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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To leave a comment
Yes, EMERGENCY is A-MAZING. I like Bullets & Fire, by Joe Lansdale. Wrapped me up like a novel would.
i know that if nothing else happens i'll get some great suggestions for stories i've never read before. sadly, i've read way less Lansdale then i should have. thanks, ben.
You gave me a new reading list! I only read 3 of these.
I always preferred O'Connor to Oates, personally. But I think you need a top 100.
I just interviewed Saunders, he's one of the best. Solid list, Richard.
If you haven't read this story by JCO, you must read it. She is surprisingly intense. And I love FOC, for sure.
My favourite Bradbury short story was always The Emissary. It was read to me as a child and scared me sleepless for a good few nights. (***Spoiler Alert*** coming up) Going back to it now I realise part of my enjoyment is that echo from my childhood, but I still get a chill when Dog's fur smells "of strange earth. It was a smell of night within night, the smell of digging down deep in shadow through earth that had lain cheek by jowl with thingsthat were long hidden and decayed. A stinking and rancid soil fell away in clods of dissolution from Dog's muzzle and paws. He had dug deep." (***end Spoiler***)
I haven't read the majority of these stories and will be going and checking them out as soon as.
A few that would turn up in any list of my favourite short stories:
- The Music of Erich Zann by H.P. Lovecraft
- Fall of the House of Usher by Poe
- Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad by M.R. James
Okay, they are all of the horror/ghost genre, but the short story, in my opinion, when done right just lends itself to the slow skin creep kind of horror.
Here's a few that would probably appear on my list (this is just off the top of my head):
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried by Amy Hempel
Guts by Chuck Palahniuk
The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe
There are a few others I really like but they are almost novellas (like Dolan's Cadillac by Stephen King).
Also, just about anything from Aimee Bender.
My favourites are Shirley Jakson's The Lottery and A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. I love so many horror short stories that I couldn't name them all. The best horror short story anthology I've read is Hellbound Hearts - essentially Hellraiser fanfiction by famous authors.
Reading "The Lottery" in high school had a profound impact on me and is one of the reasons I write. It also made me fall in love with the short story format.
I love these lists because I appreciate the endless amount of reading I feel compelled to add to my leaning tower of literature (thanks, Richard). Numbers 3 and 8 are, of course, awesome. If I may add...
Oh heck, just buy every short story collection from Sherman Alexie, but specifically, "What You Pawn I Will Redeem" is brilliant.
Laugh if you want but "The Yellow Wallpaper" is still a fine study of how to write a seamless shift in reality.
Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" is a fave too.
"Emergency" is brilliant and most anthologized, but I've always thought "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" deserves more attention than it gets. Something less explicable in how it works.
I'd definitely include "The Pugilist at Rest" by Thom Jones.
Some personal favorites are "92 Days" by Larry Brown, "The Elephant Vanishes" by Murakami, "Loser" by Aimee Bender as someone mentioned above, and Sherman Alexie...
The head splits trying to corral such a list. Good stuff Richard.
Yeah, THE LOTTERY maybe that should have made the list. 1948, less contemporary than most on this list. I think I picked Harrison Bergeron over The Lottery. But it had a big impact on me as well.
Hard to leave off Hempel, that's for sure. Makes me think Mark Richard and STRAYS as a top 20. GUTS is one that definitely makes my top 20 as well.
I keep hearing that Alexie, not sure if I've actually read it. I know the title.
Carver, Cheever, yeah, hard to leave them off.
"Emergency" always got to me, the rabbits, but really, all of JESUS' SON is fantastic.
The Thom Jones, yeah, very anthologized.
Haven't read any of Murakami's short stuff, guess I should. I have some Larry Brown at home, but don't think I've read that one either.
Great comments, guys.
Richard, here What You Pawn I Will Redeem, by Sherman Alexie. Enjoy!
We can remember it for you wholesale by Phillip K. Dick
"Sonny's Blues" has to be up there somewhere (James Baldwin). That's another one that's anthologized often, but deservedly so.
Among lesser known (maybe) stories, I'd add to top 100 if not top ten 2 others:
"Letters from the Samantha" (Mark Helprin) - you may learn something about human nature from a story about an ape rescued by a ship captain after a tornado.
