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.

ENJOY!

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.

Buy I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down: Collected Stories from Amazon.com

 

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.

 

3. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" by Joyce Carol Oates

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.

 

5. "Harvey’s Dream" by Stephen King

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.

 

6. "Puppy" by George Saunders

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.

 

7. "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut

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.

Buy The Things They Carried from Amazon.com

 

9. "The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury

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.


IN CONCLUSION

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.


TO SEND A QUESTION TO RICHARD: drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.

Image of The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories
Author:
Price: $13.25
Publisher: Vintage (1994)
Binding: Paperback, 576 pages
Image of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories
Author:
Price: $12.79
Publisher: Anchor (2004)
Binding: Paperback, 496 pages
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 16, 2013 - 8:33pm

thanks for chiming in! i feel like nobody has read "The Veldt," it's so intense. yeah, and "FSHR" is so good i had to acquire it for THE NEW BLACK my first anthology with DARK HOUSE PRESS. i want as many people to read it as possible. it leads off the book, actually! so glad you liked those two. now go read the rest! :-)

Kelby Losack's picture
Kelby Losack from Texas is reading Muerte Con Carne; The Summer Job; Bizarro Bizarro August 17, 2013 - 4:30pm

If 'FSHR' will be included, I can't wait to see what else makes the grade for that anthology. Sounds like a must buy. And I'm on it! 

Remittancegirl's picture
Remittancegirl from Vietnam is reading The Rise of the Warrior Cop August 17, 2013 - 5:17pm

I know she's not literary and I know she's not nearly as famous as the writers on your list, but for a story about language, its power and its absence,  Kij Johnson's "Spar" is magnificent.

It's online here: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/johnson_10_09/

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 17, 2013 - 6:37pm

thanks, Remittancegirl, i'll be sure to check it out. i'm always looking for new voices.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 17, 2013 - 6:48pm

oh, and thanks kelby, yeah it's a great collection.

and wow, Rem, that was intense. thanks for sharing. loved that story, "Spar"

Teresa Doyle's picture
Teresa Doyle November 20, 2013 - 7:56pm

"Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff would top my list at least five times out of ten: http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_27/section_1/artc2A.html --- (The rest of the time, it'd probably be "The Problem of Susan" or something else by Neil Gaiman.) But I'll definitely have to seek out those of the above that I haven't read.

 

The JCO was never one of my favorites, actually. I don't know, some of her other stuff has struck chords with me, but that one just never clicked. But in fairness, I can see the great craft in it, I just don't like it.

Justin Mathews's picture
Justin Mathews November 20, 2013 - 8:22pm

Surprised not to see "The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov on this list.

marastara's picture
marastara November 20, 2013 - 11:17pm

Seriously, no "The Lottery"??

xXXNoScOpE_420_sWaGXXx's picture
xXXNoScOpE_420_... November 21, 2013 - 7:14am

Too many bitches on this list, dawg

Itwasadarkandstormynight's picture
Itwasadarkandst... November 21, 2013 - 8:45am

I was so impressed with the list you made that I read everything I could find. I then started perusing the comments for more short stories. Finally, I created an account. Where has this place been all my life!!! 

vdeleon's picture
vdeleon from San Antonio, TX is reading The LIttle Stranger November 21, 2013 - 9:12am

I nominate Joe Hill's "Pop Art" from 20th Century Ghosts.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 21, 2013 - 1:03pm

@teresa - yeah, great suggestion. i remember reading that story, but it hasn't stayed with me. maybe i need to revisit it. (i peeped that link. yeah, that's a good one.) i don't think i've read any of Gaiman's shorter stuff, WTH? did i miss a collection? i love his novels.

@justin - i don't read that much science fiction, grew up on Bradbury and Heinlein, but Asimov was always a little too smart for me. but that's a great story, for sure.

@marastara - you know, i considered it. i left that off, along with "Cathedral" and a few others that were heavily anthologized, just because they feel overexposed. but then again, WAYG, WHYB is EVERYWHERE. so, go figure. i just re-read "The Lottery" a few weeks ago, and it's a great story, but one that has a HUGE impact the first time you read it, but maybe not as much on re-reads. of course, the same could be said for King's "Harvey's Dream".

@xXXNoScOpE_420_sWaGXXx - well, you let me know, dawg, when you've read all of these bitches, then we can get into, it, yo.

@itwasadarkandstormynight - thanks! welcome. LR is a great community, i hope you'll stick around, drop me a line if you need anything. 

@vdeleon - yeah, that's a great collection, but nothing from that really stuck with me. he's a great writer, for sure.

IN GENERAL - i know that on any given day this list would be differnent. i know that with King alone i could have picked ten stories, "The Jaunt" and "I Know What You Need" and "Quitters, Inc." etc. i had to make a list, and this is what i put up. i hope it'll push you all to read some new voices, and to revisit authors you already enjoy! it's not meant to be a definitive list of the best short stories ever, just MY list. i know there is not much diversity on this list, or foreign writers, or stories from 100 years ago. what can i say, it's my list, and it is what it is! ENJOY! 

REDDIT people, i hope you'll stick around and read more!

