The short story is a form that has had its ups and downs. Whilst immensely popular during the early twentieth century – the likes of Joyce and Hemingway penning their masterpieces – it could be seen to have fallen out of fashion in later years.
However, 2013 saw Alice Munro win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and was the first short story writer to do so. Perhaps because of this, there seems to be a renewed interest in shorter fiction, and I have seen more short story collections than ever before gracing the shelves of bookshops.
So, in honour of the short story’s comeback, I am doing a two-part look at some of the best short stories. The first five are my favourite classics of the form, whilst next week I’ll be posting my top five contemporary short stories.
So here are the classics:
The Bodysnatchers by Robert Louis Stevenson
Macabre, grotesque and immeasurably creepy, Stevenson’s nineteenth-century story The Bodysnatchers is incredibly effective. It tells the tale of two medical school students, MacFarlane and Fettes, who have the job of receiving dead bodies for dissection from a pair of suspicious men (possibly Burke and Hare). It gradually becomes clearer that not all the bodies have died of natural causes, and the two men’s covering up of this implicates them in the crime. Subsequently, when a shortage of bodies occurs, the two are sent to dig one up from a nearby graveyard, and receive a very unpleasant surprise…
Green Tea by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
From Le Fanu’s collection of ghost stories In A Glass Darkly, Green Tea poses as an entry into an early psychoanalyst’s log, as it recounts a chilling tale of doubling. Dr Hesselius meets Revd Jennings at a dinner party and soon learns of his ‘ailment’ in the form of the apparition of a black, red-eyed monkey which only he can see, and sets out to cure him. What I like so much about this story is not only its incredible creepiness but also its ambiguity. Is the monkey a symptom of some mental illness as Dr Hesselius believes, or is it a haunting, punishing Jennings for his pursuit of occult knowledge?
Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway’s classic is a perfect example of a short story where seemingly nothing happens, but at the same time, a lot happens. The story simply relates the conversation of an unnamed man and woman waiting for a train in Spain. Whilst it becomes apparent they are discussing whether or not the woman should abort their baby, the word ‘abortion’ is significantly never used, the dialogue is the only information we are given about either character. The style of this story is what makes it remarkable, as opposed to the content, as everything is implied and nothing told.
The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin
This is a classic example of a story with a twist. It simply describes the emotions of a woman called Louise Mallard in the hour after she learns of her husband’s death in a railway crash. I won’t spoil the ending, because that’s the point of the story, but you don’t see it coming!
The Dead by James Joyce
Ending with some of the best lines in literature, the finale to Joyce’s incredible short story collection Dubliners relates the event of a Christmas-time dinner party at the house of three elderly sisters in Dublin. Although, as in many of the stories in Dubliners, nothing much appears to happen on the surface, the story features one of Joyce’s ‘epiphanies’, through the main character of Gabriel, who comes to realize that his life isn’t quite what it seemed.
‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’
The final lines from James Joyce’s The Dead.
So have you read any of these stories? What did you think? Which classic short stories would make your list?