The best short horror stories for understanding why my brain works this way

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm perhaps the inevitable result of a lifetime spent on a steady diet of magical realism, literary fiction, science-fiction, and Spider-Man comics. Fortunately I’ve been able to channel my simultaneous loves of storytelling and structure into a life as a developmental editor. And where my own work is concerned, I’ve been able to do a lot of those things my childhood self might have hoped for: a novel in The Listeners, a feature film in Ape Canyon, and a litany of strange and usually distressing short stories. These days I do those things from my Washington, D.C. apartment with my wife and our two cats with a combined seven legs.


I wrote...

Reptiles: A Short Story

By Harrison Demchick,

Book cover of Reptiles: A Short Story

What is my book about?

No one knew why the change happened, even now. It just did. The uncertainty turned quickly to fear, and then fear to abject terror when it became evident that all who changed were pregnant women, and all pregnant women would change—and then terror months later to relief, inestimable, joyous relief, when the hatched eggs turned out to produce completely normal, completely human babies.

Reptiles is a short work of dystopian horror inspired by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. All profits will be donated to UltraViolet, an organization fighting for reproductive rights and women's rights.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Nightmare At 20,000 Feet

Harrison Demchick Why did I love this book?

Richard Matheson is a horror legend for good reason, and most casual viewers of genre films and TV would probably be surprised at how much of his work they’ve encountered in some form or another. The Will Smith movie I Am Legend is adapted from his work. Steven Spielberg’s first film, Duel, as well. The paranoid Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is best known as a classic Twilight Zone episode, referenced and parodied numerous times in the decades since, but Matheson’s original reflects everything that’s great about his work: a fairly practical, everyman sort of protagonist (for the 1960s anyway) undone by an impossible situation.

By Richard Matheson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nightmare At 20,000 Feet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Personally selected by Richard Matheson, the bestselling author of I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come, the stories in Nightmare at 20,000 feet more than demonstrate why Matheson's regarded as one of our most influential horror writers.

Featuring the story "Duel," a nail-biting tale of man versus machines that inspired Steven Spielberg's first film.

Remember that monster on the wing of the airplane? William Shatner saw it on The Twilight Zone, John Lithgow saw it in the movie-even Bart Simpson saw it. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is just one of many classic horror stories by Richard Matheson that have…


Book cover of The Music of Erich Zann

Harrison Demchick Why did I love this book?

I don’t think most Lovecraft fans casual or devoted would single out The Music of Erich Zann, given the staying power of the Cthulhu mythos and everything associated with it. But what causes Lovecraft’s work to resonate so many decades later is his mastery over the disquieting, and this story about music channeled from a horrific place played on a street that doesn’t seem to exist by a violinist terrified and compelled to keep playing has stayed with me more than any of Lovecraft’s other stories in the years since I read it. Maybe it’s the musician in me, or maybe it’s the distortions of reality that tend to crop up in my own writing. Either way it’s striking, and a good introduction to the strangeness of H. P. Lovecraft.

By H. P. Lovecraft,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Music of Erich Zann as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An old mute man plays viol but his music has a terrible secret.
The Music of Erich Zann is a short horror story by H.P. Lovecraft.


Book cover of Pastoralia

Harrison Demchick Why did I love this book?

Specifically, I'm recommending the short story "Sea Oak." In the expanse of horror fiction, it has to be said that there are very few stories about a kindly old woman who returns from the dead as a pissed-off, vulgar, rotting corpse demanding her nephew start showing his cock (Saunders’s phrasing, not mine) for extra money so that his family can stop being pushovers and start earning some cash. George Saunders, it should be noted, is not remotely a horror author—rather, one of the more offbeat, distinctive writers of short literary fiction of the last quarter century—and Pastoralia is determinedly not a horror collection. But it’s exactly this that makes “Sea Oak” the strangest, least likely zombie story, if you can call it that, that you’ll ever read.

