Recently, I went through a box of books that I had read long ago and had been collecting dust. Many were like passing acquaintances, and I only vaguely remembered their stories. A few were complete strangers except for the month and year scrawled in my handwriting on the first page.
But some stories stick with me. They grip me and won’t let go, like the 7 short stories I’ve selected here.
I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. If you’ve read a short story you’ll never forget, please share it in the comments.
I started reading the work of James Salter only recently, including a collection of short stories. “Last Night” was so intense and disturbing I couldn’t sleep. When Marit, the wife, says “I thought you were going to help me,” I could feel the different kinds of shock and horror that each of the characters was experiencing at that moment.
The stories in Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout are connected, each one a glimpse into different lives that intersect in both small and significant ways. The characters are like beautifully detailed paintings, and “Starving” focuses on Harmon who, though he’s getting older and his family is settled, is still hungry for a full life.
Something happened the year Derrick went off to college. While their bedroom life had slowed considerably, Harmon had accepted this, had sensed for some time that Bonnie was “accommodating” him. But one night her turned to her in bed, and she pulled away. After a long moment, she said quietly, “Harmon, I think I’m just done with that stuff.”
They lay there in the dark; what gripped him from his bowels on up was the horrible, blank knowledge that she meant this. Still, nobody can accept losses right away.
“Done?” he asked. She could have piled twenty bricks onto his stomach, that was the pain he felt.
“I’m sorry. But I’m just done. There’s no point in my pretending. That isn’t pretty for either of us.”
This story won’t appeal to everyone. Written by Yasunari Kawabata, it’s so bizarre and macabre – so other – that it’s seared into my memory.
“He was not to do anything in bad taste, the woman of the house warned old Eguchi. He was not to put his finger into the mouth of the sleeping girl, or try anything else of that sort.”
The house is a secret club for elderly gentlemen who have lost their sexual powers. Eguchi, with his promise to abide by the rules, begins his life as a member there.
These two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, were written six years apart, in 1915 and 1921. Together, they served as the basis for the film “Rashomon” which introduced the world to Japanese film.
Re-reading the stories, they seem like small fragments from another time and place. “In a Bamboo Grove” is a treatment of memory, how truth is so relative, memory so subjective. As a small example of that, I don’t know myself whether it’s the stories or the movie that have made such an impression on me.
Borges’ stories stretch the imagination to absurd limits. Yet as incredible as his plots and characters may be, we can still relate to them in some small way.
The lottery of Babylon reduces people’s lives to pure chance, a series of drawings by The Company. It makes you consider just how much control we truly have.
“Like all men in Babylon I have been a proconsul; like all, a slave; I have also known omnipotence, opprobrium, jail. Look: the index finger of my right hand is missing…An adverse drawing might mean mutilation, a varied infamy, death.”
I remember my shock when I first read this classic story by Flannery O’Connor. I remember how, based on the title, I was expecting something entirely different, perhaps a story about seeking and finding love.
I could not have been more wrong.
Looking through the 650 pages of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway reminds me of how I felt reading them. Through these stories I got a glimpse into experiences I would never have known otherwise.
I could have picked “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” or “The Killers” or “My Old Man.” I chose instead a simple story about a young man, back home from the war, fishing and camping along the river where he spent time as a boy.
It’s beautifully written. Like all great short stories, it transported me to another time and place, and made me feel something I hadn’t quite felt before.