Our Top 7 Horror Short Recommendations

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.

The Colour Out of Space by H.P. Lovecraft

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.

Proboscis by Laird Barron

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.

A Song For Quiet by Cassandra Khaw

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.

Procession of the Black Sloth by Laird Barron

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.

My Heart Struck Sorrow by John Hornor Jacobs

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.

A Long Spoon by Jonathon L. Howard

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.

How the Day Runs Down by John Langan

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.

Winter Tide – Cooler than the Other Side of the Salt Water

a1zmg0rj1slWinter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys, is a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. Essentially a subversive take on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, the book is told from the perspective of one of his “monsters”, and I’d always been intrigued by the description. Now that I’ve wrapped up this story, I’m incredibly disappointed in myself for having waited so long to try it out. It certainly wasn’t the story I was expecting when I initially started reading, but the story I got is one of the absolute best I’ve read this year, and it’s a tale that I imagine will stick with me in the coming months.

I guess it was the fact that it takes place in a world where Lovecraft’s stories are canon (of a sort) that led me to erroneously believe that this would be a horror story when I started it. The fact that it was being told from the perspective of Aphra Marsh, originally an Innsmouth resident and one of the last two living and unchanged Deep Ones (along with her brother Caleb), made it more likely to draw the curtains and reveal the “horror” for what it really was, but I still thought that something so grounded in tales that left me quaking would…well, leave me quaking again. I was wrong about that, as this book sets out to chill the reader in other ways, more mundane and yet more deeply disturbing for that very mundanity.

Readers of Lovecraft, by this point, must make their forays into his work with eyes open and with the understanding that the man behind the words was a monster in his own right. Deeply xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic, even for the woeful standards of his time, Lovecraft channeled his fears of the other and anger at those who “wouldn’t mind their place” into works of seething atmospheric dread and unknowable terrors. It is impossible to extricate the man and his abhorrent beliefs from the monsters and stories he wrote into existence, as it was those very beliefs that gave him such an insight into the dark and dreadful recesses of humanity. I think this is why we see so many novels that make an attempt to “reclaim” or “rewrite” his works, twisting them on their head and showing him for what he was.

It is no accident, then, that Winter Tide is as sincere a refutation of those mores and ideas as I’ve found to date. The decision to accept that the old stories are canon, but canon as set down by men like Lovecraft himself, and show those stories and ideas for how twisted and wrong they are is incredibly powerful. Emrys draws parallels between the treatment of the Innsmouth folk in internment camps and the treatment of other indigenous peoples as a way of showing that rather than horrific monsters to be feared, the Men of the Water are simply that – human. When you consider how the United States government treated the native peoples of the Americas, and how they were viewed by the common populace as barbaric monsters at the time, it is easy to see in subsequent reads of the original tale The Shadow Over Innsmouth how the perceptions of the “hero” of the story could be twisted by a lack of understanding, or a lack of desire to understand.

It’s not just the big ideas that Emrys refutes, either. Everything in the novel, down to the occasional use of overwrought prose to make a call back to Lovecraft’s less than stellar narrative voice (using the word vertiginous rather than dizzying, as one example of many) was planned and executed fantastically. The specific use of Asenath Waite from The Thing on the Doorstep is another example of her twisting of Lovecraft’s original less-than-savory intent, as is the choice to change the spelling of the name of one of the elder gods from Shub-Niggurath to Shub-Nigarath. It’s a small thing but changes the way the name is said internally from one that was clearly using a racial epithet to make something feel dark and dangerous, to one that simply sounds strange and distant.

That being said, all the best intentions and refutations of humanity’s darker nature in the world won’t help a book if the story and writing are off, of course, but Emrys shines here as well. I said earlier in this review that the story I received is not the one I expected, and the story I got was stellar. An adventurous mystery romp through the Miskatonic Bay region with a diverse and interesting cast of characters was a really pleasant surprise once I realized that was what I was reading. Each of the characters is developed well and written superbly, and every story beat and emotional reveal was handled deftly and sympathetically. My only complaint is that the main driving force of the mystery takes a hard detour and turns out to be something of a mcguffin, but the real mystery and plot that replaces it was far more interesting in the end, and as such I have a hard time faulting the book for it.

Winter Tide was fantastic, fun, meaningful, painful, and expansive. I loved the full cast of protagonists and loved rooting against the entire cast of antagonists, though in the end there aren’t really any “bad guys” per se, simply people with different ideas on how things should be done and not enough information on why things shouldn’t be done that way. Ruthanna Emrys has a fantastic voice as an author and I cannot wait to start the second book in the series, Deep Roots, released in June of this year.

