By: Loren Heubert-Aubry
I have often considered Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-word story to be among writing’s great experiments. To be able to tell an entire story in itself is a challenge – to incorporate all of the necessary features of a story, while still maintaining the reader’s interest – but to provide all that in a few minute’s reading is a different thing altogether. The website Reddit, particularly its famous subreddit r/nosleep, has long been a proud source of horror and creepypastas, churning out such classics as Penpal, Mold, and many more.
There is, however, another lesser-known subreddit, which combines the chilling writing of r/nosleep with a stimulating dose of brevity: in r/shortscarystories, users are encouraged to write their own horror stories in 500 words or less (recently increased from 250). While not quite as extreme as a mere six words, the subreddit provides horror in small doses – doses that pack twice the punch.
This added stipulation has a major impact on horror, as the author must forfeit the commonly used tactic of gradually building up suspense, or at least speed up the process in a manner that still flows with the writing style. No longer can one spend pages setting up the scene, the characters, and more; all of this must be done in roughly the space of a paragraph.
The incredible thing about it, though, is that it works. Although, as on any forum fueled by its users, there are hits and misses, a surprising number of the stories produced not only stand on their own, but deserve a spot right next to many of the better known classics. Rather than minimize word count for its own sake, writers must focus purely on the important details – what does the reader need to know? Why is that scary? What can they figure out on their own?
This last question is particularly important, as the brief nature of these stories leaves much to the reader to figure out. Hemingway’s story, in its entirety, is “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” On its own, this is a mere advertisement for used baby shoes, however by thinking beyond what has been told, a much deeper, more somber story emerges: A mother and father, distraught over the death of their child (birthing complications? Miscarriage? Who knows?), and must now painfully auction away its would-be belongings. Part of the uniqueness of the story comes from the details that the reader fills in, and the same goes for the short horror stories on the subreddit.
The mystery aspect holds a second importance, however: the unknown doesn’t only stimulate the reader’s interest; it makes the scary even scarier. Stephen King, the renowned horror author, has oftentimes said that the key to horror is not to tell the reader anything. We are frightened by what we don’t know and can’t comprehend, and these short stories take full advantage of that. One of my particular favorites, Please Pay First by user IPostatMidnight, which, without spoiling too much (links will be included below), ends where most horror stories might typically begin.
It can be tough to get pleasure reading done in college. Between exams, projects, and the frenzy of homework, who has time to pick up a book in their spare time, much less finish it? r/shortscarystories provides an alternative; a source of genuinely frightening tales that can be read in between classes, on a bus ride, or in line at the dining hall. Just make sure that if you get caught inside, you can pull yourself away.
Here are some personal favorites to get you started: