Constance M, A Well-Read Wanderer
7 Scary Ghost Stories to Keep You Up at Night this Halloween
Last week I posted about spooky literary-themed events to attend in-person and virtually to take your 2020 Halloween game to the next level. This week, I want to highlight some scary short stories written by classic authors (some you might not even think of as spooky writers!) to help get you in that All Hallow's Eve mood even more.
These stories can be enjoyed alone, though to really get into the Halloween spirit, why not gather your close friends or family around a hearth or campfire and read them aloud to each other? Extra s'mores to the reader with the most atmospheric voice.
"The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe
Creeping people out since 1827, nobody quite embodies the macabre like Edgar Allan Poe, and no list of Halloween stories is complete with at least one of his disturbing tales. This short story features a classic unreliable narrator who takes his family motto rather seriously: "Nemo me impune lacessit," Nobody insults me without impunity.
This is a story about cold, calculated revenge. Don't be surprised if you find it cropping up in your dreams or if you find yourself suddenly rather hesitant to enter a friend's basement.
And speaking of basements, is it any wonder Poe had such a morbid fascination with them when his Philadelphia home where he wrote this story had this for a basement?
You can read this story for free online here or by purchasing Poe's collected works, available at Bookshop (proceeds going to indie bookstores) or Amazon.
"The Birds" by Daphne du Maurier
Sure, maybe you've watched the Alfred Hitchcock film and think you know everything there is to know about "The Birds." But if you haven't read the short story that inspired it, you don't know what you're missing.
It's not just that the plot is entirely different in the story than the film. Reading "The Birds" is a vividly sensory experience unlike any other. du Maurier plunges the reader into the protagonist's every sensation... the wetness of his hands, the chill of the winter wind, the sounds of a thousand flapping wings. It's just an excellent piece of writing that'll give you the goosebumps in all the best ways.
And if you thought "Winter is coming" came from Game of Thrones, think again:
Perhaps, thought Nat, a message comes to the birds in autumn, like a warning. Winter is coming. Many of them will perish. And like people who, apprehensive of death before their time, drive themselves to work or folly, the birds do likewise; tomorrow we shall die.
You can read "The Birds" for free online here, or purchase a book of her spooky short stories, Don't Look Now.
"The Phantom Coach" by Amelia Edwards
Ghost stories and gothic novels were all the rage in Victorian England. If you want to read a quintessential Victorian era ghost tale, start with this 1864 story by Amelia Edwards. It's full of all the crucial elements: exaggerated horror, dramatic prose, and lots of foreshadowing.
In the story, an Englishman hunting alone finds himself lost in the eery English moors with both night and a snowstorm moving in. The story follows his wanderings, desperate to get home to his wife lest she worry about him. But as he should know, in a Victorian ghost story, there's no creepier place to be than a deserted moor, and accepting a ride from a passing coach might be an instinct to second guess.
"This coach," I said, "is in a deplorable condition. The regular mail, I suppose, is under repair?"
He moved his head slowly, and looked me in the face, without speaking a word. I shall never forget that look while I live. I turned cold at heart under it. I turn cold at heart even now when I recall it. His eyes glowed with a fiery unnatural lustre. His face was livid as the face of a corpse. His bloodless lips were drawn back as if in the agony of death, and showed the gleaming teeth between.
The words that I was about to utter died upon my lips, and a strange horror -- a dreadful horror -- came upon me.
You can read "The Phantom Coach" for free online here or purchase this collection of
Victorian ghost stories.
"A Haunted House" by Virginia Woolf
Only about two pages long, "A Haunted House" is a relatively quick read, but one best digested slowly, even reread a few times to capture all of its layered meanings. It tells the tale of a couple living in a home haunted by the ghosts of a couple who once lived there but have since passed on.
"Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting," it begins.
Though the narrator never actually see the ghosts, the house is full of their presence. It manages to be both unsettling and peaceful, as the ghosts, rather than bearing any ill will toward the home's living occupants, merely wish to recapture the feeling of being alive. Still, you'll never hear a door creak again without wondering if it's a ghost coming by for a visit.
You can read this very short story for free online here. It also appears in Virginia Woolf's short story collection, Monday or Tuesday. Buy it at Bookshop and support indie bookstores or here at Amazon.
"The Black Cat" by Edgar Allan Poe
One of Poe's lesser known stories (but among the most disturbing), "The Black Cat" is a Jungian nightmare. Poe plunges you into the psychological horror of the narrator, a naturally
gentle man whose excessive drinking leads him into cycles of violence, shame, and more gruesome violence.
Without giving too much away (it's best read with fresh eyes and no spoilers), this story takes us back to the cellar. The dreaded, creepy, infamous cellar. Yep, you guessed it... this is another story Poe wrote while living in Philadelphia, in a home that might win a "creepiest basement in the world" award).
You can read this story online for free here. Or, find "The Black Cat" and other spooky tales to keep you up at night in the following collection. Finally, my personal favorite: purchase the short story in a coloring book form, and color in black cats as you read this classic horror tale.
"I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" by Emily Dickinson
Alright, it's technically a poem, but it's worth including, because it's sure to unsettle you a bit. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to attend your own funeral, perhaps from the inside of the casket while still alive, then this is the poem for you. If you haven't, well, you're about to be plunged into what that would feel like when you read this short, rhythmic poem.
Although Emily Dickinson is not known for being a writer of scary strories, she certainly suffered from mental illness, (likely agoraphobia and possibly bipolar), and occasionally tapped into her darker side in writing.
You can read this poem for free below or check out a collection of her works on Bookshop or Amazon below.
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum -
Kept beating - beating - till I thought
My mind was going numb -
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space - began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here -
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then -
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is an absolutely classic ghost story, and for good reason. Washington Irving is considered by some to be America's first author, not because he was the first one to write, but because he was the first to gain international fame for writing, in part due to this spooky tale.
Longer than the other stories on this list, it's really more of a novella, but shouldn't take more than an hour to get through.
Tip from one reader to another: don't give up on it. The bulk of the story is spent describing the seemingly un-scary narrator's background and modest present circumstances, but the big, thrilling payoff is all in the ending.
You can purchase this novella and re-read it every October at Bookshop (for $3.67!) or Amazon.
I hope you found something in this list of seven ghost stories to excite your fancy and put you in the mood for All Hallow's Eve.
Tell me, what's your favorite spooky story?
Pin this and come back to it when you're read to read!