Today marks the birthday of literature’s dark romantic and master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. The mad, mustachioed author initiated the modern detective story, helped define early science fiction, and embodied the definition of “troubled writer” — but it was his horror stories that marked his legacy. It’s a testament to the power of his work that Poe was able to frighten his readers with fewer pages than most authors. Inspired by his gothic greats, we’ve handpicked ten short tales of classic terror you can read online right now.
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” by Edgar Allan Poe
My attention, for the last three years, had been repeatedly drawn to the subject of Mesmerism; and, about nine months ago, it occurred to me, quite suddenly, that in the series of experiments made hitherto, there had been a very remarkable and most unaccountable omission: — no person had as yet been mesmerized in articulo mortis.
Poe’s 1845 story about a mesmerist who attempts to suspend a man’s life on the brink of death caused a huge sensation. His use of medical (and pseudoscientific) terminology convinced readers the story was real, and initially the macabre author didn’t refute the claims. It was eventually revealed to be a hoax. “M. Valdemar” was written during the spiritualist craze and traded Poe’s dark descriptors for overtly grotesque language.
“The Mummy’s Foot” by Théophile Gautier
From disemboweled cabinets escaped cascades of silver-lustrous Chinese silks and waves of tinsel, which an oblique sunbeam shot through with luminous beads; while portraits of every era, in frames more or less tarnished, smiled through their yellow varnish.
Everyone knows exotic curiosity shops are bad news. You always get more than you bargained for. In this 1840 tale from French novelist and art critic Théophile Gautier, a man happens upon a mummified foot belonging to an Egyptian princess. Despite her embalmed state, she doesn’t want to part with it so easily.
“The Dream Woman” by Wilkie Collins
Her perverted nature set some horrid unacknowledged value on the knife. Seeing there was no hope of getting it by fair means, I determined to search for it, later in the day, in secret. The search was unsuccessful. Night came on, and I left the house to walk about the streets. You will understand what a broken man I was by this time, when I tell you I was afraid to sleep in the same room with her!
Told in four narratives, Wilkie Collins’ “The Dream Woman” was originally intended for Charles Dickens’ weekly, Household Words, where a number of successful supernatural tales were first published by prominent authors. Collins’ work tells the story of a man who marries the woman of his dreams — except his fantasy girl haunts him in his sleep and carries a rather large knife.
“The Ebony Frame” by E. Nesbit
I hope I shall never again know a moment of terror as blank and absolute. I could not have moved or spoken to save my life. Either all the known laws of nature were nothing, or I was mad. I stood trembling, but, I am thankful to remember, I stood still, while the black velvet gown swept across the hearthrug towards me.
English author Edith Nesbit (E. Nesbit) is known today for her children’s books, but she penned a number of supernatural short stories — like this one about a man who becomes infatuated with a portrait of a woman he prays will come to life.
“The Vampyre” by John William Polidori
When he entered into a room, his haggard and suspicious looks were so striking, his inward shuddering so visible, that his sister was at last obliged to beg of him to abstain from seeking, for her sake, a society which affected him so strongly.
John William Polidori’s landmark short story “The Vampyre” transformed the fabled undead creature from a monster into an aristocratic gentleman. It was conceived when the English writer and physician spent time at the Villa Diodati with Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Claire Clairmont, sharing ghost stories — the same gathering where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.
“The Wedding-Knell” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Still the death-bell tolled so mournfully, that the sunshine seemed to fade in the air. A whisper, communicated from those who stood nearest the windows, now spread through the church; a hearse, with a train of several coaches, was creeping along the street, conveying some dead man to the churchyard, while the bride awaited a living one at the altar.
Edgar Allan Poe heaped praise upon Nathaniel Hawthorne’s collection of shorts, Twice-Told Tales, which included a story about a morbid union, “The Wedding-Knell.” He wrote:
The style of Hawthorne is purity itself. His tone is singularly effective — wild, plaintive, thoughtful, and in full accordance with his themes. . . . We look upon him as one of the few men of indisputable genius to whom our country has as yet given birth.
“The Old Nurse’s Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell
We bolted the doors and shut the window-shutters fast, an hour or more before dark, rather than leave them open five minutes too late. But my little lady still heard the weird child crying and mourning; and not all we could do or say could keep her from wanting to go to her, and let her in from the cruel wind and the snow.
A toxic relationship between sisters, family pride, and a terrible death invokes the spirits that linger in Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic Victorian ghost story. The tale has sometimes been compared to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw:
“In both cases the ghosts show a diabolical determination to get hold of the children [while] the children themselves are responsive to the ghostly influence and rebel against the attempts of nurse of governess to protect them.”
“The Phantom Rickshaw” by Rudyard Kipling
The dead travel fast, and by short cuts unknown to ordinary coolies. I laughed aloud a second time and checked my laughter suddenly, for I was afraid I was going mad.
A master and innovator of the short story, it’s said that English author Rudyard Kipling may have written this nineteenth-century tale about a persistent female spirit after feeling rejected and haunted by his relationship (or lack thereof) with Flo Garrard — Kipling’s first love.
“Casting The Runes” by M. R. James
Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly.
Adapted numerous times (most famously as Night of the Demon from Jacques Tourneur) and featuring a character who bears an uncanny resemblance to the “Great Beast” himself, Aleister Crowley, “Casting the Runes” is a fine introduction to one of literature’s greatest ghost story writers.
“The Striding Place” by Gertrude Atherton
He stepped as close to the edge as he dared. The hand doubled as if in imprecation, shaking savagely in the face of that force which leaves its creatures to immutable law; then spread wide again, clutching, expanding, crying for help as audibly as the human voice.
Nineteenth-century San Francisco author Gertrude Atherton was an eccentric character who favored fictional characters as independent and controversial as she was. She reportedly passed up an opportunity to meet Oscar Wilde, because she found him unattractive. And then there’s a story about her gossiping behind Edith Wharton’s back, questioning the authorship of The House of Mirth. She also reportedly humiliated friend and fellow author Ambrose Bierce when he attempted to kiss her, sharing the story of his rejection with all she knew. Perhaps it’s fitting that her shocking exploits mirrored the terror of her short story, “The Striding Place.” Atherton was inspired to write the tale after a trip to England. There, after reading up on the local history, she learned of the River Wharfe and a spot known as the Strid. Its rapids are deceptively narrow and shallow, but the powerful undercurrent is dangerous and hides a vast network of underwater caves and tunnels. The dark poem “The Force of Prayer; or, the Founding of Bolton Priory. A Tradition” by William Wordsworth also encouraged her to put pen to paper.