"The Conversion of the Jews" (Roth) - about a kid who asks too many questions (of his mom, of the rabbi) and ends up "converting" quite a few people from the roof of a building.
I know "Where are you Going..." by Oates, and still prefer "Good Man..." by Flannery. But they're both good.
@Stephen Williams - Absolutely, Guts would make my list.
@Jess - Forgot about The Lottery. Another definite entry on any list of shorts I was putting together, and you've made me think of Barker now and perhaps "Son of Celluloid" would have made my list too.
I also nominate Guts.
Amy Hempel's In The Cemetary Where Al Jolson is Buried
Amy Hempel's The Harvest
Brady Udall's Midnight Raid
Amy's new story, A Full Service Shelter, is probably the best short story I've read in years, but it's not online anymore.
A great list. Jesus' Son is as good as you say though I would have chosen Out on Bail, with that story Johnson executes a beautiful shift in the mental state of the narrator, it jolts you when you hit it like catching your face in the mirror when you don't expect it. I've never read anything like it.
Also, Raymond Carver's Tell The Women We're Going and Borge's story The Library Of Babel, both fantastic and utterly ulike one another.
I forgot about "Sonny's Blues" another one that was pretty influencial for me when I read it. Also "Are These Actual Miles?" is one of my favorite Raymond Carver stories.
My favorite short story is "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning" by Murakami. I also agree that "The Lottery" should also be on the list.
Yeah, Richard! “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit” is definitely one of the best and most chilling short stories I’ve ever read. Great edition of Storyville.
My Top 5:
“The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell
“Top Man” by James Ramsey Ullman
“The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson
“Real Life” by Donald Ray Pollock
“Father, Son, Holy Rabbit” By Stephen Graham Jones
And as far as collections go, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson and Drown by Junot Diaz are the 2 best I’ve read.
great stuff guys, i'm surprised that i haven't read many of these. so it's hard for me to nominate something i haven't read. PKD, ah, yes, that's a great one. i guess i need to pick up some Murakmi already. The Lottery is the one that everyone thinks should be on here. thanks for the link, erin. so many great stories.
somebody suggested i list my top 100 but man, that would be insane.
The Things They Carried and Where are You Going? are definitely in my top ten.
I have to add Neil Gaiman's The Thing About Cassandra, October in the Chair, and The Price.
Shirley Jackson's The Lottery
Haruki Murakami's Town of Cats (from 1Q84)- really all his short stories are amazing
can I say anything by Bradbury? I'm going to
Raymond Carver's Are These Actual Miles?
Eudora Welty's No Place for You, My Love
and Joe Hill's The Devil on the Staircase (as a bonus)
^great stuff, LEN.
Ooh, can I second the Murakami and say William Trevor? Timothy's Birthday, something about it killed me.
No Mark Richard?
"This Is Us, Excellent"
"Her Favorite Story"
"The Theory of Man"
all of those from the 1990 PEN/Hemingway award winning THE ICE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD.
and I third the Murakami and fourth the SGJ.
Great article, Richard. I've only read about half of these and will seek out the rest.
Also, let's not forget Jack Ketchum. Peaceable Kingdom is one of my favourite short story collections.
Craig Davidson's collection "Rust and Bone" has at least one story I'd put in the top ten, along with Donald Ray Pollock's stories from "Knockemstiff." I'm just not sure which ones I'd pick.
"Car Crash While Hitchhiking" is my favorite of Denis Johnson.
"Welcome to the Monkey House" is my favorite Vonnegut short.
And while it's hard to see a top ten list of short stories without Amy Hempel, it's just strange to see it without a mention of Carver. "Cathedral", "Popular Mechanics" (or Little Things), and "A Small, Good Thing" are all classics.
Gaiman and Chandler would probably pop into my top 20.
You have to have some Hemingway. "A very short story" maybe.
And Borges. Damn. Maybe 'The South'.
Also Carver, but I guess that's a bit obvious. Something by Dahl. The one about the fingers. Man from the south, I think.
Ballard - maybe the one about the endless city. Also Fork by Dave Eggers is pretty funny.
The final one would have to be one of the masters: Maugham, or O Henry, or Chekov or Kafka or Joyce. Okay, the Dead by Joyce.
edit: and no johnson cos Jesus' Son is a novel
You've created a perfect list, Richard. You couldn't change a selection and make it better, just different. Great writers.
