Top Ten Short Stories of All Timeon Dec 05 in Blog Post by johnhornor
I love short stories. Of all things to read, I’d rather sit down with a great anthology or collection than anything else because a well-wrought short story is like a wonderful meal. Also, I appreciate the artistry that goes into the best stories. In my humble opinion, it’s far harder to write a good short story than a novel.
But I do love ‘em. Probably because I grew up on The Twilight Zone.
Over at Litreactor.com, Richard Thomas listed his top ten stories of all time. I agreed with only one of them. And, so, I thought I would list my favorites for your perusal. Mr. Thomas has a great list. You know, de gustibus non est disputandem. But, in good humor, I’m going to disputandem him. In no particular order (other than numerical) here are my favorites.
10. “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale” – Neil Gaiman
This was the story that really made me love Neil Gaiman’s writing and imagination. It’s funny and honest and ends dramatically, in a way you never see coming and changes the whole timbre of the story. It’s the perfect example of why Gaiman is the premiere fabulist working today.
9. “Big Two-Hearted River” – Ernest Hemingway
It was a toss-up between this story and “Hills Like White Elephants” but this one wins out. A perfect example of subtext in descriptive writing, there’s more going on than just a man cleaning a trout. An interesting examination of PTSD – back then they called it being “shell-shocked.”
8. “A Good Man is Hard To Find” – Flannery O’Connor
You know, I feel like I’m just throwing out meatballs here, but it’s hard to countenance a best-of-anything-literary list without one mention of Flannery O’Connor (or Hemingway, or Faulkner). “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is brutal, and the grandmother is laid bare at the end, not just by the violence. She’s denuded of everything, her faith, belief in family. One by one, the Misfit strips her of all her illusions and the trappings of society to a truly powerful end.
Side note: In the comments of the Litreactor work, some folks mentioned Lansdale’s “Night They Missed the Horror Show” – and over the years I’ve heard many folks mention that it was their favorite horror story – and I realized I had never read it, so I went here to give it a gander. Great story. I found myself comparing it to “A Good Man is Hard to Find” due to the similarities of the random and unexpected endings though O’Connor at least set up the situation with a radio broadcast. I wouldn’t place “Horror Show” on any top ten lists, as much as I love Lansdale’s writing. Why? No character growth. When the characters meet their grisly (and unexpected) ends, unlike the matron in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” they are the exact same characters they were when the story started. But does Lansdale know how to turn a phrase? My oh my. Yes he does.
7. “To Build A Fire” – Jack London
When I was a kid, I got into reading genre early and it was only later that I discovered the classics of literature, which maybe one of the drawbacks of letting kids read sf and fantasy. But that’s a subject for another blog.
When I read “To Build A Fire,” at first I thought it was the most boring story I’d ever read. At the same time, I was reading H.P. Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains of Madness,” and I was struck by the similarities between the two. Not just the frigid settings, but the infinitesimal man contesting with the infinite indifference of a vast and opposing force. Yet London achieves a better effect with the minutia of lighting a fire (like Nick Adams gutting a trout) than all the squamous eldritch horrors combined. Which is why there’s no Lovecraft on this list.
6. “The Bear” – William Faulkner
I read this story about once a year. It is, arguably, the biggest influence on my literary aspirations. There’s so much to love about it, the richness of the language – the otherness of the story construction. The whiff of magical realism. The dog. The bear. The prose and familial history. When I first read it, I was amazed to discover that the literary stuff has just as much world-building as fantasy. Also, you really can’t beat a bildungsroman.
5. “The Things They Carried” – Tim O’Brien
I’ve mentioned “The Things They Carried” and mosaic novel (of the same title) elsewhere, but it truly is the most moving and effortless story of the Viet Nam war. I can go on and on about it, but instead, let me just give you the first bit.
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of fight pretending. He would imagine romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure. She was an English major at Mount Sebastian, and she wrote beautifully about her professors and roommates and midterm exams, about her respect for Chaucer and her great affection for Virginia Woolf. She often quoted lines of poetry; she never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself. The letters weighed ten ounces. They were signed “Love, Martha,” but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant. At dusk, he would carefully return the letters to his rucksack. Slowly, a bit distracted, he would get up and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark he would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin.
4. “The Star” – Arthur C. Clarke
Just in time for Christmas, “The Star” is a story that is best to go into blind. The ending packs a wallop, if you’re a Christian. If you’re not, you’ll get a good chuckle at the gentile’s expense.
3. “A Study in Scarlet” – Arthur Conan Doyle
The story that gave us Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. ‘Nuff said. Read it here.
2. “The Events at Poroth Farm” – T.E.D. Klein
Okay, again, this list is subjective, suitable only for me. Remember the de gustibus non est disputandem part? But I figured I better place one horror short on this list and it was a toss-up between Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” anything by Ray Bradbury, something by Stephen King, or Klein. Klein won out. Most likely because his output has been so sparse yet so high quality.
Anywho, in “The Events at Poroth Farm,” Klein out Lovecrafts Lovecraft. Later extended to become the novel The Ceremonies, it’s a wonderful exercise in creeping dread. “Black Man with A Horn” is quite good as well.
I’d wager “The Events at Poroth Farm” is one of the most reprinted horror stories of all time. Since it has remained in print, I can’t give you a link. But if you can find a copy of Klein’s Dark Gods collection, you won’t be sorry.
1. “Bullet in the Brain” – Tobias Wolff
Everything is mutable. What might be my favorite today might not be tomorrow (ask my kids). But for the last few years, this story has remained my favorite, most likely because I only just discovered it a few years ago.
Earlier in this post, I mentioned character growth. It’s important. In “Bullet in the Brain” the very unlikeable character does not grow as much as he becomes revealed. To the reader, it amounts to the same thing.
The setup is a bank robbery where a very self-important professor is standing in line. He’s so unpleasant that as a reader, you’re almost happy when he gets shot. Then he becomes beautiful.
Seriously wonderful story.
Feel free to pick up my collection of short stories, FIERCE AS THE GRAVE, only $2.99. CLICK HERE TO GET IT.
That’s it. There’s thousands of other incredible stories out there, and I’m sure I’ll be kicking myself in a bit, but for now, as of this moment, 12:41 pm on December 5, 2012, these are the GREATEST STORIES OF ALL TIME. For me, at least.
Feel free to tell me your favs in the comments.