We’re all familiar with speculative fiction short stories that instill a keen sense of dread in our hearts. When we think of classic horror stories, we might throw our minds to Frankenstein, Dracula, or other Gothic terrors.
But there are many more stories out there that leave readers huddled under their covers, sleeping with the lights on.
As far as spooky speculative fiction short stories go, you might be familiar with the big ones. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, and Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart” all ring a bell.
But from deep in the annals of long-gone spec fic magazines, there come new contenders for the throne of horror.
Keep reading, if you dare…
Mop-Head by Leah Bodine Drake
“Mop-Head” was first published in the January 1954 issue of Weird Tales. It was later included in various anthologies, the most recent being the Weird Tales Super Pack #1, released in 2018.
This horror short story is set in the open fields of Kentucky, where the Loveless children Dorothy and Harry Todd mourn the loss of their mother, Reba.
But alas! All is not lost; they have a friend in Mop-Head. He’s their confidante and saving grace, their only hope of seeing their real mother again.
Things get creepy as the mysterious amalgamated Mop-Head climbs from his old well, his sole purpose to fulfill his promise to the young Loveless children.
Drake’s style dribbles unsettling imagery throughout the whole story. Take, for example, the line: “From darkness and silence and damp, out of earth-mold and wet leaves and blown dandelions, of scum and spiders’ legs and ants’ mandibles and the brittle bones of moles, it formed a shape and a sentience.”
The slow buildup of horrifying imagery is what makes this story interesting, and the quick resolution in the end reassures us that everything will be alright.
Do take this story with a grain of salt. Written nearly 70 years ago, the dialect of the African American characters reads like Mark Twain, and was a bit off-putting.
Here’s a reading of “Mop-Head” by my friend Douglas Gwilym.
“Miriam” by Truman Capote
“Miriam” first appeared in the June 1945 issue of Mademoiselle magazine, and was one of Truman Capote’s very first short stories.
Unlike “Mop-Head”, there are no abysmal horrors to be found here. Instead, a mysterious little girl, Miriam, seemingly haunts an old woman named Mrs. Miller.
Capote’s sense for setting is unmatched, and he instills a cold, creepy tone into a once harmless story with this line: “Within the last hour the weather had turned cold again; like blurred lenses, winter clouds cast a shade over the sun, and the skeleton of an early dusk colored the sky.”
“Miriam” reminds me of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, but with far less of a clear answer as to what’s happening. There are many interpretations of “Miriam” and all of them are equally as creepy. This story definitely fits the bill as a spooky speculative fiction short story.
“Spider Mansion” by Fritz Leiber
“Spider Mansion” was originally published in the September 1942 issue of Weird Tales. It comes from one of the founding fathers of sword and sorcery, Fritz Leiber.
The story starts of like all classic horror stories do, at an ancient mansion in the midst of a thunderstorm. Tom and Helen Egan call upon their old friend Malcolm Orne. They are much surprised when they’re greeted by a seven-foot giant instead of the three-foot tall Malcolm they used to know.
“Spider Mansion” operates on the fringes of science fiction, but right in the middle of horror. As the name suggest, there’s no lack of creepy crawlies in this speculative fiction short story.
And like “Mop-Head”, it should be read with a grain of salt. The slight racism of Malcolm’s character makes him that much more deplorable.
“The Portrait” by Nikolai Gogol
This is by far the oldest speculative fiction story on this list, and it falls in line with more Gothic, classic literature.
“The Portrait” by the Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol was first seen in Arabesques, a short story collection published in 1835.
The story follows the rise and fall of a young artist, Andrey Petrovich Chartkov, known in the story as Tchartkoff. He purchases an eerie painting of an old man with his last few coins, but is pleasantly surprised when the portrait produces a vast sum of money, seemingly from thin air.
This story is a real slow-burner, and a bit long-winded at times, but the imagery, especially in the first few scenes, is incredibly profound.
Even in 1835, people where frightened of moving eyeballs in portraits!
You can read the full story here.
A Microfiction: “Active Imagination” by Michelle Wilson
While doing some casual reading on the web, I came across this microfiction piece by Michelle Wilson, published on 50-Word Stories.
It’s weird, and takes a turn at the end I never expected. But I like it, and maybe you will too.
Hopefully these spooky stories send a shiver down your spine, I know they certainly did for me. May you all have a hauntingly swell Halloween!