I went to the gym recently (don’t worry, it won’t happen again), and hopped on one of those future machines that exercise parts of your body while letting other parts rest. I think it’s called a bicycle? Anyhow, I had grabbed one of the dozen or so “Best Science Fiction of 20**” anthos that I recently picked up ahead of my move to the middle, and as I began pedaling I realized that I had read that story, and the next, and the next. It turned out that this particular anthology, though new to me, happened to pick stories that I had read in their first runs. Of the sixteen stories, I had already read ten. That was wonderful. First, it shows that my goal to read vast amounts of short genre fiction ( a goal I began in 2005 when I started to seriously consider myself a writer) has been met. I have been reading at least a story a day for something like five years. And second, it shows that good fiction sticks in your mind. I reread most of the stories, not for any forgotten surprises- I actually remembered several of the authors’ particular styles and turns of phrase, but because good stories contain old friends. It was nice to spend some time in strange and challenging worlds that were a little less strange and challenging. It is nearly a trope in sci-fi that you will always begin the story in a state of confusion and bewilderment. Because anything is possible, you have no certain ground and your mind must do its own detail detective work. For me it’s part of the attraction of the genre. Why do I want to read about mundane life in a time and place that I already inhabit? I also know that for many readers this aspect is precisely why they don’t like science fiction. Even my own friends and family sometimes give me this watery eye look of strife when I ask them to read a story. They feel like they’re going to have to toil through to get the picture, and in most cases they’re correct. I can’t force everyone to be a fan, but I can force everyone I know!
So, good stories are old friends. I don’t come back to short stories as often as I do novels. To date I have read Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky three times, Heinlein’s Orphan’s of the Sky, Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Card’s Ender’s Game twice respectively, and George R. Martin’s Ice and Fire series more often than I am comfortable admitting in any digital medium. Yet there are a select few short stories that I have read again and again (and again…and again). These are atypical in some respects as many of these shorts are well known to the general public- often for being made into episodes of The Twilight Zone, but just as likely for being forced down the throats of students in high school comp classes (note- 1 out of 5 students actually enjoy this process). So I have been thinking for awhile what the best short stories I have ever read actually were and why. I was discussing some of my favorites with my brother and he told me a few of his and suddenly I realized that a person’s favorite short stories might actually tell more about the person than a list of their favorite novels. (note- a list of a person’s favorite “film” shorts only tells you that you are dealing with someone that actually actively remembers short films and thus must be kept at arms length on any social occasion.)
Without further wishy-washing, here are (in no particular order) my indisputable* list of
The Greatest Short Stories of all Time
*this claim may be disputed by anyone
1. The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson: You’re probably thinking, “Oooh, don’t go so far out on a limb,” but there’s a reason everybody has to read this story. Published in The New Yorker in 1948 less than a month after she wrote it, The Lottery was not at first a success. It garnered tons of hate mail from readers that were confounded, upset and confused by the plot. Even her mother scolded that she should write “something to cheer people up…” This was not a period of literary optimism. The lost generation had moved into the positions of current literary greats and Kafka and Conrad were being fast tracked for canonical status, yet people seemed taken by surprise by Jackson’s juxtaposition of ancient, violent ritual and mainstream rural America. Though the story was set in Vermont, the violence of the rural south surely was brought to mind (a point I made in eighth grade English comp which delighted my teacher to no end at having a student actually read the assignment.) I can’t forget this story and if you haven’t read it then you got some ‘splainin to do.
2. The Boogeyman, by Stephen King: This story scared the piss out of me when I was about twelve. I’d found a copy of “Night Shift” in my sister’s room and taken it for my own. Honestly, I sometimes wish I had not done that. It took two and a half years of reading hack ‘n’ slash heroic fantasy to get me comfortable sleeping with the closet door open…. okay, I lied. I still can’t sleep with the closet door open. Thanks a fuck load Steve.
3. The Veldt, by Ray Bradbury: Whoa man. There was a “gifted student” program at a school I attended in Kentucky. I was barred from this program based on my poor conduct, though eventually I think some sort of sedative was introduced into my diet and I made it in. I was in the fifth grade. The first thing we did was read, “The Veldt,” a story that is ostensibly about spoiling your children until they commit patricide. Reeeealy creepy patricide. I was later kicked out for bad conduct grades.
