These stories about fear or anxiety have characters that are afraid, usually because of a physical threat, a danger to someone close to them, or because their imagination runs wild.
Most of the stories are not about phobias or clinical anxiety but there are a few in their own section at the bottom. See also:
Stories About Fear & Anxiety
“The Boarded Window” by Ambrose Bierce
A man who lives in the wilderness prepares his wife’s body for burial. There is an incident that night, which the narrator claims explains the mystery of why his cabin had a boarded window. (Summary)
This story can be read in the preview of 100 Great American Short Stories. (80% into preview)
“The Lightning-Rod Man” by Herman Melville
On a very stormy night, a salesman calls on the narrator, warning him of the dangers of lightning. He tries to sell the narrator a lightning rod. Each strike of lightning makes his pitch more urgent, as he tries to convince the narrator that he’s in a great deal of danger. (Summary)
This is the seventh story in the preview of Classic Short Stories.
“The Viaduct” by Brian Lumley
Two boys, John and David, are walking along the beach on a warm spring day. They head for the viaduct. On the way, they have an encounter with Wiley Smiley, the village idiot. The boys bother him before going on their way. When they reach the viaduct, they remember something they were going to do.
“The Viaduct” can be read in the Amazon preview of The Mammoth Book of Nightmare Stories: Twisted Tales Not to be Read at Night.
“Autopsy Room Four” by Stephen King
Howard has been in the dark for a while, and has the sensation of movement. He hears a squeaky wheel and feels contact on his body. There are voices. Now he’s being moved. He thinks he’s in a hospital. He can’t move or speak. Everything feels too real to be a dream.
This story can be read in the preview of Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales.
“Welcome to the Club” by R. L. Stine
JJ is working the night-shift at the restaurant. He goes outside for a five minute break even though the owner, Florian, doesn’t like it. He sees some kids from his high school hanging out in the parking lot. JJ’s the new kid in town and he doesn’t know the group. A little before closing time, the kids from the parking lot come in. They have a favor to ask.
“Welcome to the Club” is the first story in the Amazon preview of Fear: 13 Stories of Suspense and Horror.
“Wilshire Bus” by Hisaye Yamamoto
Esther Kuroiwa is riding the Wilshire bus to a hospital for soldiers to visit her husband because his old back injury is acting up. She’s allowed to go twice a week. She enjoys the long ride; she usually has an amiable seat companion, and she like looking out the window. An extroverted man gets on the bus and makes a loud, light-hearted remark to the driver. He sits behind Esther. At the next stop, an elderly Chinese couple get on, and the man has difficulty asking the driver a question. The extroverted man talks loudly, causing the Chinese woman to look at him. The man is offended and goes on a rant. (Summary)
“By the Water” by Paul Bowles
Amar decides to visit a neighboring city where he believes he has some cousins. He sets out for the bus station in the early morning; he doesn’t arrive in the other city until after dark. He tries to find somewhere to sleep.
This story can be read in the preview of The Stories of Paul Bowles.
“The Prophet’s Hair” by Salman Rushdie
A famous relic is stolen from a mosque. Hashim, a wealthy money-lender, finds it floating in the water. He knows he should return it, but decides to keep it instead. The family’s life is thrown into chaos. (Summary)
“Wildcat” by Flannery O’Connor
There are reports of a wildcat loose in the area. The young men are planning to hunt it down, while “Old Gabriel”, an elderly, blind man, is afraid of being attacked by the cat, which he claims to be able to smell.
This is the third story in the preview of The Complete Stories.
“Pink Bow Tie” by Paul Jennings
A boy is called to the principal’s office for the second time in his two days at the school. His hair, which was black yesterday, is now white. Dyeing your hair is against school policy, but the boy maintains he didn’t. He claims it’s because of a strange experience on the train. (Summary)
“Never Stop on the Motorway” by Jeffrey Archer
Diana is looking forward to going to her friend’s farmhouse for the weekend. She gets held up at the office, and can’t leave until 6. She’s divorced, and it’s her husband’s weekend with the kids. She doesn’t like being by herself. It’s slow going getting out of the city. When she finally gets her speed up, there’s an incident.
This story can be read in the preview of The Short, the Long and the Tall.
“Paranoia” by Shirley Jackson
Mr. Beresford is headed home after a day’s work. He’s pleased with himself for remembering his wife’s birthday. He has candy for her and plans to take her out for supper. While trying to hail a cab, a man in a light hat unsettles him. Changing his mind, he tries to board a bus, but the man in the light hat shows up again.
This is the first story in the preview of Let Me Tell You.
