Ray Bradbury is known for writing some of the best speculative fiction of his time. But he also dabbled in the creepy and outright macabre. In a few novels and dozens of short stories, he explored the darker side of humanity and the terrors that magic and technology can truly bring.
Here are eleven of Ray Bradbury’s spookiest short stories and novels that will keep you on the edge of your seat and seed the terrors of your next nightmare.
“There are smiles & smiles; learn to tell the dark variety from the light.”
The carnival arrives after midnight, and with it, Halloween comes to Green Town, Illinois a week early. And the show is about to begin. Inside, the shadows swirl, beckoning the town inside the tents filled with smoke and mazes, poison promises and twisted mysteries. Two boys will soon find how steep the cost of wishes can be. And how close to nightmares dreams might really be.
“Hold the dark holiday in your palms, Bite it, swallow it and survive, Come out the far black tunnel of el Día de Muerte And be glad, ah so glad you are… alive!”
On Halloween night, eight costumed boys rush to meet their friend at the haunted house on the outskirts of town. Instead, they run into a mountain of a man, Mr. Moundshroud. But Pipkin, the ninth boy, never makes it to the house. He’s taken by a dark Something. And if the boys want to see their friend again, they have to go with Mr. Moundshroud on a journey through space and time. Because to find Pipkin, they also have to find the meaning of Halloween.
“Nothing ever likes to die — even a room.”
This science fiction story was originally published in 1951, in the Saturday Evening Post as “The World the Children Made”. In it, a family lives in an automated house, complete with machines that help them with every aspect of their life. What begins as a technological paradise turns darker as the implications of being overly reliant on technology start to take effect. And when the nursery gets stuck on a violent display of death, the parents decide it’s time to intervene. Only the house—and the children—have other ideas.
“There was a great universal humming and sizzling, a screaming and giggling.”
Bradbury often wrote about that special time in childhood when belief could turn anything real. Here, ten-year-old Mink plays a game with her friends. The older kids tease them for their efforts, but Mink and the other youngsters are adamant to play Invasion. And they aren’t the only ones. It’s a game sweeping the nation, but only with kids ten and younger. But what happens when a game is not just a game? Mink’s mother is about to find out.
“One of those pale things drifting in alcohol plasma, forever dreaming and circling, with its peeled, dead eyes staring out at you and never seeing you.”
Another story set in a carnival, this one focuses on the creepy side shows that often were attached to the games and the rides. When Charlie saw the jar, he had to have it—no matter what. After he brings it home, it becomes a spectacle with people travelling miles to peer inside. But no matter who peers into the viscous liquid, they all see something different. Something personal. Something tied to their deepest fears and hidden guilt. And sometimes, that vision drives them to commit atrocious acts.
“They have one thing in common, they always show up together.”
When Mr. Spalliner gets in a terrible car accident, it attracts quite a crowd. But that crowd gathered before the car crashed, of that, he’s certain. And there’s something strange about the people who were there. A wrongness he can’t shake. The more accidents he witnesses, the more he realizes this same crowd is at each one. Before he can do anything about his revelations, there’s another accident. One, that he may not survive.
“Lavinia stood in the middle of a thousand warm shadows with the crickets screaming and the frogs loud.”
“The Whole Town's Sleeping”
Though the story was altered with a happier ending in the novel Dandelion Wine, the original was a nightmarish story perfect for campfire scares. We all know what it’s like to feel safe and secure on familiar streets surrounded by the confidence only the young can muster. But sometimes danger lurks in the places you know best. And one young woman is about to find out just how precarious safety can truly be.
“The house remained quiet, except for the sound of his heart.”
“The Small Assasin”
There is nothing more terrifying than motherhood and Bradbury taps into all the ways being a parent can go wrong in this creepy story first published in 1946. For Alice, her trauma begins in childbirth, where she almost dies. But instead of being able to recover and care for her healthy newborn boy, she is terrified of the baby, believing it’s trying to kill her. As things begin going terribly wrong for this small family, it becomes obvious that something is wrong. Only, by the time her husband David believes her, it’s far too late.
“How talented was death. How many expressions and manipulations of hand, face, body, no two alike.”
“The Next in Line”
What would it be like, knowing you were next in line to die? That’s what Maria wonders after her husband drags her on a tour of the catacombs in Mexico and she stares at a line of standing mummies. But that thought twists into an obsession with death. One where Maria is sure she’s dying. And as their car dies, leaving them stranded, maybe Maria was right all along.
"It isn't enough to just punish someone; the suffering must be prolonged.”
“The October Game”
The October Game is maybe one of the darkest stories Bradbury ever wrote. It’s about a man who hates his wife. All he ever wanted was a son. Not the daughter his now-barren wife gave him. But he doesn’t just hate his wife. He doesn’t want to just murder her. He needs her to suffer. And in a dark basement, under the guise of a Halloween game, he might finally be able to make his darkest desires come true.