Being a fan of the short story format almost feels like something shameful in an age when people no longer read short stories, and the word “book” is automatically assumed to refer to a novel. If, once upon a time, brevity was considered the soul of wit, now our novels have to have at least a 400 page count and be part of a series of at least three volumes. I, for one, have realized that I can’t – and don’t really wish to – keep up with all the popular long-winded series, and, to me, turning to the short format has been incredibly refreshing. If a good novel is like a world you become immersed in, a good short story is like an electric shock. It forces you to be more alert, to pay more attention to details and to make up your own mind about what just went on.
The stories on this list illustrate different genres and styles, but each and every one of them is a carefully constructed gem and a challenge I’d like to raise to those who don’t read short stories.
Edgar Allan Poe is one of those authors that many people know by name, but few read. It’s difficult nowadays to realize what a great imagination he had and how innovative his stories were. That’s because Poe’s innovations became the standard for the modern psychological horror story, and the detective story as well, which is why, read in retrospect, his work appears predictable and laden with clichés. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is narrated by an unnamed man visiting a former university friend, the aristocratic Roderick Usher, plagued by mental illness, who, together with his twin sister Madeleine, is the last descendent of an isolated family, whose destiny is inextricably tied to the ancient house they inhabit. The story is painstakingly constructed, with no detail left out of place, and integrates the poem “The Haunted Palace,” where the decay of the titular building is used as a metaphor for the ravages of mental illness.
“The Cop and the Anthem” by O. Henry (1904)
Set in New York City, this is a tragicomic story whose protagonist, known only as Soapy, is a homeless man who aims to get arrested so that he can spend the winter in prison, where he would have warm meals and a place to sleep. After several failed attempts to commit a misdemeanor, Soapy finds himself near a small church and overhears the organist rehearsing an anthem that he remembers having heard during his childhood. He decides to make an effort to turn his life around.
“The Guest” by Lord Dunsany (1915)
Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, is mostly known for his contribution to the fantasy genre. A very short, but very effective story, “The Guest” follows a young man having dinner on his own in a fancy London restaurant, who appears to be talking to an invisible entity. The prose has a dreamlike quality that keeps the reader wondering whether it’s a fantasy story, or the young man is simply mad, and the ending is sudden and shocking.
Dealing with peer pressure and feminine rivalry and passive-aggression, this story is the flapper era version of Mean Girls. Shy, conservative Bernice is spending her summer with her assertive, “social butterfly” cousin Marjorie. After overhearing Marjorie talking about her in less than flattering terms, Bernice decides to ask her cousin for advice on becoming more popular. Marjorie thinks it’s a good idea for Bernice to start telling people she intends to get a bob haircut – considered scandalous and improper by the American high society of the time – in order to appear more interesting. However, the plan backfires and Marjorie’s main suitor begins to show interest in Bernice.
The Sheridans, an upper middle class family, are hosting a garden party. In charge of the preparations is Laura, one of the daughters, who is exasperated with her mother and siblings and romanticizes the lives of working class people. When news of the death of a poor neighbor reaches the Sheridans, Laura suggests that the party be cancelled, a suggestion that is immediately dismissed. The party is a success and, afterwards, Laura decides to take a basket of leftover food to the family of the deceased man. It is the first time she comes in contact with poverty and death.
“The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway (1927)
Set in a small town outside Chicago, “The Killers” is one of the 24 stories focusing on the character of Nick Adams, often interpreted as an alter ego of the author. As Nick is having lunch in a small diner, two thuggish men walk in, begin to taunt him, and tie him in the kitchen, along with the cook. Named Max and Al, the two are, in fact, mob hit men, looking for their target, a Swedish boxer. At the same time frightening and ridiculous, through the interchangeability of their appearance and speech patterns, they illustrate the connection between evil and ignorance.
This story caused a huge scandal when it was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, as it describes a chilling human sacrifice ritual taking place in an isolated, unnamed location of the United States. While the trope of the small town or village with a terrible secret was far from new at the time when the story was written, what sets it apart from other works dealing with this theme is the cold, objective narration, recording the events in a manner similar to that of a movie camera. Nevertheless, it is rich in symbolism and possible interpretations, warning the reader that unspeakable violence may always lurk under the appearance of civilization
“Beyond Lies the Wub” by Philip K. Dick (1952)
The first of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction stories to be published in print is also one of his best known ones. Peterson, the first mate of a ship whose role is to transport livestock from Mars to Earth, buys a creature called a “wub,” which resembles a pig. The crew soon finds out that the wub is able to communicate telepathically, when the animal reaches out to them, pleading for its life. The creature also reveals that it has a deep knowledge of Earth’s myths and legends, in particular the myth of Odysseus. Nevertheless, the ship’s captain – whose narrow-mindedness and inflexibility can be interpreted as a criticism of those in positions of authority – insists on killing and consuming the animal. The shocking ending reveals that the captain is the one who suffered the worse fate after all.
In this retelling of Bluebeard set in the Belle Epoque, a talented young pianist impulsively marries a much older aristocrat who lives in an isolated castle. The things she finds out about her husband, including his taste for violent pornography, make her regret her rash decision, but it’s only when he leaves on a business trip that she discovers the full extent of his sadism – he has gruesomely murdered his previous wives. Convinced that she will suffer the same fate, she finds solace in the company of a young, blind piano tuner, who is determined to die with her, but their salvation comes from an unexpected place.
“On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” by Haruki Murakami (1981)
This charming little story may seem a bit “fluffy” at first sight, but reveals its depth upon closer examination. Addressing the reader directly, the narrator talks of a woman he saw one April morning in the fashionable Harajuku area of Tokyo, and muses about what he should have said to her. Beneath the casual, conversational tone, the story touches upon such topics as the difference between love and lust, the fear of rejection, the question of how one can know whether a person is right for them and the way pessimism can lead to self-sabotage.
Anca Rotar is a Romanian-born writer, over-thinker and caffeine addict. She is the author of two books, Hidden Animals and Before It Sets You Free, both available from Amazon.com. Among her interests, which she finds it hard to shut up about, she counts fashion, yoga, city breaks and deadpan sarcasm. She is also currently studying Japanese, so wish her luck. You can sample bits of Anca’s creative writing here.