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” by Richard Matheson
Wilson sits on a plane that’s preparing for takeoff. He’s shaken by the thunderous noise of the engines. He isn’t feeling well, physically or mentally. He rushes into the bathroom and tries to calm himself. He returns to his seat and tries to sleep, but can’t. Looking out the window, he sees something moving around on the wing.
This is the first story in the preview of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories.
“The Wish” by Roald Dahl
A young boy tries to make his way across a carpet, imagining it to be full of hot coals and snakes. (Summary)
“My Financial Career” by Stephen Leacock
The narrator goes to the bank to open an account. He’s uncomfortable and awkward. Everything about the place rattles him. He’s gotten a raise, though, so he feels an account is a must.
This is the first story in the preview of My Financial Career and Other Follies.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes (Suit)” by Hans Christian Andersen
An emperor loves nice clothes and spends all his money on them. He ignores his real duties. Two men say they know how to weave the most beautiful cloth that can only be seen by people who are smart and good at their jobs. The emperor pays them a huge sum of money to make him some clothes.
This story can be read in the preview of The Complete Stories and Fairytales.
“When it Happens” by Margaret Atwood
Mrs. Burridge, a fifty-one-year old woman on a farm, prepares for some kind of societal breakdown, possibly a war. She doesn’t believe her husband will be able to protect her—he could be dead or gone—when it happens. She imagines what it will be like. (Summary)
“Poisoned” by Beverly Barton
Olivia has been poisoned but manages to run away. It must have been her drink. She trusted Jed Merrill, but now he’s pursuing. Olivia tries to keep moving, but she’s exhausted and disoriented.
This story can be read in the preview of Love Is Murder. (70% in)
“The Paperhanger” by William Gay
The doctor’s wife is home with her four-year-old daughter, Zeneib, while workers are renovating the place. She has a hostile exchange with the paperhanger before leaving the room. She goes to her car in the driveway and calls Zeneib.
This story is in the anthology The Best American Noir of the Century.
“Next Door” by Tobias Wolff
At night, a husband and wife hear the neighbors yelling at each other, their baby crying, their dog barking and see all the lights are on. They’re bothered by the commotion, but they don’t call the police for fear of retaliation. They try to drown out the noise and distract themselves by watching TV.
This story can be read in the preview of Our Story Begins. (74% in)
“Cemetery Path” by Leonard Q. Ross
Ivan is known in his village as a timid, fearful man. When he walks home at night he goes the long way around the cemetery, even though it’s cold. One night he is challenged to cross the cemetery. (Summary & Analysis)
“The High-Heeled Shoes, A Memoir” by Hisaye Yamamoto
A woman who’s home alone gets a phone call at mid-morning. It’s a man named Tony who greets her warmly. She doesn’t know of any Tony, so she tells him he has the wrong number. He insists the number is correct. Thinking he’s a salesman, she asks what he wants. It’s not what she was expecting, and she hangs up on him. It makes her think of other incidents where she and other women she knows had unwelcome encounters with men.
“Big Black Good Man” by Richard Wright
Jenson, an older man, is the night porter at a cheap hotel. It’s late when a very large black man, an American sailor, comes in looking for a room. Jenson wants to turn him away but he’s afraid to. He gives the man a room, and the man deposits a large sum of money in the safe.
“Free Radicals” by Alice Munro
Nita, sixty-two, lives alone now that her husband, Rich, who was almost twenty years older, has died. They thought she would be the first to die, as she was diagnosed with cancer. Sympathy for her has fallen off because Rich was buried cheaply without a funeral service, as he wanted. She’s very aware of his absence and hasn’t gone through his things yet. They fell in love while Rich was married to his first wife, Bett. One day, when Nita opens the door for some air, she gets a visit.
“Sutton Place Story” by John Cheever
Robert and Katherine Tennyson were out with a business friend last night and had a lot to drink. Their three-year-old, Deborah, is allowed to come see them on Sunday morning. Soon after, the cook brings the Tennyson’s their breakfast and tells them Mrs. Harley is there to take Deborah out. Deborah doesn’t talk much about how she spends her days away from home, which benefits Mrs. Harley. Several times, they’ve gone to the movies instead of staying outside. Sometimes, on Sundays, she leaves Deborah with Renée Hall, a family friend.
“Beautiful” by Jeffery Deaver
Kari Swanson looks through a crack in her blinds. She sees the familiar old Ford pickup. She feels sick and tries to hold back tears. He’s found her already, even though she’s surreptitiously moved to Massachusetts. She put two thousand miles between them and it’s only been a week, but David Dale has found her. He became obsessed with her from her modeling work.
“The Griffin and the Minor Canon” by Frank Stockton
A griffin hears that a likeness of him is being displayed at a far away church. He wants to see it, so he goes to the town and calls out for someone to talk to him, but the people are afraid. They suggest the minor canon might speak to him.
