Like the previous list of my five favorite novels, I should probably qualify this as “Top 5 Horror Short Stories,” as each falls under the genre. These happen to be the stories that have affected me most as a reader–and in many cases, as a writer–and nothing gets me going more than a finely crafted horror tale.
This was a tough list to compile, since a countdown of favorite short stories (even limiting myself to just horror) could easily include dozens of works. By sticking to five I had to exclude many by Stephen King (whose “The Monkey” was my gateway drug, and almost made the cut on nostalgia alone), Edward Bryant’s “Dark Angel” (a fairly simple tale of witchcraft and revenge with an ending that blew my prepubescent mind), Jack Ketchum’s “The Rifle,” and many more.
But force me to name only five, and here’s what you get:
1. “The Night They Missed the Horror Show,” Joe R. Lansdale
Quite simply, the most horrifying story I’ve ever read. Two rednecks in 1968 Texas looking for something to do (they’ve opted out of seeing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, as they hear there’s a black man in the leading role) find themselves in an escalating nightmare when they “rescue” a black youth from a pair of goons. This shocking rejection of racism kicks like a mule, and illustrates a principle often found in the best of Jack Ketchum’s work; that no matter how wretched a human being might be, there are still some things a person shouldn’t have to go through.
I first encountered the story in Paul Sammon’s excellent anthology SPLATTERPUNKS, but it can also be found in Lansdale’s collection BY BIZARRE HANDS. There’s an audio version available from Audible.com as well. Definitely worth checking out.
2. “The River Styx Flows Upstream,” Dan Simmons
Simmons’ debut story (which put its author on the map when it beat out thousands of other entries in Twilight Zone Magazine’s first short story contest) works beautifully, a melancholy tale about a young boy whose recently deceased mother returns thanks to a mysterious deal made by his father. Simmons uses detail to breathtaking effect in what is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read, but it’s immensely rewarding.
Available in Simmons’ collection PRAYERS TO BROKEN STONES.
3. “Need,” Gary A. Braunbeck
In his excellent memoir/genre deconstruction TO EACH THEIR DARKNESS, Braunbeck discusses the literary technique of the “After the Fact” story (in which the main storyline occurs after the story’s significant events, leaving the reader to infer the major plot beats), using Jack Ketchum’s phenomenal “Gone” as an example. He then offers, for further rumination and study, his own variation on the subject, “Need.”
Like the best of Braunbeck’s work, it’s a heart-rending look at domestic dysfunction and its non-linear format carefully doles out clues before the big reveal. And what a reveal–I literally gasped, as if the air had been sucked out of my lungs. Braunbeck is one of the greatest writers working in the horror genre or any other, and “Need” is stunning proof.
4. “Red,” Richard Christian Matheson
I almost didn’t include this one, as it sort-of-but-not-quite works on the same “after the fact” level as Braunbeck’s piece. Yet the ultimate effect is unforgettable, a seemingly mundane story that becomes devastating when all the pieces are put in place. Short, swift, and brutal, it’s the literary equivalent of a drive-by shooting.
This one can also be found in the SPLATTERPUNKS anthology by Paul Sammon.
5. “Obictionary,” Michael A. Arnzen
Here’s a fun one to close things out. A literary homage to Edward Gorey, Arnzen recounts the grisly fates of children (it’s not explicitly stated they’re children, but c’mon, consider the inspiration) in alphabetical fashion. What makes this one a favorite is the wickedly clever wordplay, coupled with a deceptively cheerful tone, but it’s the sinister closing note that really does it for me.
“Obictionary” can be found in Arnzen’s excellent flash fiction collection 100 JOLTS, and as a very cool spoken-word performance on his CD AUDIOVILE.