9 contemporary horror stories you can read right now
From Harlan Ellison to Peter Watts, a collection of the best contemporary horror stories to get you into the Halloween spirit
1. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, by Harlan Ellison (1967)
Ellison's I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream was published several decades before anything else on this list — but I'm including it because its sci-fi/horror themes about the power of technology feel more relevant than ever. Ellison's nightmarish story follows the last remaining humans alive in a world wholly conquered by a sadistic artificial intelligence that runs them through a gauntlet of creative tortures.
Limp, the body of Gorrister hung from the pink palette; unsupported hanging high above us in the computer chamber; and it did not shiver in the chill, oily breeze that blew eternally through the main cavern. The body hung head down, attached to the underside of the palette by the sole of its right foot. It had been drained of blood through a precise incision made from ear to ear under the lantern jaw. There was no blood on the reflective surface of the metal floor. When Gorrister joined our group and looked up at himself, it was already too late for us to realize that, once again, AM had duped us, had had its fun; it had been a diversion on the part of the machine. Three of us had vomited, turning away from one another in a reflex as ancient as the nausea that had produced it. Gorrister went white. It was almost as though he had seen a voodoo icon, and was afraid of the future. "Oh, God," he mumbled, and walked away. The three of us followed him after a time, and found him sitting with his back to one of the smaller chittering banks, his head in his hands. Ellen knelt down beside him and stroked his hair. He didn't move, but his voice came out of his covered face quite clearly. "Why doesn't it just do us in and get it over with? Christ, I don't know how much longer I can go on like this." It was our one hundred and ninth year in the computer. He was speaking for all of us.
2. Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly, by Joyce Carol Oates (1994)
For her 1994 collection Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, Joyce Carol Oates wrote this imaginative retelling of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw from the perspective of the ghosts. While Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly unfortunately (but necessarily) eliminates the ambiguity of James' original text, it makes up for the loss by offering such an intriguing spin on one of literature's most familiar and beloved horror stories.
In life she'd been a modest girl, a sensible and sane young woman whose father was a poor country parson across the moors in Glyngden. How painful then to conceive of herself in this astonishing new guise, an object of horror, still less an object of disgust. Physical disgust if you saw her. Spiritual disgust as the thought of her. Condemned to the eternal motions of washing the mud-muck of the Sea of Azof off her body, in particular the private parts of her marmoreal body, with fanatic fastidiousness picking iridescent-shelled beetles out of her "Scots curl" to flatter her — for the truth, too, can be flattery, uttered with design. And not only he, her lover, Master's valet, but Master himself had flattered her, so craftily: "I would trust you, ah! with any responsibility!"
3. A Study in Emerald, by Neil Gaiman (2004)
Neil Gaiman won a Hugo Award for this clever pastiche, which blends together the best of both H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes for a case about a mysterious and disturbing death in London. As a bonus, the PDF copy of the story available online is a winking mockup of a 1914 newspaper story, with era-appropriate "ads" to match.
It is the immensity, I believe. The hugeness of things below. The darkness of dreams.
But I am woolgathering. Forgive me. I am not a literary man.
I had been in need of lodgings. That was how I met him. I wanted someone to share the cost of rooms with me. We were introduced by a mutual acquaintance, in the chemical laboratories of St. Bart's. "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive," that was what he said to me, and my mouth fell open and my eyes opened very wide.
4. Abraham's Boys, by Joe Hill (2005)
Joe Hill may be Stephen King's son, but he's long since distinguished himself as a horror writer in his own right with works like Heart-Shaped Box and the horror comics series Locke & Key. In this story, which was originally published in the collection 20th Century Ghosts, Hill offers his own creepy and distinguished riff on vampire lore.
Maximilian searched for them in the carriage house and the cattle shed, even had a look in the springhouse, although he knew almost at first glance he wouldn’t find them there. Rudy wouldn't hide in a place like that, dank and chill, no windows and so no light, a place that smelled of bats. It was too much like a basement. Rudy never went in their basement back home if he could help it, was afraid the door would shut behind him, and he'd find himself trapped in the suffocating dark.
