Whether it’s vampires or werewolves or mysterious patterns in wallpaper, writers of Gothic short stories have used all sorts of horrors and frights to chill our blood, ever since the horror short story developed in the early nineteenth century. Below, we pick ten of the very best Gothic horror tales which you can find online. None of these is a particularly long read, and they’re all classics of the genre.
1. E. T. A. Hoffmann, ‘The Sandman’.
The character of the Sandman from folklore supposedly throws sand into the eyes of children to get them to go to sleep, but Hoffmann’s creation is much more unsettling – indeed, ‘uncanny’, as Freud realised.
In Hoffmann’s tale, published in 1816, the Sandman can supposedly steal the eyes of children, at least according to Nathanael, the story’s doomed protagonist. Hoffmann’s tale features romance, death, sinister visits to children’s bedrooms, and lots of other things to keep anyone awake at night!
2. Washington Irving, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’.
Memorably filmed by Tim Burton in a 1999 adaptation that changed a number of details of Irving’s original story, this tale is, along with ‘Rip Van Winkle’, Irving’s best-known work, and was first published in 1820.
A classic American Gothic story, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is about a secluded grove (the ‘Sleepy Hollow’ of the title) in a fictional New York town, which is reportedly full of ghosts – most famously, a spectral figure known as the Headless Horseman. However, the protagonist of this American folk tale is Ichabod Crane, a schoolmaster, who has designs on a local girl whom he wishes to marry so he can acquire her father’s wealth.
These two elements – the ‘courtship plot’ and the ghostly atmosphere of Sleepy Hollow – come together in a story shot through with peculiarly American detail, making it the New World’s answer to the European tales of the Brothers Grimm. Indeed, Irving was influenced by German folk tales for both this and ‘Rip Van Winkle’, and he actually wrote the story while living in Birmingham, England.
3. Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’.
No pick of the best Gothic horror short stories would be complete without something from Poe (1809-49), who helped to pioneer the short story form (and has even been credited with introducing the term ‘short story’ itself into the language).
Many of Poe’s finest Gothic stories can be viewed as Gothic novels in miniature, and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ are prime examples. The latter of these is regularly named one of Poe’s best stories. The story combines the Gothic house, the old aristocratic family on its last legs, the idea of the dead returning to life, and various other hallmarks of classic Gothic fiction. Go and have your spine chilled with this classic tale.
4. Charles Dickens, ‘The Signal-Man’.
This 1866 story may not be Dickens’s most famous supernatural work – that mantle has to go to A Christmas Carol – but it is probably his most unsettling. A railway signalman has a series of apparitions which predict fatalities on the railway line. Dickens himself had been involved in a railway accident the year before writing the story (the Staplehurst crash of 1865), and the accident certainly left him shaken for some time afterwards.
5. Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘The Body Snatcher’.
This 1884 tale, written after Stevenson had become a huge celebrity following the success of Treasure Island a year before, features characters based on criminals who were employed by the real-life surgeon Robert Knox (1791–1862) around the time of the notorious Burke and Hare murders (1828). The story predates Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and shows his skill at creating an authentic setting against which the tale’s grisly events take place.
6. W. W. Jacobs, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’.
‘The Monkey’s Paw’ is a modern fairy tale, and indeed fairy tales and magical stories from the Arabian Nights (featuring djinn, or genies, who can grant wishes) are both mentioned by characters in the story. As in many classic fairy tales, the number three is invested with great narrative significance: there are three members of the White family, three men can use the monkey’s paw to request wishes, and each man gets three wishes.
It was first published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in September 1902 and proved instantly popular, being reprinted later that same year and adapted for the stage a year later. The story inspired similar story-lines in both The Monkees and The Simpsons.
We have analysed this classic horror story here.
7. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘Lot No. 249’.
One of the best Gothic short stories on the subject of Egyptology, this 1892 tale shows why Conan Doyle was such a master of the short-story form.
Written when ‘Egyptomania’ – European interest in all things from ancient Egypt – was at its height in late Victorian England, this tale features a reanimated mummy in what might be regarded as a riff on both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Conan Doyle’s own Sherlock Holmes stories (there is an element of mystery and suspense in the story, with the full truth only become apparent during the story’s dramatic denouement).
8. Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Mark of the Beast’.
Perhaps no pick of classic Gothic horror stories would be complete without at least one werewolf tale, or story about lycanthropy. This early story by Rudyard Kipling, written when he was still in his early twenties and living in India, is our choice. Andrew Lang called the story ‘poisonous stuff which has left an extremely disagreeable impression on my mind’, while William Sharp recommended the story be burnt as a ‘detestable piece of work’.
9. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, an 1892 short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, has the structure and style of a diary. This is in keeping with what the female narrator tells us: that she can only write down her experiences when her husband John is not around, since he has forbidden her to write until she is well again, believing it will overexcite her. Through a series of short instalments, we learn more about the narrator’s situation, and her treatment at the hands of her doctor husband and her sister-in-law.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a Gothic horror story – it ends with the husband taking an axe to the bedroom door where his cowering wife is imprisoned – but the twist is that she has imprisoned herself in her deluded belief that she is protecting her husband from the ‘creeping women’ from behind the wallpaper, and he is prepared to beat down the door with an axe out of genuine concern for his sick wife.
We have analysed this story here.
10. Algernon Blackwood, ‘The Wendigo’.
Blackwood (1869-1951) was an important figure in early twentieth-century horror fiction: among other things, he created John Silence, a doctor-cum-paranormal-detective, for a series of entertainingly weird stories.
But Blackwood’s standalone horror stories are also well worth reading. Here, we’ve selected ‘The Wendigo’ (1910), which is one of the longer short stories on this list. Set amongst the Canadian wilderness, the story is about a group of men who go camping and the mysterious disappearance – and return – of one of their group.
Most of these classic Gothic horror stories, and many others, are included in what we consider the best affordable collection of short horror fiction, Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson (Oxford World’s Classics).