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5 Short Stories I Can't Stop Thinking About

I never paid much attention to short stories outside of classroom assignments; as a young reader, I always wanted long narratives that would immerse me for hours, so the genre did not appeal to me much. As a creative writing student, I always used short story prompts to bolster my sprawling novel ideas. They were not unique, standalone narratives -- they were bricks in the foundation of something larger, something much more important. I didn't understand that through these exercises, I could hone my writing craft and become a more thoughtful reader.

Then in 2018, I decided to try an NYC Midnight writing challenge, and from there I was hooked. I think the contest's parameters helped me understand the inherent intentionality of the genre. When you only have 1,500-7,500 words to establish a compelling world, high stakes, and a satisfying resolution, you have to take a good, hard look at what ideas really matter; your voice is distilled into its most poignant essence because you have a limited amount of time and space to convince the reader to buy into what you have to say. To me, short stories seem to have the highest highs and the lowest lows in literature. Since there are generally no follow-ups, spin-offs, or sequels to short stories, the mind can run wild imagining the implications of what could happen after the last period on the page. I continue participating in these writing challenges because I want to push myself to be a better storyteller. I sometimes gravitate toward short story anthologies over novels when choosing new books to read.

I have compiled a list of five short stories that stand out as mile-markers on my journey of appreciation. These tales linger with me for various reasons, and I have tried to detail their specific strengths without spoiling too much of the narratives. I will be back to share more story recommendations as I continue exploring this genre, and I hope you will share some of your favorites with me as well!


 

"All The Time We've Left to Spend," by Alyssa Wong (from Robots vs. Fairies, 2018)


Science Fiction

"Westworld" meets K/DA. It's Wong's masterful use of emotion that keeps bringing me back to this piece. The protagonist's inner monologue is riddled with grief and guilt that feels raw and genuine, and even though you are her companion in this hotel, you sense the deep loneliness that drives her to return to these rooms again and again. The story also raises some interesting ideas about the identity and autonomy of celebrities, as well as the ethics of preserving their legacies through artificial intelligence. (I'd be lying if I said that this concept didn't inspire my own foray into short science fiction, "Is There Life on Mars?") This is one of only two stories I genuinely loved in the Robots vs. Fairies anthology, but it was enough to justify keeping the book in my library for future rereads. (You'll read about my other favorite below.)


You can read "All The Time We've Left to Spend" here!


 

"Bread and Milk and Salt," by Sarah Gailey (from Robots vs. Fairies, 2018)


Fantasy

The other good story from Robots vs. Fairies. The visceral imagery of this piece instantly embedded the story in my brain. There is body horror present, but the purple prose cushioning those parts made them slightly more palatable for me (without softening their impact). No one is the hero here, and that makes the cat-and-mouse interaction between the main characters so enticing. If you enjoyed the dark fae elements in works like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or (to some extent) Jim Henson's "Labyrinth," I think you'll get the same spine-tingling thrills from Gailey's work.


You can follow this link to read the story for yourself!


 

"The Lottery," by Shirley Jackson (1948)


dystopian fiction

Ah yes, every English teacher's favorite shock piece! Obviously, the twist at the end makes this story extremely memorable, but that ending wouldn't have nearly the same punch without the build-up. The individual residents of the village are so uniquely characterized that even a handful of lines make each one memorable. They interact like real friends and neighbors. By the middle of the story, you are lulled into a false sense of hope and security; by the end, you are ashamed that you allowed yourself to be so easily duped. The suspense is masterfully crafted, which is why it's such a popular piece. This story is what made me a Shirley Jackson fan.


On a side note, does anyone else remember M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village?" Give me that cast, crew, and production for an adaptation of "The Lottery," please.


If you've somehow avoided this story up until now, you can read it here!


 

"The Veldt," by Ray Bradbury (from The Illustrated Man, 1951)


science fiction

More exceptional imagery here (I'm a sucker for good descriptions), more great suspense built up through strategically placed hints, and another startling finale that you can't forget. I find that this story appeals to me for the same reason that Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events does: the conflict arises because adults are not acting with the best interests of their children in mind. "The Veldt" is a parable against spoiling children, for sure, but it is also a warning to adults about the dangers of disengaging from their children's emotional needs. The resolution to that conflict may be a little extreme here, but that hyperbole is what makes the story exceptionally memorable. Once you've encountered those lions, there's no going back.


You can read the story here (some typos due to translation).


 

"The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)


Gothic fiction

Last but not least, another staple of your English class curriculum! As I was reflecting on my interactions with this story, I realized that "The Yellow Wallpaper" means something very different to me as an adult than it did when I was a student. I now know many women who have experienced prejudice in their interactions with medical professionals; I am also more familiar with the serious risk that post-partum depression poses to new parents and their relationships with their partners and infants. There is another layer to understanding "The Yellow Wallpaper" that can only be uncovered through a deeper understanding of mental health and the history of harmful, traumatic "treatments" that were used to address these conditions. This is not a cheerful story, but it is an exceptional demonstration of the craft and deserves to live rent-free in your brain.


Follow this link to read this classic short story.

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