I read a lot of short stories, but I feel like they rarely get the recognition from me that they deserve because it’s unusual that a whole collection is so good as to, say, make it into my top ten books of the year (Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades and Runaway, George Saunders’s Tenth of December and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove are honourable exceptions). They also aren’t eligible for the Women’s Prize, which is the book prize I follow most consistently. Therefore, I thought I would highlight some of my favourite short stories. If I can find online links to the stories, I’ll include them, so you can read along!
- Alice Munro: ‘Red Dress – 1946’ from Dance of the Happy Shades. This might seem like an odd choice; it’s one of Munro’s earliest stories and probably feels slight next to some of her later work. But it so perfectly inhabits adolescence, and the last line is both determinedly low-key and unforgettable. You can read the opening of this story here.
- Nafissa Thompson-Spires, ‘Suicide, Watch’ from Heads of the Colored People. Pretty much the only story I’ve ever read that has managed an effective satire about excessive use of social media. Read it here.
- Matthew Kneale, ‘Powder’ in Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance. Starts with a middle-ranking lawyer who feels he has been overlooked for promotion since achieving the rank of salaried partner and goes to some bizarre places. Many of the other stories in this collection are also worth reading.
- Lionel Shriver, ‘The Standing Chandelier’ in Property [also published as a stand-alone]. Shriver at her worst is unreadable; Shriver at her best is unforgettable. I also liked ‘Kilifi Creek’ in the same collection, which is thematically remiscient of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am.
- Michel Faber, ‘Vanilla Bright Like Eminem’ from The Fahrenheit Twins. I’ve never forgotten this simple story, in which a man unknowingly experiences the best moment of his life. Read it here.
- Sarah Hall, ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ from The Beautiful Indifference. Again, pretty much everything in this collection is amazing, but I loved this evocation of a small and brutal Cumbrian town.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ from The Thing Around Your Neck. In an otherwise undistinguished collection, this story about writing your own life as a Nigerian woman stood out, prefiguring Adichie’s magnificent Americanah. Read it here.
- Curtis Sittenfeld, ‘The Nominee’ from You Think It, I’ll Say It. I loved this short story about Hillary Clinton, and can’t wait for the novel-length version. Read it here.
- Lauren Groff, ‘Ghosts and Empties’ from Florida. Such an evocative collection, and this story, about a woman walking the streets of her neighbourhood, has stayed with me. Read it here.
- Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, ‘The Lion and the Spider’ from Friday Black. This isn’t really representative of Adjei-Brenyah’s speculative satire, but it’s such a moving story.
Speculative and Science Fiction
- Ted Chiang, ‘Story of Your Life’ from Stories of Your Life and Others. Made famous by its film adaptation, Arrival, ‘Story of Your Life’ pulls off what I thought was an impossible plot-line (I saw the film first, and thought the twist was ridiculous) in Chiang’s characteristically cerebral style. Read it here.
- George Saunders, ‘The Semplica-Girl Diaries’ from Tenth of December. Brilliantly surreal and utterly horrifying, like many of Saunders’ imaginings. Read it here. I also loved ‘Sticks’ from the same collection, which is so short it’s almost flash fiction, and yet so powerful.
- Karen Russell, ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ from Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Let’s face it, I could have chosen any story from this wonderful collection (apart from that weird one where the presidents are all horses). The titular story is both deliciously weird and so grounded. I mean, how can you not like a story where a vampire feeding from a lemon describes it as ‘bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt’?
- Alice Sola Kim, ‘Now Wait For This Week’ from LaValle et al ed., A People’s Future of the United States. I’ve been raving about this already, but it’s just so good, cleverly inverting the Groundhog Day conceit, and you can read it here.
- Ted Chiang, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ from Exhalation. No apologies for putting Chiang on the list twice; he just writes such good SF short stories. This one made me sad, because I will never write time travel as well as Chiang does, and happy, because he gets it so right. His ‘Story Notes’ on this story also perfectly sum up the time travel genre in a paragraph. Basically, he’s a genius. Read it here.
- Daisy Johnson, ‘Starver’ from Fen. A girl turns into an eel against the backdrop of an eerie fenland landscape.
- Lesley Nneka Arimah, ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’ from What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky, in which a mother’s yarn baby starts to unravel; read it here. I also loved the titular short story from this collection, about ‘grief collectors’ during a time of war, but thought it would have been even better expanded into a novel.
- Kirsty Logan, ‘The Rental Heart’ from The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales. Many of the stories in this folklore-inspired collection felt a bit insubstantial to me, but I loved this tale of clockwork hearts that get passed around and broken. Read it here.
- Jen Campbell, ‘Bright White Hearts’ from The Beginning of the World In The Middle of the Night. Again, most of the pieces in this collection didn’t quite work for me, for similar reasons to Logan’s, but this story about a woman working at an aquarium was poetic and memorable. Read it here.
- Carmen Maria Machado, ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, from Her Body and Other Parties. I haven’t read the rest of the collection yet but I loved this story, which imagines a world where women are gradually becoming insubstantial.
Ghost and Horror
- M.R. James, ‘Casting the Runes’, from Collected Ghost Stories. And now for something completely different. I’m not a massive fan of M.R. James, but I love this terrifying story of demonic pursuit, which you can read here. I also like his ‘The Tractate Middoth’, set in the stacks of Cambridge University Library, which are just crying out for ghost stories.
- T.E.D. Klein, ‘The Events on Poroth Farm’ which I encountered in American Supernatural Tales. Technically, this is a novella, but I’m having it anyway because it is one of the scariest things I’ve ever read. It also provides a crash course in American supernatural fiction.
- Garth Nix, ‘The Creature in the Case’, published as a stand-alone for World Book Day in the UK. To throw in a bit of YA, this is another frightening story of supernatural pursuit (I’m sensing a theme here) that takes place in the same universe as Nix’s Old Kingdom novels.
This got LONG – apologies! What this indicates to me is, although I also read a lot of speculative and science fiction in novel form, I especially enjoy speculative and SF short stories; this isn’t surprising, given the history of this genre. Ghost and horror stories also tend to work better for me in short form. The favourite stories that don’t fall into these categories tend to be slices of life that say something about power structures, either societal or within a particular friendship group or family, or which are especially evocative on landscape. Historical fiction is, perhaps unsurprisingly, totally absent.
What are your favourite short stories or short story collections? Do you tend to have different genre preferences when you read short stories?