The leaves are amassing, the skeletons are out, and enormous bags of candy fill the grocery store aisles and threaten to spill their chocolates right into your mouth, through absolutely no fault of your own. Yep, it’s officially spooky season. But if you still need some help getting into the holiday spirit (or just want to kill some
zombies time at work this week), Literary Hub is here to help, with a few of our staff’s very favorite spooky short stories—all of which are available courtesy of that lurking transient evil you know as the internet. Consider it a literary version of a scary movie marathon. Our choices range from horror to science fiction to realism, from straight-up frightening to the kind of unsettling that just sticks around the rest of the day like the smell of smoke. Spookiness, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
So without any further ado, here are 20 spooky stories that you can read online for free this week, or anytime. (For even more short story recommendations from the Literary Hub staff, check out our One Great Short Story series.) And of course, this list is not meant to be definitive, so please feel free to add your own favorites in the comments—when it comes to scaring ourselves silly, more is always more.
Ray Bradbury, “The Veldt” (Saturday Evening Post, 1950)
“George, I wish you’d look at the nursery.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know.”
“I just want you to look at it, is all, or call a psychologist in to look at it.”
“What would a psychologist want with a nursery?”
“You know very well what he’d want.” His wife paused in the middle of the kitchen and watched the stove busy humming to itself, making supper for four.
“It’s just that the nursery is different now than it was.”
“All right, let’s have a look.”
Tananarive Due, “The Wishing Pool” (Uncanny Magazine, 2021)
Joy nearly got lost on the root-knotted red dirt path off of Highway 99, losing sight of the gaps between the live oaks and Spanish moss that fanned across her hood and windows like fingertips. Driving back to her family’s cabin twenty years later reminded her that the woods had rarely been restful for her. Once, Dad had made her play outside instead of sitting on the couch with her Virginia Hamilton books, and she’d stepped in an anthill up to her shin. She howled so loudly from the vicious stinging that Dad and Mom heard her all the way from the lake, and when they reached her they expected to find her half dead. She’d never forgotten that wild, frightened look in their eyes. No, Joy did not like the woods.
Samanta Schweblin, tr. Megan McDowell, “Headlights” (2019)
When she reaches the road, Felicity understands her fate. He has not waited for her, and, as if the past were a tangible thing, she thinks she can still see the weak reddish glow of the car’s taillights fading on the horizon. In the flat darkness of the countryside, there is only disappointment, a wedding dress, and a bathroom she shouldn’t have taken so long in.
Joyce Carol Oates, “Zombie,” (The New Yorker, 1994)
My name is Q.P., and I am twenty-nine years old, three months.
I see my probation officer, Mr. T., Thursdays, 10 a.m., and my therapist, Dr. E., Mondays and Thursdays, 4:30 p.m.; my group-therapy session with Dr. B. is Tuesdays, 7-8:30 p.m.
I am a registered student at Dale County Business College, where I am enrolled in two three-credit courses for the spring semester: Introduction to Accounting and Computer Graphics.
My residence is 118 Church Street, Mount Vernon, Michigan. Which is close by the State University campus. Seven miles from Dale but no inconvenience for me, I have my van.
Mariana Enríquez, tr. Megan McDowell, “Julie,” Astra (2022)
She came from the United States straight to my house in Buenos Aires—they didn’t want her in some hotel while they looked for an apartment to rent. My gringa cousin, Julie: she’d been born in Argentina, but when she was two, her parents—my aunt and uncle—had migrated to the States. They settled in Vermont: my uncle worked at Boeing, and my aunt—my dad’s sister—birthed children, decorated the house, and secretly held spiritist meetings in her beautiful, spacious living room. Rich blond Latinos of German heritage: their neighbors didn’t really know how to place them, since they came from South America but their last name was Meyer. Even so, their firstborn’s features betrayed the infiltrated strain of Native blood that came from my Indigenous grandmother: Julie had the dark dead eyes of a rat, untamable hair always standing on end, skin the color of wet sand. I’m pretty sure my aunt even started telling people she was adopted. My dad got so mad when he heard that rumor that he stopped writing and calling his sister for at least a year.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown” (1835)
Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset, into the street of Salem village, but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife. And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap, while she called to Goodman Brown.
Nalo Hopkinson, “Left Foot, Right” (2014)
“Allyou have this in a size nine?” Jenna puts the shiny red patent shoe down on the counter. Well, it used to be shiny. She’s been wearing it everywhere, and now it’s dulled by dust. It’s the left side of a high-heeled pump, pointy-toed, with large shiny fake rhinestones decorating the toe box. Each stone is a different size and colour, in a different cheap plastic setting. The red veneer has stripped off the heel of the shoe. It curls up off the white plastic heel base in strips. Jenna’s heart clenches. It’s exactly the kind of tacky, blinged-out accessory that Zuleika loves—loved—to wear.
