Writing short stories is like fighting in a real small ring: whatever
your style, you have to get busy quick. It's easier to make mistakes,
and it costs more if you do.
Short stories have fallen out of favor in today's shallow world full of fucking idiots, but I've always had a love of them that's pretty close to obsession. I've got reams of anthologies lining the walls of my house, and the other day I started wondering what I might anthologize if I edited one myself. Unfortunately a lot of the ones I came up with aren't online so you'll have to seek out an honest-to-god book, which is way-better anyway. I fucking hate e-books (as the moron who tried to sell me a "Nook" in a Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago found out; it didn't descend into a real scrap or anything, but I did have to wonder why this dumbass was so aggressively promoting a product that stood to put her out of business since she works in a brick-and-mortar bookstore), so I only link to online versions because they're free. You're much better off with paper books, though, which will survive the EMP that is surely somewhere in our future. Then you can laugh heartily at the hapless bastard holding the doorstop that used to be his Kindle and wave your dog-eared copy of The Haunting of Hill House at his sad ass. Anyway, the stories I'm listing here are really great so you should seek them out in whatever format you can find them in... even the crappy, short-sighted, vastly-inferior e-formats that will certainly destroy our economy, spike our unemployment, and lead us into a desperate Mad Max-ian future of poverty and cannibalism. And for all you hippie fools who think e-books "save trees," stop congratulating yourself - all you're doing is devaluing a renewable resource so they can bulldoze the land where the trees were and build another fucking Starbucks. I want to fist-fight you for your small-thinking stupidity and blinky-eyed idealism, dipshit, thou!
Wow, this post went all crazy-person ranty and hostile quicker than usual. Cool! I like it when I can do that.
Of course, you can also patronize your local library. Those are cool, too.
Anyway, in no particular order:
"The Pear-Shaped Man" by George R. R. Martin - An artist moves into a new apartment and becomes obsessed with the corpulent, unclean weirdo who lives in a basement apartment. He has a rancid buttery smell, lives on Coke and Cheez Doodles, and stares at her a lot, smiling wet smiles and inviting her into his apartment to show her his "things." He's creepy and invades her life with a strange unidentifiable menace. You may feel like you should laugh when she finds Cheez Doodles in her panty drawer, but you probably won't. This story makes a hell of an impression and makes me wish Martin would focus more on horror than sci-fi, because he's got a gift for the disturbing. Read it and you'll start spotting pear-shaped men everywhere. Highly recommended.
Available in actual paper here for those who still have pride.
"The Listener" - Algernon Blackwood. A guy finally finds an apartment he can afford, but soon finds that the place is pretty disagreeable. There's a feeling to it that upsets him and he thinks he's being watched by something unseen. After several unsettling events, he finds out something really disturbing about a former tenant upstairs from him. This one chills you with atmosphere so dark it's suffocating.
There was a chance match in my pyjamas' pocket, and I struck it on the wall. The room was utterly empty. It held not even a shadow. I went quickly down to bed, cursing my wretched nerves and my foolish, vivid dreams. But as soon as ever I was asleep again, the same uncouth figure of a man crept back to my bedside, and bending over me with his immense head close to my ear, whispered repeatedly in my dreams, "I want your body; I want its covering. I'm waiting for it, and listening always." Words scarcely less foolish than the dream.
But I wonder what that queer odour was up in the square room. I noticed it again, and stronger than ever before, and it seemed to be also in my bedroom when I woke this morning.
"The Bus" - Shirley Jackson. Reading this short story will make you feel like you've just woken up from a very bad nightmare. It's surreal and the meaning is rather obscure but it'll stick in your head and bother you. An old lady (who may be going senile) is confused on a bus ride and doesn't find much sympathy from anyone around her. She's dropped off the bus in a small, unfamiliar town in the middle of the night and doesn't know what to do. She's given a room in which she encounters part of her past... and finds it wants no more to do with her than the present. Dark, dark, dark.
