James R. H.
"The Ledge" by Lawrence Sargent Hall
From The Best American Short Stories of the Century
I've read innumerable short stories, and this one, more than a decade after I first read it, still stands above all the rest because it puts me in the mind of a man who would otherwise seem completely alien to me, and forces both of us to confront mortality in a terrifyingly stark and unsentimental way. Deeply moving and unforgettable.
"Junius Maltby" by John Steinbeck
From The Pastures of Heaven
A tale of a man who leaves the big city and raises his son in an unconventional way, "Junius Maltby" is a smart and charming story about how one doesn't need to conform to society's standards.
"The Lake" by Ray Bradbury
From The October Country
This story will always be first on my mind when anyone mentions the name Ray Bradbury. It was read out loud to me more than 10 years ago, and I still cherish that day and the story more than any other.
"The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich" by Nikolai Gogol
From The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol
Humor is often lost in translation when it comes to Russian authors, but Gogol's humor always shines through. This story is about an absurd argument that happens between two well-respected members of society, who also happen to be best friends. All the important members of the community do what they can to reconcile the two Ivans, but things continually get worse, to the point of absolute surrealism.
"In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried" by Amy Hempel
From The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
For me, this is a perfect short story. It says so much with so little. Amy Hempel is a master of the minimalist form. She is a crack-up, a heartbreaker, and truly a master of words. This short story will end up subtly becoming a part of your memory, so that someday you'll wonder, Wait, did that happen to me?
"On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning" by Haruki Murakami
From The Elephant Vanishes
I heard this story read on NPR one night. I found it so interesting, I had to find the story and read it myself. Plus, it introduced me to Murakami's writing.
"The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury" by Neil Gaiman
From Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury is far and away my favorite author, but I couldn't decide which of his stories to choose. So I chose this, a beautifully written love letter to one of the great American literary treasures. I had the pleasure of listening to Mr. Gaiman read this story in person and was reduced to a sobbing mess. Absolutely gorgeous.
"Report on the Barnhouse Effect" by Kurt Vonnegut
From Welcome to the Monkey House
I first read this story in high school and have never forgotten the feeling it gave me of possibilities, that individuals can have an impact on the world.
"O Ugly Bird!" by Manly Wade Wellman
From Who Fears the Devil?
"O Ugly Bird!" first appeared in the December 1951 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. This short story marked the world's first acquaintance with John the Balladeer, a wanderer of the Appalachian wilderness who has a penchant for helping out folks in need, armed with a silver guitar and an encyclopedic knowledge of myth and lore. Manly Wade Wellman's introduction to one of his most beloved characters immediately showcases the author's appreciation and affinity for the people and folklore of Appalachia, told in a voice that magically chronicles landscape and atmosphere while depicting a grand celebration of good in the world. Being the first story of John the Balladeer I ever read, and the one that led me to the rest of Wellman's works, "O Ugly Bird!" will forever go down as my favorite short story.
"The Daisy Dolls" by Felisberto Hernández
From The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories
Born in Uruguay, Felisberto Hernández is today largely unknown outside of South America, but "The Daisy Dolls" is world-class writing. Vivid and unsettling, the matter-of-fact presentation of strange happenings within the disintegrating marriage between two increasingly unstable individuals brings to mind a more darkly sexual Kafka and prefigured the fabulists and magical realists who would follow and be influenced by him: Borges, Garcia Márquez, Calvino, etc. It is the kind of story that takes root in your brain, leaving you thinking about it days or months (or years!) later.
"Reeling for the Empire" by Karen Russell
From Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories
The New York Times describes "Reeling for the Empire" as "first-rate, elegant horror." Russell's unnerving story about exploited workers is complicated. It's grotesque and beautiful, powerful and hopeless. The disturbing images Russell creates will continue to haunt you long after the story ends.
"Pastoralia" by George Saunders
Surreal yet melancholic. This is the story that opened my eyes to the joy that is George Saunders.
"Big Blonde" by Dorothy Parker
From The Portable Dorothy Parker
Ms. Parker was always wonderfully witty, but "Big Blonde" is one of her few works that transcends snark and ends up in a place of heartbreaking literary beauty.
"Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl
From The Best of Roald Dahl
I read this when I was probably a little too young, but it was the catalyst for whetting my appetite for everything dark and noir. AND it was chosen for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents for extra skull-smashy fun!
