I used to teach a horror literature class, and I would start the year off by talking about the history of this genre. Even though there were some instances of horror before Edgar Allan Poe sat down to craft his unique brand of literature, most modern writers of this genre can trace their roots back to this man. His exploration of the gothic side of our nature and the things that haunt us the most have created some of the most iconic moments in all of literature. His poetic ability also creates a melancholy mood while lyrically creating a sound unique to his style. When thinking of the month of October, Edgar Allan Poe’s name is synonymous with all of the classic creatures that decorate people’s houses to let us know that this holiday is just around the corner. With stories such as “The Cask of the Amontillado”, “The Tell Tale Heart”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, and “The Masque of the Red Death”, people would have a hard time making an argument why Edgar Allan Poe’s complete works should not be included on this list.
#1 – “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
In a nation where we fight for equality, knowing that we are not all equal is a bitter pill to swallow. It is the differences in us that make us great. In typical Vonnegut style, the king of post-modern literature explores these differences in a world where society tries to push for equality. It is a quick read that will make you laugh at the absurd notion of what would happen if we tried for this goal, but look at the world around you and wonder if perhaps we have not already moved ourselves into this dystopian nightmare. You will never forget the tragic fate of Harrison Bergeron or the lesson his story has to tell to us. It is for this reason that it achieves the number one spot.
#2 – “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
This has been one of my favorite stories over the years to teach. It holds a lot of suspense with it, and you can see how that suspense grows with each beat of the heart. But the fun thing about this story is that the eye can also be synonymous with “I” which puts a completely different twist on the intention of the story, and what Edgar Allan Poe actually thinks about himself.
#3 – “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Conner
Flannery O’Conner has a brilliant way of bringing out the darkness in humanity while writing about the southern parts of the United States. Each of her stories have complex characters and intricate plots. This story is probably the best example of what she is able to accomplish with her prose.
#4 – “This Year’s Class Picture” by Dan Simmons
After looking at the other stories on this list, some of you might wonder what this story is, and why it is not as big as the others that made the cut. You would expect to have at least heard of the story that made it this high on the list. I would tend to agree with you, but you should take the time to seek this story out and read it. Dan Simmons’s “This Year’s Class Picture” is destined to become a classic. Yes, many of you might disregard it as a piece of zombie literature that deserves a place on the pile of pulp fiction rubbish, but if you have ever taught a class, you will understand what is at the heart of this story. I have given this story to many teachers, ranging from high school to elementary, from math to English, from traditional to alternative, and they have all come back and said that this is their favorite story. It was written for them; therefore, they can make the connection to its profound message. Even if you are not a teacher, you should still read this story because you will start to see what motivates America’s educators to do what they do.
#5 – “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
With all of the dystopian literature that is plaguing the bookshelves of American bookstores, it is hard to remember a time when these profound stories were only limited to a few great examples. This short story was one of the best in the short story drama. It told the story of a horror that is a little too close to the world that we live in.
#6 – “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe
The master of story telling shows up again on this list with a tale of pure terror. To even imagine yourself in the same position as the protagonist in this story will give you nightmares for the rest of your life. It is a perfect example of how gothic literature can mix with pure terror to give one of the most heart-pounding experiences ever printed on the page.
#7 – “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner
On the surface, this story looks like an innocent portrait of an eccentric woman who has spent her life hiding in the shadows of a small town in Mississippi. But there is a reason that the term applied to William Faulkner’s body of work is Southern Gothic. Look below the surface of this story and discover the truth of what is hidden there. It hides in the shadows just as Emily does, and when you find it, you will see that there is no innocence to this tale.
#8 – “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe
One of the more political stories by Edgar Allan Poe shows up here. At the heart of this story is a class system that believed that even they could cheat death, but in the end, death will come for all. It is a humbling story that reminds us that in the eyes of some the supernatural beings out there that we are all equal.
#9 – “To Build a Fire” by Jack London
If the heat of summer is starting to bug you, pick up a copy of this story and start to read. Soon after the opening paragraph you will feel a chill in the room, and by the time you finish its tragic ending, you will be curled up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate warming your hands. The chilly mood that Jack London creates in this classic is not the only genius held within its words. There is a battle of man against nature, and the real lesson to be learned is that nature will always win.
#10 – “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane
Often credited as the best example of Realism ever written, Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” will leave you just as tired as the group of sailors that attempt to find their way to shore in a tiny boat as the battle the wrath that only nature can throw at man.
