9 Essential Short Stories You Can Read in Under 30 Minutes
The short story is one of the most neglected areas of literature in English.
Tell someone that you love great Victorian novels, and they’re likely to nod in approval. Tell them that you’re a big fan of poetry and they’ll think you’re sophisticated and cultural. Tell them that you adore modern theatre and you’ll sound like an intellectual. But tell them that you love short stories, and you’re in danger of them concluding that you don’t have much of an attention span.
Perhaps the problem here is that we are all taught to write short stories; churning one out in under an hour used to be a requirement of the Year 6 SATs in England. We suffer from the idea that short stories are something people write when they don’t have the stamina for a novel.
Yet truly great short stories are few and far between. There are rare exceptions, many of them made into films, such as Philip K Dick’s ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’ (adapted into the much less enjoyably titled Total Recall) or Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’; in fact, it’s arguable that short stories are better suited to adaptation into film format than longer fiction. But even the greatest short stories are generally ignored: how many people would first think of Ernest Hemingway as the author of ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ rather than, say, The Sun Also Rises or For Whom the Bell Tolls? In this article we’re going to look at the top English-language short stories that everyone should read.
1. Hills Like White Elephants – Ernest Hemingway (1927)
This celebrated short story is less than 1,500 words long, and comprises mostly dialogue between an unnamed American man and woman in Spain. William Faulkner’s comment on Hemingway – that “he has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary” – is certainly in evidence here, with descriptions such as “The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.”
Yet Hemingway’s rebuttal to Faulkner – “does he really think big emotions come from big words?” – is also proven correct, as with a few sparse words Hemingway evokes the oppressive heat that exacerbates the tension in the couple’s strained conversation. They talk in non-sequiturs, and take offence at each other’s superficially inoffensive statement, such as when the woman says, “Everything tastes of liquorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe” and the man snaps back, “Oh, cut it out.”
Hemingway never states outright what it is that they’re talking about, and there is no commentary on the characters’ interior feelings; the whole story is narrated as if observed by someone sitting silently at a nearby table, with the reader left to work out how the characters are feeling for themselves. It is that makes the story so masterful, capturing perfectly how people speak when they are attempting not to have an argument or discuss serious matters in public, but are failing to keep their emotions in check all the same.
2. Nightfall – Isaac Asimov (1941)
Of all genres, science fiction has probably embraced the short story most completely. The Golden Age of science fiction (defined roughly as the mid-30s to mid-40s) was a period of huge volumes of short stories published in books and magazines, and the tradition of science fiction short stories has continued up to the present day. Asimov is known now primarily for his themed short stories in I, Robot and for his Foundation series of novels, but among genre fans, his short story ‘Nightfall’ is considered among his best work.
The story concerns a planet – Lagash – that receives light from no fewer than six suns, so that its inhabitants never experience complete darkness – until one day a one-in-a-million alignment leads to a total solar eclipse. The story then explores, chillingly, how darkness would strike a civilisation who had never experienced it before. Science fiction of this era can rightly be accused of caring more about intriguing concepts than characters, but ‘Nightfall’, though concept-driven rather than character-driven, nonetheless makes you feel very strongly for the civilisation and the people it depicts. One of the greatest strengths of science fiction as a genre is to cast light (no pun intended) on how humanity might deal with circumstances and crises that we have not yet been faced with, and ‘Nightfall’ is an outstanding example of this.
3. The Tell-Tale Heart – Edgar Allen Poe (1843)
One of the earliest entries on this list, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is a classic Gothic short story by one of the masters of the genre; and anyone who enjoyed it should know that there is plenty more of Poe’s work to indulge in, including short stories and poetry. His writing is macabre in a thrilling way, the kind of thing that you might want to read aloud around a campfire by torchlight.
‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is another very short story, at just over 2,000 words. It opens with the narrator insisting furiously that he is not mad, something which he tries and fails to convince the reader of throughout the story. Without wishing to give too much away, he then relates the story of a murder, twisted through his own clouded perception. Poe’s horror writings are usually tinged with irony and the sense that he is amused by the absurdities of his own writing, and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is no exception. It delights in cliché – the Evil Eye, and the narrator’s blood running cold – but uses them in such a way that it remains a thoroughly enjoyable piece of work.
4. The Garden Party – Katherine Mansfield (1922)
Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealand-born writer of modernist short stories, whose output was cut short by her early death at the age of 34. ‘The Garden Party’ reflects many modernist themes, and as such as is an excellent short introduction to that period in literature.
It opens with the preparations for a garden party being held by a wealthy family, focusing on Laura, one of the daughters of the family, as she self-consciously deals with workmen and her somewhat neurotic mother. Then the family come to hear of a terrible accident that has happened not far away from their house; one of the men who lives in the cottages down the road has died in an accident, leaving behind a wife and several children. Laura immediately wants the party cancelled out of respect, only to be horrified by her family’s callous attitude as they refuse. When the party is over, Laura goes to visit the man’s widow with a gift of food and flowers left over from the party, and is struck by a mixture of emotions that she cannot quite express at the sight of his body.
In contrast with some of the other stories on this list, mostly notably ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, ‘The Garden Party’ is all about the interiority of its main character, Laura. We are drawn into her self-consciousness about her class position relative to the workman and the dead man’s family, about her status as a young woman on the cusp of adulthood – old enough to give instructions to workmen but still patronised by her parents – and about her family’s insensitivity to the man’s death, describing him as a ‘drunken workman’ before they learn anything about the manner of his death.
