I bought a jacket this past spring and have been looking at it occasionally with a longing that can only be matched by temporarily separated lovers. As such, you can only imagine my joy when the temperature here in Chicago finally dropped to numbers starting with “4,” and I could put it on. Because this is a review site, I will give my jacket five stars out of five. I loved it and will use it regularly in the future. What this dropping temperature and (awesome) jacket weather really means, though, is that it’s October! Spooky month is finally upon us and with it comes recommendations for horror short stories. I’ve put together a list of short stories and novellas from a variety of places that top my list of the best shorts out there, and I hope you take some time in the dark and grey evenings of this month to seek some of these out and enjoy them. I want to stress before we get going, however, that these are in no particular order and simply sum up some of our favorites here at QTL.
I wanted to start the list strong, so I’ve chosen the horror short that I hold all others up to in comparison. The Colour Out of Space exemplifies and embodies the true core of cosmic horror for me. Taking place on the farm of Nahum Gardner, the story describes the slow descent into madness that the inhabitants of the farm undergo due to a strange meteorite falling next to their well. The single best part of this story to me is the complete lack of “monsters” or any other frightful beings with ill intentions. Lovecraft distilled the essence of atmospheric dread down to its purest form, describing in a languid and predatory style the cascade of small events that start seeming “off” before inevitably leading Nahum and his family on an unstoppable journey to horror and death. It is the very fact that the “antagonist” of this particular story is a meteorite that perfectly sums up the sense of impersonal and unlucky inevitability that the finest cosmic horror creates. The Gardners were not personally targeted by this meteorite, and the effects it causes are not purposeful. Instead, the fundamental nature of the stone is so inimical to life on earth and humans that its simple presence acts as a corrupting influence and brings with it a pure and distinct sense of an “other” that doesn’t just not care that it’s causing suffering, it doesn’t even notice.
I love when stories decide on a specific theme and explore that idea as deeply as possible. Proboscis is either the story of a man losing his mind or a deeply unsettling revelation as to an aspect of our world better left not understood. Told through a framing device relying heavily on entomology and proboscises, shocking I know, this story features a thrilling psychological aspect that I think elevates it beyond most of the genre. Barron sprinkles the narrative with details that unsettle effortlessly and invite the reader to make connections that may or may not actually be there. The use of insects to poke at the primal disgust that they engender in humanity, and the suggestion that the protagonist is actually losing his mind coalesce and create a bubbling atmosphere of mounting dread and constant unease. While I obviously will not spoil anything in this brief blurb, I will say that the ending of this story is the single most memorable conclusion to a short story I’ve ever read, and it still makes me shiver.
One of the two entries on this list that is closer to novella-length than short story territory, A Song For Quiet is probably my least favorite of the stories here. I wanted to get that out there because that should help readers understand that when I say I’m including this for one main aspect, it’s because that aspect is so unbelievably good that it nearly erased all my other foibles with the book. A Song For Quiet is on this list due to the sheer weightiness and luxuriance of Khaw’s horrific descriptions. The prose used during the songs Deacon James plays in the narrative is stunning. I was instantly impacted by the sheer terror of what I was reading, the way it was described and Khaw’s choices of words for events. Specifically her ability to describe events that are by their nature difficult to understand and purposefully “Weird with a capital w” is incredibly impressive. This story is one of those tales that makes you want to read the rest of the author’s catalogue regardless of genre. Cassandra Khaw has a way with the horrific that I’m startled and impressed by, and while this is the second of the two current Persons Non Grata stories available, I would recommend starting here with her work.