“That Evening Sun” by William Faulkner
Nancy is an African-American washerwoman who’s been treated unjustly in the town. A man, possibly her husband, believes that the child she’s carrying isn’t his. He leaves but Nancy is afraid that he’s coming back to attack her.
“Once Upon a Time” by Nadine Gordimer
A woman, scared after hearing a noise at night, tells herself a bedtime story about a happy, affluent couple who are afraid of people of a different color. They increase the security of their home to keep safe.
“The Circus” by Katherine Anne Porter
A child, Miranda, is taken to her first circus. She’s overwhelmed by the sensations of the event and gets frightened.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe
A man is put on trial and condemned to death. He finds himself in a cell with a deep pit in the center and, above, a blade swinging back and forth on a pendulum.
“Anxiety” by Grace Paley
An older woman watches people from her tenement window. When a man and his young daughter walk by, she questions his behavior and warns him about the dangers of the world.
“The Way It Felt to Be Falling” by Kim Edwards
The narrator, Kate, relates the events of the summer she turned nineteen. Her father went insane after his business failed. Her boyfriend, Stephen, was violent and suicidal. After Stephen lost a bet at work, he had to go skydiving and Kate was selected to go with him to witness it.
“The Norwegian Rat” by Naguib Mahfouz
The tenants of a small apartment building are afraid of the possible invasion of their building by Norwegian rats. Reportedly, the rats are very dangerous, attacking cats and even people. The senior tenant of the building gives instructions on how everyone can prepare for and protect themselves from the rats.
“On the Rainy River” by Tim O’Brien
The narrator tells the story of what happened to him twenty years ago. He was too embarrassed to tell it before. After college he received a draft notice for the Vietnam War. He had complex feelings about the war and was uncertain about reporting.
“Suzy and Leah” by Jane Yolen
In her diary, Suzy writes about the refugee camp in her town where she and other children have brought candy bars to the children inside. They will be attending her school soon, and she’s not looking forward to it.
In letters to her mother (who is deceased), Leah writes about being in the refugee camp, and the conditions that she and others endured during the war and while fleeing from the Nazis. She is afraid of going to school in America.
They become classmates and are assigned to work together, but they don’t understand each other.
“Where Have You Gone Charming Billy” by Tim O’Brien
Paul Berlin is serving his first day in the Vietnam War. Earlier in the day, one of his platoon members was killed by a landmine. While on a night march, Paul tries to control his fears.
“The Colonel” by Carolyn Forche
The narrator recounts a tense dinner in the home of an unidentified powerful man. He has an important message to give his guests.
“To Set Our House in Order” by Margaret Laurence
Beth has to go to the hospital two weeks before her due date. Her husband, Ewen, is worried, as is her daughter Vanessa. Her mother-in-law, Grandmother MacLeod, is stoically detached. Ewen and his mother argue about getting some help for the house. Vanessa relates her feelings during the episode, and talks about the changes her grandmother has lived through.
“Snow” by Julia Alvarez
Yolanda narrates her early experiences in New York, going to school, learning a new language, and coping with the possibility of a nuclear conflict.
“The Wife’s Story” by Ursula K. Le Guin
A wife tells the story of her husband. He was a good husband and father, well liked and respected. Something happened that she can’t believe. Everyone says it was because of the moon and the blood.
“A Saucer of Loneliness” by Theodore Sturgeon
A man rushes into the sea to help a woman. It’s hard to find her in the tumult, and a panicked search ensues. Years earlier, she had a remarkable experience in a park that affected her deeply.
“The Elevator” by William Sleator
Martin, twelve-years-old, has moved to an apartment building with an old, small elevator. He wants to avoid it, but he lives on the seventeenth floor and doesn’t want to look like a coward. One morning an unusual lady rides the elevator with him, increasing his sense of dread.
“The Key Game” by Ida Fink
A family is living in their third apartment since the beginning of the war. It’s late but they can’t go to bed until they play the key game—the mother imitates the doorbell, the boy stalls while pretending he is looking for the keys, and the father hides.
“The Fqih” by Paul Bowles
A dog bites a young man in the street. People say he should go to the doctor, but he laughs it off. Concerned, his younger brother consults the fqih, who gives him drastic advice.
“Fear” by Guy de Maupassant
A ship’s captain tells some passengers about a time he felt afraid. One of the men objects, saying the captain doesn’t know what real fear is. He tells his own story to illustrate his point.
“The Wheel” by John Wyndham
An old man is outside sitting on a stool doing a little work and getting sleepy. He is roused by a sound. When he locates the source he is shocked and panicked. It’s a young boy pulling a wooden box on wheels.
