What's your favourite suspenseful short story?
January 28, 2015 2:47 PM   Subscribe

I'm creating a short story unit for my grade 12 students and so I'm looking for 5 or 6 good, suspenseful ones that will (hopefully) really pique their interest--even the ones who hate reading.

I've used "The Most Dangerous Game" in the past with great success and will be including it in the collection. Can you help me out by suggesting some other ones? Ideally with a link where I can print it out.

posted by figaro to Education (31 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
i really liked the Red Ibis, but i think it may be for a slightly younger audience if i remember correctly...
posted by monologish at 2:55 PM on January 28, 2015

"The Lottery" is a classic for a reason.
posted by brainmouse at 2:58 PM on January 28, 2015 [15 favorites]

Roald Dahl's Poison. We read it in Freshman English, but if your kids haven't covered it, it's pretty engaging.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:02 PM on January 28, 2015

Filthy with Things, by TC Boyle. I read it in Grade 11, 20+ years ago, and I still think about it. The ending is startling and very, very good.

From the NYT Book review: In "Filthy With Things" the protagonist - a man who wants to "go up to the mountains and let the meteor showers wash him clean, but he can't" - hires a "professional organizer" to help him make neatness and sense of his myriad possessions. The organizer, a chic, black-garbed woman (dressed much like the figure of Death in Jean Cocteau's film "Orpheus"), treats her clients as addicts and their spouses as co-dependents. She catalogues and removes the man's belongings. He may have one thing back each day for 60 days, but he has to ask for them specifically, one by one.
posted by mochapickle at 3:03 PM on January 28, 2015

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (with bonus Twilight Zone episode if you want to show a video in class!)
The Landlady
Lamb to the Slaughter
probably any of the classic Poe stories

I read all of these when I was a kid and even now years later I still remember the hot tight feeling in my chest as I read them for the first time.
posted by phunniemee at 3:03 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Cask of Amontillado is always fun!
posted by chatongriffes at 3:05 PM on January 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

I really like "Deep Breathing Exercises" by Orson Scott Card. It was in one of his short story books and in his anthologies. I don't know if you can find it online or not.

A man notices that his baby upstairs and his wife downstairs are breathing at the same time every time. Hours later they both die in a car accident. Through several more experiences he realizes that every time a group of people are about to face tragedy, you can tell which ones will die because they will all breathe together unconsciously. Then...
posted by tacodave at 3:06 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nthing The Lottery. Also pretty much any of the stories in this Roald Dahl anthology, which enthralled me as a kid.

Also have a look at "Speckle Trout" by Ron Rash, which is suspenseful and also has the attribute of being about pot farmers.
posted by holborne at 3:12 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh wait, I just thought of two more: "Duel" and "Button, Button," both by Richard Matheson.
posted by holborne at 3:13 PM on January 28, 2015

I got a lot of good answers when I asked for story recommendations for my high school kids. Hands down, their favorite is David Sedaris.
posted by kinetic at 3:19 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Suspenseful stories I can think of that are online, moving from adventure to uncanny:

To Build a Fire - Jack London (this is another one that's a classic for a reason)
The Outcasts of Poker Flats - Francis Bret Harte
The Merry Men - Robert Louis Stevenson
The Damned Thing - Ambrose Bierce
MS. Found in a Bottle - Poe
The Nine Billion Names of God - Arthur C. Clarke

There's also:
Guts - Chuck Palahniuk (maaaaaybe - it's very grossout)
posted by postcommunism at 3:39 PM on January 28, 2015

A few off the top of my head - noting that you're looking for "suspense":

Roald Dahl's "Man from the South"

George R. R. Martin's "Sandkings"

Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Fluted Girl" (might be a bit too adult, but it's an awesome piece of writing)

Stephen King's "The Ledge"

Hmmm ... I'm finding "suspense" to be a tough category. The stories I've listed are not just personal favorites - they all have a marked "suspense" element to them. But this question is making me very aware of how relatively rare good suspense is in short stories. Or maybe my memory is just bad today.
posted by doctor tough love at 3:42 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Ray Bradbury has some lovely suspenseful short stories; everyone's read All Summer in a Day but for my money you really can't beat the creeping horror and suspense found in both The Small Assassin and Skeleton (both printable, fair use is up to you!). Don't let his rep for 'sci-fi' deter you; these are both just uncanny Earth stories.
posted by stellaluna at 3:44 PM on January 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

Many Roald Dahl stories are great for this (I'm particularly partial to "William and Mary"

"Jon" by George Saunders [link is New Yorker (paywalled) but it is also available in one of his story collections]
posted by Mchelly at 4:01 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Definitely the lottery, and I LOVE "Game" by David Barthelme. Great cold war slowly-going-crazy story. Even better when paired with some of the news articles from the last year about the rampant cheating among officers in charge of guarding our nuclear weapons; the job is so dead end and mind numbing there are all sorts of problems.
posted by lilac girl at 4:22 PM on January 28, 2015

Best answer: It's very hard to find, but Bob Leman's "Loob", which was only collected in Feesters in the Lake, is suspenseful, melancholy, and weird. You might be able to find it somewhere on-line though...