Rating: Winter Tide – 9.5/10
-Will

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute – It’s A Frighteningly Good Time

Boy howdy it’s mid-August and you know what that means: horror review time! There’s nothing scarier to me than 90 degree days with 90% humidity, and the electric bill that will be coming from me running my AC on the highest possible setting for months on end. In honor of the true terror brought on by the depths of summer, we’re hopping back on the Cabal Train!

Wait…no, that was the first book. The Cabal Dirigib-

No, no that was book two. Let me try again.

We’re back on the Cabal Long-Journey-Through-Mysterious-Lands-With-Mysterious-Travel-Partners-That-Involves-Multiple-Transportation-Methods.

Perfect.

51toff8i01l-_sx331_bo1204203200_For those of you who forgot, we reviewed the first two books in the series quite some time ago, you can find those reviews here and here. As a quick catch-up (though I don’t know why you’d be reading the review of a third book in a series if you had forgotten, kinda weird to be completely honest), the series follows a German necromancer (of some little infamy) named Johannes Cabal on his various travels and travails. To this point in the series proper (spoilers follow) he has bargained his way out of a deal with the devil and foiled an aristocratic plot aboard a dirigible. Having literally walked away from the dirigible’s crash landing, he has arrived back at his three-story Victorian townhouse that has been somehow moved to a deserted countryside through less-than-mundane means. As he recovers from his unexpected turn to heroism, he is approached by three men from the Fear Institute who want him to be their guide through the Dreamlands, and this is where our story begins.

The Fear Institute is a small group of intelligentsia that has dedicated itself to eradicating what they call the “Phobic Animus”, which is a silly name they have for the physical embodiment of fear itself. They believe that by eliminating this Animus they can eliminate fear in the human race and lead mankind to a more rational way of living and thinking. The problem, for them, is that the Animus resides in the Dreamlands, which are notoriously difficult to access and travel in. Based on the fact that the book isn’t over after three chapters, I think it’s fairly safe to spoil that they do end up in the Dreamlands, and it is there that the vast majority of the book takes place.

Any of you that have read Lovecraft in the past will have at least a passing familiarity with the Dreamlands, as they feature in one of his most popular stories: “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”. It is in this book that readers will solidify this series as a favorite or decide that it’s not for them after all. In previous books there were scattered references to the Cthulhu mythos, one-off moments of horror, and the occasional weirdness among what were mostly fun adventure stories. This is a stark contrast to that as the lovecraftian horror and sense of the weird really takes its place at the fore. I will not spoil the specifics, but the group’s entry into the dreamlands reads as a straight cross of parts from “Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Music of Erich Zann” in only the best way. There are many more moments which brought to mind my favorite aspects of cosmic horror and instill a true feeling of mortal minds in a place not meant for them. As someone who enjoys that style of writing and that particular flavor of horror, this book was so far up my alley it was in the adjacent street. I can, however, see this as being a major issue if you are a reader for who the horror was tolerated in order to get to the action or detective scenes. There are still moments of almost Sherlockian deduction from Cabal, but the horror and weird has taken a front row seat and does not relinquish it for the majority of the book.

While this was certainly the spookiest of the Cabal novels thus far, it was also the funniest to me. Until this point in the series Cabal has relied mostly on having one character as the foil to his dry and biting wit. Horst, in the first book, played the sidekick and doting protector. Leonie, in the second book, acted in more of a friendly antagonism. In this book, we have three travelling companions, who all have very distinct personalities, that fall victim to Cabal’s jibes and sarcasm. In a way, this tripling of party members leads to a similar tripling of sardonic remarks and cutting jokes, all of which were as funny as any in the previous books. I find Howard’s ability to make me laugh in the midst of spine-tingling terror absolutely astounding and was continually impressed by how he always seems to find just the right balance of scares and scoffs.

The Cabal series has only gotten stronger with each entry, and after each story I find myself liking Johannes himself even more. His character arc is absolutely fantastic and never feels unrealistic to me. His slow transition from actual villain to reluctant hero has been believable and fun on every page. I cannot recommend reading the Cabal series highly enough, and while the series’ mix of cosmic horror and sardonic humor may throw some people for a loop, I have enjoyed each novel more than the last (and the short stories are well worth a read, too). Give it a go and I guarantee you have a ghoulishly good time.