5. The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ tells the story of a woman who suffers from “temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency”, and whose husband, John, has rented an old mansion for three months in order for her to recover there. As part of her cure, she is forbidden from working, stimulating company, writing or anything else that might disturb her ‘rest’. Yet instead of curing her, lacking anything else to focus her attention on, she focuses on the ugly yellow wallpaper in one of the rooms, descending into a psychosis that fixates on the pattern and colour of the wallpaper.
The underlying message of the story is relatively obvious in the present day: it is clear that there is not much wrong with the main character at the start of the story, but her controlling husband forbids her any decision-making of her own in the guise of curing her (whether his intentions are innocent or not is a matter of interpretation), and she has far too little to occupy her mind. An intense boredom from which she is permitted no respite drives her into genuine madness.
Yet at the time when the story was written, a ‘rest cure’ of the kind that the main character is subjected to was the standard cure for ‘hysteria’; ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ was, when it was written, a protest against the contemporary treatment of women’s health. Gilman herself wrote that it was “not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”
6. Parson’s Pleasure – Roald Dahl (1958)
Roald Dahl is best known as a writer of children’s books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda. Yet he was a man of many talents, with his Wikipedia page describing him, wonderfully, as “a British novelist, short story writer, poet, screenwriter, and fighter pilot.” Alongside other unexpected works such as the screenplay for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, he wrote more than 60 short stories for adults. They have a macabre bent and dark humour in common with his writing for children, and are particularly known for their startling twist endings.
Cyril Boggis (naming choices are also consistent across Dahl’s fiction), the main character in ‘Parson’s Pleasure’, is typical of the petty villains encountered in Dahl’s short stories. The stories are full of thieves, swindlers, confidence tricksters, and amoral people prepared to commit crimes up to and including murder for meagre personal gain. Boggis pretends to be a poor clergyman in order to scout out valuable antiques. On seeing a priceless Chippendale commode in a rundown farmhouse, he tries to persuade the men who live there to sell it to him for a bargain price, pretending that it is worthless. Yet, as with all of Dahl’s short stories, the ending has a sting in the tail. It’s a fine example of Dahl’s unforgiving writing style, and the twist is particularly well constructed and revealed.
7. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – James Thurber (1939)
‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ is another example of a short story that has become better known as a result of being adapted for the screen, in 1947 and 2013. However, given the story is only just over 2,000 words long, and the action in it consists of Walter Mitty driving his wife to the hairdresser’s, running a couple of errands and then returning to pick her up, both films take the short story as a springboard rather than adapting it faithfully.
The central idea of the story is that Mitty is a hapless dreamer. In reality he is entirely under his wife’s thumb – his relationship with her in the story resembles that of a sulky teenager with his mother rather than a marriage of equals – but he escapes from mundane reality with elaborate fantasies in which he fulfills a variety of action hero clichés, such as being a fighter pilot and a genius surgeon. Drifting into a fantasy is largely consequence-free for Mitty, though it seems that his driving suffers considerably from his lack of attention to the real world. The story has been anthologised countless times, and is noteworthy mostly for how perfectly it encapsulates a particular way of approaching the world: of the small-scale, day-to-day denial of reality that enables people to endure unremarkable lives.
8.The Tuesday Night Club – Agatha Christie (1932)
Alongside science fiction, perhaps the genre that has given the greatest amount of attention to short stories is crime and mystery fiction. In particular, the short story lends itself to the style of mystery writing where the problem is set out in such a way as the reader themselves can try to guess the solution. Isaac Asimov’s The Union Club Mysteries are an extreme example of this, halfway towards being puzzles rather than fiction, where a space is left in the print book for the reader to take a moment to work out the answer for themselves.
Agatha Christie’s short story collection, The Tuesday Night Club, of which the first story is also called ‘The Tuesday Night Club’, is similar in style. It features an informal club of people from different backgrounds, each of whom relate a mystery and the others propose solutions. This marked the first appearance of Miss Marple, an unassuming elderly lady whose sharp mind and long experience of life allows her to solve each of the mysteries perfectly, to the surprise of the other guests. These stories show Christie’s skill not only as a writer of mysteries, but also in producing fully formed characters in just a few short lines of writing, so even when she tells a mystery over a few pages that another writer might spin into a novel, each character feels rounded and plausible.
9. The Nine Billion Names of God – Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
The second science fiction entry on this list, ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ was written by Arthur C. Clarke, who is better known for his novels, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ is a fun little romp that has gained some entertainment value in the years since it was written: in the 1950s, it was an enjoyable exploration of the possibilities of contemporary computer technology, whereas now it’s an enjoyable dive into the history of computer programming.
It tells the story of two computer programmers who are asked to install a computer in a Tibetan monastery that will write down the nine billion permutations that the monks believe comprise the names of God. In this way, though not exactly well-informed about the detail of Eastern religions, it’s also an interesting look at the intersection between modern technology and ancient forms of worship. Many of the science fiction stories of its era that are recommended on must-read lists are grim predictions of the terrifying future that awaits humanity enslaved to the Bomb, which is an unfair reflection of a genre that is often optimistic and light-hearted. Yet like many short stories, the strength of ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ rests on its startling, witty ending.
Do you have a favourite short story that we haven’t included here?