodless, goreless, and relatively family-friendly horror, all things considered. Bradbury lets readers imagine the outcome and what happens, with the audience creating their own terror from his prompting.

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The Best of Joe R Lansdale by Joe R Lansdale

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: Incident On and Off a Mountain Road

The Best of Joe R. Lansdale

Joe R Lansdale is an author who consistently keeps readers on their toes. He’s had some of the most outlandish ideas in horror, from pitting Elvis and JFK against an ancient mummy or writing a fictional story about TV host Joe Bob Briggs. Every single one entertains though.

This is more of a pure horror work, following one woman in a desperate struggle to survive against a serial killer after being ambushed on an isolated mountain. It’s violent, but the lead character is smart and endearing, giving audiences an amazing final (only) girl to root for.

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The Voice In the Night by William Hope Hodgson

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: The Voice In the Night

The Voice in the Night

Around the turn of the 20th century, horror was growing in mainstream appeal, usually disguising itself as folktales or stories of ghosts or demons. Hodgson gave everyone a healthy fear of something else that would only be expanded upon later though- mushrooms.

Well, not mushrooms but a general fungus. The story of a ship’s crew encountering a strange figure at sea, who tells them of his strange and unsettling doom while urging them to avoid the same fate.

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The Masque of Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: The Masque of Red Death

The Masque of the Red Death

One of the greatest, Poe’s lyrical prose is still haunting as the Masque of Red Death plays out as a fever dream before the audience. A simple story of rich aristocrats that decide to lock themselves away and party while a pandemic rages outside (life imitates art sometimes) and takes a devastating turn.

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Nightcrawlers by Robert McCammon

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: Nightcrawlers

Nightcrawlers

McCammon’s story about a Vietnam vet subjected to a horrible experiment that causes strange powers and deadly nightmares was prescient on release in 1984 with the unraveling mystery of MKULTRA. Considering what we know about all of that plus more years later… it’s aged pretty well if a little on the nose.

Bonus: the short got a fantastic adaptation in the first revival of The Twilight Zone in 1985, notably directed by William Friedkin of The Exorcist.

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Reassuring Tales by T.E.D Klein

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: The Events at Poroth Farm

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Klein is a legend of Lovecraftian horror, and this short was extended into his acclaimed novel The Ceremonies. The story takes the idea of tears in space and time, bringing about a terror beyond our reality.

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Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: The Maw

Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell

The Maw is just a cool concept that I wish was explored more in modern fiction. Hell emerges on earth one day in a small town, but the major authorities don’t seem too worried even as residents are evacuated and nightmarish creatures stitch monuments of flesh in the streets.

The hell Ballingrud makes is somewhere between Silent Hill’s atmosphere, Bloodborne’s creatures, and Clive Barker’s tendency toward flesh pillars. It’s a thrilling read.

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Alone With the Horrors by Ramsey Campbell

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: The Brood

Alone with the Horrors: The Great Short Fiction of Ramsey Campbell 1961-1991

The Brood is Rear Window meets Fright Night when a veterinarian moves into a new apartment and takes up people watching from his window. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that a woman who appears on the street every night isn’t what she seems, and may be holding secrets that don’t need to be found.

Campbell gives the standard vampire story a fun, Lovecraftian twist in a short that will leave you with a shiver by the end.

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Skeleton Crew by Stephen King

Best Horror Short Story in This Book: The Jaunt

Skeleton Crew: Stories

King was left for last simply because it is just so, so hard to single out one short story from the countless he’s written over the years. He’s put out multiple collections with each one nearing the size of his thicker novels, and each includes at least three iconic stories. This was a ROUGH decision. 

That said, The Jaunt is the ultimate pick for the combo of sci-fi, cosmic horror, and a fun twist on the concept of things beyond our visible universe. The final scene pops into my head every so often just to give me a little chill and remind me of the story.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who is the most prolific horror short story writer?

Prolific is a wide term, and a lot depends on how you look at the form as far as influence, amount of work, or popularity. Stephen King is prolific, with a new collection of shorts coming out every few years. There are also writers like Lovecraft, Machen, or Ligotti though who work primarily in a short fiction setting and have had a massive influence on the genre.

Some of these are way longer than the others, aren’t short stories supposed to be short?

It’s all about the story! Sure, some might be able to meet their point quicker than others (The Nearly Departed) while others take pleasure in that slow build, escalating the tension and dread until it can’t be withstood any longer. The only requirement for a short story (and it’s a loose one at that) is that it comes out approximately around or less than novella length. So, typically they’ll max out around 50,000 words or so, with a little wiggle room of course.

What is the scariest short story of all time?

Any of the above forty or the other list of twenty I’ve previously made can qualify, but the scariest is going to be up to personal preference and can be extremely subjective. Some stories commonly regarded as the scariest of all time:
1. The Jaunt by Stephen King
2. The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
3. The Shadow Over Innsmouth by HP Lovecraft
4. The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers
5. Into the Wood by Robert Aickman

These are a LOT of stories. Where do I start?

King is always a good entry point for any kind of horror, with short stories being one of his specialties. If you’re looking for King, start with either Nightmares and Dreamscapes or Skeleton Crew, both full of fantastic shorts including some of his best. If you’re looking for variety and not just a single author, go for any anthology edited by Ellen Datlow or The Weird by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. 

Datlow does yearly anthologies with varying themes, and she has an amazing eye for picking stories. The Weird, meanwhile, is a comprehensive timeline of weird fiction, going from the older stories of Poe to around 2009 when the book was published.

I’ve read all the shorts, now I need MORE. Where do I go next?

Well, if you want more shorts, almost all of the entries here have a corresponding collection or anthology from the author listed under the story. Depending on which ones you liked I would recommend that specific author’s collection, but outside of that, novels are the best place to go! Get started with a classic like The Shining by King or a more recent hit like The Fisherman by John Langan.

What if I want things a little less scary? Any good short horror authors in that case?

Neil Gaiman is your best bet, with his work often skewing more towards the magic and fantastical side of things. While horror is still underlying in most of his works, it’s much less apparent and more of a creeping factor in the background.

What makes a short story?

Short stories will usually want to stay at or below ten thousand words, but over one thousand to keep them from falling into flash fiction territory.

So why does horror make for good short stories?

In the simplest answer- a lot of horrors rely on mystery, and nothing leaves a better mystery than making a quick first impression to leave audiences asking. Most of the stories above will end with some sort of question or feeling for the audience, usually asking why, how, or sometimes what caused the events of the story. It relies a lot on the premise of “reel them in and leave them hanging”.

Any other genres with good short stories?

Every genre has a great share of short stories, no matter what it’s dealing with. While horror is just one of the few with dedicated short-form followings, science fiction and fantasy have massive backlogs of short stories set in existing and original settings.

I read everything above and need more. Where do I go from here?

Nice job, first of all! If you want to journey more into the world of short horror stories the best place to look is The Weird, a collection edited by Jeff and Anne VanDermeer. This book is massive and traces the roots of weird horror from birth to when the collection was released in 2012. It’s an amazingly comprehensive sampling of different authors.

Bonus: Stephen King Shorts That Didn’t Make It

There were just so many, I had to make a mini-list of some of my favorites. Seriously though, you can’t go wrong when reading any of King’s collections.

Survivor Type
Home Delivery
N
The End of the Whole Mess
The Night Flyer
The Lawnmower Man
Night Surf
Gray Matter
Quitters, Inc.
Cycle of the Werewolf

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Ross Tyson