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.

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Long Walk’: Stephen King’s Version of a Dystopian World

King’s dystopian world ‘The Long Walk’ operates on an opt-in basis.

While writers like Suzanne Collins and Margaret Atwood define their dystopian worlds by the lack of choice the characters have, Stephen King’s The Long Walk operates on an opt-in basis. In King’s vision of the future his protagonist Raymond Garraty, along with 99 other teenage boys, are chosen from a pool of applicants to participate in the annual long walk, a competition which ends with only one winner: the sole survivor.

The boys are followed by a group of armed guards who give the participants a warning if they walk slower than the stipulated four miles an hour for more than thirty seconds. Three strikes and you are out. In King’s world teens are murdered where they stand in a competition they volunteered for.

The walk is overseen by The Major, and the event is televised in major cities. Swarms of onlookers cheer as the teens become increasingly exhausted and suffer mental fatigue as they see their peers picked off one by one, fearful that it is them next. A day into the walk, Garraty is shocked and pleased to see:

a huge sign, letters with pine boughs across the front read:

GARRATY’S OUR MAN!!!

Aroostook County Parents’ Association

The reader wonders why thousands of teenage boys subject themselves to the walk, knowing that their chances of winning are infinitesimal. Unlike dystopian novels which present a moral message on the perils of treating women as a commodity (The Handmaid’s Tale), separating society into sectors (Brave New World), and banning the distribution of information (Fahrenheit 451), King does not create the walk for any other purpose than entertainment.

‘Walk or die, that’s the moral of this story.’

King’s story feeds on greed and the demand for engaging television. The boys apply for the walk because the prize is anything they desire, a stake just high enough to risk their life for. The community cheers the walkers on and watches them on television because they have been desensitised to gratuitous violence, and the American desire for more more more leads them to applaud the 100 boys for walking to their death. This twisted desire for entertainment means that Garraty is hailed as an all-American hero, ‘Maine’s own,’ willing to undertake the grueling task of dying for the sake of the public’s enjoyment.

The characters, as young as they are (Garraty is only sixteen), seem to be aware of their dire situation, which makes the premise all the more shocking. One walker asks, ‘There was a guy last year that crawled for two miles at four miles an hour after both of his feet cramped up at the same time, you remember reading about that?’ As the story goes on, King adds the arrogance of 100 teenagers to the list of why the walk was possible in the first place. The reader wonders whether anyone would have signed up to a girls only long walk.

Despite all of this, I am willing to suspend disbelief for a dystopian novel, and especially a dystopian novel as good as King’s. He fleshes out the characters and creates relationships with such realism that the reader is shocked when, having taken three warnings, Olson is murdered by the guards. The reader feels the joy of the walkers when an onlooker manages to give them watermelon without the guards intercepting it.

Like most of King’s novels, the ending is harrowing. Having outlasted his peers and won the walk, Garraty imagines that:

The dark figure beckoned, beckoned in the rain, beckoned for him to come and walk, to come and play the game. And it was time to play the game. There was still so far to walk.

The need for more continues as the delirious Garraty wanders off into the distance, unaware that he has won his prize because he cannot see past the need to go on, to strive for more in a consumerist world where even death has become a commodity that can be sold to the attentive viewer.