A few years ago, right around Halloween, I bought a new anthology of short stories. It was called October Dreams, and I hurried home from the bookstore, locked my front door, turned out every light except for a lamp to read by, and settled in to see what it had in store for me. I was not let down in the least. I’ve always been a fan of the short story form. There are great authors out there who cannot write them, no matter how hard they try. It’s hard to take an idea, distill it down to its essence, and have a cohesive, engaging story in under 50 pages with a beginning, middle and end. However, when it’s done well, the results can be magical. In the case of horror short stories, it can be downright terrifying.
Halloween is upon us again, and with our first taste of a little autumn weather today in Texas, my thoughts turned back to October Dreams, and some of the other great short stories I’ve read over the years. I thought I’d share some of those favorites, new and old, and I urge you to check them out this Halloween season.
1. “The Black Pumpkin” by Dean Koontz
Mr. Koontz’s books have always been hit or miss for me. He can be a genuinely good storyteller at times, but he’s a bit inconsistent. So, when I saw that he had written the first short story in October Dreams, I nearly skipped right passed it for another. I decided to give it a try, and I am so glad that I did. Young Tommy has always been a disappointment to his parents, and is constantly harassed by his sadistic older brother, Frank. One chilly October afternoon, they go to a pumpkin farm to pick out pumpkins for Halloween. As Tommy wanders through the lot, he comes across the creepy old man who carves the pumpkins. The gnarled hands work the knives, expertly carving grotesque faces into each new gourd. Frank catches up to Tommy and is soon back to berating him, calling him names, and tries the same with the old man. The carver ignores him and continues to work. He asks the old man how much it would cost him to take a particularly frightening pumpkin that has been painted black. The old man tells him that he just takes whatever people think his pumpkins are worth. Frank, being the little shit that he is, tells the man he’ll give him a nickel, and the old man smiles and takes it. As Frank wanders away, young Tommy tries to go after him to make him bring the pumpkin back, but the carver grabs him. “In the night, your brother’s Jack O’Lantern will grow into something other than it is now. Its jaws will work. Its teeth will sharpen. When everyone is asleep, it’ll creep through your house… and give what’s deserved. It’ll come for you last of all. What do you think you deserve, Tommy? You see, I know your name, though your brother never used it. What do you think the black pumpkin will do to you, Tommy? Hmmm? What do you deserve?” Tommy is shaken up and runs from the old man, trying not to think about what he had to say. That night, as Tommy lies in bed, he hears strange noises coming from downstairs…That’s all the plot I’ll give you right now, but believe me when I say I had to sleep with the lights on for the next three nights.
2. “Suffer the Little Children” by Stephen King
First published in Cavalier in 1972, “Suffer the Little Children” finally found its way into Stephen King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes anthology in 1993. The horror here is almost Bradbury-esque and is will worth your time. Miss Sidley is the elderly teacher that everyone hated. You couldn’t get away with anything in her class, even when her back was to you, because she could see your reflection in the thick lenses of her glasses. One day, she notices that Robert, a quiet student is staring at her in a funny way. She confronts him and he tells her that a bad thing is going to happen. He then tells her that he can change and he’ll show her. She runs, screaming, from the school building and is forced into a leave of absence. When she returns, Robert isn’t the only student who is behaving differently. Slowly, she realizes that something evil is taking over the children and she may be the only one who can stop it. Stephen King is often at his best in short story form and this was no exception for me. The shocking decision made by Miss Sidley is all the more terrifying in a world where violence in schools is no longer something we simply read about in fiction.
3. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
On June 26, 1948, The New Yorker published a story by Shirley Jackson called “The Lottery” about an ancient rite of human sacrifice being carried out in modern times. Within days, readers were cancelling their subscriptions and sending hate mail to both the magazine and the author. Jackson later recalled that even her mother sent her a letter condemning the dark story. Today, it is taught in schools all over the country as an example of the great American short story. The insidious plot builds the terror, slowly and methodically, from start to frightening finish, and if you haven’t read it, you simply must find a copy of it this Halloween season.
4. “The Book of Blood” by Clive Barker
The frame story for his anthology series by the same name, “The Book of Blood” tells the story of a psychic researcher who hires a young psychic medium to help her investigate a house said to be one of the most haunted in England. Little does she know that Simon spends his days throwing things around the room, knocking things over, and faking the haunting phenomena he reports to her in the evenings. But, as is often the case in such stories, it’s not long before Simon comes face to face with the real thing. Spirits travel along haunted highways, we’re told, and this house is the intersection where the most vile spirits pass. They think that Simon is mocking them, and so they attack, holding him down and carving their stories into his flesh. As the researcher sits down to write the stories out for others to read, they reveal the rest of the stories in The Books of Blood. Barker has a knack for taking a reader down roads they aren’t sure they want to travel and this entire collection is both thrilling and horrifying.
5. “Witch War” by Richard Matheson
Seven girls sit together on the front porch talking about boys and clothes and other odds and ends of their day to day lives. There is a war on, but you wouldn’t know it by their idle conversation. The general gets word enemy troops are advancing on them and he walks out to where the girls are seated. He tells them the number of soldiers and vehicles, their distance away, and gives the command. Seven girls, no older than sixteen, sit in a circle and using powers no one understands calls down hell on the advancing troops. Matheson was a master story teller. He penned many of the most remembered episodes of The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. This story is so simple that it sneaks up on you and leaves your nerves raw as the girls return to their gossip in the aftermath of the destruction.
These are just a few of my favorites. There are so many more out there, and this is the perfect time of year for them. A couple of years ago, I had a Halloween party where everyone was instructed to bring their favorite ghost story to share with the group and it remains one of my favorite parties I’ve ever given to this day!