4. Tideline, by Elizabeth Bear: This story came out in Azimov’s about four years ago and is my most recent favoritest short story, and that’s because it’s an instant fucking classic. I wept at the conclusion. I’ve not cried at the end of a short story since I was still reading the “Serendipity” books (around 2005). Elizabeth Bear has this voice that is hard to describe, but it’s an aspect of her linguistic choices that softly taps at the ineffable. There is a feeling of pathos and pity in all her characters, as well as a sense of powerful, powerful resignation. Every time I read one of her stories I feel like a higher mystery is somehow hidden just out of sight, if I could only look and see with the right kind of eyes. That is an E. Bear thing. In Tideline I discovered that the ghost in the machine was a soul.
5. Lady of the Skulls, by Patricia A. McKillip: I first encountered this story in “The Mammoth Book of Fantasy,” which also ranks as one of my favorite anthos of all time (and includes several stories in the running for this list). Lady of the Skulls makes it in as a favorite because despite not having read it in ten years I can A: remember the title, B: remember the plot, theme, setting, scenes and a bunch of dialog, and C: It’s called Lady of the Skulls! I seriously considered changing the name of the metal band I was in from “Starman Jones” to “Lady of the Skulls!” Anyway, the “princess prisoner in the tower” genre got a real good working over with this one. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s an STD metaphor or anything, but the girl trapped in your giant phallus is much less comfortable in this telling. Tally ho.
6. At the Mountains of Madness, His Royal Highness– H.P. Lovecraft: You may remember earlier in the list when I told you that it took two and half years of hack ‘n’ slash fantasy to get over King’s Boogeyman story. That’s actually the truth, I did retreat from the world into hack ‘n’ slash fantasy, though I was running from my parents divorce as much as the boogeyman. At about age fourteen I began to find that the multiple series I was reading were all very… well how does “shitty” sound? If you were me at age fourteen, it would’ve sounded fine. I needed more than books with “TSR” on the spine. The first book to fall into my lap was a collection of Robert E. Howard shorts that a fellow D&D player gave me. The next was a copy of At the Mountains of Madness. There is a sentence in that book with seven adjectives in a row- each over seven letters long, modifying the subject “of chromaticism.” You should know that in my attempts to break out of the “TSR” section of the bookstore, I did… horrible things. I read Bobby Ann Mason and Ann Beattie. It was the end of the eighties and everything was going all minimalist. Lovecraft is a goddamned blood, gut, and feces smorgasbord (in an adjective sense) and it fit my love of southern cooking much better than Ann Beattie’s understated profundity. Thanks H.P.. Thanks.
7. Memoirs of a Yellow Dog, By O’Henry: This is a “last line story.” Meaning that it’s a really good story that just knocks you out with it’s last line. It’s super short and widely available online. Next time you have twelve-fifteen minutes to kill and feel like bettering your life with little effort, look this one up.
8. The Dead, By James Joyce: I’m bundling the “last line stories” together, and perhaps I should say that this, for me, qualifies as the single greatest last paragraph of any story I’ve ever read. Much critical work exists on this story and I can only say that you should never deny yourself the right of “first experience” by reading a single sentence someone has written about The Dead before reading it for yourself. I include myself in this and will say no more.
9. To Serve Man, by Damon Knight: I will say only this- “It’s a good book! A good book!!!“
And that is your list! I make a few disclaimers here. 1. These are only “my opinion, man.” 2. Ridiculously narrow in regards to racial make-up of the authors. 3. Light on more recent works of genre fiction. 4. Reflective only of my memory while sitting down to write this post!
I want to close with a few words on the short story, and specifically on Stephen King. I went to Europe to live for awhile. I went with very little money, a backpack and and less planning. I carried only a couple of changes of clothing for vastly different weather and three books- Dubliners, Four Untimely Essays, and The Bible. I ended up on a small island with a sunburn and a beard, sleeping on a rocky beach and reading these tomes front to back (twice for the Joyce and Nietzsche). When my journey was finally at an end I found myself in Heathrow airport with a thirteen hour layover and a twenty pound note crumpled up in my pocket. I went to a bookstore in the airport and bought a copy of King’s short story collection, Skeleton Crew, and with the remaining 6 pounds I bought my last meal of the trip- a nice vegetable curry. Nothing has every satisfied my appetite as well as those short stories did. I would imagine that the feeling a starving man might get when presented a plate of pizza rolls is similar. It wasn’t universe changing, life altering fiction, but it was fun, easy and just what the doctor ordered for surviving a thirteen hour layover. I read it cover to cover, finishing just before my plane boarded. I had a row to myself on the plane and somewhere over Scotland I fell into a dark but untroubled sleep.
That is the Science of Fiction- Love your shorts, read more of them!!
Next Up- I try to force you to purchase The Zombiefeed Anthology which contains my homage to titles from 1940’s sci-fi: Zombies on the Moon!!!! You won’t believe it!!! … !!! (for good measure)