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What to Read Next: Classic Halloween Short Stuff
Issue #299: featuring Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, and Edgar Allan Poe
Happy Friday the 13th, readers!
In this week’s discussion thread that asked about your favorite spooky reads, I was happy to see a lot of folks advocating for short stories and novellas. In general, short stories don’t do a whole lot for me. For some reason, though, I rather enjoy them when they fall into the horror/gothic category. Creating a believable aura of tension and fear with a smaller canvas than a full-sized novel is always especially impressive to me.
So this week I’m highlighting a few of my favorite Halloween shorts on this most appropriate day.
I wrapped up Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy this week — you’ll hear about that one in next week’s newsletter. Next up I’ll be reading Ada Ferrer’s Cuba, which won the 2022 prize in the history category. I decided I’m going to alternate older titles with newer titles; that mix of modern and classic writing styles will help keep me engaged a bit better than if I try to read a bunch of old stuff in a row.
The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock.”
Published: 1949 | Pages: 235 | Genre: Fiction (Horror)
Shirley Jackson’s brand of fear is almost always a disquieting combination of the domestic and the psychological. “The Lottery” is by far her best-known story — it’s in fact one of the most famous stories in all of American literature. When it was first published in 1948 in The New Yorker, Jackson’s tale of an idyllic community’s annual lottery — with a sinister twist — wasn’t received well. The magazine collected more mail about that story than any other piece of fiction in its history, the vast majority of it negative.
Today, it’s considered an all-time classic. The beauty of the story is its relatability; we can see ourselves in every villager, placidly and unthinkingly going along with the day’s horrible task.
“The Lottery” was also included with 24 other Jackson stories in the 1949 collection The Lottery and Other Stories. They aren’t all winners, in my opinion, but there are a handful of standouts that make the collection worth reading.
Shirley Jackson’s stories make you squirm in their discomfort; there are no jump-scares, just domestic observations taken to believable extremes. She absolutely deserves to be considered for any list of great American writers.
The Mist by Stephen King
“There are things of such darkness and horror — just, I suppose, as there are things of such great beauty — that they will not fit through the puny human doors of perception.”
Published: 1980 | Pages: 150 | Genre: Fiction (Horror)
The Mist is one of Stephen King’s most memorable stories. It hits on all the themes he’s best known for: small rural communities, primal fear, mob mentality, dangerous religious zeal, and a bit of good old-fashioned weirdness.
I’ve listened to this one once (excellently narrated by Will Patton) and read it multiple times and I appreciate it more each time. King takes something seemingly normal and innocent — a simple foggy morning — and turns it utterly sinister. From this mist emerges a succession of scarier and scarier alien creatures, while a crowd trapped inside a grocery store plots their way out.
It’s scary on multiple levels, psychologically astute, and overall just a rip-roaring good read. Stephen King has written a lot of stories/novellas — The Mist is among my favorite.
“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”
Published: 1849 | Pages: 821 | Genre: Fiction (Gothic/Horror)
While Edgar Allan Poe is primarily associated with the macabre, he dabbled in numerous genres. Undoubtedly, it’s his three detective stories that should get a lot more attention. In addition to Poe’s tales of horror, they make for great October reading:
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
“The Mystery of Marie Roget”
“The Purloined Letter”
Poe is usually credited with creating the modern detective story — a fact that even Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) acknowledged. In Poe’s tales, armchair sleuth C. Auguste Dupin uses his powers of observation and pure deduction to unravel the mysteries that Parisian police haven’t been able to figure out. As a reader, you can’t quite follow Dupin’s line of thought in its entirety (and neither can the stories’ narrator), but as with the Holmes mysteries, it all pays off at the end.
Of course, Poe’s macabre stories and poems are also worth reading. My favorites:
“The Tell-Tale Heart” — Poe’s finest, in my opinion. The writing in this story has an irresistible manic energy.
“The Masque of the Red Death” — A touch odd, but with a killer ending. Hits a little too close to home, perhaps, immediately after a global pandemic.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” — I didn’t love the ending, but the rest of the story is delightfully unsettling.
“The Cask of Amontillado” — Revenge, wine, a dank cellar, and a couple of sloppy old drunks. Could it get more fun?
“The Black Cat” — Shares some themes with “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but in a most disturbing package. Don’t read this if you’re into cats.
“The Raven” — Poe’s most famous work, for good reason.
These can all be read online for free and they’re all rather short. While shared themes and tone are evident, the style remains unique to each tale, which makes it all the more incredible that they were penned by one man.
As one of the most consequential and influential authors in the American canon, it’s worth taking some time to read his stuff.
That’s it from me this week. Thanks so much for reading — I deeply appreciate the time and inbox space.