In my life, I have read hundreds upon hundreds of short stories; the bookcase has more than two full shelves of anthologies, and that doesn’t count all those volumes that have been lost to downsizing or generosity over the years. Nor do I count with those the myriad collections I have edited — another full bookshelf or two — because that’s a different kind of reading.
In general, my taste runs to fantasy, horror, and science fiction — although I take pleasure as well in the clean and elegant short stories of Maugham and de Maupassant and the cool visions of Updike and Cheever, among others.
I am currently reading a collection of (mostly) fantasy/horror stories by Michael Marshall Smith. I have read his work for numerous years in various anthologies and have found it haunting. Which made me think about all the stories, my favorite short stories, that have haunted me over the years. These have been culled from books running the gamut from thoughtful and high-toned anthologies, the best of which is Alberto Manguel’s intelligently compiled and beautifully curated Black Water, to lurid-covered trade paperbacks. But these are the stories that have stuck with me.
In the beginning, there was Bradbury. I remember reading him in junior high — maybe even late elementary school — so it is not surprising that three Ray Bradbury stories make the list. And frankly, I didn’t even dare read through the tables of contents in the source books: I knew I’d find dozens more that I had enjoyed. But the rule here is stories I can call up in memory and still be moved by decades later. And that criterion yields “The Last Night of the World” from The Illustrated Man, “I Sing the Body Electric” from the anthology of the same name, and “Homecoming” in The October Country. These three are quintessential Bradbury — juxtaposing the most aching tenderness against a joltingly weird background. Two people hold hands and dry the dishes, wallpaper is peeled away in an old nursery as siblings reunite, and a mother hushes a misfit child’s unhappiness by promising to tend a grave.
Then comes Harlan Ellison; I have written before of my deep fondness for Ellison’s style and work. And my favorite of all is “The Deathbird.” How can you not love a story that contains a quiz, a series of essay prompts, a short story, and at least two converging time and plot lines? All urging free will and proclaiming the power of the individual. Heady stuff; but that’s Harlan.
Shirley Jackson’s “The Witch” contains the most breath-taking tonal shift I have ever read, switching from light to blackest dark in the space of six words. Amazing.
Some literary short stories next: Heinrich Böll’s hysterical (in the sense of hysteria, not laughter) “Christmas Every Day” and the cool metafiction “Title” by John Barth. A brief sample from the latter:
In this dehuman, exhausted, ultimate adjective hour, when every humane value has become untenable, and not only love, decency, and beauty but even compassion and intelligibility are no more than one or two subjective complements to complete the sentence…
And through the master anthologist Alberto Manguel, I was introduced to I.A. Ireland’s “Climax for a Ghost Story,” one of the shortest and most effective chillers ever, reprinted here in its entirety (it’s in the public domain):
“How eerie!” said the girl, advancing cautiously. “—And what a heavy door!” She touched it as she spoke and it suddenly swung to with a click.
“Good Lord!” said the man. “I don’t believe there’s a handle inside. Why, you’ve locked us both in!”
“Not both of us. Only one of us,” said the girl, and before his eyes she passed straight through the door, and vanished.
Classic horror. To be joined by Bram Stoker’s “The Squaw,” Stanley Ellin’s “The Specialty of the House,” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In all of these stories, a sense of increasing unease, disease, grows, as the protagonist crosses a line between normal and abnormal. The skill of the authors lies in their ability to, like Jackson, shift tone. However, where she turned 180 degrees in a clause, these stories turn slowly around, subtly ratcheting up the horror quotient as the reader moves imperceptibly from the familiar to the unthinkable. In a similar vein, Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” moves from the familiar to the unthinkable and back again — and then back yet again. All in just over a thousand words.
Next up, a trio of disquieting stories haunted by madness by Kelly Link, Ted Sturgeon, and Frederic Brown: “Stone Animals” (reprinted with permission here), “The Professor’s Teddy Bear,” and “Come and Go Mad,” respectively. In these three, sympathetic protagonists go very awry under the influence of highly unexpected sources. A couple of sentences from Link illustrate the point: “He had an idea that the phone was haunted now. That’s why Catherine wasn’t answering.”
For a great conceit, few stories can top Robert Olen Butler’s “JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction.” The story is excellent and smart, but I do suspect a great deal of its staying power for me lies in that terrific title.
I end the list with some I have come across more recently: “Collect Call,” by Sarah Pinborough, and “Always,” by the above-mentioned Michael Marshall Smith. Interestingly, both of these recall the tender tone of Ray Bradbury. I seem very drawn to stories of dramatic mood shift, but equally so to those whose pervading mood is of loss and love and how you bridge that. The Pinborough and Smith stories, like “Homecoming,” are about undying love and the humble devices they use to convey this love — a pay phone, a package — subvert the eternal enormity of death, much like Emily’s ribbons and bacon in Our Town.