Way back in the 1980’s and 90’s, the horror genre was almost split in half by an argument that now seems pretty quaint and needlessly divisive. One one side of this divide were those who argued that horror works best when it is quiet, understated, and reliant on implication and suggestion. On the other side were a group who’d recently been dubbed the “splatterpunks.” These authors and filmmakers often pointed towards Clive Barker as their leading light (though Barker’s work combines elements of both types of horror), and they were determined to create horror media that went just as far as it could go in terms of explicit violence, gore, and sexuality. They often saw the other side as old-fashioned and conservative, while the “quiet horror” advocates regarded them as being shallow and dependent upon shock-value and meaningless gore.
Fortunately, the genre as a whole has moved on from this dichotomy, as authors and filmmakers have carved out their own niches and understood the “other side” can exist alongside them. Even better, some of the most interesting terrifying media has begun combining the effects of both understated and explicit story-telling. The following list focuses on the quiet, eerie, and creepy sort of stories. This branch of horror has a long lineage that includes the ambiguous genre works of Henry James, the ghost tales of M. R. James, and the stories of Shirley Jackson. Ray Bradbury’s The October Country is another classic in this field.
Here are some lesser known but amazing collections that aim to unsettle rather than shock, that work by suggestion and creepiness rather than explicit violence. These are all perfect for readers who want their Halloween more spooky than gross or soul-crushing. That said, beware: just because these stories work on the quiet side of that divide doesn’t mean they can’t freak you the hell out!
Night’s Black Agents (1947)
Leiber is perhaps best known now, by those who still remember him, as the author of a series of fantasy tales about two rogues named Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, as well as for his science fiction. He had, however, a profound effect on the horror genre, particularly through the stories collected in this book. Leiber brought a modern sensibility to his stories, replacing old castles and small towns cursed with Elder Gods with stories set in cities and other recognizable environments. His “Smoke Ghost,” collected in this book as well as any decent reprint of his shorter horror works, is a chilling story about a man haunted by a feeling of being watched as well as by the sight of ragged shape moving across the rooftops of Chicago. This story is often cited as the first real urban scary story, and it is still an effective example of eerie and subtle horror fiction.
Also included in this collection are a story about a model that touches on themes of celebrity worship and other tales that helped set the stage for authors like Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, and T. E. D. Klein. What you should really do is find a copy of his novella “Our Lady of Darkness,” a story that hit me hard when I was a teen and changed my conception of what a monster could be.
Cold Hand in Mine (1975)
In another list, I suggest Robert Aickman as a good example of surrealistic horror. His dreamlike stories will often disturb his readers despite their refusal to adhere to conventional scary story structures, ending in strange, often abrupt ways that will leave you feeling like you can almost, but not quite, grasp the shape of something he’s gesturing at. The stories in Cold Hand in Mine tend to be a little more recognizably horrific and are some of his most famous, but they still will puzzle you at the same time as leaving a haunting aftertaste.
The first, “The Swords,” is about a young man brushing up against his sexual awakening at a sideshow in a grimy circus. “The Hospice” is truly Lynchian (to be anachronistic about it), involving a guy who ends up having to stay the night at a weird hotel wherein most of the guests are chained to their dinner tables. Another favorite of mine is “The Same Dog.” Aickman won’t please everyone, but if you can appreciate unnerving, symbolic, and strange stories that combine deep character work with darkly suggestive plots, you may have found a new favorite.
The Dark Country (1982)
Etchison treads the line between quiet and more violent horror in this collection, but he usually leans into the eerie and ambiguously disturbing even when his characters do something awful. These stories are more psychological and/or science-fictional than supernatural horror, but there’s a weirdness to them that lingers. If there were such a sub-genre as Weird Noir, something creepier and less formula-bound than what is usually classified as Urban Fantasy, Etichison’s collection would be its foundational text.
The Dark Country is set on the road, at rest-stops and little diners and bars. It features lonely, often desperate people, and if the stories often end in enigmatic ways, skirting the easy answers of more traditional mysteries, that may be a reflection of the moral grey zones and spiritual disintegration these characters face.
A Nest of Nightmares (1986)
Lisa Tuttle’s long lost collection of short stories has only recently been reprinted and it’s about time. These tales primarily depend on ambiguity and slowly developing dread as her characters find the unnatural and bizarre hiding just below the surfaces of their more banal, everyday problems. In A Nest of Nightmares, almost all the protagonists are women, and the stories delve into interpersonal and emotional conflicts many male horror writers skirt, while never descending into didacticism. “Bug House” concerns a woman visiting her dying aunt and may be the most explicit story in the collection. Most of the rest either avoid explicit violence and gore, or describe them in an allusive, poetic style that makes them more haunting than terrifying.
Alone With the Horrors (1993)
Anyone reading more than one of my lists of favorites will have noticed by now the frequent appearances of British author, Ramsey Campbell. Campbell is the Master of quiet, unsettling horror, the kind of unease you get when you think you see something out of the corner of your eye and turn to find nothing there. While several of his novels are recognized classics of the field, I have noticed that his style is difficult for some readers to enjoy at novel length. I wish they and you would read his short stories, where his vision is often at its most concentrated.
