‘The night is chill; the forest bare;‘Christabel’ (1816) ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?
There is not wind enough in th eair
To move away the ringlet curl
From the lovely lady’s cheek—
There is not wind enough to twirl
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.’
What is it about spooky tales that we love so much? Why do you insist on telling stories of spectral figures and blood-sucking monsters around the fire at night—when all shadows seem to shift and move whenever we aren’t looking? Is it to prove that we are braver than we give ourselves credit for? To be able to lay our heads down that night and wake without dreams haunted by the stories of the supernatural. Is it to frighten others into obedience? Little boys and girls the world over obeying their parents so as not to become dinner to the hungry wolf? Or do we seek out these stories to better understand ourselves and the world around us? To give us hope that death is not the end—no matter how twisted the alternative may be.
Regardless of the reasons, we all relish in a spooky story from time to time—to feel our blood quicken and our hearts race—to remind ourselves that we are alive.
Michael Newton claims that ‘ghost stories must need be brief, because their effect is so tentative, so tenuous, their enchantment so fragile.’ It is true that the more time spent with any particular ghost story the more acclimatised one becomes and therefore the more sympathetic and/or aware we become of the thing meant to frighten us to the point where its power over us is significantly diminished.
Below I have collected eleven short stories that are available online for free in one form or another. You may wonder why eleven? Why not round it out to a tidy ten? To which my only response can be, why not eleven? And if this odd number is upsetting to you, consider it a preview of how you’re likely to feel by the end of this list.
These short stories each range in length, themes and level of unsettling, from the werewolf hunted and kept from her lover, to a mysterious chest containing a horror like no other, to the notorious headless rider of Sleepy Hollow, there is something for everyone. If for whatever reason you don’t find something to your liking (or rather uneasiness) I welcome your suggestions, but in the meantime, these will have to do.
Eleven Spooky Short Stories
‘Eena’ by Manly banister – Here!
A young albino she-wolf begins regularly visiting a man at his cabin in the woods who discovers she is different to the other wolves, more intelligent, curious, with an unusual presence of mind. One day she visits him in the form of a young woman, though she does not tell him what she is and the wolf-hunters are searching for her.
‘Eena’ first appeared in the 1947 edition of Weird Tales magazine and is thought to be one of the inspirations for some of Angela Carter’s short stories involving wolves and women. ‘Eena’ is a modern fairy tale that reimagines the werewolf from a curse over man to a sexual liberation for woman.
‘Carmilla’ by Sheridan Le Fanu – Here!
In an isolated castle deep in the Austrian forest, Laura leads a solitary life with only her ailing father for company. Until one moonlit night, a horse-drawn carriage crashes into view, carrying an unexpected guest—the beautiful Carmilla. So begins a feverish friendship between Laura and her mysterious, entrancing companion.
But as Carmilla becomes increasingly strange and volatile, prone to eerie nocturnal wanderings, Laura finds herself tormented by nightmares and growing weaker by the day… Pre-dating Dracula by twenty-six years, Carmilla is the original vampire story, steeped in sexual tension and gothic romance.
‘The Willows’ by Algernon Blackwood – Here!
Two friends are midway on a canoe trip down the Danube River. Throughout the story, Blackwood personifies the surrounding environment—river, sun, wind—and imbues them with a powerful and ultimately threatening character. Most ominous are the masses of dense, desultory, menacing willows, which “moved of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable method, my own keen sense of the horrible.”
‘The Willows’ is one of Algernon Blackwood’s best known short stories. American horror author H.P. Lovecraft considered it to be the finest supernatural tale in English literature. ‘The Willows’ is an example of early modern horror and is connected within the literary tradition of weird fiction.
‘The Vampyre’ by John William Polidori – Here!
A young English gentleman of means, Aubrey is immediately intrigued by Lord Ruthven, the mysterious newcomer among society’s elite. His unknown origin and curious behaviour tantalises Aubrey’s imagination. But the young man soon discovers a sinister character hidden behind his new friend’s glamorous facade.
When the two are set upon by bandits while travelling together in Europe, Ruthven is fatally injured. Before drawing his last breath, he makes the odd request that Aubrey keep his death and crimes secret for a year and a day. But when Ruthven resurfaces in London—making overtures toward Aubrey’s sister—Aubrey realizes this immortal fiend is a vampyre.
