Lost and Found: Underrated Short Stories You Should Read

A list of short stories that I think are as good as, or better than, the author’s novels

Short stories are falling out of fashion.

Why doesn’t The New York Times best seller list have a subsection dedicated to the short story form? Why do readers know Stephen King for The Green Mile, but not Strawberry Spring? Why do journals pay very little for short stories, if at all?

In a time where hundreds of novels and films and television programmes can be viewed for free at the tip of your fingers, readers do not want to buy short story journals and magazines. And as consumption of print media falls further into the abyss, the casual reader is galled to pay to view a story online, however reasonable the cost.

In honour of this failing form, below is a list of short stories that might otherwise disappear amidst the swarm of best-selling novels. They represent a snapshot of reality, so poignant that they are truly a credit to their form.

The Summer People

The Summer People

“Characterized by the caprice and fatalism of fairy tales, the fiction of Shirley Jackson exerts a mordant, hypnotic spell.” -Joyce Carol Oates

No doubt The Summer People (1950) is overshadowed by Jackson’s better known short story, The Lottery (1948). First appearing in Jackson’s posthumous collection Let Me Tell You (1950), The Summer People tells the story of the Allisons, a couple who take a cottage for the summer. Like The Lottery, Jackson’s later work explores human nature and herd mentality, albeit in a far subtler way.

‘…the country had never seemed more inviting, and the lake moved quietly below them, among the trees, with the almost incredible softness of a summer picture. Mrs. Allison sighed deeply, in the pleasure of possessing for themselves that sight of the lake, with the distant green hills beyond, the gentleness of the small wind through the trees.’

The Allisons decide to stay longer than they expected at the cottage. Jackson shows her caprice when, after the Allisons decide to stay, the mood swiftly changes. The locals turn from affable and friendly to eerie: they warn the Allisons that no one has ever stayed past Labour day before.

The facade of holiday cottage bliss unravels. Jackson presents a world in which every need: oil, groceries, kerosene, transport, and a landline, are stripped away from the unsuspecting couple. As the storm brews in the sky above the Allisons, the reader begins to wonder what exactly the town is anticipating after Labour day.

Strawberry Spring

Stephen King

Better known for his gruesome novels such as Carrie and Misery, some readers might be surprised to know that Stephen King was a prolific short story writer. Before his story about the telekenetic teen Carrie was turned into a novel, King made his living selling short stories to men’s magazines.

Strawberry Spring shows that King is the master of horror, no matter the form. The narrator gives a detailed account of the on campus murders that occur every Spring. The legend of Springheel Jack follows the story, which the narrator revels in.

‘The blue beetles patrolled the campus ceaselessly on the foggy spring nights of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth, and spotlights stabbed in to dark nooks and crannies with erratic eagerness.’

King’s story, unlike many of his novels (cough IT cough), is so compact that any more details might ruin it. Read Strawberry Spring in ten minutes on your commute to work, and be horrified for the rest of your journey.

Bonus

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

“There are all kinds of writers in this world but only a handful of natural ones – ZZ Packer is one of them.” -Zadie Smith

Z.Z Packer’s debut collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003) bursts with life on every page. Not the sort of vivid mish-mash of ideas found in Alice Through The Looking Glass (1871), but the kind of down to Earth realism that makes you imagine every line a character’s crow’s-feet.

The title story explores the intersections between race, class, and identity. Yale freshman Dina struggles through the first year of university with her unlikely companion, the closeted Heidi. Dina exists in a world where she is suddenly transported away from her home life of:

‘…hair salon after hair salon of airbrushed signs promising arabesque hair styles and inch-long fingernails […] every other house had at least one shattered window.’

into an ordered world of books and psychiatrists which, ironically, sends her into a tail-spin.

Packer’s story slips off into nothingness in much the same way that most realistic short stories do: there is no ultimate catharsis, there is no rounding off of events. The white knight does not appear at the end.

Short stories are so satisfying because they are a tightly wound package of what actually happens in the real world, as opposed to sprawling epics. The medium continues on through the works of Jackson, King, and Packer.

 

‘Must Read’ Books I Hate and What To Read Instead

Alternatives to the ‘must reads’ books you can’t be bothered with

Whenever I go into Waterstones or WHSmith I remember the mile long list of books that I am expected to read (I’m looking at you, Goodreads), and I am filled with the worry that a better read person might ask me if I enjoyed Thomas Hardy’s depiction of injustice in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or Williams’ portrayal of the declining South in A Streetcar Named Desire.

For those of you who feel that the list of ‘must reads’ is just too long, I have chosen some time saving alternatives that are better than the cult classic.

Farenheit 451

Farenheit 4451

Farenheit 451 (1953) follows Montag as he begins to question why he burns books for the government, and wonders what can be gained from a world without accessible knowledge. As his loyalty to his profession deteriorates, Montag becomes enlightened and despises the consumerism he sees around him: he is distainful of his wife’s devotion to the television and her acceptance of whatever the state wants.