Just yesterday due to a thread here I was thinking about my top 5 "Lish-Lit" stories. Lawns would be up there. Also Amy Hempel "The Most Girl Part of You," Raymond Carver - "Where I'm Calling From" (or maybe "Fat,") definitely Barry Hannah - "Water Liars."
For me James Joyce's "Araby" is the ultimate short story. I also wouldn't be able to do a short story list and not include Donald Barthelme, probably his "Departures." Joe Lansdale's "The Night They Missed the Horror Show" or "Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland." Dan Chaon, Kevin Canty, Tom Franklin, Chris Offutt, etc...
Yeah, in talking about this in another thread I remembered Mark Richard. I absolutely love "Strays," and would put that in my top 20.
Ketchum, yeah, loved Peaceable Kingdom, hard to ignore his work, that's for sure.
Davidson and Pollock two great selections, Ron Rash, too. As for Carver, I guess much like Flannery, I've just read "Cathedral" so many times, maybe I'm just sick of him.
I need to read more Hannah for sure. I really hate James Joyce, sorry, never have liked him.
I've only read maybe 15 of the stories listed, including those in the comments, some of which are wonderful indeed.
People should check out The WIne-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia.
If I made a personal top 10 list, I'd have "A Rose for Emily" by Faulkner. Or a Faulkner of some kind.
In all honesty, if I compiled this list, I think it would all be 10 Amy Hempel stories.
John Hornor Jacobs (author of Southern Gods and This Dark Earth, both good reads) listed his top 10 short stories on his site: http://www.johnhornorjacobs.com/top-ten-short-stories-of-all-time/ - a great list as well.
When it comes to horror, the more I think about Lover Doll, by Wayne Allen Sallee,the more convinced I am that it might be best damn horror short story ever. SGJ's story definitely stuck with me, but Sallee's story invades my nightmares more than I like to admit.
On the Top Ten Anything Thread (page 2), I have the 10 ten stories by famous writers I could find for free on the web. They are:
1) In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, Amy Hempel
2) A Study in Emerald, Neil Gaiman (opens as a .pdf)
3) Guts, by Chuck Palahniuk
4) A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O'Conner
5) Midnight Raid, Brady Udall
6) Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been, Joyce Carol Oats
7) The Harvest, Amy Hempel
8) The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien
9) Cathedral, by Raymond Carver
10) A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: A Tale For Children, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Bonus, because I found these, while looking for other stories by the author:
11) The Man From the South, by Roald Dahl
12) HARRISON BERGERON, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr (I really wanted to find Welcome to the Monkey House, but I couldn't find it)
yeah, i remember you posting that up. i actually used a few of those links. thanks, BH!
Salinger isn't even mentioned in the comments? I'm generally not a fan of short stories, but Salinger made me change my mind with the book "Nine Stories" my favorite being Ted. His characters and the pictures he depicts of them is simply remarkable in each one.
Of the stories that never left me after reading them I would have to put down:
The Box, by Jack Ketchum
Sitting in the corner, whimpering quietly, by Dennis Etchinson
The women, by Ray Bradbury
Inner child, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Dark Cavalry, by Eric Brown
yeah, not a big fan of Salinger.
Ketchum for sure, it's been so long since I picked up Peaceable Kingdom. I dokn't know NKH and EB, Etchinson either. i'll have to check them out. great bradbury.
Richard, from your list I second George Saunders - "Puppy" is amazing.
And to recommend, I second the suggest of anything by Aimee Bender.
Munro, anyone? Sure, it's not fancy prose, not a notice-me-I'm-a-fantastic-writer-watch-my-literary-gymnastics-leap-off-the-page type of writer, but if there's any short story writer living today worthy of the Nobel or a Pulitzer, or both, it's her.
She makes me want to be Canadian.
sorry but the dead isn't even in the list?
@RO - sorry, can't stand james joyce
Mavis Gallant? too many to pick
sweet, yeah, with Saunders it's tough, there are several i love of his, but i think since that was the first of his i read, it's always held a special place for me. "Victory Lap" is a close second, and everyone likes "Seak Oak," too.
'The Veldt' made my hands shake. Also, 'Father, Son, Holy Rabbit' is one of those stories that makes me want to give up. Nothing can ever top it, in my mind. Disturbing and sweet, touching and terrifying...excuse me as I go read it again.