I hope everyone will help me in welcoming Rob back to the spine. Rob Blackwell is the author of one of my favorite series.
I have a simple rule for what makes an excellent short story: the good ones haunt me.
I’ve read hundreds of books and even more short stories, and I’m sad to say that I don’t remember all of them. But the truly exceptional ones stick in my mind. They’re the ones I find myself thinking about time and again, sometimes years later, until eventually I break down and re-read them.
Of course, no one can make a definitive list of the best short stories for Halloween, but as a conversation starter, I’ll declare several that I think are some of the scariest, most haunting stories I’ve ever read. I encourage you to leave a comment to tell me what short stories you love.
6) “The Black Phone” by Joe Hill
I’ve never been able to look at a black phone—or black balloons—the same way after reading this story. I admit I was skeptical of Hill, knowing him only as one of Stephen King’s sons, but his exceptional collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, won me over. Like his father, Hill has a knack for scary stories mixed with pathos, humor and great characters.
Although I enjoyed all of the stories, “The Black Phone” has proven impossible to forget. It starts with a boy being taken by the Galesburg Grabber, a serial kidnapper, and doesn’t let up from there. The story is absolutely gripping. Will the boy get free? Who is the kidnapper talking to upstairs? And what’s with the strange phone in the middle of his room, the one that’s disconnected and broken, but somehow starts ringing? In just 20 pages, Hill proves to be his father’s equal in writing a story that won’t let you go.
5) “Prey” by Richard Matheson
Matheson is better known as the author of “I Am Legend,” a novella so good it’s been made into three different movies. Buried in the back of that collection, however, is a short story, “Prey,” that packs a wallop.
Amelia buys a small Indian doll, which claims to have the spirit of a hunter called “He Who Kills” trapped inside of it. But when the chain restraining the spirit falls off, Amelia finds out how deadly the little curio can be. In any other hands, this story could be “Child’s Play,” a movie about a psychotic doll that plays for laughs. But “Prey” is a chilling masterpiece as Amelia quickly realizes the thing is hunting her—and driving her insane. The ending of the story is shocking.
4) “Limbo” by Lucius Shepard
Shepard’s “Limbo” is tucked away in an anthology about ghosts called The Dark, edited by Ellen Datlow. It’s one of the strangest horror stories I’ve read, but also one of the best.
A burnt-out former mobster named Shellane takes shelter at a remote lakeside resort. Although he pledges to keep his distance from everyone, he is fascinated by Grace, the enigmatic woman he sees taking long, aimless walks. Her stories of abuse and mistreatment by her husband galvanize Shellane, but is Grace really all she seems? And how far will Shellane go to protect her? The story’s twist ending ensures that this is a story you won’t forget.
3) “Jerusalem’s Lot” by Stephen King
A prequel to the better-known “Salem’s Lot,” this short story is one of the best that Stephen King has ever written—and that’s a long list. Part of Different Seasons, one of many collections of King’s shorter works, the story is told through a series of letters and inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.
Charles Boone inherits his ancestral home in 1850 near Chapelwaite, Maine, and quickly becomes obsessed with its dark history. The people in the village think his house is cursed, and Boone’s efforts to prove them wrong uncover far darker secrets than he is prepared to face.
The coda at the end of the story, written years later by a descendent, is classic King, and hints at the same awful sequence of events occurring all over again.
2) “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe
If you haven’t read this already, you should stop what you’re doing and go read it now. If you have, you should re-read it.
Poe has many terrific tales, including “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and the poem “The Raven,” but “Amontillado” is second to none.
It’s the story of a man out for revenge on a fellow nobleman, so he lures him into a secluded wine cellar and seals him in with brick and mortar. What makes it all the more enticing is that the reader is never entirely sure why Montresor is killing Fortunato, beyond a vague reference to an insult some time earlier. Must have been some insult to bury him alive.
What works isn’t just the slow machination of impending death, but the characters themselves. Montresor is quite likeable for a cold-hearted killer, and positively cavalier in his over-the-top and grotesque scheme. Meanwhile, Fortunato is sufficiently annoying that the reader doesn’t really feel sorry for him. The result is a book where the reader almost feels complicit in the crime itself.
1) “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving
Anyone who reads my novels A Soul to Steal or Band of Demons will figure out pretty quickly just how much I love “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
It’s not just the best short story for Halloween, it is arguably one of the best short stories of all time.
While that may be a bold claim, consider this: it was originally published in 1820, but it remains just as popular now as it was then. Part of that is because it features such classic characters and vivid descriptions. The characters still seem recognizable today. Ichabod is the know-it-all school teacher, Katrina, the coquettish flirt, and Bromm, the town jock and bully.
It also features one of the best villains of all time. The concept of a headless horseman is prominent in German folklore, but Irving uses him to great effect here. In the story, he’s the ghost of a Hessian soldier searching for his head, which was removed by a cannonball. Irving writes that he rides “like a midnight blast” and terrorizes the surrounding area.
He’s also one of the few ghosts to carry a sword and a flaming pumpkin. In short, he is damn scary.
Best of all, the story never makes it clear whether he’s even real. The ending is purposely ambiguous—either a real Headless Horseman captured poor Ichabod or Bromm simply dressed up like the phantom and ran the teacher out of town. This is a great kind of ghost story because the reader can believe whatever he or she wants and debate it among friends.
Perhaps as a result, I read it every year and always enjoy it. It’s the perfect story for Halloween.
What are your favorite short stories for Halloween?
More about Rob
Rob Blackwell is the author of A Soul to Steal and its sequel Band of Demons, which prominently feature the Headless Horseman in a whole new storyline and mythology. Both have been Kindle bestsellers in Amazon’s ghost category and have been described as the “perfect read for Halloween.”
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