Less is More: Short Horror

Edgar Allan Poe

My first column for This is Horror… hmm, what to do?

I’m gonna go with ‘Less is More: Short Horror’ with the intention of focussing on short stories in the genre. As a kind of ‘getting to know each other’ piece, this first will look at the form and its suitability for telling dark tales, but in subsequent articles over the next few months I’ll examine individual classic stories in the field as well as occasionally taking a ‘monster-of-the-week’ approach, looking at how different stories tackle the tropes of horror. What I won’t focus on is how to write short stories; there’s a tonne of that out there already. I’m just going to look at a load of good ones, old and new, highlighting their strengths or pointing out why I like them so much, if that’s okay with you? (I’m going to do it even if it isn’t.)

“Like some kind of particularly tenacious vampire the short story refuses to die,” says Neil Gaiman and I, for one, am glad. Of all the ways in which we can tell a story, and of all its different shapes and sizes, the short story is my absolute favourite. It’s also, I think, one of the most effective ways to tell a story, especially when it comes to horror and the supernatural. Sure, there are some great horror novels out there, and they allow for a broader approach when it comes to themes and different perspectives, but thinking about my favourite novels I’ve realised they tend to be the shorter ones. (Even the longer ones I like tend to be somewhat episodic in their approach, a sort of sequence of short stories that just happen to use the same characters.)

Part of the reason I prefer shorter fiction when it comes to horror is down to what Poe called the “unity of effect”. Edgar Allan Poe, not exactly a stranger to the short form, is often quoted when it comes to arguing the benefits of the short story. In fact, according to H. P. Lovecraft (who wrote one or two short stories himself) it is thanks to Poe that we have “the modern horror-story in its final and perfected state” (he actually refers to Poe as a “deity and fountainhead of all modern diabolic fiction” which is kind of a mixed compliment when you consider the kind of deities Lovecraft was most familiar with…).  Poe argues that “a short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it”, which is to say it aims for a “unity of effect”. Whether you choose the effect to be one of horror, sadness, elation, whatever, the short form allows an intensity that may be otherwise diluted in a longer piece (how many novels have you read that lost their punch because the sought after effect had been thinned by too many pages?). I should point out that Poe is perhaps also noting the limitations of the short story as well here, the ‘unity’ of effect another way of simply saying there’s little room for any others, but when we’re talking about a genre defined by its effect – horror – I’d say that’s pretty acceptable as limitations go.

As well as maintaining this unity of effect, Poe noted the necessity of a striking first sentence and the need to cut any extraneous material. All right, that’s probably true of the novel too, though I think the novel lets you get away with some of that extraneous material (often under the guise of character development or sub-plots) whereas the short story offers no place to hide. Too much extraneous material will not only distract the reader or weaken the unity of effect but may also prevent something else Poe was very much a champion for – namely the ability to read a short story in one sitting. Personally, I always aim to read a short story in one sitting, getting quite irritable should the reading be interrupted (unless the house is on fire, leave me alone when I’m reading a short story). For me, if you’ll forgive a food analogy, a short story is a delicious cupcake I want to gobble up all at once whereas a novel, no less enjoyable perhaps, is more of a gateaux to be eaten one piece at a time and over a longer period (if you want to avoid feeling sick). If you’d prefer something more suitable than cakes for a discussion of the horror genre, consider how Stephen King put it when comparing The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Dracula; the first, he said, was like “the sudden mortal jab of an ice pick” whereas the second hits like a great “wall of horror”. All right, Jekyll is a short novel rather than a short story, but the principle’s the same.

The thing is, I’d argue that while some short stories are definitely the ice pick, some can still be the great wall despite their brevity. If you don’t believe me, try this story by Steve Rasnic Tem:

2:00 pm: The Real Estate Agent Arrives

In the backyard, after the family moved away: blue chipped food bowl, worn-out dog collar, torn little boy shorts, Dinosaur T-shirt, rope, rusty can, child’s mask lined with sand. In the corner the faint outline of a grave, dog leash lying like half a set of parenthesis. Then you remember. The family had no pets.

