Autumn. It’s the time when we suddenly curl up with cups of tea and short stories. Saturdays beg for quiet comforts like imaginative musings.
Although they aren’t as commercial as novels, short stories remain my favorite form of fiction. Most can be absorbed in less than an hour.
Also, the brevity forces the writer to condense the very best thoughts into a dense tale.
My Top Reads for a Rainy Day
On any dark day, I would curl up to re-read all of the these tales.
Each one is notorious, surprising and thought-proving. They provide something to talk about over dinner or inspire your next project.
1. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
One of the darkest stories in this list, and a notable example of early feminist literature, the story builds symbolism around the sick room of the unnamed narrator. A modern reader will feel conflicted about her situation as she is held against her will to recover from her recent pregnancy.
It’s not a thriller. And it doesn’t need to be.
There is no real twist. Just a horrifying journey of an unwell mind (or perhaps a mind that has been made unwell.)
Excerpt from The Yellow Wallpaper:
If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?
My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.
So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.
Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?
2. The Red-Headed League by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
If I were asked to choose a single adventure of the prolific detective Sherlock Holmes, I would select The Red-Headed League. It may not be the top literary choice, or even the most popular. But, it has everything you want in one of Doyle’s stories.
The beginning is light-hearted. The middle showcases Holmes’ deductive process. The end delivers a worthy enemy and memorable action.
Also, it holds some of the most quoted snips like “three-pipe problem” and
Excerpt from The Red-Headed League:
“How, in the name of good-fortune, did you know all that, Mr. Holmes?” he asked. “How did you know, for example, that I did manual labour. It’s as true as gospel, for I began as a ship’s carpenter.”
“Your hands, my dear sir. Your right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed.”
“Well, the snuff, then, and the Freemasonry?”
“I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you how I read that, especially as, rather against the strict rules of your order, you use an arc-and-compass breastpin.”
“Ah, of course, I forgot that. But the writing?”
“What else can be indicated by that right cuff so very shiny for five inches, and the left one with the smooth patch near the elbow where you rest it upon the desk?”
“Well, but China?”
“The fish that you have tattooed immediately above your right wrist could only have been done in China. I have made a small study of tattoo marks and have even contributed to the literature of the subject. That trick of staining the fishes’ scales of a delicate pink is quite peculiar to China. When, in addition, I see a Chinese coin hanging from your watch-chain, the matter becomes even more simple.”
Mr. Jabez Wilson laughed heavily. “Well, I never!” said he. “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all.”
“I begin to think, Watson,” said Holmes, “that I make a mistake in explaining. ‘Omne ignotum pro magnifico,’ you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid.”
3. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
If ever there were a short story to reflect the gender tensions of modern American society, it’s Metamorphosis. Kafka himself struggled with ill-health and that challenge his masculine identity overshadows this surreal vision.
Within the first few paragraphs, you will question what you are reading and why you should continue.
His stories mean more when you finish them and absorb the entire story like an impressionist painting at a distance.
Excerpt from Metamorphosis:
Gregor hardly slept at all, either night or day. Sometimes he would think of taking over the family’s affairs, just like before, the next time the door was opened; he had long forgotten about his boss and the chief clerk, but they would appear again in his thoughts, the salesmen and the apprentices, that stupid teaboy, two or three friends from other businesses, one of the chambermaids from a provincial hotel, a tender memory that appeared and disappeared again, a cashier from a hat shop for whom his attention had been serious but too slow, – all of them appeared to him, mixed together with strangers and others he had forgotten, but instead of helping him and his family they were all of them inaccessible, and he was glad when they disappeared. Other times he was not at all in the mood to look after his family, he was filled with simple rage about the lack of attention he was shown, and although he could think of nothing he would have wanted, he made plans of how he could get into the pantry where he could take all the things he was entitled to, even if he was not hungry.
4. Desiree’s Baby by Kate Chopin
A reminder of how far we have not yet come, this story dwells on the concept of race. The titular character, Desiree, is an orphan who is suspected to possibly have black ancestry. It isn’t much discussed during her life.
After she marries, her dark-skinned baby causes her husband to leave her.
That conflict, and its social implications, will leave you considering the weaker arguments of white nationalism.
Excerpt from Desiree’s Baby:
It was no wonder, when she stood one day against the stone pillar in whose shadow she had lain asleep, eighteen years before, that Armand Aubigny riding by and seeing her there, had fallen in love with her. That was the way all the Aubignys fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot. The wonder was that he had not loved her before; for he had known her since his father brought him home from Paris, a boy of eight, after his mother died there. The passion that awoke in him that day, when he saw her at the gate, swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles.
5. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce
You don’t need to be a Civil War wonk to enjoy this tale from Ambrose Bierce. Immediately, you can see how the narrative influences modern storytelling with a non-linear plot and twist ending.
And if you don’t read it, Kurt Vonnegut thinks you’re a twerp.
Excerpt from An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge:
The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good—a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well fitting frock coat. He wore a moustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
6. Fundevogel by The Brothers Grimm
Based on an interesting plot known as a “Transformation Chase,” this fairytale details love between adopted siblings. You’ll find yourself reviewing and trying to decode the symbolism.
Reading this tale puts other Grimm stories in an interesting context.
Excerpt from Fundevogel:
Then Lina said to Fundevogel: ‘If you will never leave me, I too will never leave you.’ Fundevogel said: ‘Neither now, nor ever will I leave you.’
7. Thank You, Ma’am by Langston Hughes
The mercy of strangers is a rarity in our society. More so, a societal responsibility to raise our youth as a village has altogether disappeared.
This story reminds me of something I’ve never really seen.
It’s a tome of morals past.
Excerpt from Thank You, Ma’am:
Sweat popped out on the boy’s face and he began to struggle. Mrs. Jones stopped, jerked him around in front of her, put a half-nelson about his neck, and continued to drag him up the street.
When she got to her door, she dragged the boy inside, down a hall, and into a large kitchenette furnished room at the rear of the house. She switched on the light and left the door open. The boy could hear other roomers laughing and talking in the large house. Some of their doors were open, too, so he knew he and the woman were not alone. The woman still had him by the neck in the middle of her room.
8. Everyday Use by Alice Walker
A culture clash starts this story as the prodigal daughter returns home. If you have every stormed off from a people and place, only to return more “worldly-wise” this recollection will humble you.
The story is narrated in first person by the mother of two daughters. She lives with the younger and they are waiting for the eldest to return.
And when she does, the scene really begins.
Excerpt from Everyday Use:
You’ve no doubt seen those TV shows where the child who has “made it” is confronted, as a surprise, by her own mother and father, tottering in weakly from backstage. (A pleasant surprise, of course: What would they do if parent and child came on the show only to curse out and insult each other?) On TV mother and child embrace and smile into each other’s faces. Sometimes the mother and father weep, the child wraps them in her arms and leans across the table to tell how she would not have made it without their help. I have seen these programs.
9. The Gold-Bug by Edgar Allen Poe
While Poe may be better known for his tales of angst, he actually coined many fun adventures and mysteries. This one is a treasure hunt.
The mystery includes cryptograms and secret writing, making them popular devices in modern literature.
Excerpt from The Gold-Bug:
Driving a peg, with great nicety, into the ground, at the precise spot where the beetle fell, my friend now produced from his pocket a tape measure. Fastening one end of this at that point of the trunk, of the tree which was nearest the peg, he unrolled it till it reached the peg, and thence farther unrolled it, in the direction already established by the two points of the tree and the peg, for the distance of fifty feet—Jupiter clearing away the brambles with the scythe. At the spot thus attained a second peg was driven, and about this, as a centre, a rude circle, about four feet in diameter, described. Taking now a spade himself, and giving one to Jupiter and one to me, Legrand begged us to set about digging as quickly as possible.
10. The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne
In this story, the main character becomes obsessed with removing his wife’s birthmark. She is otherwise beautiful – nearly perfect.
The dynamic of their relationship, and the overblown role of a tiny flaw, mirror the dystopia that we currently experience through thoroughly modern, mind-bending management of social media personas
Excerpt from The Birth-Mark:
Had she been less beautiful,—if Envy’s self could have found aught else to sneer at,—he might have felt his affection heightened by the prettiness of this mimic hand, now vaguely portrayed, now lost, now stealing forth again and glimmering to and fro with every pulse of emotion that throbbed within her heart; but seeing her otherwise so perfect, he found this one defect grow more and more intolerable with every moment of their united lives. It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain. The crimson hand expressed the ineludible gripe in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes, like whom their visible frames return to dust. In this manner, selecting it as the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer’s sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.
Share Your Favorites
I’d like to know your favorite short stories. Tell me which ones you most enjoyed reading, either from the above list or something that you found.
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