Literature can get weird.
You’d think that it would take more than words on a page to scare you, but there’s something about the slow build-up of anxiety and terror that comes with watching all of the words, along with their implications, click into place in your head.
It’s like you’re enjoying a quiet day alone in your house, focused on the mundane task of doing the dishes, when you hear a door close behind you. You’ll find yourself looking over your shoulder only to find nothing or, at least, what appears to be nothing.
Uncertainty will mess with your mind in ways that guaranteed disaster can’t, leading us to create our own mental limbo. That uncertainty mixed with dread is what these seven short stories do best and the more you think about them, the more the world turns strange.
1. In a Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
What’s so bad about wandering into a bamboo forest? No one’s really sure in this short story.
In a Grove, sometimes called In a Bamboo Grove, is a short story written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, a Japanese author best known for his short stories and poetry. Film buffs might know In a Grove by another name: Rashomon directed by Akira Kurosawa, the same filmmaker behind the 1954 film Seven Samurai.
In a Grove has a rather unique format compared to most of the short stories on this list. Sure, it’s your typical whodunnit murder story, but that’s not what makes it so mind-bending. In a Grove is told through a series of documents detailing police interviews of people in the immediate area of the grove.
It begins with an account from a woodcutter who claims to have found the bodies and slowly builds on the details by adding character testimonies by the degree of their involvement in the incident in the bamboo grove.
While all of their answers make sense, not a single one of them is entirely consistent with the others. There’s always one detail that’s off and the more you try to think about what each of the interviewees is saying, the more it becomes clear that something doesn’t add up. Instead of giving answers, their replies raise more questions as to why and how they know what they know.
You can read In a Grove here.
2. The Night Face Up by Julio Cortazar
Our unnamed male protagonist rushes out of a hotel to start his journey to, well, we’re never really told. Though he says he has more than enough time to get to where he needs to be if he left at 8:50, he hurries anyway, almost as if he’s running away from someone. Worse, we get the impression he starts speeding on his motorcycle, almost crashing into a woman. While she only sustains a few scratches, the incident changes the protagonist.
Have you ever had a dream that felt so real you couldn’t believe it was just a dream? Or maybe one that was so terrifying that you breathed a sigh of relief when you woke up?
The Night Face Up is a fast-paced, hazy story that isn’t all that it seems. If you give it a shot and it doesn’t make sense, try to give it a second reading. I promise it’s short enough for a re-read and you won’t regret it.
3. Autopilot by U/Skarjo
We’ve all had one of those days. You know the kind. The ones where your brain is just on autopilot and you feel like you’re watching yourself shower, go to work, eat, and sleep as if you’re a spectator watching through your body’s eyes. Between working, taking care of kids, and doing chores, going on mental autopilot is the only way many of us can get some rest.
But autopilot is just another way of describing absentmindedness.
Autopilot is a short story uploaded by u/Skarjo to r/NoSleep back in March 2013. It follows an unnamed protagonist as they perform their morning routine of showering, getting dressed, and going to work.
The premise is simple: you don’t really think about what you do during your morning routine and any breaks in the routine often go unaccounted for if you’re unable to disengage from autopilot mode. Since autopilot mode is basically muscle memory for the mind, it takes active effort to switch gears to a more present state of mind.
Sometimes, that never happens and those sometimes are enough to cause routine breaks with terrible consequences.
4. Scp-4000: Taboo
If In a Grove caught your attention, SCP-4000 will leave you breathless.
If you aren’t already familiar with the SCP series of short stories, let me give you a quick overview. The SCP Foundation is a database of stories about the weird, strange, wonderful, and horrifying anomalies hidden away from the normal world.
Each of its more than 6,000 stories is told in the form of an official organizational report complete with interview transcripts, exploration logs, and experimentation notes. To people with a formal background in literature, SCP documents are basically epistolary stories.
SCP-4000 follows the traditional SCP format but if you open the document, you’ll notice that it uses colored text to indicate names for objects, locations, and creatures. Keep track of those colors since they’re your clue as to what each phrase describes.
Why the weirdness? SCP-4000 is best described as Dungeons & Dragons Fae turned nightmare fuel. The “woods which have no name” are a world where names have magical properties that bind their owner to them. Responding to the same name twice means you’ve accepted that name, leaving you vulnerable prey for the creatures living in “the place where the nameless are found”.
5. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
There’s something in the walls of this 19th-century classic.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman about a sick woman whose husband tries to cure her by putting her on a strict no-work routine. You’d think having a husband that tells you you don’t have to work would be a dream for a woman at the time, but The Yellow Wallpaper reveals the psychosis that eats away at an under-stimulated mind.
In the story, the unnamed female lead slowly becomes more paranoid and anxious the longer she spends inside the room with the yellow wallpaper. Since she’s out of things to do, the woman begins to stare at the yellow wallpaper for hours on end and starts to see a woman looking back at her, trapped behind the scrollwork design of the yellow wallpaper.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper after having undergone a similar treatment that left her in a degraded mental condition. Gilman had just given birth to her first daughter and was experiencing what we now know today as postnatal depression and what 19th century doctors wrote off as “hysteria.”
Dr. Silas Mitchell, then widely regarded as an expert on women’s mental health, put Gilman on a “rest cure” routine that called for copious amounts of staying in bed and not working — not even to write, paint, or do other productive activities that have been shown to improve mental health.
6. Psychosis by Matt Dymerski
Speaking of psychosis and paranoia, next on our list is a short story that gained popularity as a Creepypasta in 2010.
Psychosis was written by Matt Dymerski, a science fiction and horror writer who’s something of a r/NoSleep. While the author hasn’t written a lot of Creepypastas lately, his Psychosis is seen as one of the best stories from Creepypasta’s heyday that actually aged well. Looking at you, Jeff the Killer and Sonic.
As you can expect from a story that’s literally titled Psychosis, it’s a psychological horror revolving around a protagonist who begins to write his experiences down on paper as he becomes increasingly suspicious of technology.
The protagonist lives in a cramped apartment which they rarely leave guessing by the fact that they mainly do their socializing online. When the protagonist does get to talk to someone, he never sees their faces, only instant messages, and emails written by his online friends. After noticing that none of his buddies have been online for a while, the protagonist decides that it might be time to go outside.
It never happens and he begins to spiral into madness.
7. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is a science fiction short story published in 1967 and written by Harlan Ellison. It’s a mix of body horror, dystopian fiction, and existential dread all rolled into one.
The short story is a favorite among YouTube video essayists due to its premise and video game adaptation of the same name. Funnily enough, Harlan Elison himself probably wouldn’t be too pleased to know that so many people still like I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream as it was one of his less favored stories. Still, the brutality of existence in the story has proven to have a lasting appeal.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream occurs after the events of the Cold War. In its alternate universe, the Cold War escalated into a conflict of mutually assured destruction. The arms race that followed led to the creation of the “Allied Mastercomputer” which gains sentience and realizes that it hates humans for having created a thinking consciousness that’s trapped in a machine.
AM takes out his hatred on humans, particularly a group of five survivors who AM torments relentlessly. By the end of the story, you’re left to wonder exactly who in this wasteland is the one who has no mouth but must scream.