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Horror and Wonder – 13 of the Best and Creepiest Short Stories by Ray Bradbury

Written By Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two children, several birds, a snake, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in several publications, and is also available in her short story collections Wolves & Girls (2023), and Six Dreams About the Train (2021).

Ray Bradbury wrote 600 (give or take) short stories in his long career. Not all of those stories are memorable but many of them are, and while his legacy (like the legacy of a lot of “Golden Age” spec-fic writers) is a mixed bag, he is often described as one of the writers that brought science fiction into the so-called literary mainstream. Some of Bradbury’s short fiction could be called quirky, melancholic, and beautifully poetic. And much of it, like these 13 stories, might still be quirky, melancholic, and poetic, but it’s also dark, surreal, and profoundly creepy.

The One Who Waits

I live in a well. I live like smoke in the well. Like vapor in a stone throat. I don’t move. I don’t do anything but wait. Overhead I see the cold stars of night and morning, and I see the sun. And sometimes I sing old songs of this world when it was young. How can I tell you what I am when I don’t know?

Any list I make of Bradbury short stories will likely start off with “The One Who Waits” because, to me, it’s the quintessential Bradbury story, and also one of my favorite short stories, ever. Like so many Bradbury stories, it’s set on Mars where a group of explorers land, but it’s not told from their point of view. It’s told by a ghostly entity that haunts an old, abandoned well. This story has everything I love about Bradbury: achingly beautiful prose, gruesome and mysterious deaths, and a profound sadness running through it like a dark undercurrent.

  • First published in The Arkham Sampler (1949)
  • Included in The Machineries of Joy (1964)

The Veldt

And here were the lions now, fifteen feet away, so real, so feverishly and startlingly real that you could feel the prickling fur on your hand, and your mouth was stuffed with the dusty upholstery smell of their heated pelts, and the yellow of them was in your eyes like the yellow of an exquisite French tapestry, the yellows of lions and summer grass, and the sound of the matted lion lungs exhaling on the silent noontide, and the smell of meat from the panting, dripping mouths.

This is probably one of the most well-known of Bradbury’s short stories and it’s easy to see why it’s made such an impression (and why it still hits so damn hard). There’s VR-technology used for murderous purposes, there’s child’s play turned sinister, and there’s the dark twist of children turning on their parents. “The Veldt” has been adapted for TV several times (by NPR, and Canadian television for example) and has been turned into a movie. I also feel its influence in several of Star Trek TNG’s holodeck episodes.

  • First published in The Saturday Evening Post (1950)
  • Included in The Illustrated Man (1951)

The Small Assassin

I am dying and I can’t tell them now. They’d laugh and call me one in delirium. They’ll see the murderer and hold him and never think him responsible for my death. But here I am, in front of God and man, dying, no one to believe my story, everyone to doubt me, comfort me with lies, bury me in ignorance, mourn me and salvage my destroyer.

One of Bradbury’s strong suits is taking something we tend to assume is innocent and good and turning it into something unsettling and disturbing. And what is more innocent than a baby? In this short story, a pregnant woman suspects that the child she is carrying is evil. A completely ridiculous idea, of course. Unless she’s right.

  • First published in Dime Mystery (1946)
  • Included in The October Country (1955)

Skeleton

Mr. Harris stood. His SKELETON held him up! This thing inside, this invader, this horror, was supporting his arms, legs, and head! It was like feeling someone just behind you who shouldn’t be there. With every step, he realized how dependent he was on this other Thing.

This is one of the creepiest and wildest ideas in all of Bradbury’s short stories (and that’s saying something). In “Skeleton” a man becomes obsessed with the idea that his own bones are a malicious and alien presence in his body. As his condition progresses, as he gets more and more paranoid, his mental and physical health deteriorates. Looking for a cure, he consults a “bone specialist,” but the treatment is of a highly unusual nature.

  • First published in Weird Tales (1945)
  • Included in The October Country (1955)

“Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!”

“What if Roger was right this morning? Mrs. Goodbody, what if she’s right, too? Something terrible is happening. Like—well—” he nodded at the sky and the million stars —“Earth being invaded by things from other worlds, maybe.”

Alien invasions rarely happen with all ray-guns blazing in Bradbury’s stories. Instead, he often imagines something more insidious and devious and bone-chilling. For example, what if those mushrooms everyone is suddenly growing in their cellar’s aren’t just mushrooms? Bradbury’s bent for twisting darkness into the everyday is on full display here as we start to wonder what is really happening in all those basements.

  • First published in Galaxy Magazine (1962)
  • Included in The Machineries of Joy (1964)

Zero Hour

Mink went to the door. “We’re having trouble with guys like Pete Britz and Dale Jerrick. They’re growing up. They make fun. They’re worse than parents. They just won’t believe in Drill. They’re so snooty, cause they’re growing up. You’d think they’d know better. They were little only a coupla years ago. I hate them worst. We’ll kill them first.”

This is another alien invasion story where the invasion is hiding in plain sight and where children and a children’s game become a menacing and powerful force. Like so many of Bradbury’s darkest stories, “Zero Hour” finds the deepest and most disturbing kind of terror in a nightmarish subversion of children and childhood.

