From ghost stories to chilling horror tales to short retellings of classic fairy tales, the short story form has often been at home to the supernatural. Below, we select and introduce ten of the very best short stories which feature some supernatural element: a ghost, a magical talisman, a werewolf, or some other fantastical or supernatural creature or feature.
E. T. A. Hoffmann, ‘The Golden Pot’.
Before Edgar Allan Poe, there was Hoffmann (1776-1822), who was an even earlier pioneer of the short story form as well as an influential early writer of what we now call fantasy literature. He was associated with the Romantic movement, and Hoffmann’s work shows a fascination with the romance and folklore surrounding such things as toys which come to life, witches who can grant wishes, and other ‘fantastical’ things.
And although he is probably best-known for writing the story which Tchaikovsky turned into The Nutcracker and for penning ‘The Sandman’ (creepy Gothic horror classic), ‘The Golden Pot’ may be his best story.
‘The Golden Pot’ is about a student, Anselmus, who inadvertently offends a witch one day; the witch sets about trying to destroy his life using all manner of supernatural tricks and scare tactics, but Anselmus has a guardian-spirit (who takes the form of a serpent) to watch over him. What ensues is an enchanting fantasy story, a quest of sorts, which sees Anselmus trying to overcome his nemesis and fall in love with the female spirit who is devoted to protecting him.
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, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is, along with ‘Rip Van Winkle’, Irving’s best-known work.
First published in 1820, the story is variously regarded as a Gothic tale and a modern folk story about the early history of the United States of America. One night, the schoolmaster Ichabod Crane attends a harvest party and listens to ghostly legends told by a man named Brom Bones. Crane fails to win his sweetheart’s hand in marriage and rides home, his superstitious imagination working overtime following the ghostly accounts he had heard at the party. While undertaking this journey, he encounters what appears to be the ghostly headless horseman …
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’.
One of Poe’s best-known stories, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is an 1839 short story by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), a pioneer of the short story and a writer who arguably unleashed the full psychological potential of the Gothic horror genre.
The story concerns the narrator’s visit to a strange mansion owned by his childhood friend, who is behaving increasingly oddly as he and his twin sister dwell within the ‘melancholy’ atmosphere of the house. Premature burial, unhealthy sibling relationships, and a general Gothic mood make this one of Poe’s most successful tales of the macabre.
Henry James, ‘The Turn of the Screw’.
This 1898 novella is one of James’s longer tales – longer even than ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ but it falls short of being a full novel, so we feel its inclusion on this list of James’s best stories is justified. The story takes the form of a ‘found’ manuscript, which is shared to some friends around the fire; the manuscript is written by a governess at a house, Bly, and details her growing awareness of something mysterious at the house, surrounding the two children in her care.
Is the governess a witness to the ghosts of some former workers at the house and their grisly past? Or is she highly suggestible, and everything she ‘sees’ is a product of her disordered mind? As ever, Henry James offers us a tale full of ambiguity – and this is one of the great examples of the ‘ambiguous ghost story’, as well as one of James’s finest tales.
M. R. James, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’.
Another man named ‘James’ made his mark on the ghost story at the end of the nineteenth century: the English antiquarian and writer Montague Rhodes James, known as M. R. James. Perhaps the most quintessentially Jamesian story of them all, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ was memorably adapted by the late Jonathan Miller in the 1960s, with Michael Hordern turning in a brilliantly understated performance.
The tale, which is named after a 1793 poem of the same name by Robert Burns, concerns Parkins, a Cambridge professor who is on holiday on the Suffolk coast. The Jamesian object which triggers an outbreak of haunting in this story is a bronze whistle which the protagonist stumbles upon while investigating a preceptory that belonged to the Knights Templar. Parkins will wish he had never disturbed that whistle, much less blown on it …
W. W. Jacobs, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’.
‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by W. W. Jacobs (1863-1943) is a miniature classic of the horror genre. In just ten pages, Jacobs provides suspense, a building sense of menace, and real drama, as well as bringing in such themes as family tragedy and the problems with imperialism. Mainly, though, it’s a classic tale of three wishes, which has been parodied and retold many times since (including in The Simpsons).
One cold winter’s night, an elderly man, Mr White, is at home with his wife and his son, the latter of whom is playing chess with him. A sergeant-major named Morris shows up, and tells the White family of his experiences serving in the British Army in India. He then shows them a talisman he has on him: a mummified monkey’s paw, which an Indian fakir or holy man placed a spell upon, allowing three separate men each to ask three wishes of the monkey’s paw …
Saki, real name Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), was a master of the very short story, and as well as penning dozens of witty Edwardian short stories consisting of just a few pages, he also left us several short horror fiction masterpieces, of which ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ (1909) is probably the most famous and widely studied.
The story, about a teenage boy who transforms into a werewolf and preys on small children, manages to appal and unsettle in just five pages of masterly storytelling. It is also wickedly funny.
Virginia Woolf, ‘A Haunted House’.
‘A Haunted House’, by Virginia Woolf, both is and is not a ghost story. In less than two pages of prose, Woolf explores, summons, and subverts the conventions of the ghost story, offering a modernist take on the genre.
This very short piece, which first appeared in Woolf’s 1921 short-story collection Monday or Tuesday, is at once easy and difficult to summarise; how we analyse the story depends on which aspects we emphasise. The narrator describes the house where she and her partner live. Whenever you wake in the house, you hear noises: a door shutting, and the sound of a ‘ghostly couple’ wandering from room to room in the house. But what are these ghostly lovers looking for?
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Circular Ruins’.
The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, nor did he write a novel. But he is widely regarded as one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century, was a considerable influence on magic realism, and penned some of the most original, clever, and thought-provoking short stories ever written.
First published in 1940, ‘The Circular Ruins’ is one of his most richly symbolic short stories, and has the force of a modern myth. One of his most powerful and suggestive explorations of the nature of reality and dreams, ‘The Circular Ruins’ can variously be interpreted as a story about artistic creation or about the world, and our place in the world, as we perceive it.
It’s also rather fantastical both in content and setting. A man travels to the circular ruins of an ancient temple in order to dream another man into existence – but there’s a twist at the end of this short tale which will see the man stepping into flames …
Shirley Jackson, ‘The Witch’.
This is a short story by the American writer Shirley Jackson. The plot is very straightforward and the story runs to only a few pages, telling of how a mother travels on the train with her young son and baby daughter, and how a strange man strikes up a conversation with her son and tells him a macabre story.
Titles can be mischievous things, and by titling her short story ‘The Witch’, Shirley Jackson invites us to wonder: who really is the witch in this story? Was she external to the train, the woman whom Johnny saw, and chased off? Was she merely the stuff of his overactive imagination? Or was the witch the mysterious man who appeared shortly after Johnny claimed to have encountered the witch outside?
Angela Carter, ‘The Company of Wolves’.
Here’s a short story by the British writer Angela Carter (1940-92) on the theme of lycanthropy, inspired by the famous Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale.
‘The Company of Wolves’ is one of the most shocking stories in The Bloody Chamber because of the way in which the adolescent girl ‘tames’ the big bad wolf. In order to save her own life, she must give herself to the male by making love to him. Carter prefaces her story with a long introductory section which deals with the history of werewolf folklore.