The great thing about a good short story is that no matter how pressed for time you are, you can still get your reading fix. Here are five weird short stories that may leave you a little shaken, a little frightened perhaps, but definitely entertained.
“The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson
“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
First published in the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker, Jackson’s story about a small town’s deadly annual ritual gained the attention of readers immediately. Reactions from bewilderment to outright hatred of the story flooded into the magazine’s offices, resulting in the most correspondences that the publication had ever received on a work of fiction.
The story centers on a small, rural village of about 300 people and the lottery held every June where one citizen’s name is chosen by a drawing and then stoned to death. The citizens assume the lottery purges the town of all of the wrongs committed the previous year and ensures the growing season and the inhabitants of the village are prosperous throughout the next.
“The Lottery” is a telling story about mob psychology, which explores the idea of the scapegoat — one who is sacrificed for the greater good — and following tradition for the sake of tradition without thought for the consequences.
You can read the story here.
“Bartleby, the Scrivner,” by Herman Melville
“I would prefer not to.”
Herman Melville is most famous for his classic American novel, Moby Dick, but he also wrote a few short stories as well. Of those stories, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is by far his weirdest. Written as a two-part serialization in Putnam’s Magazine‘s November and December 1853 issues, it was not met with tremendous fanfare, but it has since been recognized as a classic.
What makes this entry one of the five weird short stories? It’s about a lawyer who hires Bartleby to be one of his “scriveners” (a historical word for “clerk”). After doing great work at first, Bartley begins to refuse all of the lawyer’s requests: he will no longer write copy, he will no longer run errands, and he even refuses to leave the office to go home. The story follows the lawyer’s bewilderment of his stubborn employee, who responds to every request with, “I would prefer not to,” and his attempts to rid himself of the strange man.
Critics enjoy the story for its commentary on isolation and loneliness, quiet rebellion, and rejection. Its a well-written and entertaining story that I’ve read numerous times.
“The Monkey’s Paw,” by W.W. Jacobs
“Monkey’s paw?” said Mrs. White, curiously. “Well, it’s just a bit of what you might call magic, perhaps,” said the sergent-major, offhandedly.
“The Monkey’s Paw” was first published in a collection of Jacob’s short stories in England, 1902. It’s a scary story about attempting to change fate. It’s been adapted into countless films, plays, and even operas.
Even if you’ve never heard of this story, it will sound familiar. But that’s not a bad thing: Jacobs does a great job of conveying an eerie, supernatural mood.
The White family — father, mother, and adult son — are shown a mummified monkey paw that their friend Sergeant-Major Harris brought back from India. The paw, Harris tells them, has the ability to grant the owner three wishes. There is, however, a catch to each wish. Despite Harris’ admonitions not to use the paw, the Whites make their first wish…and eventually, wish they had listened to their friend.
This is a fun, weird, straightforward story that you can finish very quickly. You can read it here.
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.”
This is one of my all-time favorite short stories.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an early feminist, author, and social reformer who published “The Yellow Wallpaper” in the January 1892 issue of The New England Magazine after a severe bout of postpartum depression. It’s remembered as her best work and is considered semi-autobiographical.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a Gothic tale about a woman’s descent into madness. Her husband John wants her to rest after the birth of their child, so they move into a large estate house for the summer. She is, for all intents and purposes, held hostage — although John really does think it’s for the best — in an attic room where she begins to fixate on the patterns of the yellow wallpaper. Soon, she sees a woman hidden behind the wallpaper and believes that she must free her. The story culminates in a maddening scene of disorientation that sticks with you.
The themes that Gilman explores in the story are numerous: madness, powerlessness, unfair social structures, and the relegation of women are all present. This is a weird short story that can be read many times.
“Chickamauga,” by Ambrose Bierce
In all the wide glare not a living thing was visible. He cared nothing for that; the spectacle pleased, and he danced with glee in imitation of the wavering flames.
Ambrose Bierce was a prolific American author, journalist, poet, and Civil War veteran. “Chickamauga” — the name of a grim Civil War battle in northern Georgia that had nearly 35,000 casualties — is an anti-war story first published in the San Fransico Examiner, January 20, 1889.
Bierce tells the story of a six-year-old boy who ventures into the woods near his run-down family home. The boy imagines slaying foes and soldiers with his small wooden sword, fighting for his family and saving the day. He gets lost during his adventure, however, and lays down to sleep for a while. When he wakes, he sees scores of real, bloodied soldiers crawling through the woods, injured from a real battle nearby. In the end, the boy witnesses a gruesome scene that turns his world — and the reader’s — upside down.
“Chickamauga” is a tale about childhood trauma, the realities of war, and innocence destroyed. You can read it here.
These five weird short stories are easy to read and are great examples of classic literature. Which one is your favorite?