"Northwestward" by Isaac Asimov
From Magic: The Final Fantasy Collection
Asimov created sarcastically intellectual scenarios in science fiction and fantasy. Here, Batman's obsessive concern is discretely considered by members of the "Black Widowers" club. Asimov teases us with illusions that the reader may have control of the outcome.
"Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut
From Welcome to the Monkey House: Stories
I like this story because it shows the kind of world that results from mandated equality. Since equality doesn't even exist in nature, the only thing man's overreaching attempt accomplishes is to drag the most intelligent and gifted down to the level of the lowest common denominator. A fine example of standard-lowering for the sake of making everyone "equal."
"The Raft" by Stephen King
From Skeleton Crew
I love this story. It is absolutely terrifying. It taps into the primordial fear of darkness, water, and what may lurk beneath. It is well written, succinct, and everything a short story should be. I'd recommend it to anyone and even go so far as to claim it is King's best work.
"The Suggestiveness of One Stray Hair in an Otherwise Perfect Coiffure" by Mark Leyner
From My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist
Although it's just a half-page long, this story made me realize that you can do anything in fiction. The closest thing I could compare it to would be a cartoon, with its defective car mysteriously exploding over and over. There truly is no one else who writes like Leyner, and this little miracle is one of the many mind-blowing stories in a legendary collection.
Paul M. S.
"The Sutton Pie Safe" by Pinckney Benedict
From Town Smokes
A lot of tension is squeezed into a 10-page story. A rural boy watches as his father kills a snake; meanwhile, a judge's wife visits to negotiate over a family heirloom.
"The Color Master" by Aimee Bender
From My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales
"Donkeyskin" is a lesser-known fairy tale, full of incest and horrors but, as always, with a grain of hope and love at the end. Aimee Bender takes this tale and spins it in a beautiful new way, reimagining the story and the world from the perspective of the dressmaker instead of the princess. Watch as the dressmaker tries to give the princess strength and hope through the magical creation of a dress.
"Snow, Glass, Apples" by Neil Gaiman
From Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions
Gaiman's imaginative retelling of "Snow White" is the red-velvet cupcake of short stories. Beautiful, rich, bite sized and deliciously dark. He takes the classic fairy tale back to its blood-soaked roots and makes you question everything.
"The Bloody Chamber" by Angela Carter
From The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories
A young woman — recently married to a mysterious, much older man — is curious about her new home; once her husband is away she investigates part of the estate... and discovers his gruesome secret. Erotic, dark, and unsettling, "The Bloody Chamber" is among the best of Carter's work. Also, after reading it, you may never look at a fig quite the same way again.
"Under the Jaguar Sun" by Italo Calvino
From Under the Jaguar Sun
Bloody episodes from Mexico's indigenous and colonial periods are explored through regional cuisine enjoyed by a husband and wife on holiday who have substituted the sensory delights of taste for sexual intimacy. Each dish reveals something of the dynamic of their estrangement and culminates in the discovery of an ancient cuisine whose secret is purportedly tied to human sacrifice and cannibalism. Calvino's exploration of taste does not waste a single word; every sentence is as essential and mouthwatering as the dishes that push the narrative forward.
"The Quest for Blank Claveringi" by Patricia Highsmith
This is an awesome, darkly humorous adventure-horror tale. Tense, strange, nail-biting, excruciating, and, wow, what an ending!
"On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning" by Haruki Murakami
From The Elephant Vanishes
This bittersweet story is about the self-examination (and often regret) that follows a chance not taken, when you realize just a little bit too late that yes, that's what I should have said. Hopefully this story will help encourage the reader to embrace opportunity when it arises.
"The Fog Horn" by Ray Bradbury
From The Golden Apples of the Sun
I was raised on the science fiction short story, lucky enough to have my bedtime stories read from collections of shorts of Arthur C. Clarke's reptilian planets and Ray Bradbury's spooky coming-of-age tales. Through childhood and into my adult life, "The Fog Horn" remains my favorite for its clever storytelling and conjuring prose of a misguided sea monster looking for love.
"The Price" by Neil Gaiman
From Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions
This is essentially a story about a cat who defends its family from dark forces at night. The family has no idea what the cat does to become more and more rough looking. It is a powerful story about friendship, love, and the secret world of animals, one I haven't forgotten after even the first reading.