In the foreword to Farenheit 451 Bradbury writes that ‘When the first version of the novel was finished, I hardly knew what I had done.’ And I believe him.

The plot rattles from one point to another predictably. At first Montag believes it is ‘a pleasure to burn’ literature, because he enjoys watching the flames bite away at the pages. What follows is a plot twist that anyone could have seen coming: Montag realises that the act of burning books is a way for the state to control the population, to keep them docile, and to keep them ignorant.

I lost interest in Bradbury’s jumpy plot when Montag, now secure in his belief that burning books is an abomination, visits his comrade Faber. Faber greets Montag and introduces him to the ‘audio-capsule,’ the ‘green bullet’ that allows him to communicate with Montag while he is out in the world. Faber is too afraid to join the rebellion himself, and so he will guide Montag through the ear piece.

When Faber exclaims ‘I’ve had this little item ready for months!’ despite them having only met weeks ago, it all became a bit too much for me. Bradbury portrays a man who is torn apart by his desire for enlightenment in the totalitarian world by racing from one plot point to another, not fully developing any strands, and not tying any together.

What To Read Instead:

Morning, Summer Night: The Screaming Woman

Summer Morning Ray Bradbury

The Screaming Woman (1951) follows a young girl as she walks out of her back door only to discover a woman, buried alive and screaming, in the field behind her house. The young girl runs to her father for help. He makes her wait until he has finished his dinner, and then asks why she is so flustered. She tells him that there is a woman buried alive screaming in the back garden.

He says that he has never known a woman that wasn’t.

Bradbury’s short story is succinct and powerful: he explores social constructs far more subtly than he does with Farenheit 451, in which the protagonist’s journey from ignorance to knowledge is glaringly obvious. The Screaming Woman explores intersections between gender, familial relations, and age through Bradbury’s use of a young female protagonist who, dismissed by the masses, takes matters into her own hands.

A Clockwork Orange

A CLockwork Orange.jpg

Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962) follows the fifteen year old protagonist Alex as he leads a gang of criminals through  totalitarian, state ruled England. Burgess’ novel is rife with violence: Alex is imprisoned for the rape of a woman and experiences yet more violence at the hands of an experimental procedure called Ludovico’s technique. In this experiment Alex is injected with a serum which makes him violently ill, and he is then forced to watch dozens of clips of murders, rapes, and assaults. The aim of this experiment is to alter his reaction to violence: he feels nauseous whenever he thinks of committing a crime.

a clockwork orangeee

In a 2002 interview Burgess said ‘It is not the job of the artist to propound messages […] it is merely the task of the literary creator, like the musical creator, to produce shapes, structures.’

It is this focus on shapes, elusive and undefined in the mind of the reader, and the insistence on portraying the characters as card board cut outs, imitations of real people in real situations, that made me bored of A Clockwork Orange. Like Bradbury, Burgess presents his protagonist as a figure who serves to highlight the issues within their futuristic, totalitarian societies, rather than characters in their own right. The characters are barely able to react to the situations themselves before the God-like hand of Bradbury or Burgess swoops down to remind them that they serve the purpose of acting against the state, never relaxing for one moment under the dystopian, totalitarian rule.

What To Read Instead:

Nightmares and Dreamscapes: Suffer The Little Children

nightmares and dreamscapes

Stephen King’s short story Suffer The Little Children (1972) depicts the story of Mrs Sidley, an elderly pre-school teacher who begins to believe that the children she teaches are possessed by demons. Despite King’s story being supernatural in focus, the reader is drawn to the characterisation of Sidley, and the real life aspects of mental decline in old age.

King creates tension leading up to the violence denouement of Suffer The Little Children, and it is this careful use of striking scenes that makes this short story worth a read. The ending is all the more impactful because King has not sprinkled violence throughout. The stative line ‘She killed twelve of them and would have killed them all if Mrs Crossen hadn’t come down for a package of composition paper’ shocks the reader, in that it serves to emphasise the realistic aspects of King’s story.

 

 

 

 

 

Delirium, Hallucinations, And Man’s Insignificance: A Review of ‘Terra Incognita’

None of Nabokov’s intensity is lost in Terra Incognita. The story follows the delirious Valliere (the narrator) and his longtime friend Gregson as they catch insects on their journey from Zonraki to the Gurano Hills. 

I was scanning a book shop shelf for Lolita’s predecessor The Enchanter when I caught sight of a book so slim I almost skimmed right over it. Vladimir Nabokov’s collection Terra Incognita is far from the tomb that is Ada or Ardor: the three short stories come in at under a hundred pages and the title short story Terra Incognita is a tiny fourteen.

Having read Nabokov’s mastery of characterisation in his longer works, I wanted to see what he could do with a shorter medium. None of Nabokov’s intensity is lost in Terra Incognita. The story follows the delirious Valliere (the narrator) and his longtime friend Gregson as they catch insects on their journey from Zonraki to the Gurano Hills.