"Deep Breathing Exercises" by Orson Scott Card, which tacodave mentioned, debuted in OMNI Magazine, so it's available to read or download at archive.org.
posted by nicwolff at 4:34 PM on January 28, 2015

"A Good Man is Hard to Find" is pretty much perfect. As is everything else Flannery O'Connor ever wrote.
posted by saladin at 4:36 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Stephen King's "Battleground" (animated version).
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:39 PM on January 28, 2015

"Heat Death of the Universe" (pdf) by Pamela Zoline is a classic, largely because we don't know where it's going for most of the story.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:43 PM on January 28, 2015

Seconding Man From The South, probably the most suspenseful thing I ever read.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 6:39 PM on January 28, 2015

LOVE all these suggestions.

With my own limited range, I'd put The Lottery at the top for suspense, because it lulls the reader so gently with a set of mundane events. Until they're not mundane at all.

Also -- what was the one about the farm wife whose mean husband kills her little bird? That was pretty suspenseful.

Amontillado is a special case. No beginning, no middle -- just an end. But for the careful reader, the suspense begins with the first sentence.
posted by LonnieK at 7:32 PM on January 28, 2015

Another vote for "The Lottery"--it is the one short story I have always had success with, each and every time I've taught it. It provokes a visceral reaction in students that I rarely see with any other story.

Here are a few more the students tend to like:

The Yellow Wall-Paper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Just Lather, That's All, by Hernando Tellez
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been by Joyce Carol Oates

LonnieK: Also -- what was the one about the farm wife whose mean husband kills her little bird? That was pretty suspenseful.

A Jury of Her Peers, by Susan Glaspell. I like that one too.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:54 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

A Visit From the Footbinder by Emily Prager is one I've taught. It's a longish short story set in feudal China that opens on the day of Pleasure Mouse's foot binding, and traces a number of responses others have to what lies ahead for her. The mood established is resigned, fearful that this will go ahead but with hints that others could intervene. It's suspenseful because the gradual awareness of female suffering is paired with her father's trepidation, sadness and powerlessness. It could so easily be Men vs Women, but instead there are a range of views of the bargains all of us make in a feudal, patriarchal system.

It is also a great story in terms of exploring genre. The setting is an excellent symbolic embodiment of the values and attitudes in conflict, the characters are nuanced but distinct narrative agents of particular attitudes, the plot is structured around feminine growth and pain as a major part of its construction of suspense, the themes cross class, gender, ethnicity, cultural identity, and the way all of us make social bargains. Linguistically the names of characters, the details of opulence all encourage the reader to have a roving understanding of cultural and social pressures that coerce the individual.
posted by honey-barbara at 1:40 AM on January 29, 2015

'Dip in the Pool' by Roald Dahl is also excellent for suspense, and in terms of genre there's lots of linguistic playfulness and the narrative structure of suspense stories is relatively easy to investigate.

Ray Bradbury's 'The Whole Town's Sleeping' is excellent too, for examining gender and genre. (You might like to read this paper from Mellor and Patterson pp 15-18 which articulates some pedagogical approaches that I've used with success) Paired with 'A Jury of her Peers' by Susan Glaspell you can do some interesting intertextuality work on murder as constructed differently via the gender identities of the perps and victims.

Of course, Bradbury short stories are very suspenseful. There's loads to choose from.

I argue that 'suspense' in texts is simply the desire to read on, the physical responses we have to intrigue and speculation and the intellectual activity that occurs due to our culturally produced reading practices, gained from a life time of engaging with this particular trait of human curiosity. To find out what happens next.
posted by honey-barbara at 2:41 AM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure how well it meets the "suspense" requirement but my students loved "The Harry Hastings Method" by Warner Law - burglar breaks into author's home repeatedly and they trade notes - author comes up with creative way to stop burglar. The internet tells me there was a 2009 short film based on it, but can't vouch for it.
posted by SeedStitch at 5:33 AM on January 29, 2015

Leiningen Versus the Ants is an all-time classic.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:41 AM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Who Goes There? was the basis for the movies "The Thing" and "The Thing from Another World."
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:58 AM on January 29, 2015

Since we mentioned OMNI and Orson Scott Card above, this reminds me of Unaccompanied Sonata. If I had read this in grade 12 it would have blown my mind in a thought-provoking way, and really made think about the nature of music and creativity. Bonus: a swell and almost predictable plot twist at the end.
posted by ovvl at 8:45 AM on January 29, 2015

Arthur C. Clarke's "A Walk in the Dark."
posted by Sunburnt at 11:27 AM on January 29, 2015

Everybody has already suggested Roald Dahl for this, and for good reason, but I'd like to give my vote to "Lamb to the Slaughter" in particular. First of all, it's great--suspenseful and morbidly, darkly humorous; second of all, I think it might be a little more accessible to reluctant readers than some of Dahl's other stories that require more inferencing/reading between the lines (which some readers find challenging if they don't read for fun very often, IME).
posted by honey wheat at 8:42 AM on January 30, 2015

Response by poster: These are all fantastic answers! "Deep-Breathing Exercises" is particularly good and something I would have never thought of. Thank you everyone!
posted by figaro at 7:06 PM on February 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

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