"Good Old Neon" by David Foster Wallace
This short story blew my mind when I first read it in an issue of Conjunctions many years ago. It starts out in a very clinical and detached style but by the last few pages manages to be so emotionally powerful, I felt I needed to sit down and let my heartbeat return to normal. The power of the story has only expanded in the time since Wallace's unfortunate death.
"1408" by Stephen King
From Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales
I've always been fascinated by hauntings and the supernatural, which is what drew me to this story. The main character writes nonfiction works based on the theme of haunted places. His works become bestsellers despite the fact that he doesn't believe in the supernatural or paranormal. His stay in room 1408 is about to change all of that. This story was frighteningly entertaining and I couldn't put it down.
"Lull" by Kelly Link
From Magic for Beginners
What I love about "Lull" is that it does things I've never seen any other story do: it goes forward and then backward, interweaving itself until you barely know which direction you're going in. There's even another story nested inside! Dream logic at its finest.
"Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor
From Everything That Rises Must Converge
"Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him." That line really stuck with me when I first read "Everything That Rises Must Converge," the titular story from a collection by Flannery O'Connor. I carried all of her characters with me for months, but none more so than Julian and his racist mother. Their relationship was so messy and so powerful, yet so much was unspoken. In the end, for me, his disdain for his mother's views only revealed his own small-mindedness. I could read this story over and over and still find some new complexity to unpack in my mind.
"Last Evenings on Earth" by Roberto Bolaño
From Last Evenings on Earth
As with so much of Bolaño's fiction, the title story from Last Evenings on Earth hums with foreboding. The menace and dread that slowly build within this tale begin to smother like an unearthly fog. With both distinctive style and voice, Bolaño masterfully crafts a murky tableau.
"All Summer in a Day" by Ray Bradbury
From A Medicine for Melancholy and Other Stories
This story was my first exposure to Mr. Bradbury's particular brand of bittersweet beauty. After moving from sunny Hawaii to rainy Portland, I've recalled quite often the story of the only girl on Venus to have seen the sun.
"Skin" by Roald Dahl
From Skin and Other Stories
This was the first Roald Dahl story I read that was written for adults. It's a deliciously grim offering from a twisted imagination.
"Where I'm Calling From" by Raymond Carver
From Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories
Carver was a master of the first-person, present-tense narrator, a narrator who makes you believe in his absolute honesty yet all the while you know is as unreliable in telling the truth as you are. In this story, an alcoholic who is drying out for the second time listens to another alky's story, betrays his confidence, and convinces himself he'll call his wife and girlfriend. If he makes the calls, it seems possible that he'll kick his habit. Carver doesn't give the reader an easy out.
"St. Martin" by Lydia Davis
From The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
What fascinates me about this story, told from the viewpoint of a young couple working as caretakers of an old country home, is how precise it feels. The simplicity of the language, the amount of detail we learn about the setting and the characters' circumstances, the objectivity of the narration — all these elements work together to create a quiet, poignant story that feels rich yet utterly free of clutter.
"The Gernsback Continuum" by William Gibson
From Burning Chrome
In "The Gernsback Continuum," Gibson writes in an environment a little more familiar than his cyberpunk dystopias: his landscapes here are the world we live in and the world that permeates our collective subconscious. The narrator tells us that "it is possible to photograph what isn't there," and he knows from experience. Haunted by the semiotic ghosts of a future that never was (or is it just amphetamine psychosis?), the narrator photographs "Raygun Gothic" design, hidden American artifacts that could have been pulled straight from the covers of Gernsback pulps. And as he photographs them, he starts to see the things that aren't there — the abandoned dreams of a bygone era lying just beneath our reality.
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor
From A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories
I was convinced I would never find another work of fiction as darkly satisfying as The Devil All the Time until a coworker threw this collection at me and told me to go educate myself. I cannot thank her enough because the titular story here is Southern Gothic at its finest. O'Connor first lays out all the intricacies and tensions of a family embarking on a road trip and then plunges into unfathomable horrors when the family car crashes on a secluded dirt road. You won't sleep a wink.
"Viewfinder" by Raymond Carver
From What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
On the first read, this story appears to be so bare, but as with much of Carver's work, it's almost what isn't there that is most telling. Every word is necessary here. It's so beautifully crafted it makes me want to weep.
"Turnabout" by William Faulkner
From Collected Stories of William Faulkner
This is easily one of Faulkner's best stories. "Turnabout" has two unforgettable characters, and so much depth I feel like I've taken something new away each time I read it.
