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Apr 26, 2018
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:
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Buy The Ones That Got Away from Amazon.com
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“You’re not always going to like yourself, that’s a fact. But you damn sure better love yourself.”
— Dan, 27
“It’s a waste of time to fear being single or dying alone. Even if you’ve got someone in bed next to you, you’ve got to learn how to be okay with a certain kind of solitude. Nobody else lives inside your brain. You are always somewhat alone. Learn to embrace it for the gift it is.”
— Monica, 25
“Always have an extra pair of underwear.”
— Trey, 24
“Fuck anyone who hates on you for being excited about life.”
— Anna, 20
“Negativity is like a cancer. It starts slowly and can sometimes go undetected. Don’t ignore it. Take steps to remove it at first notice.”
— Pamela, 23
“People who make fun of pop music are just widely insecure.”
— Tanya, 21
“You shouldn’t have to tell someone how to love you.”
— Ariana, 20
“Falling in love makes even the smartest person an idiot. But that’s the beauty in it. Don’t be afraid to release control. Be a little dumb. Why not?”
— Kristi, 18
“Don’t expect a dude to have condoms. Bring your own. It’s 2015, get over the lame idea that this is somehow slutty or embarrassing. Be prepared.”
— Lauren, 24
“Reacting to something out of anger or a need for revenge will only hurt you down the road. Take a second. Go for a walk. Cry it out. But don’t do something you will later regret when emotions aren’t as intense.”
— Kate, 28
“Crying isn’t weakness. Crying is release.”
— Ryan, 24
“You won’t ever love the same way twice, so you shouldn’t expect to. It’s a bit like ordering pizza from different restaurants — both slices of pizza, but still going to taste a little different. That doesn’t invalidate how good they might be, individually. But they still aren’t the same.”
— Brie, 21
“At the end of your life, will you really give a shit about whether or not you were cool?”
— John, 23
“If you use too much tongue when kissing, you’re a disgusting monster who should retire from making-out.”
— Ken, 20
“Don’t kill them with kindness. Don’t aim to kill anyone.”
— Samuel, 27
“Don’t say ‘I’m fine’ if you’re not fine. Just be fucking honest. We’re not idiots — we know when someone isn’t really fine.”
— Yas, 19
“No one has the right to decide who you are, what you need, or how you should get to your destination. You’ve got free will, so use it.”
— Nell, 25
“If he only gives a shit about you some of the time, that’s not enough. Remember you’re a priority, not a second thought.”
— Emily, 23
“If you love someone, tell them. Without fear or reserve, tell them. Don’t waste another second contemplating the outcome. Just do it.”
— Jeffrey, 27
“Never shop at Victoria’s Secret. Do you really need your bra to fucking sparkle for $60? Gimme a break. Slap some fabric on those bad boys from Walmart, you’re fine.”
— Deb, 24
“Sure, someone out there will always be prettier, smarter, funnier, a harder-worker, etc. And it’s so easy to drown ourselves in comparisons. But at the end of the day, none of that matters. Because you’re not in competition with anyone. You only have to prove yourself to one person: you.”
— Gwen, 27
“Do not read old messages from people after drinking wine. On second thought, don’t read old messages EVER.”
— Georgie, 25
“Actually, you can have your cake and eat it too.”
— Christie, 23
“If you spend your life romanticizing the past, you miss the opportunity to fall in love with your present.”
— Kay, 28
“You cannot love someone hard enough that they start loving themselves back. That’s just not how it works. You cannot save someone who refuses to accept help. You’ll just destroy yourself in the process.”
— Jared, 25