#11 – “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
When this story first appeared in The New England Magazine in January of 1892, the treatment for mental illness was still in its infancy. The diagnosis alone could have been part of the problem. Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses this issue to frame her haunting story, but her true intention about a woman confined to a room with maddening wallpaper comes to light at the end of the tale. It leaves the reader will an impression of the world at that time, and shows how the fight for women’s rights has progressed over the ages. This story is still relevant today, and can be analyzed at many different levels, thereby giving it the number five spot.
#12 – “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs
Beware of what you wish for because it might actually come true. This sentiment is at the heart of W.W. Jacobs’s macabre tale about a family that is given three wishes. The real question behind the story though is whether these wishes were actually delivered by the monkey’s paw or if it was a matter of chance, and the unfortunate family is just recipient of the coincidences.
#13 – “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A poor couple barely making ends meet finds a very old man with enormous wings sleeping in their chicken coop one morning. Was the man sent to help them out or is he more of burden? Is he really an angel, or is he some other misshapen mythical figure? Does our salvation come from within or do we need divine intervention? It is these questions that Gabriel Garcia Marquez explores in this bizarre and often humorous story.
#14 – “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
The classic Christmas story about how love will overcome poverty so a gift from the heart can be given. The ironic twist, written in classic O. Henry style, just adds to the overall theme of the true meaning of giving.
#15 – “Battle Royal” by Ralph Ellison
Before Ralph Ellison published his quintessential novel, Invisible Man, he had published the short story, “Battle Royal” in the magazine, Horizon. This turned into the first chapter of his book, but it can still stand on its own as a short story today. It is hard to read this story, and not think about the brutality that is portrayed of a young black man growing up in the South during the 1930 who wishes nothing more to have his voice heard. Ralph Ellison’s use of imagery not only brings to light one of the pressing issues facing America throughout its history, but also points to the conflict that is in each of us.
#16 – “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
Why is it the fate of so many to spend their lives trying to keep up with their neighbors? The appearances that we put up in order to look like we live above our means will sometimes lead us to make poor decisions. Instead, we should try to find happiness in what we have. This is the overall idea presented in Guy de Maupassant’s story. The twist at the end will make you laugh at the protagonist with her inability to accept her lot in life.
#17 – “Desiree’s Baby” by Kate Chopin
With racial tensions still running high today, the story of Desiree’s baby still carries a lot of significance to it. Are we so blind in our hatred of other people that we can’t even see the love that is right in front of us? The sad thing is that thing that we really hate the most is actually a part of us.
#18 – “The Thing on the Doorstep” by H.P. Lovecraft
Many people would say that the king of horror would be none other than Stephen King, but Stephen King would say that it is H.P. Lovecraft. If you want to know the true meaning of fear, read the man who wrote about it better than anybody else. His stories delve deep into the mythology of Cthulhu and this one is the best out of all he has written. While this master of terror tells a story that will haunt you for many nights, he explores the ideas of control, and how it plays out in our own lives. It is a little bit of a journey to read this story, but you will never forget it.
#19 – “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce
A man stands on the edge of a bridge with a noose around his neck while Union soldiers stand by to watch him hang. What follows is the fantastical story about his escape, and eventually the reality of the situation he must come to terms with. Bierce’s writing style, his attention to key details, and his surprising climax makes this an unforgettable story. Even though it would take a reader only a half an hour to read, it has been adapted into film three times. Most notably, this story was the inspiration for the cult classic, Donnie Darko, and many people puzzled by that movie have come to the words written by Ambrose Bierce to help find meaning with that piece of celluloid.
#20 – “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
What secrets is the minister hiding behind that veil that only reveals his mouth and chin? What is the purpose of the veil, and why did the minister decide to start wearing it? Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story reveals so much about us and other people by hiding it behind the one place that everybody wants to look.
#21 – “The Destructors” by Graham Greene
If you were wondering, yes, this story is included because it is the other half of deciphering the movie Donnie Darko, but that doesn’t mean that this story is not worthy of being on this list. A group of boys in post World War II London set out to destroy the house of old man who lives in the neighborhood that they go to play in. They don’t so this out of spite, but rather out of love. It is a beautifully written piece of literature that makes us question our motivations in life, and what beauty can really represent. This masterpiece is excluded for a lot of anthologies, but I hope someday it finds it place there again because it really does belong.
#22 – “The Last Rung on the Ladder” by Stephen King
Can we always trust that the ones that love us will always be there when we need them? Will there come a time when we must take responsibility for our own selves? Is the death of a sister who decided to commit suicide directly related to her bother because he wasn’t there to save her like he had done when they were children growing up on a farm and the last rung on the ladder broke?
#23 – “Crushed Gardenias” by Heather Anne Osborne
A great contemporary short from an up and coming voice that follows the investigation of the disappearance of several small girls in a small Colorado town.