See? It’s a hard-hitting wall of horror built with only 55 words, proving that though a story is short it’s no less powerful. “The short story can be just as profound as any novel,” says Jeff Vandermeer in his Wonderbook, “the compression of an idea, characterisation, and structure all working to create a memorable experience for the reader.”

For Poe, the horror short story had one other requirement: it had to tell the truth. The horror genre is good at this. In her book Fantasy, Rosemary Jackson notes that the fantastic has always allowed society to “write out its greatest fears”. For the Victorians, for example, she notes these fears concerned “the threats of transformation of social and sexual mores”, the devils and monsters standing in place of working-class revolutionaries, women with desires, social outsiders, the ‘mad’, etc. What you don’t want is for this to be too obvious, and this brings me to another aspect of ‘less is more’ I’d like to focus on over the next few months, namely that horror short stories can be all the more effective for what they don’t say.

In some cases, this may simply involve showing some restraint when it comes to the grisly stuff, the blood and gore. It has its place, for sure – even M.R. James, master of the subtle supernatural story, had nothing against “a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded” – but isn’t it scarier to anticipate this rather than see it, or imagine it rather than have each body part described with gusto? In other cases, less is more means not explaining to the reader what the monster represents. The best stories, for me, are the ones that let the reader do some of the work – reading should be an active process after all, not a passive one. And besides, the reader might interpret the monster more effectively. Apparently, Jack Finney just wanted to write a cool science fiction story with Invaders of the Body Snatchers (a novel, but a short one) but it didn’t stop people interpreting the alien monsters as symbols of communism. Even if that was Finney’s intention all along, at least he didn’t spell it out for them.

Like I said, less is more.


This is Horror posted Stephen Jones’s top ten horror stories recently, and it prompted quite a discussion over on Facebook. What are your favourite short stories? Why not drop a title or two in the comments below.

Thanks go to Steve Rasnic Tem for allowing the use of his story in this article. It was originally published in volume 10 of Crimewave, edited by Andy Cox, and reprinted in volume 20 of Stephen Jones’ Best New Horror.

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  1. I agree for the most part, but one weakness I often see in modern horror short stories is that authors sometimes use the length constraint as an excuse to not finish the story properly. Let me explain…

    One standard format for the horror novel is to take some ordinary people & put them in a very bad situation. Then they gather their forces, things get even worse & the book leads into the final battle between good & evil.

    In many, many horror short stories I’ve read, it goes like this…

    Ordinary person, or persons are put into a very bad situation. The End.

    1. Yeah, I know what you mean Dave. Sometimes the wanting more can be a story’s strength but very often it smacks of laziness or uncertainty on behalf of the writer. If you put a character into a bad situation I wanna see how they deal with that, please. I wanna see that fight or flight instinct, their success or their failure. Sometimes the bad situation may be so bad the outcome is obvious, but as you’ve pointed out – not always. Still, I shall just focus on the good ones…

  2. I agree, short is best. Look at headless horseman. It now has a series on TV.

    1. Yes, although when it comes to TV I do feel some shows would benefit from ‘less is more’ as well, especially when it comes to how long it runs for. An example that springs to mind for me is the great X-Files which I think should have ended sooner for more impact.

  3. Great piece, and one I couldn’t agree with more. I sometimes think horror’s natural home is the short story. Very few horror novels can sustain the atmosphere of the piece without some unfortunate lulls (obviously there are some great horror novels).

    Look forward to your later pieces.