Rating: Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute – 9.5/10
-Will

Persons Non Grata: More Like Short Stories Really Great-a? I’m sorry, I’ll be going.

I was having a conversation with the other QTL staff the other day about how hard it can be to sort out the proper cosmic horror from the remainder of the “weird fiction”, and how frustrating that can be for someone who likes cosmic horror so much more than weird fiction. We came to the conclusion that cosmic horror is likely so niche that it sells better when lumped in with weird fiction than it would by itself. I think there’s likely something to that. If that is the case, however, imagine how niche cosmic horror stories through the window dressing of old pulp noir detective novels must be. Very niche. Very fun, but definitely very niche. Would you put it in the detective section? It’s definitely a detective story. Would you put it in the thrillers section? It’s definitely thrilling. Would you put it in the weird fiction section? Fuck no, make a cosmic horror section and put it there for god’s sake. Regardless of how you’d like to categorize it, Cassandra Khaw’s Persons Non Grata series is a compelling, fun, and extremely fresh entry into the overarching body of work in the Cthulhu Mythos and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for any of the genres I just listed.

Persons Non Grata is made up of two short novels, Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet. Both books have runtimes of around a hundred pages, which is a good length for horror in my personal opinion. I find the shorter stories can end up feeling more gimmicky than truly unsettling, the equivalent of jump scares in movies. On the other hand, longer form horror never truly scares me due to it spreading itself so thin. This particular length really allows for a small and focused tale to stretch out and breathe without wearing out its welcome. I think these stories would be published best as one novel with a third part as a finale, but I just review horror books on a fantasy blog, what do I know?

9780765392718_p0_v5_s192x300Hammers On Bone follows John Persons, the series namesake, a hardboiled private investigator from another time. A very, very different time. You see, there’s something not quite right about Persons, maybe the fact that he’s really just a monster wearing human flesh himself. Not really a spoiler, as he mentions this frequent enough to start to get old towards the end of the story. Khaw’s dedication to the pulp detective story vibe comes through most in Persons’ inner monologues, his vocabulary is straight out of a Dick Tracy comic. Women are birds, men are toughs, you get the idea. If you find this particular type of storytelling annoying you probably won’t enjoy it any more than normal here, and I can see this being a major turnoff for people who are unable to fall in to the Spenser vibe. I personally am a fan, and the mix of pulp, noir, thriller, and chthonic entities tickles me in just the right way.

The motivation for the detecting in Hammers on Bone isn’t hugely important. A kid goes to Persons and hires him to kill his dad. It’s made to seem that he’s just a domestic abuser, but based on the fact that the detective is a primordial monster himself that’s probably not the case, right? Right. The horror in Hammers on Bone is absolutely fantastic. Khaw walks a fine line between the concise and punchy narration style of old detective novels while nodding at the overly descriptive and flowery language of the older school of cosmic horror and the combination allows the reader’s imagination to do the heavy lifting. Descriptions of a man transforming into a mass of eyes (Maybe? How reliable is our narrator?), a fight with an eldritch horror, and just the depersonalizing dreary grind of life in modern cities are all dripping with dread and create an absolutely oppressive atmosphere throughout. I thought that some of the descriptions of the actual action were a little confusing, but the novel isn’t about the action and I think that’s forgivable.

a-song-for-quiet_origA Song for Quiet switches protagonist to Deacon James, a saxophone playing blues man from Georgia. Persons still features, but as a persistent secondary character that is shown to be just as monstrous as the things he fights. It’s great to see the protagonist from the first book through another person’s (heh) eyes, you’re shown that he’s not putting on quite as convincing a façade as he believes, and paints the first book in a very different light than if it were read alone. I thought A Song for Quiet was incredible. The horror is varied, it’s described sublimely, the length is perfect, and the characters are everything I want in a horror story. I was on edge from the second page of the book, and there were passages where I desperately wanted to put the book down but found myself unable to, wrapped up in the horrible spectacle of it all. I don’t want to spoil anything about this book, and it’s short enough to take a gamble on without reading the blurb on goodreads, just pick it up and see for yourself. A Song for Quiet is in my top 5 for horror stories, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Persons Non Grata is an absolutely fantastic series that more people should be checking out. Short and easy to read, unique and flavorful, brilliantly written, and absolutely dripping with that heavy sense of wrong that fans of cosmic horror will instantly recognize, this series has jumped into my must reads and I cannot wait to see what Cassandra Khaw does with this series next.

Rating:
Hammers on Bone: 8.5/10
A Song for Quiet: 9.5/10
-Will