Storyville: Top Ten Best Short Stories Ever
How dare I make a list of the top ten short stories ever, right? Who the hell do I think I am? Well, obviously I’m a fan of fiction, of the short story form. I’m also an author. And I now have my MFA in Creative Writing as well. Does that make me an authority? Yes, on stories that I love—that’s it, nothing more. These may work for you or they may not. You’ve probably heard of many of them, but I hope you’ll track down the ones that are not familiar and give them a read. I tried to pick a few stories from each of the main genres I love, but overall, I wanted stories that I have a fond memory of reading. Can I remember parts of it, lines, or scenes? Does the weight of what I read still rest in my heart? I can honestly say yes, that all of these stories have had a profound impact on my writing career, as they are, in my opinion, as flawless as stories can get.
Most of these stories are heavily anthologized or are available in a collection by that author. A few of these are actually online, so I’ve linked to them where I can, and provided links to books at Amazon for the rest. I’ll try to avoid spoiling any of them.
In no particular order:
1. "The Paperhanger" by William Gay.
If you want to know what contemporary literary horror looks like, this is the place to go. For me, the power of this story lies in the familiar, the trust of one person believing in another, specifically the people you let into your home—electricians, painters, and plumbers. When you look down on somebody there is always the risk that you will insult them and set them off. And in this story, we see the worst possible fear of a mother come home to roost, with an ending that is absolutely devastating.
2. "Lawns" by Mona Simpson
For many people, this may be the only bit of her writing that they've ever read. And it’s worth hunting down. When somebody is damaged and lost in the world, we always wonder how that came to be. Was there something in their past that made them steal, made them vulnerable; was there an incident, some family member, an ongoing abuse? In this case, yes, there was. A college aged girl tells of her problems, these issues she has, but we have no idea how deep it goes, how messed up she really is. But what keeps this story from being merely a dark tale of power gone awry is the way the protagonist handles her future, the way she forgives and moves on. She is unique, and yet, she is all of us.
I’ve always been a fan of JCO, and her writing is literary fiction that isn’t afraid to take you over the cliff, never to return. This is probably her most famous story, and an extremely popular and well-known one, in general. When a teenage girl stays home, trying to exude angst and resentment, something she has set in motion leads her to a horrifying moment. It is one of the creepiest and most unsettling stories I’ve ever read. And nobody gets killed. The violence and tension are all up front, all in your head, right there beyond the screen door, asked for and granted. If you want to figure out how to write tension, this is a great example.
4. "Emergency" by Denis Johnson
If you haven’t read his collection Jesus’ Son, by all means pick it up now. It is essential reading. If you own ten books, it’s one of them. It’s just that good. This story is very dark, and yet funny, and then ultimately, heartbreaking. The violence of the hospital, the fate of the two goofballs that are driving around in the truck, the bunnies—what can I say about the bunnies. Makes me sad, crushes me, whenever I think about it. He is a powerful voice, one that you need to know.
You knew I’d have at least one of King’s stories on this list. I could have picked ten, and maybe that will be a list I do some other day, but this story, which originally ran in the New Yorker, has always stayed with me. The way he sets it up, with the clues right out in front, sitting right there for you to stare at for page after page; it’s an escalation, a slowly dawning realization, and when the knowledge sinks in, it is your undoing. I love his voice, and think that this is a story that flows along nicely, for the most part a happy story, until it turns the corner. Sometimes dreams come true, and sometimes those dreams are nightmares.
If you aren’t familiar with George Saunders you should really pick up some of his work. He’s a funny guy, but also surreal, and his tales always pack an emotional punch. I ran across this story in a Best American Short Stories anthology and have been a fan ever since. It’s all about perspective, poor vs. rich, and how you can look at the same situation from two sides and have one person see something as abuse, and another see the same actions as unending love. Such a bittersweet story, this one, as many of the best ones are.
This one you may have read in high school or college, and that’s okay! Really! It has stayed with me for thirty years. What I love about this story is that it totally catches you off guard. It lures you into this strange world where everyone is handicapped—the beautiful wear masks, the strong wear heavy weights, the smart wear headphones that pipe in excruciatingly loud noises to disrupt their thoughts. This might be one of the few stories that actually made me cry. It’s that powerful.
8. "The Things They Carried" by Tim O’Brien
I don’t think you can have a list without this one on it. It’s a list story, sure, and it’s surreal at times; a tragedy, most definitely, but overall it’s just a powerful love story, one that leaves you in the trenches with the soldiers; a victim of war, of fate, of everything that makes us human. I see this collection at a lot of garage sales and used bookstores, so pick it up if you run across it.
I grew up reading Bradbury and Heinlein but didn’t read this story until a few years ago. Many in the literary community consider it a story that transcends genre, and it’s in the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, the academic bible of contemporary and classic stories. It’s a story of power, of parents vs. children, and it’s a magical tale, one that asks you take a leap of faith, to suspend any doubts you may have, as certainly the parents do, by the end of the story. It’s a social commentary of course, as much of Bradbury’s work was, but it’s also a fascinating tale.
10. "Father, Son, Holy Rabbit" by Stephen Graham Jones
I know that Stephen isn’t a big name, and to put him on a list like this is probably a bit premature, but dammit if this story (and he’s written so MANY fantastic stories over the years) doesn’t stick with me. The power of a father’s love for his son, the lengths he will go to in order to save the boy’s life when they are lost in the forest, covered in snow, well, it’s shocking, and so moving, that it stays with me, and haunts my waking life. This collection, The Ones That Got Away is a mandatory purchase, so just go pick it up.
It kills me that I have to leave Mary Gaitskill off this list, as she has written some seriously dangerous, sexual, and dark fiction. If there were a #11 she would be it, probably with “Romantic Weekend” (which is in Bad Behavior.) I’m leaving off Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Amy Hempel, and many more. Other lesser known authors like Paul Tremblay (“It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks”), Matt Bell, Lindsay Hunter, Shannon Cain, Tina May Hall, xtx, Craig Davidson, Ethel Rohan, Holly Goddard Jones, and many others, should be on there, but I only have room for ten. Some of those authors DID appear on my Ten Awesome Authors You’ve Never Heard Of Before list, so do go check them out.
What are some of your favorites? Who did I leave off, what story that just can’t be ignored when making a top ten list? There are so many, I know I’ve missed a few.
No links below, as I’ve linked several stories above. A lot of these stories can be found in the two anthologies I list below, as well. If you are a writer, then both of these collections are books you have to own. They will change the way you look at short fiction.
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