  • First published in Planet Stories (1947)
  • Included in The Illustrated Man (1951)

The Third Expedition

It had moved in the midnight waters of space like a pale sea leviathan; it had passed the ancient moon and thrown itself onward into one nothingness following another. The men within it had been battered, thrown about, sickened, made well again, each in his turn. One man had died, but now the remaining sixteen, with their eyes clear in their heads and their faces pressed to the thick glass ports, watched Mars swing up under them.

Bradbury had a real knack for story-openings, and this story is a prime example (part of the story’s opening is quoted above). “The Third Expedition” was first published in 1948 and was later incorporated into The Martian Chronicles which strings together several Bradbury stories into a tale about what happens when humans try to colonize Mars (which, btw, turns out to be a really, really haunted planet). In the story, an expedition from Earth to Mars finds a town that seems comfortingly (and eerily) familiar to them. It’s also populated by their long-dead relatives and family. It was originally published with the title “Mars Is Heaven!” and of course, it does not have a happy ending.

  • First published in Planet Stories (1948)
  • Included in The Martian Chronicles (1950)

The Martian

The cold wind blew and the thin rain fell upon the soil and the figure stood looking at them with distant eyes.

“The Martian” is also part of The Martian Chronicles and it explores a similar idea to “The Third Expedition”—but here, the perspective, and the outcome, are twisted in a new direction. An elderly couple from Earth have moved to Mars and one night, they find their long-dead son at the door. Or at least, someone who looks exactly like their dead son. He’s not, of course, and once the rest of the settlers finds out who, what, the old folks are harboring, things go real bad, real quick. What I love most about this story is how Bradbury infuses it with such a deep sense of sadness and foreboding, and how it uses the desperate darkness of grief.

  • First published in Super Science Stories (1949)
  • Included in The Martian Chronicles (1950)

Marionettes, Inc.

“I’ve had him for a month. I keep him in the cellar in a toolbox. My wife never goes downstairs, and I have the only lock and key to that box. Tonight I said I wished to take a walk to buy a cigar. I went down cellar and took Braling Two out of his box and sent him back up to sit with my wife while I came on out to see you, Smith.”

There are a lot of science fiction stories about the dangers of making humanoid robots, and in “Marionettes, Inc.” Bradbury puts his own spin on this idea. Here, a man buys a robot look-alike so that he can spend more time away from his wife without her noticing. Sharing your life and your wife with a robot? Yeah, definitely creepy. Two things stand out for me about this story.  First, it involves a robot husband which in my experience is a lot less common than a robot wife. And secondly, while sci-fi is full of robots gone bad (and while this robot might not be following the famed laws of robotics), I feel like Bradbury’s sympathies are with the robot. (That sentiment comes through even more strongly in his 1969 story “I Sing the Body Electric.”)

  • First published in Startling Stories (1949)
  • Included in The Illustrated Man (1951)

The Crowd

How swiftly a crowd comes… like the iris of an eye closing in out of nowhere.

This one, like so much of Bradbury’s work and so many of the stories I’ve listed here, is a masterclass in taking something everyday and familiar, in this case the way crowds gather at the site of an accident, and turning it into disturbing and menacing horror:

“Is he dead?”
“No, he’s not dead.”
“He won’t die. He’s not going to die.”

  • First published in Weird Tales (1943)
  • Included in The October Country (1955)

The Fog Horn

“Sounds like an animal, don’t it?” McDunn nodded to himself. “A big lonely animal crying in the night. Sitting here on the edge of ten million years calling out to the deeps. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here. And the Deeps do answer, yes, they do.”

OK, so this one might not be super creepy, per se, but it’s an inspired monster story. “The Fog Horn” shines with Bradbury’s trademark gorgeous prose and it’s pervaded by a sense of profound loneliness and longing. It’s my favorite kind of monster story, one that empathizes with the monster. According to Bradbury, the story was inspired by the ruins of a demolished roller coaster on Los Angeles beach that made him think of a dinosaur skeleton.

  • First published in The Saturday Evening Post (1951)
  • Included in The Golden Apples of the Sun (1953)

There Will Come Soft Rains

The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down.

The threat of nuclear annihilation haunts a lot of science fiction written during the Cold War, and this story focuses on that particular apocalyptic nightmare. But rather than describing the brutal destruction and suffering of war, Bradbury describes an automated house that has survived humanity. It’s a story haunted by the emptiness, by the void left behind by those who died. In an interview in 1980 (published in The Christian Science Monitor), Bradbury himself picked this as the story “that represents the essence of Ray Bradbury.”

  • First published in Collier’s (1950)
  • Included in The Martian Chronicles (1950)

The Long Rain

The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.

Once again, Bradbury shows off his gift for story-openings. The way the rain is turned into a powerful and sinister force in those first lines absolutely sets the tone for the rest of the tale. “The Long Rain” takes place on Venus where a rocket has crashed. Four survivors are now on a harrowing trek through the planet’s perpetual rains, trying to find the safety of a Sun Dome, while in perpetual danger from the hostile Venusians. All four seem to be losing their grip on reality and one by one, they perish, until only one of them is left.

  • First published in Planet Stories (1950)
  • Included in The Illustrated Man (1951)