5. Split Lip, by Sam Costello (2006-2012)
Do you prefer horror stories with pictures? Working in collaboration with a wide variety of talented artists that include Sami Makkonen, David Hitchcock, and Ayhan Hayrula, Sam Costello's black-and-white comics offer a kind of contemporary variation on E.C. Comics classics like Tales From the Crypt — and with nearly 40 stories from the past seven years, you have plenty to choose from.
6. The Sloan Men, by David Nickle (2007)
Nickle's disturbing take on a Meet the Parents scenario unfolds more gradually than most stories in the genre, as narrator Judith becomes unsettled during an increasingly strange conversation with her boyfriend's mother. The story was also adapted into an episode of Showtime's all-but-forgotten anthology series The Hunger with Clare Sims and Margot Kidder.
Mrs. Sloan had only three fingers on her left hand, but when she drummed them against the countertop, the tiny polished bones at the end of the fourth and fifth stumps clattered like fingernails. If Judith hadn't been looking, she wouldn't have noticed anything strange about Mrs. Sloan's hand.
"Tell me how you met Herman," said Mrs. Sloan. She turned away from Judith as she spoke, to look out the kitchen window where Herman and his father were getting into Mr. Sloan's black pickup truck. Seeing Herman and Mr. Sloan together was a welcome distraction for Judith. She was afraid Herman's stepmother would catch her staring at the hand. Judith didn't know how she would explain that with any grace: Things are off to a bad enough start as it is.
7. The Bees, by Dan Chaon (2009)
This is a bit of a cheat, since The Bees can't technically be read for free online (though you can find it in print in Chaon's short story anthology Stay Awake). But this already frightening short story — which tells the story of a man whose long-forgotten wife and son begin to intrude on the happiness of his new life — acquires an entirely new hypnotic power in this free recording for the podcast Selected Shorts, with a stellar reading by four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines.
Gene's son Frankie wakes up screaming. It has become frequent, two or three times a week, at random times, midnight: midnight — three A.M. — five in the morning. Here is a high, empty wail that severs Gene from his unconsciousness like sharp teeth. It is the worst sound Gene can imagine, the sound of a young child dying violently — falling off a building, or caught in some machinery that is tearing an arm off, or being mauled by a predatory animal. No matter how many times he hears it he jolts up with such images playing in his mind, and he always runs, thumping into the child's bedroom to find Frankie sitting up in bed, his eyes closed, his mouth open in an oval like a Christmas caroler. Frankie appears to be in a kind of peaceful trance, and if someone took a picture of him he would look like he was waiting to receive a spoonful of ice cream rather than emitting that horrific sound.
8. Patient Zero, by Tananarive Due (2010)
Like many of the stories on this list, Due's Patient Zero is best-read with as little knowledge as possible, so I'll keep my summary brief. The story takes the form of a series of diary entries, written by a young boy who's being kept in a hospital for reasons he doesn't fully understand.
The other best thing I have is the cassette tape from that time the President called me on the telephone when I was six. He said, "Hi, is Jay there? This is the President of the United States." He sounded just like on TV. My heart flipped, because it's so weird to hear the President say your name. I couldn't think of anything to say back. He asked me how I was feeling, and I said I was fine. That made him laugh, like he thought I was making a joke. Then his voice got real serious, and he said everyone was praying and thinking about me, and he hung up. When I listen to that tape now, I wish I had thought of something else to say. I used to think he might call me another time, but it only happened once, in the beginning. So I guess I'll never have a chance to talk to the President again.
9. The Things, by Peter Watts (2011)
Since its publication in 1938, many writers have been influenced John W. Campbell, Jr.'s novella Who Goes There? — and its John Carpenter-directed Hollywood adaptation, 1982's The Thing, is well worth your time. But the most creative variation on the story of all came just a couple of years ago, when Peter Watts earned a Hugo nomination for this short story that retells the familiar tale from the alien menace's perspective. Like Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly, it's the perfect way to take a familiar story and cast it in a totally different light.
I am being Blair. I escape out the back as the world comes in through the front.
I am being Copper. I am rising from the dead.
I am being Childs. I am guarding the main entrance.
The names don't matter. They are placeholders, nothing more; all biomass is interchangeable. What matters is that these are all that is left of me. The world has burned everything else.
Looking for even more terrifying fiction for Halloween? Here are nine classic horror stories you can read right now.