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If You Haven't Read These Short Stories, You Should


Recently, the literary world has had good reason to become interested in short stories again. The Rogues anthology includes some great stories by George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix and other literary greats meant to hold us over until Martin releases The Winds of Winter. This post won't harp on about those, because every blog on the face of the planet has tread that ground. The anthology is a reminder however, of short stories which have endured the test of time. These are some of the short stories that grab and don't let go, despite their age.

"The Swimmer," John Cheever (1968)

"The Swimmer" is a masterclass in using language to convey a sensation, and an excellent introduction to surrealism. Though the initial events of the story are grounded in reality—a man in his prime taking it upon himself to journey home by swimming through all of the pools of his wealthy neighbors' properties—it soon becomes a less literal experience. This work deals with class and social hierarchy, but those are the boring bits. The real meat is in Cheever's use of language to demonstrate the link between the primary ideas of his work. The concepts of alcoholism, swimming, wealth, and loss each blur into one another until it is unclear where one idea begins and the other ends. Read the swimmer slowly, and with an eye to the language used, and it won't disappoint.

The concepts of alcoholism, swimming, wealth, and loss each blur into one another in Cheever's The Swimmer.
The concepts of alcoholism, swimming, wealth, and loss each blur into one another in Cheever's "The Swimmer." Photo by Guduru Ajay bhargav from Pexels.

"The Yellow Wallpaper," Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

"The Yellow Wallpaper" is likewise, an introduction. This story is one of the earliest works of American feminist literature, and is written in the first person. This is a darker story, and can feel a bit stifling to read, but has been widely adapted to the stage. A performance often feels much more light-hearted than the brooding tone of the story, while conveying the deeper themes of the work undiluted. Suffice to say that this is an early discovery of feminist issues, written by a woman, from a woman's perspective. It is especially concerned with the treatment of women by doctors, and by the men in their lives; and with the relationship between infants and their parents (both father and mother). A tense and sometimes horrifying narrative, "The Yellow Wallpaper" is worth the stress of reading it, and downright enjoyable on the stage.

"The Wendigo," Algernon Blackwood (1910)

"The Wendigo" is a special type of horror which captures the sense and grandeur of the Canadian and American frontiers. Drawing inspiration from the myth of the Wendigo—a creature said to always feel hungry, and thus gorge itself unendingly—this story is slow to start, but offers a fully realized and captured sense of the loneliness and desolation of the wilderness, alongside the tensions which encourage belief in the supernatural. Readers who weather the introduction, and who appreciate the tension of the environment and the severe costs of decisions in the wilderness, will be rewarded with a supernatural and surreal tale about what it means to be lost in the woods. This is a must-read for any Canadian or American who has found themselves beneath the snow-covered boughs of a forest in winter.

"The Heart of Darkness," Joseph Conrad (1899)

"The Heart of Darkness" is a must-read, just as the movie it inspired—Apocalypse Now—might be considered a must-watch. The reason I suggest reading Joseph Conrad however, is not as a dry lesson in colonialism, but because like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "The Heart of Darkness" is a tale about how the journey changes the destination. Joseph Conrad's contribution to literature, and his tale of men set off down a river, is so iconic that it is impossible not to see the reflection of certain scenes in other works—The Life of Pi, for instance, borrows Conrad's imagery of encountering a tiger; and the recent film The Lost City of Z likewise draws strongly on the narrative tropes of the 'journey into the unknown' genre. For this reason, Conrad's work cannot be overlooked, despite recent scholarly assertions that its depictions of colonialism have not aged well.