By George Saunders,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pastoralia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Saunders is an astoundingly tuned voice - graceful, dark, authentic and funny - telling just the kind of stories we need to get us through these times' Thomas Pynchon

In PASTORALIA elements of contemporary life are twisted, merged and amplified into a slightly skewed version of modern America. A couple live and work in a caveman theme-park, where speaking is an instantly punishable offence. A born loser attends a self-help seminar where he is encouraged to rid himself of all the people who are 'crapping in your oatmeal'. And a male exotic dancer and his family are terrorised by their…


Book cover of The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories

Harrison Demchick Why did I love this book?

The Twilight Zone, again? Yes, The Twilight Zone again. There are tons of great stories here, but I'm highlighting Lynn Venable's "Time Enough at Last," which is arguably even more iconic than "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." While most would regard it as a science-fiction story more than a horror story, I think it’s one of the best examples ever put to paper of the principle that horror is personal. One person’s inconvenience is another’s world-ending nightmare—and vice versa. Lynn Venable’s broader body of work is not especially well known, but with this one story dropped into a genre dominated by men, Venable turned out one of the greatest and most memorable genre stories there would ever be. So check it out—you know, while there’s still time.

By Martin Harry Greenberg (editor), Richard Matheson (editor), Charles G. Waugh (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Twilight Zone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Collects thirty fantasy and science fiction short stories which were the basis for episodes of the Twilight zone television series


Book cover of The Machineries of Joy: Short Stories

Harrison Demchick Why did I love this book?

"The One Who Waits," one of my favorite stories in this collection, would be regarded more commonly as science fiction, as it takes place during an Earth expedition to Mars. But Ray Bradbury’s story also pioneers the classic horror trope of a small group of people falling one by one to a mysterious creature they cannot see—and with a means of disguise highly imaginative, beautifully written, and fundamentally terrifying. Bradbury is a phenomenal writer and it’s difficult to recommend any one story without feeling certain you’ve dropped the ball in not recommending another--you really can't go wrong with this entire collection--but the quick, clever, nuanced "The One Who Waits" is one of the best sci-fi/horror hybrids ever written.

By Ray Bradbury,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Machineries of Joy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Machineries of Joy Short Stories


You might also like...

Kanazawa

By David Joiner,

Book cover of Kanazawa

David Joiner Author Of Kanazawa

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

My book recommendations reflect an abiding passion for Japanese literature, which has unquestionably influenced my own writing. My latest literary interest involves Japanese poetry—I’ve recently started a project that combines haiku and prose narration to describe my experiences as a part-time resident in a 1300-year-old Japanese hot spring town that Bashō helped make famous in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But as a writer, my main focus remains novels. In late 2023 the second in a planned series of novels set in Ishikawa prefecture will be published. I currently live in Kanazawa, but have also been lucky to call Sapporo, Akita, Tokyo, and Fukui home at different times.

David's book list on Japanese settings not named Tokyo or Kyoto

What is my book about?

Emmitt’s plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of purchasing their dream home. Disappointed, he’s surprised to discover her subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo.

In his search for a meaningful life in Japan, and after quitting his job, he finds himself helping his mother-in-law translate Kanazawa’s most famous author, Izumi Kyoka, into English. He becomes drawn into the mysterious death of a friend of Mirai’s parents, leading him and his father-in-law to climb the mountain where the man died. There, he learns the somber truth and discovers what the future holds for him and his wife.

Packed with subtle literary allusion and closely observed nuance, Kanazawa reflects the mood of Japanese fiction in a fresh, modern incarnation.

Kanazawa

By David Joiner,

What is this book about?

In Kanazawa, the first literary novel in English to be set in this storied Japanese city, Emmitt's future plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of negotiations to purchase their dream home. Disappointed, he's surprised to discover Mirai's subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo, a city he dislikes.

Harmony is further disrupted when Emmitt's search for a more meaningful life in Japan leads him to quit an unsatisfying job at a local university. In the fallout, he finds himself helping his mother-in-law translate Kanazawa's most famous author, Izumi Kyoka, into English.

While continually resisting Mirai's…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the brain, Mars, and deadpan humor?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the brain, Mars, and deadpan humor.

The Brain Explore 154 books about the brain
Mars Explore 71 books about Mars
Deadpan Humor Explore 16 books about deadpan humor