The air is growing crisp, jack-o’-lanterns appearing on doorsteps, huge bags of candy stockpiled in cupboards: Yes, it’s nearly Halloween. Maybe all you want to do is watch scary movies and work on your show-stopping costume, yet you’re stuck at work or school, just like every other week.
Of course, you can get your rush of fright while sitting right at your desk. These stories are short enough to read over your lunch break; many of them are available for free online. (And trust us, they’re all worth paying for.) Most importantly, they’re all guaranteed to send you back to work with a delicious shiver down your spine:
1. “The Grownup” by Gillian Flynn
The author behind the ultimate unreliable narrator, Amy from Gone Girl, keeps playing with the shifting sands of truth in this stand-alone short story. In “The Grownup,” the narrator appears to be dealing with two unreliable narrators, and her life may depend on figuring out who is lying. A haunted house and a demon child have never been so creepy, and so baffling, as the ones encountered by the protagonist, a former sex worker and current fraudulent psychic who finds herself caught up in some unsettling family drama.
2. “Royal Jelly” by Roald Dahl
Even Dahl’s children’s fiction lays on the horror with unusual thickness ― think of The Witches. But his short stories, many of which are more appropriate for adults, can be bone-chilling. In “Royal Jelly,” a truly creative tale, a beekeeper begins to feed his infant daughter royal jelly ― the food bees feed their future queens ― in a desperate attempt to get her to gain weight. Eventually, impressed by the results, he tries royal jelly himself. By the time things get weird, it’s a little too late.
3. “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs
Be careful what you wish for: That’s the message of this macabre tale. Though this story has been told and retold, Jacobs’ original version from 1902 has a special frisson to it. A poor couple, the Whites, live with their grown son, Herbert, who works at a factory. When they come into possession of a magical monkey’s paw, capable of granting three wishes, they don’t hesitate to start wishing ― though maybe they should have.
4. “Philomel Cottage” by Agatha Christie
Terror isn’t Christie’s forte, but some of her stories are genuinely spine-tingling. This Bluebeard update starts with a newlywed idyll, which gives way to diffuse dread. A quick-witted heroine makes for a modern feel in a story full of old-fashioned telephones, shorthand typists, and 1930s courtship habits. Meanwhile, Christie cleverly works in literary allusion and subtle foreshadowing to inject the story with an eerie sense of foreboding, even at its cheeriest moments.
5. “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury
No surprise here ― “The Veldt” is a classic horror story from a master of sci-fi spookiness. It’s the “call is coming from inside the house” of literature. the Hadleys live in a high-tech home operated by devices that fulfill their every needs, from shoe-tiers to tooth-brushers, plus a huge nursery that projects hyperrealistic environments drawn from their two children’s fantasies. Smells, sounds, 3D images ― the nursery creates an experience more convincing than reality. But when the two youngsters become obsessed with the African veldt, the dangerous world within the nursery seems to grow more powerful than any machine should be.
6. “A Collapse of Horses” by Brian Evenson
The world of “A Collapse of Horses” resists clear summarizing. The narrator, who’s confined to bed recuperating from an accident, begins to apparently suffer from delusions about his house and family. Sometimes, he informs us, he has three children; at other times, there are four. His house is changing shape and dimension. One day he goes for a walk and sees a number of horses in a paddock, lying as if dead, but he leaves before finding out if they’re alive. Driven to distraction, he feels he has to take a definitive step to end this ― and things only get darker from there.
7. “The Doll” by Daphne du Maurier
This story from the grande dame of suspense caused a bit of a stir when it was discovered several years ago, but if you haven’t read it yet, there’s no better time to take a look. It’s the ultimate nightmare of every boyfriend who feels inadequate around dildos and vibrators: A story about a beautiful young woman and her leering male sex robot. And this was long before Real Dolls.
