Twelve Haunting American Short Stories to Read This Halloween

by Rebecca Meacham

What makes a ghost story “American”? Let’s ask a ghost: “An American ghost does something quite different, because the people of the present are very mobile, the executives are constantly thrown from city to city, dragging their families with them.” In other words, says the narrator of Anne Sexton’s “The Ghost,” American ghosts belong to people, not places.

It’s a theory, anyway. It’s hard to argue with a ghost.

What’s certain is the power of these short stories, which fret the strings of human connection. Some tales are terrifying, others absurd. And like good (American?) ghosts, this devil’s dozen will stay with you long after you’ve turned the page.

Our Spirits, Ourselves. “We are here to prepare for not being here.”

“Po’ Sandy” by Charles Chesnutt (from The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales)

Sandy and Tenie yearn to stay together like any married couple. But they’re slaves, and Master Marrabo “lends” Sandy to other plantations and sells off his family. So, Conjure Woman Tenie turns Sandy into a tree. Then Master Marrabo wants lumber. Sandy is chopped and built into a kitchen, where the grief-wracked Tenie dies. Harrowing, yes — but this story is subversive, too: Uncle Julius, a former slave, is telling Sandy’s story to a Northern couple who’ve bought the crumbling plantation. And while “Po’ Sandy” looks like an “Uncle Remus” story, its message is chilling: no one can dwell in a house that slavery has built.

“The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands” by Dan Chaon (from Stay Awake)

Chaon is the master of modern unease. His characters chafe against domestic duty until they detach, lash out, or vanish. In this story, even words disappear from the page as three sisters wonder about the night their father tried to kill them. Are they ghosts? Are they dreaming their future as they wait for the gunshot? “Reader, do not ask me who at this very moment is dreaming you,” Chaon writes, tightening the clench.

“The Country” by Joy Williams (from Tin House Volume 15, No. 3, “Memory”)

Why Are We Here? This is the topic of the group meetings Williams’ lonely, irritable narrator attends, but comprehension lies beyond him. He returns to his young son, Colson, who channels the voices of the narrator’s dead parents. The streets overspill with garbage; at home, Colson is unwashed, the stove is dusty. This world needs looking after.Is the narrator here or not here? Like the narrator, all we want, most urgently, is to know.

The Dead Wives Club. “He saw me — at last, at last, he saw me!”

“The Moonlit Road” by Ambrose Bierce (from The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce)

Three testimonies converge in this suspenseful murder-mystery-ghost-story: a college-aged son, a murderer, and a dead woman whose statement is made through a medium. Strangled by an intruder, the woman tells of a night when she finally reunites with her husband and son — and they flee her ghostly arms. Why? Who killed her? Bierce lets us play detective, judge, and jury.

“Pomegranate Seed” by Edith Wharton (from The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton)

You’ve removed the portrait of your new husband’s (dead) first wife. Now, he’s receiving letters penned in a feminine hand — and he won’t show them to you. What can you do? If you’re Charlotte, a middle-class woman who frets formalities, you pretend not to worry — even when your husband disappears. Wharton claimed ghosts lurk in “the silent hours” of daily life; what silence is richer than unspoken fear?

“The Great Divorce” by Kelly Link (from Magic For Beginners)

“There once was a man whose wife was dead. She was dead when he fell in love with her, and dead for the twelve years they all lived together, during which time she bore him three children, all of them dead as well…” So begins Link’s hilarious take on a “mixed” marriage now as “dead as a doorknob.”

Harrowing Returns. You ever been in the grave? It sucks so bad!”

“Sometimes They Come Back” by Stephen King (from Night Shift)

This is the ultimate teacher-anxiety nightmare. As a child, Jim Norman watched a gang of bullies murder his brother. Twenty years later, students in Jim’s high school class are dying, and the empty seats fill with…the ghosts of his brothers’ killers. Like Jim, we’ve all felt defenseless; we recognize his desperation as he takes gruesome measures. As King says, fear is shaped like a body under a sheet, and that body is our own.

“The Ghost” by Anne Sexton (from The Literary Ghost, edited by Larry Dark)

“I bother the living,” says the ghost of a Victorian lady who haunts her unfortunate descendent by breaking her hip, giving her fevers, sabotaging her birth control — and humming a little song into her head during sex. But the story turns sinister when the ghost lays claim to her descendant’s writing: “How the song of the mistletoe rips through the metal of death and plays on, singing from two mouths, making me a loyal ghost.”

“Sea Oak” by George Saunders (from Pastoralia)

We begin in a male strip club called Joysticks, where our narrator worries about his Cute Rating. The family he supports lazes around eating beenie-weenies and watching How My Child Died Violently. Then sweet Aunt Bernie dies, and the real absurdity begins. “We gotta eat right to look our best,” the rotting corpse of Bernie says, declaring her plans. “Because I am getting me so many lovers.”

Freaky Kids. “He might try to help you, in his way. And that could be horrible.”

“It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby (from Masters of Science Fiction, Vol. 2: Jerome Bixby)

What if a three year-old ruled the world? Little Anthony does in this classic short story, which you may remember it as an iconic episode of The Twilight Zone. When Little Anthony plays with a rat, he makes it eat itself. When Little Anthony “hears” your bad thoughts, he puts you in the graveyard — although once in a while, he brings you back. Everything and everyone around Little Anthony must be good and wonderful — or else.

“The Cold Boy” by Benjamin Percy (from Gulf Coast 23.1, Winter/Spring 2011)

Ray doesn’t know much about the boy he’s babysitting — is he 6? 7? — except that he’s just fallen into an icy pond. Thankfully, the boy’s body floats up — and the he spits out water, awakes. But something is wrong. The boy wants to eat nothing but ice cream. His footprints are puddles. He won’t speak. And all the while, crows watch from the trees, waiting for the next cold snap.

“Haunting Olivia” by Karen Russell (from St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves)

Stuck with loss, Russell’s young characters often try to get themselves haunted. In this sad but charming story, two brothers try to find the body of their little sister, who disappeared into the ocean two years before. Timothy would settle for a glimpse of her ghost. Goaded by his brother, weary of searching, he finds himself in a glowing cave, ready to drown in its grief and wonder.

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