Here are some disturbing short stories that have shocked, unsettled or messed people up. Some of the stories have caused controversy or been banned. Of course, tastes vary, so what shocks one person won’t have the slightest affect on someone else. Some of these short stories were considered controversial for their time but might not seem so bad by today’s standard.
Oftentimes, a story resonates with us more because we read it when we were young. Still, I hope you find something here that stuns you regardless of your age.
Unsettling or Disturbing Short Stories
“The Decapitated Chicken” by Horacio Quiroga
Mazzini and Berta have four developmentally disabled sons, aged eight to twelve. They spend most of the day sitting on a bench in their own filth. Their parents neglect them. Their relationship has deteriorated, as each wants to blame the other for their sons’ condition. They’re hesitant to have any more children.
This story can be read in the preview of The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories.
“Live This Down” by Neil Krolicki
Three girls are at a hotel, getting ready to combine the ingredients in the tub that will produce poison gas. They got it off the internet after hearing a news report about Japanese citizens using it to kill themselves. They prep the bathroom, making it as airtight as possible. They put up a sign warning the staff not to enter. Each girl has had a life-altering social experience.
This story can be read in the preview of Burnt Tongues Anthology. (32% in) The stories in this anthology were selected to be “transgressive”.
“The Two Bottles of Relish” by Lord Dunsany
A salesman tells a story that those in the know want to hush up. A woman, suspected of being murdered, completely disappeared. A man named Steeger was the prime suspect. He’s in possession of the money she had. He says she left the country. The salesman relates all the details to his flat mate, who has a knack for seeing what others miss.
This story, one of the most famous murder mysteries ever, can be read in the preview of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries. But only if you’re ready.
“A Distant Episode” by Paul Bowles
A linguistics Professor visits Ain Tadouirt, in the warm country. He goes to the cafe of Hassan Ramani, a man he had met ten years earlier. After finding out his old acquaintance is dead, he gets a local to show him where to buy some goods he is looking for. They set off on a walk.
In an introduction to this story, John L’Heureux said “Not Kafka, not Sartre, not Beckett, not one of them has explored the horrors…of meaninglessness, of man at the mercy of a universe without purpose or design or justification, in quite the way Bowles explores it here.”
This story can be read in the preview of The Stories of Paul Bowles.
“The Landlady” by Roald Dahl
Billy Weaver, a seventeen-year-old salesman, gets into town at night. Looking for some accommodations, he finds a private bed and breakfast that looks pleasant and comfortable. He was headed for a hotel, but he feels drawn to this place. He rings the bell. (Summary & Analysis)
“The Frolic” by Thomas Ligotti
Dr. Munck is a psychologist at Nolgate Prison. He’s quickly become disillusioned with his job. Over drinks, he tells his wife about an especially troubling inmate, John Doe, who had abducted several children.
This is the first story in the preview of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe.
“Oil of Dog” by Ambrose Bierce
The narrator tells the story of his parents. His father manufactured dog oil and his mother disposed of unwanted babies. The narrator would assist his father by procuring neighborhood dogs and his mother by carrying away the remains of her work. One day, he inadvertently improves his parents’ businesses. (Summary)
“Father, Son, Holy Rabbit” by Stephen Graham Jones
A father and son are lost in a snow storm. They have no idea which way to go. They’re cold and hungry. The father only has a knife. It’s been days. One time, after waking up, the boy tells his father about a rabbit he dreamed. The thought keeps them going. The father goes out looking for the rabbit. (Summary)
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A woman’s husband, a doctor, confines her to the upstairs bedroom of their summer house. He diagnoses her with a “hysterical tendency” and “nervous depression”. She chronicles her confinement in her journal; the treatment doesn’t have a positive effect on her condition. (Summary)
This story can be read in the preview of The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Stories.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
On a summer morning, citizens of a small village are anticipating the annual “lottery”, a local tradition that is believed to bring a good harvest. The children gather first, making their usual preparations. The women and men arrive and make sure their whole family is present. Mr. Summers arrives with the black wooden box.
This story can be read in the preview of Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories. (10% in)
“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle
Douglas Stone was one of the most famous surgeons in England, and an all-round talented person. He had a lot of money and spent lavishly. He was infatuated with Lady Sannox, a very beautiful married woman. His pursuit of her was interrupted one evening by a visit from a stranger, Hamil Ali, from Smyrna. His wife had suffered an accident, and he persuaded Dr. Stone to come operate on her immediately.
This story can be read in the preview of Capital Crimes: London Mysteries. (15% in)
Disturbing Short Stories, Cont’d
“The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs
The Whites live in an out-of-the-way place, and the weather is bad. Despite this, they receive a visit from Sergeant-Major Morris, who tells them interesting stories. Mr. White urges him to tell the story of something he had only mentioned before, a monkey’s paw. The visitor is hesitant, but he tells it.
This story can be read in the preview of The Monkey’s Paw and Other Tales.
