One of the greatest horror stories ever written is Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s A Woman Alone with her Soul. The story in its entirety is 26 words:
A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world: every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings.
The power of this story comes from being so short. We could expand it, maybe name the main character – we could even give them a backstory. But those twenty-six words are enough to raise questions – and I think the questions are more interesting than the answers would be. There is a space for us to imagine: what has happened to the world? how does the woman know she is the last one left? what has destroyed “every other living thing”, and how come she is sitting alone in her house? What is going on here?
I encountered Splatterpunk before I heard the Sex Pistols, before I had any idea what punk meant. It’s a strange genre, desperate to shock, to transgress as much as possible. In the 1990 anthology there is one story by Richard Christian Matheson, called Red. It’s so short that it’s almost dwarfed by the introduction.
(Something I miss from short story anthologies is those long, indulgent intros, because they made the writers seem much larger than life). Red outshines every other story in the collection in little more than a page. The horror of the scene builds and is released. There are gaps in this story too, the same ones the characters ask: how can this be allowed?
But the tiny horror stories I love most are the microfictions in Harlan Ellison’s A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet. It’s a collection of twenty-six short horror stories, some of which were written as a stunt in a book shop window. A couple of them were quoted in Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre. They were short, strange pieces, and probably stand as my introduction to flash.
I’ve read long novels that have vanished from my mind within hours. But Red and A Woman Alone with her Soul have stuck with me for years. And I think much of their strength comes from their brevity.