8. “Tales of Darkness and the Unknown, Vol. XIV: The White Glove” by Steven Millhauser
Published in his collection We Others, “The White Glove” deftly twists the classic “The Green Ribbon,” in which a man begs his wife to take off the green ribbon she’s always worn around her neck ― only to learn that it’s the only thing keeping her severed head attached to her body. In Millhauser’s rendition, the man is a senior in high school who’s begun seeing a quiet, sweet classmate. One day, he notices that she’s wearing a bandage on the back of her hand, and then, one day, a glove covering it. She’s repeatedly absent from school and the glove becomes a permanent fixture. Slowly, he grows more and more obsessed with what the glove might be covering.
9. “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James
James is known primarily for nuanced, densely written novels of New England and European society, like The Portrait of a Lady. In this famous Gothic short story, however, things get spooky. The story, told by a young governess, is set in the English countryside at a family estate. The governess has been hired to care for the young niece and nephew of her generally absent employer, and though she finds them adorable, their behavior soon begins to concern her. Are these just badly behaved kids, or is the house haunted by malevolent ghosts? James doesn’t seem sure himself, and the ambivalence will get under your skin like nothing else.
10. “The Morning and the Evening and the Night” by Octavia Butler
What if a wonder drug were found that could cure cancer? Would we wait to find out what the long-term side effects might be? Butler’s twisted story envisions a scenario in which such a drug has been found, and it’s discovered too late that the children of those who take the medicine are horrifically ill. Their disease manifests in a violent, rabid madness, in which they attack themselves and others brutally.
11. “Reeling for the Empire” by Karen Russell
In this story from Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell dramatizes the inhumanity of sweatshop labor with a grotesque fantastical twist: The young women recruited to work in the Japanese silk factory where it’s set are given a tea that slowly transforms them into silkworm/human hybrids. Enough said.
12. “The Hand” by Guy de Maupassant
His most famous story, “The Necklace,” is more depressing than frightening, but Guy de Maupassant has a strong body of horror stories as well. In this tale, the narrator meets an odd man who keeps hunting trophies on his wall ― including a preserved human hand, which is chained down. The man, who vaguely describes it as the hand of his enemy, seems afraid of the lifeless appendage, and maybe with good reason.
13. “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders
Saunders is the rare contemporary writer who’s built a reputation on short fiction, and his ability to pack so much social satire, evocative characterization, dystopian sci-fi settings and deep-seated horror into a matter of pages explains why. In this story from his last collection, Tenth of December, a scientific experiment becomes more and more unbearable for the participants, until the narrator sees only one way out.
14. “The Gecko” by J.B. Stamper
If you didn’t grow up reading Stamper’s series of Tales for the Midnight Hour, it’s not too late. Though they’re aimed at younger readers, they can give anyone chills ― and this one, from Even More Tales for the Midnight Hour, still haunts the nightmares of many now grown fans (including yours truly). Nearly every aspect of the story is simple and terrifyingly close to reality. The young protagonist has moved into a cockroach-infested apartment in New York City, and when he hears a pet gecko could control his roach problem naturally, he buys a lizard and brings it home. Problem solved, right? Well, sort of.
15. “Gestella” by Susan Palwick
Werewolves often stand in for wild, savage male power in fantasy fiction, but in Palwick’s quietly horrifying story, the werewolf narrator, Gestella, is a woman made all the more vulnerable to the threats of modern life by her condition. She’s brought to America by her 35-year-old lover, Jonathan, who loves her wild beauty at 14 and who takes her on long walks during her wolf days each month. But, like a dog, she’s aging fast ― each year she’s seven years older than the last, and as she ages rapidly she sees his waning love for her happen all at once. Heartbreak, as it turns out, is the least of her problems.
16. “The Rocking-Horse Winner” by D.H. Lawrence
The sheer absurdity of this story, about a little boy with impecunious parents who becomes obsessed with riding his rocking-horse and with gambling on horses, doesn’t detract from its creepiness. Perhaps most unsettling is the question it implicitly poses: Do we value money more than we value the ones we love?
17. “Children of the Corn” by Stephen King
King gets all the buzz for his horror chops, and this story will convince you he deserves it. Forget the movie adaptation; go back to the original for a creepy narrative about a bickering couple driving through endless miles of Nebraskan cornfields that builds so slowly and somehow so inevitably that the back of your neck will be prickling uncomfortably from the get-go. Then, um, maybe don’t take a drive in the country any time soon.
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