“The Premature Burial” by Edgar Allan Poe
The narrator suffers from catalepsy and is afraid of being buried alive. He relates some of the many known cases where this has happened to people. He takes all the precautions he can so this doesn’t happen to him.
“Three Skeleton Key” by George G. Toudouze
The narrator relates the most terrifying experience he’s had. He was working with two other men in a lighthouse. The night watchman woke everyone at two in the morning. A large ship was sailing right for them. It missed them but then came around and headed for them again. They tried to figure out what was going on. When they examined the ship with their binoculars, they were alarmed at what they saw.
“Calling the Shots” by Karen Dionne
Jason is working in the woods alone. He just had an argument with his girlfriend. He told her he couldn’t go thru with the marriage even though she’s pregnant. Their families aren’t on good terms. He starts up his chain saw and begins cutting the trees.
“Oh, the Wonder!” by Jeremy Larner
Willie is a philosophy student at Columbia. He’s behind on his papers and studies. He’s engaged to Sarah, a student in Philadelphia. He’s afraid of everything.
“The Adventure of the Speckled Band” by Arthur Conan Doyle
A young woman, Helen, makes an early morning visit to Holmes and Watson. She lives with her stepfather, who is known for his outbursts. Her sister died two years before in their home. Her dying words referred to a speckled band. She was engaged at the time. Now, Helen is also engaged, and she’s heard the same type of noise her sister mentioned before she died. She’s very afraid.
Read “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”
“An Anxious Man” by James Lasdun
Joseph and Elise Nagel are on a family vacation. Joseph is distressed because their investments have gone down badly over the past four days. They argue about their situation. After an inheritance left them with a sizable sum of money, Joseph began to think they had to raise their standard of living.
“The Escape” by J. B. Stamper
Boris is being led down a long hallway to the solitary confinement cell. He was caught in an escape attempt. He’s terrified of his punishment and begs to be spared. He promises he’ll never do anything wrong again.
“The Bus” by Shirley Jackson
Miss Harper is headed home on a wet, nasty night. She’s upset about having to ride a dirty little bus. She plans on writing a letter of complaint to the bus company. Settling into her seat, she hopes to get some rest on the bus ride home. Her thoughts are on a hot bath and a cup of tea.
“The Man and the Snake” by Ambrose Bierce
Harker Brayton relaxes on the sofa with a book. In a corner of the room, under his bed, he sees two tiny points of light. He tries returning to his book but can’t focus on it. Looking at the spot again, he finds the points of light still there—they might even be closer. Startled, he drops his book.
“The Night” by Ray Bradbury
You are a child in a small town in 1927. You’re home with your mom. Your older brother, Skipper, is twelve and allowed to stay out later. When it’s almost nine-thirty, your mother wonders where Skipper is. After a while, she says you’re both going out for a walk.
“Why, Honey?” by Raymond Carver
A woman responds to a letter she received about her son. He doesn’t live at home anymore and she’s afraid of him. She reads about him in the paper sometimes. She relates some of the troubling incidents from their past, starting with the disappearance of their cat.
“The Secret of City Cemetery” by Patrick Bone
Fourteen-year-old Willard disappeared one Halloween night, and his body was never found. He was a bully. One of his favorite pranks was to hide in open graves and scare kids who were out playing.
Short Stories About Phobias or Clinical Anxiety
“Beyond the Bayou” by Kate Chopin
An African-American woman, La Folle, was frightened “out of her senses” as a child. As a result, she won’t cross an imaginary line in her area; she has never been beyond the bayou. (Summary)
“Covered Mirrors” by Jorge Luis Borges
The narrator has been uneasy with mirrors since childhood. He prayed that he wouldn’t dream of mirrors. He relates a story about the horror of mirrors. It involved a young woman, Julia, who he associated with for a while.
Read “Covered Mirrors”
“The Second Tree from the Corner” by E. B. White
Mr. Trexler regularly visits a psychiatrist because of dizziness, despondency, anxiety and tension among other things. The doctor assures him he’s just afraid, and will be fine.
“The Angel of the Bridge” by John Cheever
The narrator, a businessman, finds out that his mother is afraid of flying. He also finds out his brother has developed a fear of tall buildings, especially the elevators. He doesn’t take an understanding view of his brother’s problem. On the way back from New Jersey, he experiences a strong reaction to the George Washington Bridge.
“Georgy Porgy” by Roald Dahl
The narrator is a fairly well-rounded person. The one area he feels he’s lacking is with women. Physical contact with them is repugnant to him; he even avoids shaking hands. He’s a curate with a large number of spinsters in his parish. Fending them off makes him jumpy.
I’ll keep adding short stories about anxiety & fear as I find more.