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Literary Disturbia: Serious Short Horror Fiction that Sticks with You

There is a difference between the typical “scary story” and what we classify as literature that prompts us to feel scared. We read urban legends and ghost stories to test our own limits and see how long we can read before getting thoroughly freaked out. Scary movies rely on cheap tricks and and plot twists to create drama. However, literature that holds elements of fear is a different beast. Truly terrifying works of literature don’t lean on clichés. Literature that evokes discomfort scares us because it is absent of the manufactured elements of Hollywood, instead relying on the underlying truths it presents to instill readers with crippling trepidation.

When we read literature that portrays a disturbing plot or characters, we experience a more authentic fear that gets internalized, as opposed to the surface level fear we feel with a ghost story. Literature that deals with uncomfortable subject matter, doesn’t necessarily make us scream or wake us up in the middle of the night. The lingering effects of a scary story told by literary masters are those we never escape, but rather we’re forced to live with the realities they present about humanity and the state of being for the rest of our lives.

Here’s a list of six short stories absent of thrills and chills but whose images will linger with you far after you’ve put them down.

“The Sandman” by E.T.A. Hoffman
Told in letters, “The Sandman” is the story of a man who, as a child, feared the legendary sandman who stole the eyes of children who refused to go to bed. His fear is actualized in Coppelius, his father’s associate in alchemy, who tries to blind him when he walks in on the two of them during an experiment. In his letter, he confesses that he hasn’t been able to shake his hatred for Coppelius. He thinks he has met him again, and this time, he’s come to finish what he started so many years ago.

“The Debutante” by Leonora Carrington
Carrington’s absurdism takes a particularly dreamlike quality, amplified by the narrative voice of a young girl who thinks that her debutante ball will be unbearably boring. Rather than sucking it up and going anyway, as her mother insists she do, she frees a hyena from the zoo and dresses it in her clothes. For good measure, she and the hyena agree that the hyena should eat her maid and peel off her face so she can wear that to the ball. Nobody suspects a thing, for awhile.

“The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury’s technophobia rears its ugly head once again in this creepy story about a family living in a house that tends to itself. The children rely on a room with a simulated African veldt to care for and entertain them, which seems harmless until you notice the lions constantly feeding in the distance. By the time the freaked out parents decide to move away from the house, they visit the veldt with the children one last time. This time, though, they won’t be able to leave.

“The Road Virus Heads North” by Stephen King
Of course, no list of horror writers would be complete without Stephen King. This story is about a man who buys a painting at a yard sale on his way from Boston to Maine and will leave you wary of thrifting and antiquing for the rest of your life, or at least worrying about what lingers with the objects the dead leave behind.

“Parts” by Holly Goddard Jones
The opening line of this story: “I had a daughter.” This is the story of a mother whose daughter was murdered under circumstances she can’t—and mercifully, won’t—understand. The brutal details of the murder and the last parts of her daughter’s body that she gets to touch are what will stick with you.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates
This is the story of a beautiful, dreamy fifteen year old, Connie, with an older sister who is the apple of their parent’s eye. Connie doesn’t think her family understands her, and spends more time flirting with boys in parking lots. One afternoon, a boy she’s only seen once before shows up at her house. He isn’t as much of a boy as she once thought or as he implies, and when he asks her to leave with him, he won’t take no for an answer.


Sarah Moesta

Sarah Moesta is a recent graduate with an M.A. in English. She spends her time arguing about the merits and pitfalls of pop culture on the internet and in the real world. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found outside, probably petting a stranger’s dog. Some of her other work can be found at Smokelong Quarterly, SPARK's 17/Teen Vogue Challenge, and TheBurg News.