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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