Short Fiction: Where’s the Love? (or, Not Even Time For A Quickie?)
Allegedly, we live in an era during which information and the platforms bearing it have metastasized. There is too much information (we are told by those who would eulogize the still-breathing written word) for traditional fiction to compete. The popularity of printed fiction is declining (we are told) and the hustle-bustle of our overcrowded lives bears the blame. One would assume, in such an age, that fiction well-suited to on-the-go consumption and quick digestion would be all the rage. After all, if we’re all in such a blasted hurry, shouldn’t people who want to read fiction be crazy about short stories, while loath to crack a 400-page novel?
The paradox is that nothing could be farther from the truth. Although writers still write short stories and dedicated readers still read them, the magazine markets for short fiction have done nothing but shrink in the last fifty years, and the likelihood of cracking the bestseller lists with a cover-to-cover collection of short fiction is similar to one’s likelihood of surviving a parachute malfunction. Grim odds, indeed. Nonetheless though minimized, marginalized, and ostracized, the short story muddles on, becoming an ever-more esoteric art practiced by an ever-more selective circle of writers.
So, in honor of the release of my absolutely free e-chapbook Right Behind You—a trio of horror and dark fantasy stories available here—as well as Beating Windward Press’s new released, A Floating World, a collection of fabulous short stories by the very talented Karen Best, I thought I’d pay tribute to the short story by offering a list of ten personal favorites. I don’t claim that these are the best stories ever written, but all of them have stuck with me through decades of reading and embody, for me, the great delight that short fiction can provide and the focused, economic artistry that the form demands.
In an effort to point you in new directions (hopefully), I’ve purposely avoided some old chestnuts. Do I really need to tell you that Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’ Ambrose Bierce’s ‘Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,’ Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants,’ or Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ are worth your time? I didn’t think so. (And if you’ve never read any of the stories above—shame on you! Go grab them! You won’t be disappointed!) Likewise, my tastes are clearly reflected here: many of these are horror stories, or at least from the dark side of the literary street.
So, without further ado, let me introduce you to:
“The River” Flannery O’Connor (1955)
O’Connor’s short fiction is on par with Hemingway’s (Papa often being held up as one of the finest—if not the finest—American short story writer of the twentieth century). “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” are more widely known, but “The River”—concerning a neglected little boy’s tragic search for apotheosis in a watery baptism—has always held a special poignancy for me. I guess I’m just a sucker for the sins of grown-ups being played out by puzzled children with tragic results.
“The Small Assassin” Ray Bradbury (1946)
The eternal optimist who married bright nostalgia to cosmic wonder wrote this nasty little terror tale early in his career, and it hasn’t lost one iota of its power. Herein, a young mother is convinced that her newborn baby is trying to kill her. Of course, no one believes her. The kicker is: it’s absolutely true! The ambivalence of parenthood has never been more clearly expressed. (Well, maybe in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Morning Song”… but Bradbury’s story won’t drive you to brave the eternal night of your gas oven.)
“The Willows” Algernon Blackwood (1907)
Running over 20,000 words, “The Willows” is more novella than short story. Nonetheless, Blackwood—whom H. P. Lovecraft considered the finest writer of weird fiction—doesn’t waste a word, slowly, imperceptibly ramping up the tension and forboding until his tale reaches a howling crescendo of terror. More impressive still is that Blackwood makes nature itself a horrifying, unknowable menace, usually right out in the bright sunlight, surrounded by the great wide open of the Danube frontier..
“The Rats in the Walls” H. P. Lovecraft (1924)
It’s hard to pick just one Lovecraft story to love, because so many of his works are indelible, unsettling, and memorable. I chose ‘The Rats in the Walls’—the tale of a country squire moving into an old, ruined family manse under renovation and discovering a terrifying secret—because, for me, it encompasses all the halmarks of Lovecraft’s best work in a fairly small space. Modern readers might be put off by the fact that the main character has a pet cat named N****r Man, but it’s always important to remember that what’s reprehensible to us nowadays was, to a bookish, stiff-backed Anglophile of the 1920s, perfectly normal (that doesn’t make it right; it just adds perspective). That little bit of ugly and banal racism aside, ‘The Rats in the Walls’ remains one of Lovecraft’s most effective chillers.
“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” Ernest Hemingway (1936)
Almost as hard as choosing a single Lovecraft story to recommend is choosing a single Hemingway story. The man was a Titan of the short form, and this grim, ironic little gem may be one of his finest. ‘Francis Macomber’ has everything that makes Hemingway Hemingway: muscular prose; loaded guns and African wildlife; an untameable Great White Hunter; a cuckolded ‘civilized’ man in search of his long-lost masculinity; the manipulative, self-serving woman who moves between them; and a bitter, venomous downer of an ending. What’s not to love?
“Croatoan” Harlan Ellison (1975)
Part horror, part magical realism, this is probably one of the most unsettling stories I’ve ever read. Ellison’s dank, cloacan fable concerns a woman who induces a miscarriage at home and disposes of the fetus down the toilet. She soon decides she’s made a terrible mistake and sends her lover—the father of the disposed-of child—into the sewers in search of it. Things only get weirder from there.
“The Moving Finger” Stephen King (1991)
I’m a diehard King fan. I won’t try and convince you that he’s never turned out some dreck, because he most assuredly has (The Tommyknockers, anyone?). Nonetheless, for a writer so prolific, he’s got a fairly remarkable, consistent track record. While I could list at least two dozen stories of his that I love, ‘The Moving Finger’ has always stuck with me for its weird balance of horror and banality. Herein, we don’t have a flesh-eating demon or a madness-inducing ghost or a surgeon slowly devouring himself, but a simple, elegantly icky premise that slowly but sure gets under your skin and stays there: what if you walked into your bathroom one night and saw a single finger sticking out of the sink drain? And what if it was moving…?
“Flyboys” Tobias Wolff (1997)
Tobias Wolff is a modern master of memoir and literary short fiction. While he has a number of fine stories to his name, this particular bittersweet tale (collected in The Night In Question) is a heartbreaking reminiscence by a grown-up of his early adolescence; a retroactive realization that the narrator and another friend ostracized a third companion after the death of his older brother portends doom for them all, as if misfortune ‘were catching.’ The way it captures the bland, everyday cruelties that young people are capable of is breathtaking.
“In the Hills, the Cities” Clive Barker (1984)
Imagine if two rival villages in the Balkans went to war every few generations by strapping themselves together to build five hundred foot tall human giants, where every man, woman and child is, essentially, a living, breathing, screaming cell in the warring giants’ tissues. Go ahead, just try to paint that picture. No. Never mind. Just read the story. It’s terrifying, awe-inspiring, and utterly original.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
This classic, often embraced by feminist theorists, is a study in madness and domestic gothicism worthy of Poe. It concerns a woman who has been locked away in her bedchamber by her husband to cure her alleged ‘hysteria.’ What slowly becomes evidence is that the poor woman wasn’t nuts until she was locked away like a filthy secret, and that someone else is now playing the part of missus to her condescending husband. This is one of those stories that proves, without breaking a sweat, that literature can be horrifying, and that the horrifying can be literary.
“The Beckoning Fair One” Oliver Onions (1911)
Another longish novella-length tale, and one of the finest ghost stories ever told. It concerns a depressed writer suffering a midlife crisis who thinks he’s found inspiration and in a dank old retnal house. But, no, it’s not inspiration… it’s a malevolent, disembodied consciousness that just wants to use him as a psychic battery, then drive him to an early grave. Aside from its subtle handling of paranormal manifestations and atmosphere, this is also a very well-realized character study of a middle-aged man staring down the bleak reality of his own marginal existence and unrealized dreams.
“The Last Feast of Harlequin” Thomas Ligotti (1990)
Thomas Ligotti is the modern heir to Poe and Lovecraft, a man whose bleak nihilism, cosmic vision, and Byzantine prose channel the entropy, anxieties, and gothic urban terror of modern life. In this longish piece, Ligotti channels Lovecraft, sending an anthropologist obsessed with clowns to a strange, small town in Ohio, hoping to bear witness to a whispered-of annual rite known as the Feast of Harlequin. And oh dear… don’t ya know, it’s just not gonna turn out well for the guy…
“Stones In My Passway, Hellhound On My Trail” T. Coraghassen Boyle (1985)
T. Coraghassen Boyle delights in shrugging off the fussy literary trappings of modern fiction by ranging his tales far and wide in space and time, having no compunctions whatsoever about giving his characters bizarre Dickensian names, and often, using real historical figures to explore universal themes of thwarted ambition, lost love, ill fate, and existential dread. In this tightly-modulated kaleidescopic short, he uses legendary blues singer Robert Johnson—the man who supposedly went down to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil—to examine all his halmark obsessions and illustrate just how useless other-worldy talent is against the murderous intentions of a jilted lover.
So, that’s it. A few tales that have stuck with me through thick and thin; that continue to embody, for me, what great short fiction can and should aspire to. Now, it’s your turn: I invite you, dear readers, to use the comments section below to share some of your favorite short stories or story collections, so we can spread the love and rediscover the value of a quality quickie.
And if you can’t think of any favorites—well, then, it’s time to dive back into the short story pool and paddle about a bit, isn’t it?