My year-round default pastime of choice is reading horror fiction. Whether I’m in a waiting room, a grocery store line, listening to an audiobook on a long drive, or just lying in bed and looking for something to do, there’s nothing that guarantees a thrilling surge of adrenaline like delving into a scary story.
Thus, you can imagine my excitement when October comes around and horror recommendations are in demand for 31 delightful days. For your reading enjoyment, here’s a list of (mostly) bite-sized stories. Not every story listed here is explicitly horror, but they all evoke a sinister atmosphere and a sense of dread. Best of all, each of these stories can be found for free online, and links have been provided.
Content warning: sexual assault
“All we wanted to do was kill a clown,” reads the opening line of this story, which was originally published in the aptly titled 2014 anthology Nightmare Carnival. There are few fears as ironically universal as that of clowns—and this story plays on how something that should be a relatively harmless form of entertainment for children can easily be twisted into something far more sinister. Graham Jones has also commented on the origins of “The Darkest Part,” which was inspired by the cover of Nightmare Carnival: a small child standing over the dead body of a clown.
The late Bay Area-born writer Shirley Jackson, of “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House fame, is a tall figure in the world of horror literature. If you were fundamentally disturbed that “The Lottery” was required reading in middle or high school, here’s some good news: Jackson has a trove of equally good (if not even better) stories, and quick read “The Witch” is just one of them. A creepy kid and a creepy stranger? Jackson, you were too good to us.
This beautifully titled short story published in Apex Magazine was written by a married couple and is one of the longer stories on this list, but it absolutely earns its length. Centered around an all-too-real modern urban legend called “The Background Man,” this story mixes found footage tropes with epistolary elements. The result is genuinely terrifying. There’s a “literary Creepypasta” feel to this story that gives way to some profoundly disturbing imagery while also raising philosophical questions about the human condition.
Did you expect a story about an Instagram influencer to be on this list? Well, surprise—here’s one! This flash fiction piece about an influencer who visits and records her experience in an art installation called The Blue Room is compact but packs a haunting punch. It’s also part of the lineup for the just-released Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Stories of Horror, which you’ll want to keep an eye out for at your preferred online or physical bookstore if you’re looking for a plentiful variety of quick horror reads like this one.
Riffing off the Latin American legend of La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), Moreno-Garcia’s tale of a man who is reminded of his childhood by the resurfacing of La Llorona is a story rife with creepy imagery and an impending sense of doom. This story is a sort of “boogeyman” cautionary legend that kids usually hear from their parents or other older family members, and it is one that tends to stick well into adulthood—just as it did for the story’s protagonist.
Edith Nesbit’s “The Shadow”—the oldest story on this list, published in 1910—opens: “This is not an artistically rounded-off ghost story, and nothing is explained in it.” As the introduction suggests, “The Shadow” is a relatively simple ghost story, told mostly through the dialogue of a housekeeper recounting a haunting tale from her young adulthood to three girls the night after a party. Its simplicity reminds us that the things that haunt us aren’t always about blood, gore, and violence.
Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar wasn’t a horror writer, per se, but his fantastical and surreal stories can be quite anxiety-provoking in their own right. “The Condemned Door” (La puerta condenada in Spanish), which is about a man who hears crying every night in the hotel room connected to his, is one of those stories. The link provided places the English translation next to the original Spanish version for an easy comparison between the two texts.
Remember that one story you probably read in elementary or middle school about a girl who wears a green ribbon around her neck, and then it’s revealed that (spoiler alert) said ribbon is what’s keeping her head attached to her body? That girl is the narrator of Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” and the concept is just as good as it sounds. If you like short fiction but haven’t yet delved into Machado’s bibliography, “The Husband Stitch” is an excellent place to start.
If seeing “Reddit” sends you fleeing, hear me out! The NoSleep forum is a kind of role play experience, as you’re supposed to read the self-published stories under the assumption that they’re “true, even if they’re not.” There are a lot of gems on the forum that may not be as “literary” as some short horror fiction, but they still manage to evoke very real, very raw fear. If you’ve never visited the forum, “Uncle Gerry’s Family Fun Zone” is one standout that exemplifies the appeal of this internet sub-genre. It’s in the form of interview transcripts, and you can listen to a narrated version on the NoSleep Podcast for the full immersive experience.