Robert Coover, “The Babysitter” (2014)
She arrives at 7:40, ten minutes late, but the children, Jimmy and Bitsy, are still eating supper, and their parents are not ready to go yet. From other rooms come the sounds of a baby screaming, water running, a television musical (no words: probably a dance number—patterns of gliding figures come to mind). Mrs Tucker sweeps into the kitchen, fussing with her hair, and snatches a baby bottle full of milk out of a pan of warm water, rushes out again. ‘Harry!’ she calls. ‘The babysitter’s here already!’
Kelly Link, “The Specialist’s Hat” (Event Horizon, 1998)
“When you’re Dead,” Samantha says, “you don’t have to brush your teeth.”
“When you’re Dead,” Claire says, “you live in a box, and it’s always dark, but you’re not ever afraid.”
Claire and Samantha are identical twins. Their combined age is twenty years, four months, and six days. Claire is better at being Dead than Samantha.
Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild” (1995)
My last night of childhood began with a visit home. T’Gatoi’s sister had given us two sterile eggs. T’Gatoi gave one to my mother, brother, and sisters. She insisted that I eat the other one alone. It didn’t matter. There was still enough to leave everyone feeling good. Almost everyone. My mother wouldn’t take any. She sat, watching everyone drifting and dreaming without her. Most of the time she watched me.
Brian Evenson, “Windeye” (2009)
They lived, when he was growing up, in a simple house, an old bungalow with a converted attic and sides covered in cedar shake. In the back, where an oak thrust its branches over the roof, the shake was light brown, almost honey. In the front, where the sun struck it full, it had weathered to a pale gray, like a dirty bone. There, the shingles were brittle, thinned by sun and rain, and if you were careful you could slip your fingers up behind some of them. Or at least his sister could. He was older and his fingers were thicker, so he could not.
Carmen Maria Machado, “The Husband Stitch” (Granta, 2014)
In the beginning, I know I want him before he does. This isn’t how things are done, but this is how I am going to do them. I am at a neighbour’s party with my parents, and I am seventeen. Though my father didn’t notice, I drank half a glass of white wine in the kitchen a few minutes ago, with the neighbour’s teenage daughter. Everything is soft, like a fresh oil painting.
Laird Barron, “Shiva, Open Your Eye” (Nightmare Magazine, 2013)
The human condition can be summed up in a drop of blood. Show me a teaspoon of blood and I will reveal to thee the ineffable nature of the cosmos, naked and squirming. Squirming. Funny how the truth always seems to do that when you shine a light on it.
Shirley Jackson, “The Daemon Lover” (1949)
She had not slept well; from one-thirty, when Jamie left and she went lingeringly to bed, until seven, when she at last allowed herself to get up and make coffee, she had slept fitfully, stirring awake to open her eyes and look into the half-darkness, remembering over and over, slipping again into a feverish dream. She spent almost an hour over her coffee—they were to have a real breakfast on the way—and then, unless she wanted to dress early, had nothing to do. She washed her coffee cup and made the bed, looking carefully over the clothes she planned to wear, worried unnecessarily, at the window, over whether it would be a fine day. She sat down to read, thought that she might write a letter to her sister instead, and began, in her finest handwriting, “Dearest Anne, by the time you get this I will be married. Doesn’t it sound funny? I can hardly believe it myself, but when I tell you how it happened, you’ll see it’s even stranger than that…”
Harlan Ellison, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (IF: Worlds of Science Fiction, 1967)
Limp, the body of Gorrister hung from the pink palette; unsupported—hanging high above us in the computer chamber; and it did not shiver in the chill, oily breeze that blew eternally through the main cavern. The body hung head down, attached to the underside of the palette by the sole of its right foot. It had been drained of blood through a precise incision made from ear to ear under the lantern jaw. There was no blood on the reflective surface of the metal floor.
Richard Matheson, “Button, Button” (Playboy, 1970)
The package was lying by the front door—a cube-shaped carton sealed with tape, their name and address printed by hand: “Mr. and Mrs. Aurthur Lewis, 21 7 E. Thirty-seventh Street, New York, New York 10016.” Norma picked it up, unlocked the door, and went into the apartment. It was just getting dark.
John Langan,”Renfrew’s Course” (Lightspeed, 2012)
“So this is the wizard,” Neil said.
“Supposedly,” Jim said.
Six feet tall, the statue had been carved from wood that retained most of its whiteness, even though the date cut into its base read 2005, seven years ago. Jim thought the color might be due to its not having been finished—splinters stood out from the wood’s uneven surface—but didn’t know enough about carpentry to be certain.
“Looks kind of Gandalf,” Neil said.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia, “Lacrimosa” (Nightmare Magazine, 2015)
The woman is a mound of dirt and rags pushing a squeaky shopping cart; a lump that moves steadily, slowly forward, as if dragged by an invisible tide. Her long, greasy hair hides her face but Ramon feels her staring at him.
He looks ahead. The best thing to do with the homeless mob littering Vancouver is to ignore it. Give them a buck and the beggars cling to you like barnacles.
“Have you seen my children?” the woman asks.
Angela Carter, “The Bloody Chamber” (1979)
I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.
Karen Russell, “The Prospectors” (The New Yorker, 2015)
The entire ride would take eleven minutes. That was what the boy had promised us, the boy who never showed.