I'm not a short story aficionado. I definitely can't write one myself, though I admire writers who can.
Maybe it's because short stories remind me of a time I sat in a sweltering hot classroom trying to not fall asleep during English class. One would be assigned for homework: "Read. Answer questions one through twenty." It's hard to warm up to a genre after that.
I do remember that those stories themselves could sometimes be entertaining, either for the content (The Lady or the Tiger) or for the adolescent snarkage (On the Sidewalk Bleeding). For the most part, I think the short story can be very subtle and most of the ideas went straight over our heads.
Short stories are hit and miss with me now as an adult. I can't say that I go out of my way to buy a book of short stories, but occasionally I stumble onto some gems. Ones that make me say, "Oh that was so good!" But I sometimes need convincing, so, if you are like me, I'll give you the low down on some of what I think are the best short stories for the wary:
Shirley Jackson: The Lottery and Other Stories
Ms Jackson was an expert at taking the reader on a psychological thrill ride. Things start out fairly ho-hum. Then you feel a tingle down the spine, and then..."I just peed my pants." The best example of her work is "The Lottery."
It's a beautiful June day in a rural American town and all the villagers have gathered in the square for the lottery. It's something they do every year, a tradition. Seems like a nice little gathering, but something's not quite right. As you read, you can feel it in the words. Everyone is uncomfortable, why? And what's with that pile of rocks?
I've read this many times and it never wears out. It's very well done. Just today as I read it for this post, I felt my heart pounding, even though I knew what was coming. I think it's even worse when you know it's coming! Considered controversial when it was published in 1948, it's a statement on conformity and inhumanity. Some rituals should just die.
Great Irish Tales of Horror compiled by Peter Haining
The stories in this "Treasury of Fear" include contributions from such great Irish writers like Bram Stoker and George Bernard Shaw. Not all deal in the supernatural, such as "The Morgan Score" about the IRA and some have elements of humor, like "The Unburied Legs." One of my favorites is "Samhain Feis" by Peter Tremayne.
"Samhain Feis" was originally written in the Irish language. This English translation is a bit jerky but still a great Halloween read. An Irish-American woman has come to Ireland with her seven year old son to escape her awful marriage. She's chosen to vacation in a remote part of the country in order to make some decisions. A local man warns her that the hills she lives near are the home of some nasty creatures who come out on, you guessed it, Samhain Feis or Halloween.
I think it creeped me out because of the kid. Poor little Mikey!
The Collected Stories of Carol Shields
I'm a big Carol Shields fan. She knew how to make the most ordinary event seem extraordinary. She was the mistress of the short story. The Collected Stories includes three of her previous collections: Various Miracles, The Orange Fish and Dressing Up for the Carnival. That's a 3 for 1.
I haven't gotten though the whole book yet. Her words need time to be digested and I just can't hop from one of her stories to the next. I've chosen 2 of my favorites, so far, for this review.
"Mrs Turner Cutting the Grass" is just that, Mrs Turner cutting the grass. The neighbours see her and make commentary about her while she is blissfully unaware.
"The things Mrs. Turner doesn't know would fill the Sachers' new compost pit,
would sink a ship, would set off a tidal wave, would make her want to kill herself."
It's true Mrs. Turner doesn't know she's the object of all this hostility, but they themselves have no idea of the kind of life Mrs. Turner has lived. She has a lifetime of adventures and secrets buried inside her.
I had no idea that cutting grass could be an interesting subject for a short story, but it is. Shields breaks the short story mold here.
A woman first notices that today is different from other days when she tries to buy an "I'm sorry" card for her father-in-law and finds the corner store out of stock. The cashier gives her some odd stories of the people who bought those cards. As she continues her search, she finds more incidences of people apologizing or asking for forgiveness. Some were for very small things and some serious but all were sincere.
This is a feel-good story that had me asking what if we all apologized for all the wrongs we've done. Wouldn't the world be a nicer place? The woman in this story feels a burden lifting from her. But I can't help thinking if she was just noticing all this because she felt different and maybe it's just an ordinary day.