I could’ve chosen any of his collections for this list, but Alone With the Horrors is an excellent gathering from his first 30 years of writing. These stories invoke a shadowy, eerie, and often surreal atmosphere while not being quite as difficult to parse as some of the others on this list. I strongly recommend “The Chimney” (a chilling Cristmas story), “In the Bag,” “Again” (a nightmare of a story), and “The Brood,” which is one of my favorite short stories period. Read him and discover why he counts Stephen King, Clive Barker, Guillermo del Toro, and a host of other genre greats amongst his fans.
Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (1994)
Joyce Carol Oates
The insanely prolific Joyce Carol Oates has released over forty short story collections. Of those I’ve read, Haunted is the stand-out from a horrific point-of-view. Oates is usually categorized as “literary fiction” (whatever the hell that means) and often overlooked as a genre writer, but the stories collected here would’ve made her reputation had she written nothing else. In two stories, she riffs on Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe, while in others she wrestles with issues of identity, gender, and lost dreams.
One of my favorites is “The Doll,” in which she pays homage to Robert Aickman’s excellent story “The Inner Room,” while ringing her own changes upon the theme of a creepy dollhouse. Another is “The Premonition,” a story so subtle and dependent upon insinuation that I love teaching it in Creative Writing classes: inevitably, a good third of the class misses the ghastly fate of an odious character. A little warning: while Oates avoids explicit gore and extreme violence, these stories often deal with topics like domestic violence and sexual assault.
Dark Water (1996)
Koji Suzuki is best known for having written the Ringu series, the first of which was made into a smash-hit movie of the same name and remade in America as the gorgeous The Ring, and which was followed by several novelistic and cinematic sequels. His collection Birthday adds to the story of Sadako Yamamura and should be read by anyone fascinated by that dark character. Suzuki is also, surprisingly, a bestselling author of books on fatherhood and parenting.
In Dark Water, we get seven stories all linked by the use of water imagery. In “Floating Water,” a young woman and her daughter move into a dilapidated apartment building and find a mystery underlying several paranormal experiences taking place there. “Dream Cruise” involves noirish elements like adultery and financially-inspired murder, but takes a turn for the supernatural. Suzuki’s novels often involve heady science-fictional metaphysics, but these stories mostly stick to ghostly and dark psychological waters.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (2002)
A legend in the horror field, Matheson wrote so many classics I can’t mention them all. I Am Legend, A Stir of Echoes, Hell House, and a good third of the original episodes of The Twilight Zone came from his typewriter. This collection of stories from his long and varied career gathers some of his strongest short work, including the titular piece based on his screenplay for the episode of The Twilight Zone that involves a man, a plane, and a mischievous gremlin.
Some other standouts include “The Distributor,” a story about a newcomer to a small town who brings havoc with him (an obvious influence on Stephen King’s underappreciated social satire/horror novel Needful Things), “Long Distance Call,” and “Prey,” which involves a creepy and all-too active doll. Some of his stories have gender politics that haven’t aged the best, but I mean… these are primarily stories from the 1950’s, so context is important. Matheson was Stephen King’s literary father, a tireless inventor of creepy situations, and reading him is a must for any student of the genre.
The Two Sams (2003)
With an introduction by Ramsey Campbell, you have a fairly good idea of the horrific territory Hirshberg occupies: subtle, ambiguous, and eerie. This author also lends an emotional depth and a realness of human relations to his creepy situations. “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” particularly stuck with me, about a professor bringing an old flame to a Halloween haunted house in an attempt at helping her out of a funk. To say there’s something off about this seasonal attraction, though, would be an understatement. “Struwwelpeter” is also set on Halloween and is like an episode of Stranger Things gone terribly wrong. You won’t find many traditional monsters in a collection by Hirshberg nor will you find gore, but you will walk away from these stories with a sense of unease and images that have imprinted themselves ever-so-delicately on your inner eye.
Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008)
John Langan is finally getting some recognition now that his historical horror novel The Fisherman is settling in as a new classic of the cosmic horror subgenre. His short stories, though, have always been excellent. They range all over the place in terms of explicitness and monstrosity, but Mr. Gaunt collects some of the quieter, spookier ones. What all of his work has in common is an obvious concern for literary qualities like multidimensional characters, carefully built plots, fine turns of phrase, and an abiding interest in both the history of the genre as well as its future.
In “Mr. Gaunt” itself, Langan explores the father-son dynamics on which he would later structure his novel House of Windows, though this story comes with a more obviously monstrous apparition. “On Skua Island” uses the story-within-a-story structure so favored by authors of early Gothic literature, this one about an archeological expedition gone wrong. Langan’s work is particularly recommended for readers who complain about the subpar writing and cliched plots that unfortunately litter the genre.