Is it possible to conjure absolute dread with just a single sentence? Well, yes. Often you’ll be needing more than that (a whole book is usually recommended), but these creepy lines are a testament to what can be triggered in the mind by a few well-chosen words. Newspapers not included… because there’s only so much horror we can take.
“The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”
This one’s a personal favourite. What happened to the rest of humanity, how did this one man survive and what is on the other side of the door? This is often cited as the shortest horror story of all time. Does the trick, no?
Fredric Brown, Knock
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
Who or what is burning, why are they burning, and why on earth is it pleasurable?
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
“Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. I wish, I wish he’d go away…”
The poet manages to invoke an entire haunting with this simple line. It has been used often in film and has inspired many a boogie man. You can read the whole poem online if you like the sound of it. It’s worth it. https://poets.org/poem/antigonish-i-met-man-who-wasnt-there
William Hughes Mearns, Antigonish
“I have no mouth and I must scream.”
There you have it. Everybody’s worst recurring nightmare summed up in eight little words.
Harlan Ellis, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
“I tried to make meat loaf out of the girl but it becomes too frustrating a task and instead I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls, chewing on strips of skin I ripped from her body.”
As with the rest of American Psycho, it is the sheer frankness that makes this line so striking – the mix of the truly horrific and the perfectly quotidian.
American Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis
“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.”
…because there are scarier things out there than ghosts and creaking stairs.
“I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat.”
There are few books as exquisite and discomfiting as Truman Capote’s masterpiece. These lines speak to the strange coupling of tenderness and evil that makes In Cold Blood so profoundly chilling and human.
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
“Without passion or haste, they shot their prisoners, who were forced to approach the trench one by one and offer their necks. Infants were tossed into the air and used as targets for the machine guns.”
This one is so harrowing that I almost didn’t include it. It needs no explanation.
Elie Wiesel, Night
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
This one is not scary, as such, but Lovecraft was spot on. With these lines he summed up basically the very thing that drives all horror fiction. One of his many monsters could have gone here, but his writing has never been as apt as it is here.
H.P Lovecraft, The Call of the Cthulhu
“But no animal escapes the cruel knife in the end.”
What is more terrifying than the inevitable?
George Orwell, Animal Farm
“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”
These are the opening lines of The Stranger – a book famous for its existential hopelessness – and there is a futility in them that is hard to beat.
Albert Camus, The Stranger
“No matter how much you think you love somebody, you’ll step back when the pool of their blood edges up too close.”
Grim, true… and somewhat deliciously graphic.
Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters