Halloween isn’t the only reason we crave horror fiction this time of year. Something about autumn primes us for stories of the macabre—the crunch of leaves underfoot, the rustling winds, and the smell of things dying. I read a lot of horror fiction thanks to the work of editors like Ellen Datlow, John Joseph Adams, Ann VanderMeer, and Niall Harrison. Here are the 9 creepiest short stories I’ve read by contemporary writers that were published online in the past decade.
“Sunbleached” by Nathan Ballingrud
One of the best stories in Ballingrud’s debut collection from Small Beer Press, North American Lake Monsters, “Sunbleached” was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award in 2011. It’s one of my all-time favorite vampire stories, about a young boy in a broken family on the gulf coast who makes a deal with an injured vampire.
“How to Get Back to the Forest” by Sofia Samatar
Samatar is best-known for her fantasy novels A Stranger in Olondria and its follow-up The Winged Histories, but she can also flex her horror muscles when the mood strikes. When a short story begins with this line of dialogue—”You have to puke it up.”—you know you’re in for something creepy and weird. “How to Get Back to the Forest” also appeared in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015, edited by Joe Hill and John Joseph Adams.
“The Wilds” by Julia Elliott
The title story from Elliott’s 2014 collection is a perfect introduction to her singular brand of speculative, neo-Southern Gothic fiction. When a new family moves into the neighborhood, a young girl on the brink of womanhood is intrigued by a boy who wears a wolf mask.
“A Collapse of Horses” by Brian Evenson
The American Reader
The title track from Evenson’s latest collection is one of his most brutal explorations of the human condition. After a traumatic head injury, a man’s house (and family) keeps changing overnight. One day, he has three children. The next, he has four. To make matters worse, he comes across a paddock of horses that he can’t comprehend.
“Hello, Moto” by Nnedi Okorafor
Like Samatar, Okorafor has made a name for herself in a different genre—this time, science fiction, thanks to Lagoon and The Book of Phoenix—but her work actually spans the entire spectrum of speculative fiction. From the fantasy of Who Fears Death to the galactic horror of Binti, she refuses to be pigeonholed. “Hello, Moto” is a different kind of witch story, about power-conferring wigs. Yes…wigs.
“The Third Bear” by Jeff VanderMeer
The author of the Southern Reach trilogy, City of Saints and Madmen, and Finch is also a prolific short story writer, including this gem that was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award in 2007. It’s also the title story from his 2010 collection by Tachyon Publications. He must really like bears, given the appearance of a giant one in his next novel from FSG, Borne.
“The Game of Smash and Recovery” by Kelly Link
My favorite Kelly Link stories are the ones that literally give me goosebumps. Her latest collection, Get in Trouble, is chock-full of creepy-ass fiction, but this standalone story published as last year’s fund-drive bonus in Strange Horizons holds a special place in my dark heart. On an alien planet, a brother and sister play a special brand of hide-and-seek while they wait for their parents to return.
“Shiva, Open Your Eye” by Laird Barron
If you’ve never read a Laird Barron story, you’re probably still capable of seeing the world as a generally decent place. For the rest of us, Barron’s “carnivorous cosmos” is one of the best bodies of work by a contemporary horror writer. “Shiva, Open Your Eye” was actually Barron’s first pro sale, appearing in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 2001, and it’s the only story I’ve ever read written from the perspective of a mouth.
“Glashaus” by Madeline Gobbo and Miles Klee
“If you were to see the estate for the first time,” begins this Gothic horror tale set in a fictional, war-torn country, “dazzling like a glass-eyed beetle, poisonous in the sun, ringed with blind alley mazes and jungle spooks, you would not be surprised to hear that it frequently drove visitors to rash and wild acts.”