When taking Creative Writing class, I was known for pointing out that I'm a prose person. I write more and read more prose than I do poetry or plays, as the three make up the most broad genres in the bunch (and no, I have no plans on creating a list of my ten favorite plays... or at least not yet). If creating a list of my ten favorite poems was an intriguing task, creating a list of my ten favorite short stories was much easier, even if it was still intriguing. The difficult part was deciding what I should include and what I should leave out for the time being.
Like my list of favorite poems, these will be in no particular order and will include spoilers to the degree that they are used to describe what this story truly means. Some of these stories were introduced to me through school (middle school, high school, or college), while others were introduced on my own time. I highly recommend 75 Short Masterpieces edited by Roger Goodman, which holds plenty of excellent pieces from world literature that happen to appear on this list. I also named it the tenth best book I read in 2012. Some of these other stories can be found in anthologies from various authors or simple short story collections from individual authors.
Anyway, here we go with the list...
"The Monkey's Paw" by W.W. Jacobs- I love a story that will leave you thinking even when it's come to an end. "The Monkey's Paw" is the quintessential story to which you're left wondering, "was he or wasn't he?" in a story that reminds you that it's not very smart to play with fate. Mr. and Mrs. White and their son, Herbert, are enjoying a nice evening, even during a rough period of time when a man comes to their door with a monkey's paw that gives them three wishes. They wish for a certain amount of money and it happens to come out of Herbert's compensation when he's killed in a factory accident. The second wish is to bring Herbert back, but just as they're about to let the figure (presumably Herbert) in, Mr. White wishes him dead. This story provides me with such an afterthought that to this day I'm continuing to figure out, but that's exactly what Jacobs wants me to do. The fact that he's achieved such a feat is brilliant!
"A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury- Bradbury is one of my favorite authors of all time. I read four of his novels and plenty of his short stories and enjoyed all of them thoroughly. As I mentioned in my list of favorite books for 2013, I also said I would reread Fahrenheit 451 in order to provide myself with a clear opinion on a modern day classic. What Bradbury did so well was feed us "what if" thoughts that provide the reading experience with much more excitement and "A Sound of Thunder" was among his best. Here, he writes about a hunter who goes back into time to hunt dinosaurs. The only issue he has is there's a butterfly on his shoe that he accidentally kills, leading to drastic changes that include weird misspellings to our standard when he returns to the present day. Bradbury plays on what is known as "the butterfly effect," in which any minor change that is made during the past changes everything regarding what is to follow. The way that this story plays on such a concept is highly impressive and very much thought provoking. A high school teacher of mine recommended that I read this and a rightful recommendation indeed. This should definitely be a part of an ideal English lesson plan.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe- I was introduced to Poe and this piece of madness back in seventh grade and have enjoyed the work of Poe ever since. Being a writer from the horror background, this happens to be one of my favorite short story pieces from a writer that has played initial influence in the horror genre. This 1840s tale is told by an insane man who kills an old man, because of his evil eye. While he's easily able to hide the evidence, his beating heart exposes him to the police. The fascinating thing about this story is that it could have very well been created as a "what if." While taking a trip to the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Philadelphia, I learned that like many of people during the era, people would have a piece cut out of their floorboards to put their money. Poe may have thought to himself, "what if I chopped up a dead body and put the remains in a space beneath the floorboard?" This is the piece that made me an Edgar Allan Poe fan as well as the piece that introduced me to real horror fiction.
"A Hunger Artist" by Franz Kafka- Becoming an English major has introduced me to plenty of fascinating authors, but there are few that are more fascinating than Kafka. Kafka was a tortured soul who lived under his tyrannical father who did not see much in him, which led Kafka into lacking self-confidence. His most notable work, "The Metamorphosis," touches on a man becoming what he feels and living under his father's shame. By the end of his life, he became influenced by two ideas: his Judaism that he longed to pursue and the tuberculosis that would kill him. "A Hunger Artist" was one of his last works and it centered around a man who held an exhibit to which he wouldn't eat for forty days, which touches up on the idea of fasting. However, he feels hopeless about life and staves himself to death, admitting that the reason he didn't eat was because there was nothing that appealed to him. Individuals with tuberculosis are unable to swallow food, which may have led to either using "A Hunger Artist" as a method to console or as a pipeline to such an idea. There was actually an art of hunger artistry that was being practiced earlier on where people would exhibit themselves starving to the general public. The brilliant thing about Kafka's work is that many of his shorter works mirrored the man he was and how much he continued to hurt.