John William Polidori’s The Vampyre is both a classic tale of gothic horror and the progenitor of the modern romantic vampire myth that has been fodder for artists ranging from Anne Rice to Alan Ball to Francis Ford Coppola. Originally published in 1819, many decades before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and misattributed to Polidori’s friend Lord Byron, The Vampyre has kept readers up at night for nearly two hundred years.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – Here!
A journal of the descent into madness of a woman suffering from a ”temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency.” Hints throughout the story suggest the woman’s problem is the recent birth of her child, insinuating postpartum depression. Confined in an upstairs room to recuperate by her well-meaning but dictatorial and oblivious husband, the yellow wallpaper in the room becomes the focal point of her growing insanity.
Best known for the 1892 title story of this collection, a harrowing tale of a woman’s descent into madness, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote more than 200 other short stories with harrowing feminist qualities.
‘A : B : O’ by Walter De La Mare (audio) – Here!
Mr Pelluther receives a letter summoning him to his friend’s house that evening. When the man arrives he and his friend behold a sealed and ancient-looking chest. Together they open it and inside they find a hideous deformed body and immediately close up the chest and agree never to open it again. But when Mr Pelluther goes back home things are not as they once were and he soon discovers his friend had once again opened the chest…
‘A : B : O’ is a short story by Walter de la Mare, written under the pen name, Walter Ramal. The story first appeared in The Cornhill Magazine in the late 1890s. It tells of the discovery and excavation of a strange, metallic chest.
‘The Dunwich Horror’ by H. P. Lovecraft (audio) – Here!
The story of Wilbur Whateley, son of a deformed albino mother and an unknown father, and the strange events surrounding his birth and precocious development. Wilbur matures at an abnormal rate, reaching manhood within a decade—all the while indoctrinating him into dark rituals and witchcraft by his grandfather.
A lovecraftian horror that perfectly encapsulates his unique style of horror and the perils of allowing evil to be summoned and roam free in our world.
‘What Was It?’ by Fitz-James O’Brien – Here!
The story is told to us by Harry, a mysterious, nervous narrator of the Poe variety: an intellectual bohemian with a penchant for opium use and heady conversations in the wee hours of the morning. In a new building with various tenants and other bohemians, Harry finds himself wrestling with an invisible assailant one night after smoking opium and telling ghost stories. The other tenants are quick to dismiss his tale as a vision from the drug when they soon realises he’s holding something very tangible indeed.
‘The universe that O’Brien paints is one of intangible mysteries – dark, unyielding, and barren of compromise. Filled with cosmic wonder and existential alarm, his evocative prose hints that mysteries (such as the origins of the Enigma) are not capable of being elucidated, and that they merely hint at a wild cosmos of un-tethered power which has so far avoided congress with humanity through mere chance, but which may at any moment pour into our unwitting lives—falling into our beds at night.’ – M. Grant Kellermeyer
‘Goblin Market; by Christina Rossetti (poem) – Here!
“Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy…
Experience the temptation, pleasure, punishment, and redemption of Christina Rossetti’s brilliant poetic masterpiece. First published in 1862, the work is the phantasmagoric tale of two maidens seduced by lewd goblin men, and it provides a startling glimpse into the depths of the Victorian psyche. For children, the story offers a captivating adventure into a land of fantasy. For adults, it’s a lyrical and sensual allegory of temptation, sacrifice, and salvation.
‘The Birthmark’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne – Here!
The main character is a great scientist and lover of nature with a beautiful wife whom he loves dearly. However, despite the love Aylmer has for his wife, he wonders whether the birthmark she has on her cheek can be removed.
A gothic story of scientific discovery and experimentation that will leave you questioning how far one is willing to go for love—or rather love of science.
‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ by Washingtong Irving – Here!
Ichabod Crane, a schoolteacher, came to Tarry Town in the glen of Sleepy Hollow to ply his trade in educating young minds. He was a gullible and excitable fellow, often so terrified by locals’ stories of ghosts that he would hurry through the woods on his way home, singing to keep from hysterics. Until late one night, he finds that maybe they’re not just stories. What is that dark, menacing figure riding behind him on a horse? And what does it have in its hands? And why wasn’t schoolteacher Crane ever seen in Sleepy Hollow again?
A Halloween classic that is simply a must-read for all spooky readers and lovers of All Hallow’s Eve.
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