Spooky Season is finally upon us!
For this season’s edition of My Favorite Things, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite scary stories. This list is dedicated to short fiction–since I’m sure you can easily find dozens if not hundreds of scary novel recommendations out there. The titles on this list were handpicked by yours truly and whittled down to only the eeriest, scariest stories I know of. And, for your convenience, I’ve included a “spookiness rating” to separate the eerie from the scary and the scary from the down-right nightmarish.
I hope you enjoy these as much as I do.
Happy (and haunted) reading!
Harry by Rosemary Timperley
There’s a reason I included two Timperley stories in this list: she’s that good. “Harry” is a beautifully written story about a mother’s growing weariness toward her young daughter’s imaginary friend Harry. Timpereley’s makes great use of literary language in this story. Intrigue is built and maintained so well that reaching the story’s climax feels at once dreadful and inevitable.
This one’s not for the faint of heart, though. I’d recommend you skip it if malevolent spirits and creepy kids aren’t your thing.
Control Negro by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
Rating: chilling, but not at all scary
Strictly speaking, this is not a horror story; but, it’s haunting nonetheless. This story is written in the form of a letter from father to son. As the story unravels, we learn that this letter is an apology. I don’t want to give too much away, but I urge you to read this one.
If you like your spooks in the vein of Jordan Peele, full of cerebral social commentary, this one is for you! There are no ghosts or demons anywhere in it, but this is one of those stories you won’t be able to shake.
In the Tube by E.F. Benson
Rating: very scary
Making use of a conversation between friends as a framing device, this story details a man’s ghostly encounters in the London Tube. The descriptions of the paranormal are superb–eerie and believable and at times downright terrifying. (I could write an entire essay on why the supernatural elements work so well here).
While certainly not a perfect story (Benson falls repeatedly into the “too much telling, not enough showing” trap), I highly recommend this one if you’re looking for something haunting and full of rich imagery. Just don’t blame me for your nightmares!
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
Rating: bone-chilling and eerie as hell, but not scary
This is another one of those genre-defying stories that, although free of any supernatural elements, shocks and rattles readers to our cores. A haunting exploration of mob-mentality, this story takes place on the day of a small village’s annual lottery. Shirley Jackson remains unrivaled in her ability to so elegantly and seamlessly establish a tone of horror within descriptions of the mundane. This is the type of story one could read over and over.
Eight Bites by Carmen Maria Machado
Rating: chilling and just a little bit spooky
Like most of Machado’s works, this is social commentary at its core. Set in a futuristic but recognizable universe, the story focuses on a woman’s decision to undergo a surgery that will prohibit her from eating more than eight bites of any food. Machado’s poetic style of prose is one of a kind, albeit at times pretentious. This story is richly imagined and just the right amount of spooky.
Content Warning: This story could be triggering to anyone with a history of eating disorders.
The Sweeper by A.M. Burrage (Ex-Private X)
In this story, the young new employee at a wealthy old woman’s estate becomes increasingly frightened by the mysterious sweeper who sweeps the yard late into the night. The writing in this one is a tad embellished, and the story runs a bit long, but it is oh-so-scary. This story has the single best (and spookiest) description of a ghost I have ever read. If you’re here for spooks, this one’s for you!
This is easily one of my favorite stories by one of my favorite writers, and I simply cannot recommend it enough. I promise you will never forget this one!
The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe
I had to limit myself to only one Poe because otherwise, this would have just been a list of his stories. I can’t imagine there is anything I could say about this one that has not already been said, but I love it so. This story starts with a man luring another down into the catacombs under the pretext of showing him some wine. Unsurprisingly, things get very spooky.
This story is a testament to the darkness of Poe’s imagination and a brilliant exploration of evil. No ghosts or demons in this one either, just very evil men.
Christmas Meeting by Rosemary Timperley
This story details a curious encounter between two lonely souls on Christmas day. Approximately three pages long, it is the perfect length for a quick read that’ll haunt you for days. Timperley packs in a surprising amount of spooks and twists into this one, making it the perfect October read.
The Husband Stitch by Carmen Maria Machado
Rating: eerie but not scary
At an author reading at the Harvard Bookstore, Machado referred to this story as her “hit single.” This dark and twisty retelling of “The Green Ribbon” enamored critics with its feminist overtones. Machado carefully balances all the creepy elements of the original story with more modern spooks surrounding femininity and marriage and sex. While it runs a bit long, I promise you will never be able to shake that last, haunting image.
Content Warning: This story contains graphic depictions of sex and some gore.
The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell
Rating: eerie and thrilling, but not spooky
If you’re looking for an atmospheric and twisty read, minus all the creepy crawlies that typically come attached, this one is for you! The Most Dangerous Mind is the story of a castaway who, following a shipwreck, finds himself alone in a wealthy and mysterious gentleman’s private island.
I first read this one back in middle school, and it stuck with me for years and years. Revisiting it in adulthood, I was pleased to find that the story holds up as one of the eeriest I’ve ever come across. Plus, the Zodiac Killer quoted this in his infamous letters to the police, so it doesn’t get any spookier than that.
The Hitch-Hiker by Lucille Fletcher
Rating: very spooky
This was technically written as a radio play, and it is, therefore, a bit more dialogue-heavy than your typical ghost story. Luckily, transcripts are easy to come by, and I highly recommend it for fans of classic ghost stories. It follows a man on a cross-country road trip as he tries to make sense of the unsettling hitchhiker he inexplicably keeps seeing throughout his trip. This story goes seamlessly from atmospheric to oppressive so that, by the last few lines, you are quite literally at the edge of your seat.