This lovely little tale from Laird Barron is probably one of the more haunting stories I’ve read in the past couple of years. Barron fills every sentence with a creeping dread that is impossible to ignore. It follows a modern Pinkerton type investigator as he is sent to a factory in China to monitor the local disgruntled workforce. Unfortunately, there is a little exotic orientalism that seems to drive some of the horror, but a lot of aforementioned dread is built upon the transgressive nature of the protagonist. He is a voyeur through and through, expanding his work into a hobby as he spies on others through his hotel window. In my experience, Barron relies heavily on the lone gruff male stereotype, but this story is the one time I felt that this archetype is analyzed through the horror, instead of being an easy entry point. The protagonist feels creepy, but his need to watch pulls the reader into the mysteries he sees. He’s a bad guy, but the narrative is infectious through his eyes. Barron’s patient execution of the story kept me pulling at the string, needing to know more. He did not rush to reveal the terrible kernel, allowing the mystery and the protagonist’s need to investigate without revealing himself drive the story. I could not pull my eyes away from the page until the last word, and even then I still feel trapped by its trance. In some ways the story itself mirrors the reader’s fascination with the horror, but luckily for us we can’t become the story. We can only be consumed with the terror that the one true way to understand something is to be a part of it.
Here it is. Any of you who have been reading the site lately have probably stumbled on my review for A Lush and Seething Hell, by John Hornor Jacobs. This was my personal favorite of the two stories, and while I will encourage you to read the entire review here, it would be rude not to at least briefly go into why this story hit me so hard. Jacobs manages to infuse a story that is steeped in the terrifying and built to unsettle with something adjacent to wistfulness for a different and more magical time. There was something so powerful in Cromwell’s sense of longing, his need to find out whether the story of Stagger Lee was true, his need to find anything that will distract him or give him a sense of belonging or meaning. The flavor of this story was so piquant and unique, while being so familiar and almost nostalgic at the same time that I was sucked into the riptides of its narrative, completely lacking control or a sense of the time as I struggled to stay afloat. This story ripped me out of the well worn tracks of my day to day life and spat me out somewhere unsettlingly familiar, like going to your childhood home and finding that the furniture is all the same but has been moved around slightly. It’s a feeling I’ve been unable to shake since, and I highly recommend any tales with that kind of staying power.
I’ll probably be punished by “true” horror fans for including this one on the list, but they’re nerds anyway, so what are they gonna do about it? Nothing, that’s what. More humor than horror and more laugh-inducing than limb-rending, the Johannes Cabal series more winks to the world of horror than explores it, but I can’t help myself but include my favorite tale from that world in this list. Taking place just before the last of the numbered entries in the series, A Long Spoon tells the tale of how Cabal meets Zarenyia, a devil of hell. Not the devil, though they have met on occasion before, long story. After being forced to ask her “nicely” to guide him into the darkest depths of hell, the two embark on a zany and mildly horrifying romp into said dark depths. I am a huge fan of all things Cabal, and these are 32 of the most enjoyable pages I’ve read involving murder, mayhem, and women who are giant spiders from the waist down. If any of that sounds like something you can get into, go read the 4 main series books and sundry short stories and novellas leading up to this, then read it. I know that sounds like a lot, but the Cabal series is one of those palate cleansers that you can read pretty much anytime and have a great experience.
Is it wrong to include a short story that’s actually a series of vignettes in a list about short stories? I don’t think so and anyway I need to talk about this somewhere as it’s just so odd. How the Day Runs Down is a horror short story being told from the perspective of the Stage Manager, a character in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. Doling out small-town wisdom and anecdotes about the characters living in this small town as he discusses their successes and failings as the town falls to the living dead, there is a surreal and eminently memorable atmosphere that drips from this story from the first page. It’s even written partly as a screenplay, which creates a sort of hushed collaboration between the Stage Manager and the reader, in that we too know what’s about to happen to these characters and have an opportunity to stop it (or at least it’s shown that the Stage Manager does, when he chooses to). The culpability of watching all the events within the story unfold weighed heavy on me, and made me feel a sense of guilty voyeurism as I, we, did nothing. It was an experience I’ve never forgotten and is one unique to zombie horror at least, if not horror in general.
And with that we’re done with the list. There are hundreds of incredible stories that didn’t make the cut, and if I missed your personal favorite please let me know in the comments what it was and why you think it should be here. I hope you all have a spookily good October and find exactly the level of terror you’re looking for.