“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner
A Southern spinster, Emily Grierson, has died. She had been a recluse, so the townspeople are curious about her and her house. The narrator recounts episodes from her life. (Summary & Analysis)
This story can be read in the preview of A Rose for Emily and Other Stories. (18% into preview)
“The Travellers Stay” by Ray Cluley
A couple, Matt and Ann, along with Ann’s teenage son, John, arrive at the Travellers Stay, a run-down motel. A woman sits on the porch, smoking and drinking. She helps them get a room, but her attitude is unusual. Everyone is stressed, and Ann and John in particular aren’t pleased with the accommodations.
This story can be read in the preview of Body Shocks: Extreme Tales of Body Horror. (32% in) This anthology is full of stories that are meant to shock or disturb.
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
The citizens of Omelas are happy, but the narrator is vague as to what exactly they have which makes them so. However, the people’s happiness depends on one thing, which all the citizens are aware of.
This is the third story in the Amazon preview of The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story.
“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
All Americans are equal—no one is allowed to be better than anyone else in any way. An exceptional fourteen-year-old, Harrison, is taken away from his parents by the government.
This is the first story in the preview of Welcome to the Monkey House: Stories.
“Welcome to the Monkey House” by Kurt Vonnegut
Sheriff Crocker is at the Federal Ethical Suicide Parlor in Hyannis. He warns the Hostesses, Nancy and Mary, that a Nothinghead, Billy the Poet, is believed to be in the area. Billy doesn’t take the state-mandated ethical birth-control pills that numb a person from the waist down. The birth-control is one method of keeping the population from expanding; the other is the Suicide Parlor, where people can volunteer to die. Billy has been targeting the beautiful Hostesses, who are also highly educated and trained in hand-to-hand combat.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
An extended family is headed to Florida for a vacation. The grandmother wants to go to Tennessee instead, so she talks about an escaped murderer—The Misfit—who is suspected to be on his way to Florida. Despite her efforts, her son Bailey is set on going to Florida.
This story can be read in the preview of A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. (Kindle preview)
“It Was the Meat” by J. A. Taylor
A man on Earth gives an official statement on the Mars mission. He says it will eventually be finished. A member of the colonization team who’s watching the feed on Mars knows this isn’t true. He knows what really happened.
This story can be read in the preview of A Sci-Fi Shorts Anthology: Vol 2. (55% in)
“Marmalade Wine” by Joan Aiken
Blacker, a writer, leaves his country house for a walk in the woods. Before he’s gone far, he’s surprised to see a dead pheasant on the path. He thinks about how to turn the incident into a poem. With his thoughts distracted, he almost walks on another dead pheasant. He’s curious to know what’s happening to them.
This story can be read in the preview of Psychos: Serial Killers, Depraved Madmen and the Criminally Insane. (75% in)
“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin
A woman receives the news that her husband has been killed in a train accident. She processes the news over the next hour, experiencing a range of emotions.
Like “The Yellow Wallpaper”, this one was controversial for its time, but I doubt it causes much of a stir now.
“The Half-Skinned Steer” by Annie Proulx
Mero Corn is informed that his brother, Rollo, has been clawed to death by an emu. Mero, a retiree, decides that he will drive from Massachusetts to Wyoming for the funeral. On the way, he thinks about his father’s girlfriend, who, years ago, had told him a disturbing story about a luckless rancher and a half-skinned steer.
“Near of Kin” by Octavia E. Butler
A woman who was raised by her grandmother is at the home of her mother who has died. The only other relative who really paid attention to her, her uncle, is there too. She doesn’t feel any closeness to her deceased mother, and doesn’t care what happens to her things. Her uncle’s view of his sister’s behavior is more charitable.
Disturbing Short Stories, Cont’d
“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison
There are only five humans left alive—four men and one woman. They’re being held in a underground complex by AM, a supercomputer. It makes life miserable for the group, but won’t allow them to die. They haven’t been provided with any food for days. One of the men hallucinates about canned goods in the ice caverns. They suspect AM is merely playing a cruel trick on them. In their desperation, they set out for the caverns.
“The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury
A family lives in a futuristic house that automatically meets all their needs, including a nursery for the children that can create any scene they want. The parents are thinking about reducing their reliance on technology by taking a break from the nursery and all the automation, but the children are against the idea.
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates
A rebellious fifteen-year-old girl encounters an older man in a parking lot. He later shows up at her place when she’s home alone to ask her to go for a ride with him.
“Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl
Mrs. Maloney’s husband comes home from work in a bad mood. He eventually tells her that he’s leaving her. She is dazed by the news. She automatically starts getting supper ready. She selects a frozen leg of lamb from the deep freeze.
“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
At a train station, a man and woman have a casual conversation which transitions into something serious. It’s not explicitly stated what they’re talking about.
“The Anatomy of Desire” by John L’Heureux
Hanley, a soldier, is in a veteran’s hospital after being flayed by the enemy. He’s attended to by a nurse known as the saint. Hanley wants to be possessed and loved.
I’ll keep adding more unsettling, controversial, banned, shocking, messed up and disturbing short stories as I find them.