    1. Thanks James, I hope you like the future articles too.

    • Sophie Manion on December 11, 2013 at 1:58 am
    • Reply

    One of the other weaknesses of the modern short story is he inability to connect to the central character because you know so little about them. In other words: you simple don’t care. The character doesn’t have time to connect with you. Sure, it’s horrible that someone gets mauled, or disembowled or turned into something evil but I find sometimes in an effort to make things ‘scary,’ writers focus too much on the situation or the grotesque setting and details about who the central character is are almost non-existent.
    Of course, I’m supposed to impose myself into some of the short story to some degree I guess, but honestly, I then start judging the character by my standards and that always ends badly. Would I really leave my gun when going downstairs into the creepy basement like that? Probably not. Oh, look, they’re dead. Too bad they left their weapon upstairs. Moving on…
    Even some of the most amazing short stories I’ve read in horror are guilty of this to some degree.

    1. I tend to judge characters by my standards too, probably more than I should – especially in films (but then I find it’s in films that characters tend to do the most stupid things). With short stories, I think a good writer can still make you care about a character in a short space of time (James Cooper is particularly good at this, I think, as is Maura McHugh and Simon Kurt Unsworth, to simply note the first few that come to mind), but there can be a tendency in the not-so-good stories to have stock characters who merely give the monster something to do (or someone to eat!).

  4. I think the point of the short story (horror, or otherwise) is to focus on a particular emotion, provoke a specific reaction and as such, there’s not really any need to connect with a character (in some great stories, there are no ‘characters’).

    The example by Steve Rasnic Tem is ideal, because everything there is designed to evoke a particular response…you read it, then something clicks in your brain and you go ‘aaah’ (and also, ‘oh my god!’). Of course, it’s good to build in details and I don’t think they’re necessarily superfluous, but these can be done in a few words or sentences.

    Intricate world/character/scene building is for novels, not shorts. Maybe it’s a personal thing, but I don’t really need to ‘connect’ to a character in order to fully enjoy a story (or, for that matter, a novel). Might just be me, though 🙂

    1. Yes, sometimes you don’t need the specifics of a charcter – in the example above we don’t need to know the child, just the fact that there was one – Steve Rasnic Tem makes us care with just “torn little boy shorts” and a “Dinosaur T-shirt”. It’s enough – the horror comes from knowing this happened to any child. Similarly, there’s a great story called ‘The Meat’ by Janice Galloway which barely mentions character at all and still manages to floor the reader. (I’ll try to track this down for a future article.)

    • Ross Warren on December 12, 2013 at 1:51 pm
    • Reply

    A few of my favourite shorts:

    Survivor Type by Stephen King
    Pop Art by Joe Hill
    20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
    The Black Phone by Joe Hill
    Shark! Shark! by some bloke
    Once a Month, Every Month by Gary McMahon
    Senbarazu by V H Leslie
    Red Rabbit by Laura Mauro
    Something’s Wrong with Pappy by James Cooper
    In Fetu by James Cooper
    Bull Running For Girls by Allyson Bird
    The Man Who DrewCats by Michael Marshall Smith
    Malarky’s Conveyance by Benedict J. Jones
    Room Above the Shop by Stephen Bacon
    Cinder Images by Gary McMahon
    The Man Who Loved Flowers by Stephen King
    Alice, Hanging Out in the Skatepark by Gary McMahon
    Mortal Coil by Robert Shearman

    1. We’ve got quite a few in common there, Ross. There are so many I like it’ll be difficult choosing which to look at each month – but that’s a good problem, right? Too many great stories? 🙂

  5. Great article, Ray. Poe is indeed (as H.P.L. said) a “deity” of the short story. I’ve especially enjoyed reading the discussion here about the need (or lack thereof) of “connecting with a character.” One of the great challenges of writing horror fiction (IMO) is creating believable human characters and situations into which essentially unbelievable things intrude––and writers of short horror fiction face the added challenge of having to create that foundation of believability quickly (with relatively few words) before bringing on the dark stuff. Of course, people do like to point out the absence of strong main characters in some great short dark fiction, like M.R. James, for instance, whose protagonists seem thinly drawn to the point of being insubstantial. But sometimes I wonder if that’s really true, if maybe the “thinness” of James’ protagonists is actually less a flaw in the writing and more a consciously drawn character trait (emotional distance, repression, etc.). Fun to think about, anyway. Thanks again for the great article.