Accompanied by the Badonians and their translator Cook, the group travel further and further into the forest, with their view of the Gurano Hills being blighted by an overhanging mist. Nabokov’s depiction of delirium is well executed: he maintains the narrator’s voice and progresses the plot whilst also showing that the group’s situation is steadily worsening.

‘I kept telling myself that my head was heavy from the long march, the heat, the medley of colors, and the forest din, but secretly I knew that I was ill.’

As they continue on, Cook and the natives ‘vanished noiselessly’ into the surrounding trees. Nabokov creates a sense of growing terror as it becomes clear that Valliere has little control over the situation: the forest is a life form of its own, complete with ‘monkeys’ that ‘snapped and chattered, while a comet-like bird flashed like Bengal light, crying out in its small, shrill voice’ which adds to the narrator’s disorientation.

The fact that the plot remains a tangible thread throughout the story while the narrator is suffering from hallucinations is a credit to Nabokov’s ability to handle plot constraints. Cook returns, minus the natives, and ‘began to swear that the natives had lead him away by force and had wanted to eat him.’

Valliere, Gregson, and Cook journey on together.

‘I was tormented by strange hallucinations.’

At one point Valliere grows so weak that Gregson insists that he and Cook will carry him the rest of the way. The narrator’s hallucinations convey his desire to transport himself from the forest into Western comfort: at one point ‘A large armchair rose, as if supported from below, out of the swamp.’

Nabokov maintains the dream like qualities of the story until the very end when, having seen Cook and Gregson murder each other, Valliere emerges from his thick film of delirium to see the natural world as it is. The line ‘For the last time I saw all this distinctly, consciously, with the seal of authenticity on everything- their skinned knees, the bright flies circling over them, the females of those flies already seeking a spot for ovulation.’ There is a strange tranquility to Valliere’s death, it is as if he is detatched from the situation and can view the scene like one would view a picture in a book.

Ofcourse, nature triumphs. In the end, Valliere is just a mammal in the forest. Nabokov emphasises the insignificance of man among nature through his depiction of weather such as the overhanging mist which clouds the travelers’ thoughts and disrupts their journey. He shows that humans are ill equipped to deal with the reality that is the thriving forest through the motif of furniture: as Valliere’s health declines he hallucinates armchairs, wallpaper, and the four walls to the imaginary room which symbolises his desire for a more manageable situation.

In the denouement, Valliere is physically unable to escape from the untameable entity that is the forest, and the reader assumes that the flies that crowd Gregson and Cook’s corpses are waiting for Valliere’s, too.

The Woman Behind the Wallpaper: Infantilisation and Autonomy in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’

The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) depicts a woman who is driven to insanity by her belief that ‘The front pattern does move – and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!’ Gilman’s short story functions as rejection of the infantilisation of women, the medical beliefs, and the misunderstood nature of mental illness present in Victorian England.

In 1885 Gilman gave birth to her daughter and was diagnosed with a form of nervous hysteria, which the modern reader would call postpartum depression. The cure for this mental illness was ascribed by the esteemed neurologist Dr. S Weir Mitchell. Upon visiting Mitchell in 1886, Gilman was told to follow the maxims of ‘the rest cure,’ Mitchell’s own invention. She was to be isolated and bedridden (for up to two months) and fed and cleaned by a nurse.

‘I was put to bed and kept there. I was fed, bathed, rubbed… after a month of this agreeable treatment he sent me home, with this prescription: “Live as domestic a life as possible… And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.’

During this treatment Gilman’s health declined rapidly and, years later, having partially recovered from the trauma of ‘the rest cure’ she produced The Yellow Wallpaper.

Her short story highlights the absurdity of giving a mental illness a physical cure. At the beginning of the story the protagonist explains that her husband is a physician, and suggests ‘perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.’ This line emphasises the lack of autonomy women were given over their own treatment and, shown by the protagonist’s reluctance to admit the above thought to anything other than ‘dead paper,’ their own beliefs.

As the sinister tone of the story unravels the reader perceives a metamorphosis from the wife of a respected physician to the elusive, nameless creature that is the woman behind the wallpaper. This transformation is a way for the protagonist to maintain her own grasp on freedom, however weak that grasp may be.

The representation of the protagonist’s delusions is a warning against infantilising women. She attributes such great importance to finding out how the pattern moves that she destroys the wallpaper in an act of rebellion, and in doing so encourages her deluded belief that she is in control. At the height of her insanity she informs her husband ‘I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’

Gilman’s story functions as a call to arms against a the lack of freedom women had over their own care. In her article ‘Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper,‘ Gilman writes that ‘It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate — so terrfying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.’ However, while Gilman considered her story to be a success, the modern reader will note how the woman was saved by her family allowing her to resume her normal life. Gilman’s story certainly made a dent in feminist literature (and Mitchell’s pride), but the battle for women’s autonomy still continued.