"The Swim Team" by Miranda July
From No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories
Ray Bradbury, Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, H. P. Lovecraft, Walter Mosley, J. California Cooper, Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, Gary Lutz, James Tate, Lorrie Moore, Phyllis Moore, Elizabeth Evans. I love stories — short stories, long stories. How to choose from so many great story writers? Miranda July's story is about swimming lessons in an apartment on the floor! Really?! It cracked me the hell up. Most memorable story!
"A Shower of Gold" by Donald Barthelme
From Sixty Stories
This story concerns a visual artist with "a lot of problems, if that helps" and an existentialist television game show called Who Am I? I read it from beginning to end; at that point, I was finished.
"Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle
From The Line Between
When I was little and my parents told me that when I grew up I could be anything I wanted, I told them I wanted to be a unicorn. Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn is primarily responsible for my fantastical aspirations. "Two Hearts" is its sweet, sad sequel that brings back an older Molly, Schmendrick, and King Lír, and the timeless Amalthea. If you have ever read or watched The Last Unicorn, have listened to the soundtrack, have longed to be a unicorn, or currently are one, you should pick this up.
"Go Carolina" by David Sedaris
From Me Talk Pretty One Day
I like to think that I maintain a fairly stoic demeanor while reading, so I definitely did not laugh out loud (I did) or cry tears of hilarity (I did) while reading "Go Carolina." In the story, a young Sedaris attempts to avoid the letter s once he realizes he has a lisp.
"Kaleidoscope" by Ray Bradbury
From The Illustrated Man
The Illustrated Man is the first book I fell in love with and "Kaleidoscope" my favorite in the collection. Like all of Bradbury's stories, it is weird, dark, and human. I was haunted by the image of the astronauts talking to each other as they were scattered across space long after I put the book down.
"Meneseteung" by Alice Munro
From Selected Stories
Of Alice Munro's many excellent short stories, the unpromisingly titled "Meneseteung" has stuck in my brain the most. An old maid has a chance for love with a respectable bachelor, but she passes it up. The grape jelly she's making overflows. She grows old and crazy. But it's about more than that. In a way, it's about everything.
"Emergency" by Denis Johnson
From Jesus' Son: Stories
Denis Johnson's seminal collection Jesus' Son featured some of the best short fiction in decades, and the small tragedies and miracles at the center of "Emergency" might be its crown jewel. Hallucinating orderlies, the victim of a grisly knife attack, and the potentially saved litter from a fresh road kill intertwine within Johnson's cracked universe, a place equally hilarious and horrifying, both hopeless and hopeful.
"Blessings" by Andre Dubus
From Dancing After Hours: Stories
I read this story 15 years ago, when Andre Dubus spoke at Portland Arts & Lectures. It still makes my skin crawl imagining the circumstances he describes.
"Trilobites" by Breece D'J Pancake
From The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake
The opening paragraph is electric. This story has everything in it, and I mean everything. Try finding something it doesn't have. You won't be sorry.
"The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov
From Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Volume 1
Science fiction often takes place in a sad, depressing future, where humans have lost their humanity in favor of technology. Asimov challenges that claim by seamlessly blending sci-fi with faith. Is humanity more than the sum of its parts? Are we greater together than we can ever be apart? This optimistic story says yes — and will make you believe it, too.
"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson
From The Lottery: And Other Stories
Many people can't stand short stories; this little gem is an eloquent argument that they should reconsider their position. One of the masterpieces of American fiction, "The Lottery" is a haunting, virtuoso journey into the darkest and most compelling areas of the human experience.
"The Emperor of Mars" by Allen Steele
From Sex and Violence in Zero-G: The Complete "Near-Space" Stories
"The Emperor of Mars" won a Hugo Award in 2011, but that is not why I chose it. Kind of like SF meets reality, it is a great story of life and love and obsession... and it wraps the story around my favorite things (pulp science-fiction books). It made me cry. This book is available on Powells.com, or you can get it at our very own Espresso Book Machine.
"Kissing" by Dan Rhodes
In 101 stories (each containing 101 words), Dan Rhodes explores love in all its facets through snapshots of women through a man's eyes. Anthropology was the first collection of microfiction I ever read, and it opened my eyes to the vast possibilities of the short story form. "Kissing" stands out to me still, years later; it contains a concept both sweet and awful, fascinating and repulsive. I love the perfect, horrifying beauty of its final line: "Our lips are four broken scabs, and our chins always covered in blood, but we still never stop. We are far too much in love."