"The Black Cat," Edgar Allan Poe (1843)

"The Black Cat," sticks out as one of the greatest uses of an unreliable narrator in fiction—that is, the character telling the story has reason to avoid telling the whole truth. This story is ostensibly horrific, but is the kind of horror which creates dread rather than fear or disgust. It is written from the perspective of a condemned man, of arguable sanity, and follows the chain of events leading up to that character's crime and subsequent sentence to hang. What makes this story worth reading is the vivid descriptions of the narrator's actions, which lead a reader to believe in the validity of the actions, despite ample reason to doubt that character's claims. Couple this with the symbolism throughout the short story, and a dark conclusion, and "The Black Cat" stands out as a special type of brooding horror, perfect for reading by candlelight. Of course, Poe is famous for stories like this, and those who enjoy "The Black Cat" should also read "The Purloined Letter."

"The Magic Shop," H. G. Wells (1903)

Stories like "The Magic Shop," are astounding in their quickness. A very light read, this story will remind Harry Potter fans of 'the room of requirement.' It is also an example of a short story which creates a world in your mind, building the size, and shape, and occupants of the eponymous magic shop until they stick out vividly in your mind. This story captures the sense of wonder present in a child watching a display of magic, and twists it ever so slightly so that undercurrents of danger lurk. For the scholarly minded, the story paints an interesting picture of masculine parenthood in the late 1800s.

"The Gift of the Magi," O. Henry (1905)

This story is a classic; and even if few remember its name, almost everyone has heard it told (and retold). "The Gift of the Magi" is important because it demonstrates the inherent value in self-sacrifice, and because it is one of the few short stories that is neither horror, nor suspenseful; but which builds a narrative in the span of less than three pages, and delivers an ending which reveals a magnificent amount about both characters in the tale, and about love in general. Of the stories here, this is one of the shortest, and is also the most likely to be enjoyed by any reader, whether for the first time, or as it sparks their memory of having read it—or heard it told—in the past.

"Beyond the Door," Philip K. Dick (1954)

"Beyond the Door" is an exercise in weirdness and will leave the reader unresolved. A departure from Philip K. Dick's normally light tone, and from his normally science-fiction works. This is the amusing, strange, and violent tale of a cuckoo clock and adultery. A very quick read, "Beyond the Door" is recommended here because it is hard to make heads or tails of, and it certainly tells a unique tale about marriage and how relationships can fall apart when viewed differently from each side.

"The Bet," Anton P. Chekhov (1889)

"The Bet" is another, like "Beyond the Door," which may leave readers unresolved. It is a short, short story discussing the virtues of morality and wealth, via the narrative device of a bet between two men regarding which is the greater punishment: death, or life imprisonment. Each character involved in the bet—a lawyer and a banker—are flawed, and so the outcome is ambiguous in some ways, but poses questions about what was sacrificed during the bet, and why each character lost gained wealth or morality by having made the bet. The bet itself is meaningful, rather than simply the outcome.

Chekhov's The Bet is a short, short story discussing the virtues of morality and wealth.
Chekhov's "The Bet" is a short, short story discussing the virtues of morality and wealth. Photo by Thgusstavo Santana from Pexels.

"Araby," James Joyce (1914)

"Araby" is perhaps another must-read piece, especially because it deals with the conflict between imagined or ideal circumstances, and reality. It is interesting because of the way children, particularly the child whose point of view the story is written from, are described. Often, characters are light, or glowing, or otherwise magical. This attribute is given to children, despite the environment they are being raised in, which is grim. As the story progresses, the idea that children are "ideal" is tarnished, and the outcome of the story can be interpreted in a number of ways. We might conclude that a journey to the Araby bazaar is a journey into adulthood and that the change in the protagonists' perspective is one created by a coming of age; or else we can view all of the romantic ideals at the outset of the story as simply a falsehood or façade, which was never truly indicative of what the boy was experiencing. In either case, "Araby" will likely leave a hole in your heart, and make you think about who you were when you were young—and of course, that means you should read it.

To conclude

The stories here are classics, but also powerful. Most of them are quite short, and great for a bite-sized piece of literary snack while we wait for George R. R. Martin to finish his next full-sized novel; or just so we remember some of the short stories which have helped shape the stories being told now. It's always good to know where stories come from, and how they change.

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