    1. Thanks David, and interesting points. I think with James it was very much about atmosphere more than anything else, and though his characters can be a little thin (or of the same type) I’ve always seen many of his stories as less about who and more about what and where, almost as if we are simply meant to substitute the character with ourselves. I might make M.R. James my next column, or certainly one of them anyway.

  6. Some stories that have stayed with me for decades:

    “End-Game” J.G. Ballard
    “Heavy Set” Ray Bradbury
    “Descending” Thomas Disch
    “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” Ray Nelson

    1. I love Bradbury. When it comes to keeping details back I think my favourite has to be ‘The Jar’. I love it.

  7. I commented below when I should have replied, Ross. I should have also said thanks for the ‘Shark! Shark!’ reference. 🙂

  8. There are some fantastic masters of the short form out there. Michael Marshall Smith is quite possibly my favourite, with some truly heart-breaking and -rending works, the perfect successor to Stephen King and Clive Barker, with a little Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl thrown in. (Also, these four are among my favourites, especially Bradbury).

    I also love Michel Faber’s work, someone who can create pure mood and emotion with perfectly chosen words.

    Terry Grimwood’s Soul masque was a full blown novel in only a few short pages, an astonishing feat and a great read.

    Cate Gardner has produced some excellent pieces.

    Joe Hill, Gary McMahon, Weston Ochse, Christopher Fowler have all produced intense stories that have moved or impressed me.

    John M. Ford’s As Above, So Below is a beautiful, world changing story that’s stayed with me for a long time (OK, it’s SF/Fantasy, but it still counts).

    1. I’m a huge fan of Michael Marshall Smith too, Paul, and agree completely. My introduction to his work was through his science fiction novels, which were great fun, but it was his first collection of stories that really blew me away. ‘More Tomorrow’ – my God. And ‘Save As’. Recently loved his ‘Sad, Dark Thing’ in Stephen Jones’s ‘Book of Horrors’ too. I think, if I remember rightly, he won the British Fantasy Award for ‘The Man Who Drew Cats’ – and it was his first story! (I must check that.) I was a bit star-struck when I met him recently but I’m glad I told him how much I liked his work, the guy is an incredible writer.

      Faber is extraordinary too. The Fahrenheit Twins collection is superb, so good I teach it to my classes at A Level now whenever I can, if only to ensure they read something of his. Though not horror, ‘Vanilla-Bright Like Eminem’ is one of my favourite short stories of all time. That said, there are plenty of dark stories in that collection (quite literally in ‘All Black’). And the one about the coconuts is hilarious.

      In fact, looking at that list of yours it seems we have very similar taste. That, or good writers are just easy to spot. A bit of both, most likely. I haven’t read the Ford story yet though so I’ll add that to my ‘to read’ pile…

      1. It probably is a bit of both, although I’m always loathe to say things definitively, I find it’s all subjective. What works for me, may not work for others, in fact I know it doesn’t. Still, a lot of those stories and writers have given me the emotional equivalent of a punch in the guts, More Tomorrow in particular, being a great example. I love that feeling 😀

        I haven’t read The Fahrenheit Twins collection yet, but Some Rain Must Fall is brilliant.

        The John M. Ford story is available in Stephen Donaldson edited anthology, Strange Dreams, which is where I read it, among some other fantastic stories. I was reading, at the time, a few books about about quantum theory and it just struck such a nerve…

        It’s also available here, to read, reprinted with permission:


  9. I highly recommend Paul Finch & Thana Niveau.

    1. Agreed! I loved Niveau’s From Hell to Eternity, especially ‘The Curtain’, ‘Antlers’, and ‘Stoeln to Time’.

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