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.
“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.
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.
“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.