Horror is a genre that is found in many forms, from long novels to films, and from poetry to short stories. A while ago, a number of posts circulated on social media that were compilations of horror in another, new form: two-sentence horror stories.
This new form poses a challenge for the genre of horror and the people writing it since, within two sentences, a writer cannot rely on building suspense or describing gloomy castles, eerie situations or scary figures to create a sense of horror. This raises the question; how short can a short story be? Moreover, can a two-sentence narrative be considered a story at all, and if so, how can it function as a story?
Edgar Allan Poe, one of the grand masters of horror, wrote his view on the creation of a horror text in his ‘Philosophy of Composition’: here, he states that “it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect: — this, with one proviso — that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all”.
According to Poe, then, two-sentence horror stories would be too short or ineffective, if “a certain degree of duration” is indeed needed to create an effect or atmosphere or horror. Let us take Poe’s view and put it alongside the trending posts, and see if and how they create a sense of horror.
Two-sentence horror stories are horror working at the level of micro narration, also known as “flash fiction”. Within the two sentences, the very short text is meant to be filled in and developed inside the mind of the reader. The trick, then, is to imply more than you write.
One of the most famous examples of flash fiction and one that quite nicely illustrates how it works is the six-word “novel” often attributed to Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”] It leaves it up to the reader to fill in that someone bought shoes for a newborn but tragically found no use for them.
Interpretations can range from, for example, a relative or friend buying a present for an expecting couple but who then part ways due to a row, to the baby having died too early, or having been still-born, miscarried, or aborted, not to mention what this might mean for the state of the mother.
Can two sentences then really construct a story? The editors of The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death argue that “a story is a story only if it contains […] 1) a setting, 2) a character or characters, 3) conflict; and 4) resolution.”
These points are great guidelines, but the effectiveness of the fourth is debatable, especially if it is applied to two-sentence horror stories. It is hardly possible to write an arc of conflict and resolution in two mere sentences.
On top of this, it is not uncommon for a horror text to end without a complete resolution of text: an open ending causes unease, allows the reader to imagine and interpret the story’s ending, and contributes to an atmosphere of mystery.
It is more horrible to imagine that the monster is still out there than when the text ends with the monster slain. The two-sentence horror stories, then, meet the first three requirements of what a story needs, and often intentionally fail to meet the fourth. These horror stories may not check all the boxes on the list, but they do check most of them. Therefore you could potentially say that they function like stories.
Poe already stressed the relation between the brevity of a text and its effect: “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression — for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed.”
In other words: if work cannot be read in one sitting, the suspense that has been built up is lost. He then reveals his method and thoughts on the effect of a work of horror and how to bring that about: “I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone — whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone — afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.”
Incidents and tone are the elements that should bring about suspense, according to Poe, but in two sentences it is very difficult to bring about. There is perhaps room for one event or incident, and the tone of a text is something that needs some time to creep in. Therefore, let us take a closer look at these two-sentence horror stories and see which elements they employ for their effect instead.
All of these stories deal with someone or something intruding into someone’s house. The suggestion in the first story is that this entity took pictures with his or her own mobile phone.
In the second, the suggestion is that someone or something else than the baby’s parents is in the room with the baby.
The third mostly stresses the presence of someone or someone else in the house. The element of horror in these stories is caused by the way it creates suspense: the intruding force or entity is, quite literally, kept in the dark. Not knowing who or what one is up against makes scenes such as these much scarier.
Edmund Burke comments on this idea as well, stating that “[w]hen we know the full extent of any danger when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
It is also interesting to note that the third story does not only build its suspense on its own content, but also on external references. It is very common for a work of horror to have some intertextual relation or reference to other works in the genre. The theme of doors opening up is quite common in horror stories, such as ‘The Open Door’ and ‘The Haunting of Hill House’.
Leaving certain information out then brings about suspense, though you must be careful not to leave the mystery in a story too open, as is the case in this two-sentence story: “She went upstairs to check on her sleeping toddler. The window was open, and the bed was empty.”
Whilst it is horrible for a parent when their child has disappeared, there is nothing in this short-story that directly implies any horror or supernatural element. Without these external cues, a lot of its effect is lost. It could, for example, also be interpreted as kidnapping and end up as a “mere” detective story.
It relies too much on the reader to fill in that it was possibly a supernatural entity that took the baby to make it into a horror story.