In the hands of a skilled writer, short fiction can pack more of a punch than a full-length novel. I know short stories aren’t everyone’s cup of sacrificial blood, but they’re certainly mine, especially when it comes to horror. So much of fright in writing depends on what the author leaves out, almost more so than what they actually put down on the page. A paragraph of concisely sketched suggestions will often haunt you more in the dark than 350 pages of gore ever can.
These are a few of my favorite short-form horror stories. Enjoy.
“Proving Up” by Karen Russell (published in Vampires in the Lemon Grove) | Nightmare Scale: 9/10
I’ve read everything Karen Russell has ever published – if you so much as speak her name within a fifty yard radius of me, you’ll hear the sound of air filling an Emily-sized vacuum in space and a sudden, slightly manic “isn’t she amazing” as I materialize six inches from your face. Short stories are unquestionably where Russell is strongest (I’m a Swamplandia apologist from way back, but she seems to work better with constraints). Most of the stories in this collection you’d qualify as weird-literary more than horror - the majority of them aren’t even really spooky - but then she hits you with “Proving Up,” and everything changes.
I bought Vampires in the Lemon Grove at Rainy Day Books in Kansas City while I was there for work in early 2013, and I read a good chunk of it on the incredibly turbulent, stressful plane ride from KC to Nashville for sales conference. Our flight took off in a gap between two storm systems, and I spent most of the ninety-minute flight white-knuckling my armrest and trying to concentrate on my breathing. I’m a very good flier. It wasn’t the turbulence that frightened me.
“Proving Up” is set in late 1800s Nebraska, and focuses on a settler family trying to earn the legal right to their land under the Homestead Act. To secure their possession of the land, they must show the government inspector that they’ve fulfilled certain requirements, the most onerous of which is ownership of a glass window, which the local families all share. The family’s son, 11, is sent to deliver the window to their neighbors’ farm some miles away, but on his way, a storm kicks up, and he finds himself lost, isolated in a blizzard with a stranger who certainly isn’t sane and probably isn’t human, staring at a field planted with human bones.
Best read at night, alone, in a snowstorm, but the strange liminality of air travel will do in a pinch.
Runner-up from this collection: “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” about a group of adolescent boys haunted by a scarecrow that bears an uncanny resemblance to another boy they’ve bullied.
“Hell Creek” by C. Robert Cargill (published in We Are Where the Nightmares Go) | Nightmare Scale: 6/10
I wrote last week about my weakness for zombie stories, and Cargill dropped an all-time banger in this collection with “Hell Creek,” in which he blends all the existential despair inherent to a zombie story with a hook that makes 12 year-old boys of us all.
Yeah, that’s right: zombie fuckin’ dinosaurs.
In this world, the disaster that wiped out the dinosaurs wasn’t a meteor, but rather a zombie plague. A Triceratops and an Ankylosaurus, though naturally wary of one another, team up as they try to survive a world-changing onslaught of undead predators. There’s not an overabundance of plot here and frankly there doesn’t need to be - when your elevator pitch is two words, and those words are “zombie” and “dinosaurs,” well, that’s enough. There’s also no dialogue as such, which I think was the right choice to keep the story from tipping over into Land Before Time territory.
Cargill’s a screenwriter (Sinister and Doctor Strange are his two best-known credits), so his prose bears all the hallmarks of a writer who thinks in cinematic setpieces - the locations here are so vivid you can’t help but see them. I’m absolutely dying for a film adaptation of this story. It hardly seems too much to ask - please, I’ve been so good this year.
Runner-up from this collection: “The Town That Wasn’t Anymore,” about a dying Blue Ridge mining town where the spirits of the angry dead claim new victims nightly.
“The Midnight Meat Train” by Clive Barker (published in Books of Blood) | Nightmare Scale: 8/10
Classics are classics for a reason. In this case, that reason is absolute gonzo blood-soaked gore set against the New York City of a dirtier, more dangerous era. Kaufman is a cynical office drone who’s disgusted by New York City’s vulgarity and violence. Returning home late one night on a mostly-empty subway, he finds himself face-to-face with a killer who’s been murdering commuters and turning them, quite literally, into straphangers. And then, in very short order, Kaufman discovers that the killer is delivering his victims to those who need to feed.
In the manner of the best short stories, “Midnight Meat Train” alludes to a larger conspiracy, a vaster, deeper, more brutal universe, but withholds just enough to send the imagination spiraling downwards. And while, on the surface, it’s a textbook example of ultraviolent 80s horror, underneath that, it’s an allegory for how New York transforms its residents, how the anonymity and horrible hyper-specificity of city life warps us over time.
Best read on the subway, alone, a little buzzed.
CN for this story: a little vintage casual racism & very light fatphobia
Runner-up from this collection: “The Yattering and Jack,” about a minor demon sent from hell to haunt a completely unremarkable man who proves unusually resistant to the Yattering’s efforts.
“Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler (published in Bloodchild and Other Stories) | Nightmare Scale: 8/10
Let’s just cut to the chase here: this is an mpreg story (if you don’t know what that is, please don’t google it at work, and if you’re my mom, please don’t google it at all). It’s sci-fi body horror on an intimate scale: humanity has become a service race to an insectoid alien species called the Tlic. Human bodies, it turns out, are ideal incubators for Tlic eggs, and a pseudoromantic, uncomfortably sexual societal structure has grown up around this relationship.
Gan, a young man, has been groomed by T'Gatoi, a Tlic elite, for incubation. But shortly before T'Gatoi implants her eggs in Gan’s torso, he witnesses an implantation gone wrong - in another host, the eggs have hatched, and T'Gatoi carves the man open in front of Gan to remove the grubs. It’s as uncomfortable and gory as it sounds, but, as an eternal credit to Butler’s mind, it’s still fascinating to contemplate, and forces you to reflect on an aspect of life you’ve always taken for granted, in the way of the best classic sci-fi.
CN for this story: just… so so much body horror
Runner-up from this collection: “Speech Sounds,” set in a post-apocalyptic America where a pandemic has eradicated the human race’s ability to speak.
“Säcken” by China Miéville (published in Three Moments of an Explosion) | Nightmare Scale: 10/10
Three years after first reading it, I honestly still have trouble even thinking about this story. This is weapons-grade horror. This is top-shelf stuff. This is an endurance trial.
Joanna and her girlfriend Mel rent a house by a lake in a small German town. Joanna, an academic, is working on a book, and Mel is enjoying some rest and relaxation - until something goes wrong. Soon, Mel is hearing and seeing things that no one else can - a sack, bulging with foul water and animal rage, the residual anger of a woman executed in a barbaric way made manifest.
The story is terrifying on the sentence level - Miéville’s prose sits in your gut like lead - but the part that sticks with me is Mel’s panicked resourcefulness. She tries ardently to figure out what the thing wants - absolution from a priest? A legal exoneration? A sacrifice - and offers up all those things. Isn’t that what we all think we’d do?
But still it comes for her.
CN for this story: animal harm
Runner-up from this collection: “The Design,” about two medical students who discover intricate illustrations scrimshawed into the bones of the cadaver they’re dissecting.
“Mysterium Tremendum” by Laird Barron (published in Occultation and Other Stories) | Nightmare Scale: 8/10
Barron is the kind of author people refer to as “a writer’s writer,” which I’ve always taken to mean “extraordinarily talented and generally underappreciated.” Plenty of horror fans have been lauding his work for years now, and he absolutely deserves to be much better-known than he is.
I guess you’d call most of his short stories cosmic horror (I refuse to call that category Lovecraftian, both because I’m stubborn and because the subgenre has grown so far beyond that lantern-jawed racist; look for a newsletter somewhere down the road with more on this), as his focus is on the vast gulf between the mundane and the unknowable things that lie beyond. In the night, in a vision or visitation, a long-dead character tells Willem, our narrator, that “the Crack that runs through everything stares into you.” He hears a woman’s refrain in the ether: “There are terrible things.”
Willem and his partner and their married friends are planning a hiking trip when Willem stumbles upon an enticing guidebook in a general store, a sort of Farmer’s Almanac of the occult, and the four men decide to set out for a dolmen hidden off a remote footpath in northwestern Washington. But this is a 70 page novella, and they don’t actually get to the dolmen until the last 25 pages or so - the majority of the book is dedicated developing the relationships between the men, with uneasy interludes scattered throughout as Willem attempts to research the guidebook’s backstory. It’s this slow build which underlines the mind-shattering horror of the last third of the story. It shouldn’t work but it’s a testament to Barron’s skill that it does.
Barron’s efforts over the last couple years have turned from horror to crime thrillers, but “Mysterium Tremendum” won the 2010 Shirley Jackson Award for best novella, and I really hope he comes back to horror soon.
Runner-up from this collection: “—30—,” a story about two field researchers studying the flora and fauna on a piece of land that was once home to an infamous cult.
This is where I’ll be putting odds and ends, interesting things I read or watched that don’t quite fit with the rest of the newsletter.
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost Adapting Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London for Television [Tor.com]: This is very good adaptation news for one of my all-time favorite urban fantasy series! It’s not horror, but most of the books have scary moments (the first book, Midnight Riot, is particularly gruesome in parts).
When Black Horror Consumes Us [Wired]: Love this piece about Donald Glover, Jordan Peele, black horror’s cultural moment, and its connection to cultural and social history.
Hiding Out in the Wikipedia Page of a Horror Movie [The Cut]: For those of us who can’t bear to watch horror movies, but also want to know exactly what happens, there’s Wikipedia.