Kelby Losack's picture
Kelby Losack from Texas is reading Muerte Con Carne; The Summer Job; Bizarro Bizarro November 21, 2013 - 9:42pm

Anything by Jeremy Robert Johnson or SGJ belongs in a Top Stories list. Always. Especially JRJ's "The Leauge of Zeroes" or "Dissociative Skills." The first is bizarro at its finest, the second gave me fierce chills. Still does. I re-read it often. 

clausd's picture
clausd November 22, 2013 - 6:36am

This is positively nuts. Hemingway, Borges, Fitzgerald, Maupassant just to name absolute kings of the genre.... 

 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 22, 2013 - 11:38am

like i said, @clausd it's all relative, i'm not a fan of Borges, Fitzgerald, or Maupassant. Hemingway i haven't read in a long time, and while he is a fantastic author, i think i prefer his novels. he writes a mean short story, though. feel free to post up your own list of "Top Ten Dead Authors" if you want. i also don't like James Joyce, Jane Austin or William Shakespeare. but please do take the time to read these newer voices, and let me know what you think. 

Kelby Losack's picture
Kelby Losack from Texas is reading Muerte Con Carne; The Summer Job; Bizarro Bizarro November 22, 2013 - 6:58pm

@Richard, dead authors certainly did a lot, but I feel like Tyler Durden (Palahniuk's version) in thinking that those old dead guys had their time, and the world is ours now. Pay attention to the present or we'll crumble fucking museums! 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 23, 2013 - 3:39pm

@kelby - for sure, and i'm not saying they didn't have impact, or weren't important, i'm just more focused on contemporary short stories. :-)

Kelby Losack's picture
Kelby Losack from Texas is reading Muerte Con Carne; The Summer Job; Bizarro Bizarro November 23, 2013 - 7:53pm

I'm with ya on that one, Richard.

wavedomer's picture
wavedomer from Boise is reading Rum Punch November 24, 2013 - 10:29am

Andre Dubus Townies, Killings

mattmyth's picture
mattmyth from Rotorua, New Zealand is reading Child of God by Cormack McCarthy January 25, 2014 - 8:57pm

'That Way' By Barry Crump

FJ's picture
FJ August 27, 2014 - 9:59pm

I love short stories. There is a new set of short stories from Australia. Easy reading but fascinating insight. The Froggy Bagshaw Tales.  Starts with a story called Nurse Emily Brightman. At the moment Kindle only.  Novel is on the way apparently.

Redd Tramp's picture
Redd Tramp from Los Angeles, CA is reading Mongrels by SGJ; Sacred and Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk; The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault October 11, 2014 - 4:33pm

I just finished Jesus' Son for the first time. What a crazy writer Johnson is. I didn't know what to expect when I started, and now that I've finished it still remains this half-digested ball of knots in my head. I'm definitely going to go back through it. Emergency was really, really good. As was Work, I thought. 

By Hempel, I've always loved The Annex, maybe one of my favorites by her.

I love Guts by Palahniuk to bits and pieces, still have yet to encounter a story that stopped my heart like that one. But I think a lot of the rest of Haunted is really underrated. Obsolete, the last story in the book, by Mr. Whittier, blew my mind. And Nightmare Box was really good too.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies October 21, 2014 - 7:24pm

very cool, redd. so glad you read JS. i just re-read it for LR, here's that conversation. you might find it really interesting, having just finished it.

http://litreactor.com/columns/prose-conversation-jesus-son-by-denis-johnson

Redd Tramp's picture
Redd Tramp from Los Angeles, CA is reading Mongrels by SGJ; Sacred and Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk; The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault October 23, 2014 - 12:50pm

Thanks Richard, glad you messaged me about it too, cos I ended up rereading the column before going back to reread parts of JS.

I just realized, too, which story The Veldt is by Bradbury! It was in the Illustrated Man. I freakin loved that story! Though I think I liked Kaleidoscope a little bit more than Veldt. It was just so sad, astronauts tumbling through empty space with no hope for survival. And they know it too. Connected by their headsets and shared fate. I really gotta go back and finish that whole book.

I also just recently analyzed HIlls Like White Elephants by Hemingway, and it made me realize how masterful it was. He did so much in just a few pages, and almost entirely with dialogue.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies October 28, 2014 - 2:01pm

yeah, hard to pick just ONE Bradbury, right? i guess with "The Veldt" i was reading it in my MFA program, a lot of dull, dry stuff and this one just JUMPED off the page, really shocked me the violence and lack of remorse. so maybe that's why i love it so much. it was an oasis in a desert, yeah?

Redd Tramp's picture
Redd Tramp from Los Angeles, CA is reading Mongrels by SGJ; Sacred and Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk; The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault October 29, 2014 - 7:07am

I can see why. There's just something so shocking about it. I didn't see it coming--maybe I should have but I didn't--that room turning real. Such an amazing, bizarre idea. The parents just get totally fucked over. Though for some reason I can't remember what happened to the kids in the story. Hmm. Yeah, the veldt was like an African plain. I really gotta go get that book again.

Brian Dunn's picture
Brian Dunn from Phoenix, AZ is reading multiple things March 19, 2015 - 11:24am

A great Roald Dahl short story is "The Sound Machine." Oh, and anything by Etgar Keret.