"Charles" by Shirley Jackson- Most readers know Shirley Jackson for her short work "The Lottery," which is often studied for its irony. My favorite work from her happens to be "Charles," for it conveys the childhood psychosis of imagination. In this story, everyday after school, a young boy named Laurie comes home and tells his mother stories about a fellow student in his class named Charles and how he's always causing trouble. When the mother finally goes to their "back to school night," the teacher mentions how Laurie's struggling, but he's beginning to get better and that she should see improvement. When the mother brings up a Charles, the teacher mentions there isn't a Charles in the class, leading us to believe that Laurie misbehaved during class and made up a boy named Charles to shift the negative attention away. Since reading it back in middle school and then again on my own time, "Charles" continues to stick into my head. Quite a clever little way for Shirley Jackson to convey the perks of raising a child!
"Button, Button" by Richard Matheson- Along with Bradbury, Matheson is a master in creating the "what if" story. Matheson was known for I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, but his work "Button, Button" has also made its way into the household entertainment of today's individuals. A few years ago, a movie titled The Box came out and was based on "Button, Button." In this story, a woman has the opportunity to press a button. If see presses it, she will receive a large sum of money, but a random person she does not know will be killed. This story holds one of the greatest twists to come about in literature that plays like an ideal episode of The Twilight Zone. So many discussion points can come out of the idea of such a story, which is exactly what an author is trying to accomplish as he writes. Matheson does just that, as he does on several other occasions as well.
"The Lottery Ticket" by Ventura Garcia Calderon- Is 75 Short Masterpieces the only place I would be able to find this excellent, frequently overlooked short story by Calderon? When I checked, Calderon doesn't even have an English Wikipedia page, which must mean he is highly unfamiliar in America. This story should definitely not be overlooked, for it captures the honesty behind prejudice and how others perceive what society sees as "fun." In this piece, during a bullfighting event, a lottery is being held to which the winner will walk away with a gorgeous woman. The winner happens to be a minority that chooses to rip the ticket up as a sign of "sticking it to society." The crowd is outraged and goes after him. Reading this always provides you with the feeling of getting even with that dominating force that scolds you from not being of the crowd. In this case, it's a close examination of how minorities are treated and how they would react to such poor treatment. If you haven't read this, definitely read it!
"The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane- "The Open Boat" is a key piece for two driving factors in literature: naturalism and circumstantial irony. Four men are on a small boat out in the middle of stormy tides, just longing to make it to land so they will find the opportunity to live out their lives. On the boat are the Correspondent, Captain, Cook, and Oiler (named Billy). With the Captain injured, the Oiler and Correspondent do most of the labor, which leads to the conclusion of when they finally fall into the water and are required to swim to shore. You would think that all of them would die or all of them would survive, but it's the most able of the men, the Oiler, that is too exhausted to swim to shore and washes onto the shore dead. Behind such a story is an element of naturalism to the highest degree, proving that nature is indifferent and does not hold preference or bias to any one individual or group of individuals. In "The Open Boat," what happened is what happened, which is what led to the circumstantial irony of losing the person we least expected to lose.
"The Queen of Spades" by Alexander Pushkin- When I began reading Russian Literature, I learned about Pushkin and immediately took a liking to his work. Pushkin was a driving force in defining Russian Literature as Russian Literature, through both poetry and prose. In "The Queen of Spades," a man accepts an offer to play a game of cards in which the three cards he predicts will pop up in a specific order will pop up, as he said, in that specific order. This is a relatively intriguing piece, especially for the readers that also enjoy playing cards.
"The Boy Who Drew Cats" by Lafcadio Hearn- A mother dreams one day that her son will become a priest or do something with his life, but all he wants to do is draw cats. Having enough of such an idea, the boy is taken away to possibly become use to society, which he ultimately achieves through his drawing of cats. Hearn's short story provides an important moral in which everybody holds importance in society, even if it's the kookiest idea such as being an artist that likes to draw cats. Perhaps they may play a specific use to society in a supernatural way.
A good short story is like a small serving of cheese: both have the potential of making a strong impact even if they are smaller than the real deal. While a short story is far from a novel that you'll pick up in a complete package, you can definitely come out of reading such a piece with the same reaction you would with a novel. I would definitely check out these short stories, most ideally in an anthology of different authors or through individual authors. I hope to read some more short stories to the point I can come up with another list promoting more of the best short reads.