For the past two weeks, I’ve been reading The Best Horror of the Year, Volume VIII, an anthology of horror short stories and novelettes compiled by one of horror’s premier editors, Ellen Datlow (I’ll be taking a break from it to read The Institute by Stephen King, though). As you’d expect from any anthology, some you like, some you don’t, and some you just don’t get. But of those that I like, I’ve been noticing a trend that I’m not sure I’ve noticed before.

These stories are not outright terrifying in a way that’ll leave you screaming or having nightmares for a week or so. But they do make you feel uneasy. Like a voice in the back of your mind is whispering, “Imagine if this scenario were real,” or “Imagine if this happened to you.” And then you shiver at the thought of what is occurring in the story occurring in real life. In your life.

That feeling upsets the zen in your soul, and can put you off your day. It can make you afraid to think of certain places or names because you associate them with something evil and horrible. It leaves you afraid to be in dark places, or alone, or with people, or even in well-lit areas. Because who knows what’s hidden in your blind spot? Who knows what evil is bubbling in your coworker’s heart?

What you are feeling is disquiet. And that feeling drives a lot of shorter horror stories. Understandable: short stories and novelettes don’t have the word-counts to build epic worlds or have intricate plots involving five or six mind-blowing revelations. They’re short for a reason, and meant to be digestible as a way to save time and money. Or to quote Stephen King, “A short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.”

I actually know what that’s like (don’t ask), and I’m not really surprised that King does, either. So I kind of get it: what the story does to you should be unexpected, but leave a powerful impression. The kind of impression where you look back years later and you’re like, “Wait, did that actually happen?” And in short stories, with horror, you do it with fear. You do it with disquiet.

So how does one create disquiet in their story? Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can answer that. It’s like how do you put horror in a story? You already know a monster is necessary, but what more is there? Not an easy question to answer. In fact, I’ve been writing horror since I was a tween, or trying to, and I’m still trying to figure it out. It doesn’t help that I’m better at novels and short stories are still something I’m figuring out how to do well (ironic, considering how many short story ideas I have lying around).

junji Ito will shake you every time.

In the end, all I can recommend is the old writer adage: read a lot and write a lot. In this case, read a ton of shorter works by a variety of different horror authors. Note how they make the story memorable, punchy, disturbing. Is it a specific twist? Is it in the scenario they set up? How do they set it up? Is it in a particular sentence or a paragraph? An element they included? The ending? Then try writing your own works and incorporating what you learned.

It seems obvious, but I guess we reiterate it for a reason.

Anyway, if you’re looking for recommendations, any of the volumes in the Best Horror of the Year series should work, as well as collections by most horror writers. I also recommend story collections from manga artist Junji Ito, if you want a more visual medium. And while it’s not literary, The Twilight Zone is usually pretty good at telling disquieting stories (or so I’ve heard. I really have to get on watching that show).

But tell me, how do you make your short stories memorable and disquieting? What are your thoughts on the subject? Let’s discuss.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Happy Friday the 13th, and if you see  guy wearing an old-fashioned goalie mask, RUN THE OTHER FUCKING WAY!!!

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Comments
  1. I think shorter is harder because, as you said, there isn’t enough room to develop everything. So I think word sounds (“gallop” rather than “skip”) and word choice (“lurch” rather than “walk”) are important elements.

    A goalie mask, eeeek!

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