Far too much of Shirley Jackson's stuff is unjustifiably out of print, but you can find this story and some other essential stuff here - it's kinda pricey but more than worth it, because it also has The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived In The Castle, and a lot of other short stories, including the classic "The Lottery" and other crawling weirdnesses like "The Tooth" and "Charles" and the unbelievably-sinister "The Summer People."
"Gas Station Carnivals" - Thomas Ligotti. Memories of childhood road-trips and out-of-the-way gas-stations (always encountered at dusk) that had small carnivals beside them, in which extremely strange shows were being enacted. Ligotti somehow reaches inside your head and makes you think "Yeah, I remember those, too..." when mentioning things you've never heard of before. His stuff is always like some half-remembered dream, and this one works very well on that level.
"The Clown Puppet" - Thomas Ligotti. An unbalanced shopkeeper (who watches over a store on an obscure street in the middle of the night, where he keeps all the lights out) is troubled by "visits" from a weird puppet that sometimes appears on the edge of his vision and subjects him to all sorts of "contemptible nonsense." Very dark and dreamlike and crazy. Brilliant.
Igor's excellent post will clue you in on where to find Ligotti's stuff, all of which is recommended.
"Lot No. 249" - Arthur Conan Doyle. Classic mummy horror in which a student begins to suspect that a classmate's experimentations with an ancient Egyptian scroll has brought a mummy he keeps in his dorm room back to life. The classmate has apparently been using the mummy as an agent of revenge against anyone who's wronged him, and it's up to the student to stop his friend's madness. Doyle is effectively restrained, suggesting far more than he shows and keeping the horror in the shadows or behind locked doors, making your mind fill in all the gruesomest blanks... and it works incredibly well. Tres creepy.
"The Room In The Tower" - E. F. Benson. A man keeps having a reoccurring dream about visiting an estate and being given a room in a tower, which fills him with overwhelming dread. When the dream comes true, it's more nightmarish than he'd even dreamed. Atmosphere to burn and a pervasive sense of threatening fate, and you can't beat that last line. Chilling story that sent me on a rampage to find everything I could by E. F. Benson. "Caterpillars" is also recommended and just plain nasty.
"The Loved Dead" - C. M. Eddy. Harrowing and ahead-of-its-time nasty narrative of a necrophile, which actually saved Weird Tales from folding in 1924. The extreme morbidity of the story (which was either ghost-written by H. P. Lovecraft or heavily revised by him for his friend C. M. Eddy) upset the public enough to start boycotts, which gave the magazine a publicity uptick due to the controversy. The narrator is a very sick young man with a psychotic attraction to corpses, leading him to work in a morgue (until he's fired for being discovered sleeping on a slab with a naked cadaver in his arms). When people don't die fast enough to feed his overwhelming compulsion, he starts stalking the populace with a razor... One of the darkest and most twisted stories of the pulp era, a must-read.
This and other Lovecraft revisions available in this excellent book, without which your Lovecraft library isn't complete.
"The Hound" - H. P. Lovecraft. This isn't one of Lovecraft's most-favored stories, but the extreme morbidity of it works for me. The narrator and his sick-minded friend revel in the darkest things they can find, robbing graves for "trophies" (including mummified heads of children) which they keep in an underground charnel house and gloat over. Our ghoulish heroes dig up the horribly-gnawed corpse of a wizard and steal his amulet, which makes them the target of horrifying supernatural vengeance. Lovecraft's had better craftsmanship, but I like this one because it comes across as something you probably shouldn't be reading, and that's a great thing in a horror story.
"The Screaming Skull" - F. Marion Crawford. A man comes into possession of a skull that screams and won't stay where he put it, and it does other disturbing things, because of the terrible thing that happened to its owner. Crawford's stuff is always great. "The Upper Berth" - with its ship's stateroom full of perpetual dampness and an occupied-by-something bed - is also crucial.
"Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad" - M. R. James. Okay, I'm not being very original including this one, because it's in damn near every horror anthology ever published, but there's a reason for that - it really is that good. All of James's stuff is killer (I'm also very partial to "The Ash Tree" with its gruesome monsters and "The Tractate Midoth" with its library patron with cobwebbed eyes) but this tale of a guy finding a old whistle in some ancient ruins and then making the mistake of blowing it... man, that's spooky.
"In The Pines" - Karl Edward Wagner. The world is a horrible place just because this man's work is out of print. That's such a wrong thing that I can't even find angry enough words to express my feelings about it, so you're going to have to spend some money or do some heavy searching to find this story, but it just might be worth it. An unhappy husband staying at a mountain cabin with his wife becomes obsessed by a woman in a painting he finds in the basement, and... his obsession doesn't end well. I like all Wagner's stuff. "River Of Night's Dreaming" is also incredibly creepy and surreal. Library of America needs to give this guy a volume of his horror stuff. I'd buy it in a heartbeat.
"The Yellow Sign" by Robert W. Chambers. Gets creepier every time you read it, until you start actually fearing for your soul. A forbidden play, "The King In Yellow," has a terrible influence on all who read it, and the artist in this story -- who's troubled by a grave-worm-like man with a puffy face and a tendency to lose fingers easily -- is no exception. Scary-ass, poetically-written, works on more than one level, and hangs with you.
"The Repairer of Reputations" - Robert W. Chambers. In a future (1920's) America, which has repelled an invasion by Germany and set up suicide chambers in every town for any who want to kill themselves, a mentally ill narrator conspires with a maimed, earless mastermind who's at constant war with his cat. The world has been poisoned by an evil book called "The King In Yellow" and the narrator and his cohorts plan an apocalyptic coup de'etat that will put the earth under the mythical king's rule... but it's soon clear that the narrator is an insane megalomaniac and his perceptions cannot be trusted (or, at least, that's what we must hope). Extremely weird, paranoiac tale seething with hints of a far more frightening story under the surface which isn't being told. Relentlessly dark and powerful and off-kilter nightmare-logic tale that will make you depressed that Chambers was a lazy, silly bastard who only had two really amazing stories in him.
"The Swords" - Robert Aickman. Another guy who's unjustifiably out of print, and certain to be loved by anyone who's into Thomas Ligotti, because they dabble in the same weird waters. Aickman's stuff is so odd and its meanings so obscure, and there's still a lot I haven't read yet, so I had a hard time picking which story I'd go with. But this nightmarish tale of a timid young salesman who becomes obsessed with a girl from a carnival show, who lets people stab swords into her with no apparent injury, is a standout. When he pays for a private audience (where he can do more than just stab her), he learns that there's really something horrifyingly wrong with her. It's like something you'd dream on a very bad, feverish night. "The Stains" and "The Inner Room" are also masterpieces.
When searching for Aickman's stuff, you're best-off ordering them from Amazon.uk. You'll probably save a bit of money, even with the shipping.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" - Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Another commonly-anthologized-for-good-reason tale, this one an unnerving exploration of insanity manifested in a wallpaper pattern and a woman who creeps behind it. This is unique and powerful.
"The Companion" - Ramsey Campbell. Another guy who's worth checking out if you like Ligotti or Aickman, this is a really weird off-kilter-point-of-view story about a haunted, nervous loser who spends his vacations going to run-down fun-fairs. At one disappointing, almost-abandoned seaside carnival, he decides to ride the Ghost Train, and it's a bad move. Moody story displays Campbell's skill at getting special effects to work on paper; he can almost make you jump just reading about a stuffed bunny.
Available in paper here.
"Mujina" - Lafcadio Hearn. Super-short-short with an eerie shocker ending that I'm not even going to describe because it won't take you more than three minutes to read it if you click the link.
And there are tons of other horror short stories I'm crazy about, but that'd be the start of an anthology if I was putting one out. Many of those are already widely-anthologized so I'm not being all that original, just telling you stuff that I think is worth your time.