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It’s the best time of the year, the season for jumping headfirst into our spooky era. Horror short fiction is great for any season, but it hits just right during the fall, especially with Halloween around the corner. As a lifelong Midwesterner, there’s an electric feeling to reading scary stories as the foliage turns, when the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as the autumnal chill sets in.
2023 has been a hell of a great year for horror stories. Some of my favorite short story collections releasing this year embrace horror and dark fiction, including Premee Mohamed’s No One Will Come Back For Us and Suzan Palumbo’s forthcoming Skin Thief. Some of my favorite 2023 short stories make me want to throw my computer against the wall and hide under the covers (but in a good way, I swear). As we settle into the beginning of the Halloween season, I want to share some of my favorite spooky shorts with you. I included a wide-ranging, eclectic bunch spanning all genres because horror can be present in any and all genres. I also wanted to focus on stories that were published and available online this year.
This roundup of Halloween short fiction includes stories that are deliciously unsettling, genre-bending, deeply emotional, and even humorous. Grab a mug of your comfiest beverage, and turn the lights low enough that you can still read the words on the page or screen. Tuck a blanket under your chin, and prepare yourself: here, there be monsters, even if the monsters are ourselves.
Halloween Short Fiction Roundup
“River Bargain Baby” by K.S. Walker from Apex Magazine, Issue 135
“There’s that other saying: What the river takes, the river keeps. What the Dequindre gives back is a curse indeed.”
Oh my goodness, this story is so good. It has brilliant, magnetic prose and that perfect creepy feeling. The Dequindre grants a mother the child she’s always wanted and indeed begged for, but at a cost. Now that the child is grown, the Dequindre has a plan. This is why you don’t bargain with entities beyond our reach. This story boils down to that timeless saying: be very careful what you wish for.
“Shark Facts My Grandma Told Me” by Lindz McLeod and Sage Tyrtle from Icebreakers Lit
“Grandma shoots words from her bullet-mouth. ‘Get. In. The. Pool.’”
For everyone who feared, as a child, that sharks might find their way into neighborhood or backyard swimming pools, waiting in the depths, get ready. Just summarizing it in my head makes me go “WTF” (but again, in a good way!). A child’s grandmother continues a dangerous ritual of kill-or-be-killed in her backyard pool. This story is a masterclass in thriller writing — mounting tension, unabashed horror, and a killer twist at the end.
“Window Boy” by Thomas Ha from Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 203
“The window boy showed up, just like all the other times.”
This story is a perfect example of sci-fi horror and the terrors of a post-apocalyptic world that’s become hell for everyone who doesn’t have the luxury of being safely buried. There are such haunting images in this story. A young boy, Jakey, checks the parlor window each night after his parents go to bed and speaks to the window boy who lives outside. He feeds the boy and talks to him, but as time passes, the conversations become more sinister and desperate.
“The Rafters” by Gina Thayer from HAD
“Up in the rafters we kept things.
You’ll note, of course, that I speak in past tense.”
For those seeking a very quick read, I give you this haunting whisper of a story. Thayer crafts a brilliant flash, unearthing chilling details, creating tension by what is (or isn’t) in the rafters of this unnamed narrator’s house…and what is left to the imagination. HAD is a great publication for finding flash fiction, flash creative nonfiction, and poetry to read between the chaotic moments of life.
“The Dizzy Room” by Kristina Ten from Nightmare Magazine, Issue 126
“Something in Dizzy Game’s software caused it to upgrade automatically, so it never ran out of levels. Not that I’d call what it had ‘levels,’ exactly. What I mean is that it didn’t have an end.”
Give me more video game horror! This has that *chef’s kiss* mix of nostalgia and mounting dread, all exquisitely told in a coming-of-age tale about language and finding/losing one’s self in a video game. This is a story that explores all the senses, from the heat emanating from an old computer to the sensory and grotesque images and sounds the game presents (there are images of the Dizzy Game that will haunt me forever). Kristina Ten is a sorceress of the unsettling; definitely put all of her work on your TBR.
“Interstate Mohinis” by M.L. Krishnan from Diabolical Plots #100B
“I was irritated. I had just eaten a middle-aged auditor in a safari suit; a tuft of a man with an unnaturally distended face.”
Readers searching for a vengeful ghost story need look no further. I devoured this tale of feeding and longing, wading into Krishnan’s signature sensual and visceral prose. A spirit who died in flame and metal now haunts the highway corridor and feeds upon men. At the Sri Annai Fancy Store, the spirit discovers a woman she calls The Beautiful One. This is a story of gender-based violence, of meeting violence with violence, and a haunting and glorious ending of appetites.
“From the Journal of Sawyer L. Gibbs, Hero, Aged 13 ½” by Premee Mohamed from Small Wonders, Issue 0
“You’re supposed to come get me. That’s how the world works. Always. But especially when everything is falling apart.”
This story of an apocalyptic event told through the lens of a teenager is the perfect mix of action, horror, humor, and heartbreak. Sawyer writes in his journal about when he and his classmates witnessed the Babbler, a huge monster that attacks skyscrapers and shakes people into its mouths, for the first time. All the while, Sawyer hopes — and waits — for his Dad to come and get him. While overall humorous in tone, there is a layer of deep emotion and fear that threads throughout; as children, and indeed all throughout our lives, how many of us hope that when the time comes, our parents will come to save us?
“Undog” by EUGENIA TRIANTAFYLLOU from Strange Horizons, the May 15, 2023, issue
“There’s a dog in this house. A not-quite-a-dog. An undog.”
For those looking for a tad more cozy with their creepy, I give you a story about a very good undead boi, 10/10 cute and creepy. Anna moves into a new house and soon realizes an undog is there with her. Anna and the undog orbit each other, coming closer and closer as the story progresses. Triantafyllou weaves a delightfully creepy tale while also exploring the toxicity of family members paired with the yearning for true connection and care.
“Braid Me a Howling Tongue” by Maria Dong from Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 152
“I’m thrown through a doorway into a room full of girls.“
While not outright horror, there are many horrors in this dark fantasy. A young woman is captured, her people slain, and is now a prisoner in an enclosed camp made to weave. She cannot understand the language most prisoners speak, and she is called Not Do by the other women. Each fifth day, Not Do and the other prisoners are forced to participate in two unspeakable horrors: a fertility ceremony and a hunt. This story is gut-wrenching and bleak, yet the glimmer of hope persists. This novelette then blossoms into an epic, heart-pounding tale of love and survival.
Doors to More Halloween Short Fiction
Hopefully, this list will get you into the Halloween spirit. I received some amazing recommendations via social media on stories to include, and I am so grateful for everyone’s input. Alas, I would have loved to include pages and pages of stories, but what is time, and what are deadlines?
If you’re looking for more Halloween short fiction, I highly recommend exploring and purchasing the magazines in which these stories appear. In addition to the above list, The Deadlands, Weird Horror, FIYAH, khōréō, Baffling Magazine, among many others, offer stories across genres, and they need your readership. This is a hard time for literary magazines, so any support and/or views you can give is a gift.
Along that note, I highly recommend anthologies and short story collections as portals to more creepy, unsettling stories, from the recent Book of Witches edited by Jonathan Strahan, with a stacked table of contents of talent, to the upcoming anthology Christmas and Other Horrors edited by Ellen Datlow (yes, it’s Christmas-themed but still full of scares, believe me).
For more Book Riot articles to get you into the creepy vibes, check out these winners: