Even though time has all but stopped for much of the United States, there is still something to be said for enjoying something that only takes a little while. Sure, we have all the time in the world, but indulging in something such as a short story can be a transformative experience. It can may you feel like you’re floating or like you’ve been punched in the gut by Mike Tyson. Within a few pages, a story can put words to a feeling you’ve never been able to express. It renders epiphany and leaves you thinking, much like a great book (only shorter). Quench your thirst for impeccable writing by reading the best short stories of all time.
Now, too, when we’re stuck inside, more people than ever are looking for that sort of escape, if even for a little while. The ability to transport someone out of the current moment is a hallmark of a good story (no matter the length). The thing about short stories, though, is that every word matters. Like drops of blood (as per the great short story writer Denis Johnson), you only have a certain amount of words in a story, and all must advance the reader.
Among our list, you won’t find a single one alike. Some are timeless pieces assigned in college lit classes, others are contemporary sci-fi by famous writers, but each piece is marked with oddity and revelation. Start reading them now.
Cathedral By Raymond Carver
Raymond Carver is the king of short stories. He helped revitalize the craft in the ’80s and is known for razor-sharp minimalism. No fluff. “Cathedral” might be his most famed short, narrated by a man who is visited by his wife’s old blind friend. The narrator is jealous of this blind man and his closeness with his wife. They eventually bond over the image of a cathedral in a final scene that leaves the reader short of breath and in rapture.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Revered as one of the best short stories ever written, “The Yellow Wallpaper” imprints in the reader’s mind and refuses to leave. Published in 1892, the story archives a young woman’s decline into madness as she is confined to the bedroom of a vacation home. By describing the décor of the room, particularly the yellow wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman shows the mental distress of the woman. The piece is a commentary on the role of women in an oppressive patriarchy, and the story is brilliantly eerie.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
The semi-autobiographical short story, “The Things They Carried,” recounts the belongings of each soldier in a platoon in the Vietnam War. These are more than physical items; Tim O’Brien stretches the concept of weight and what we carry with us to span memories, love, and pain. In the story, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries reminders of a woman he loved but did not love him back. When a member of his squad dies, he must decide what he can and cannot “carry.” It’s intense, heart-tugging, and real.
The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe
There is no short story round-up without Poe. While many praise “The Tell-Tale Heart,” our favorite macabre short by the OG horror writer is about a man being buried alive by his friend. “The Cask of Amontillado” will teach you to never insult your friend or follow them down to a wine cellar. Released in 1846, this short story isn’t a detective read like many of Poe’s other stories, but a confessional. The reader is still tasked with figuring out the motive behind the mad killing.
Passion by Alice Munro
Alice Munro … I mean, damn. A Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, Munro will take you to places you didn’t know existed, yet feel familiar. In “Passion,” a woman visits the home of her boyfriend’s parents, unsure of the strength of her feelings for him. She cuts herself and is taken to the hospital by his drunken brother. A deep, unexplainable connection forms, then a tragedy strikes. The story is tense yet overflowing and spotlights the unruly nature of passion and attraction.
A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the Colombian writer famous for penning One Hundred Years of Solitude. This story is about, well, an old man with giant angel wings who has turned up in a family’s backyard. However, the old man is unable to fly. The family members, town, and visitors weigh in on how the old man with wings should be dealt with. Is he an angel? Should he be their leader? The piece is a stunning dissection of the human condition through the lens of magical realism. Plus, the writing is impeccable.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
I’m fairly certain everyone read this in school, and if you didn’t, go read it now. Published in The New Yorker in 1948, the story is about townspeople performing a lottery to decide which member will be stoned to death for sacrifice. Ripe with literary irony and deeper messages like the dangers of blind traditions, Shirley Jackson is immortalized with this story. It boasts a great build-up to a great twist.
Speech Sounds by Octavia Butler
The sci-fi short published in 1983 “Speech Sounds” begins with humankind fraught with a mysterious pandemic that limits communication. Therefore, the entire piece is formed by gestures and symbols, and it’s brilliant. The story earned Octavia Butler a Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne
While we’re on the topic of the most famous short stories ever written, “Young Goodman Brown” sits with the high rollers. Set in 17th-century Puritan New England, Goodman Brown goes to run errands in the woods at night and stumbles upon a terrifying ceremony where he sees himself and his wife undergoing an initiation. He wakes, unsure if the scene was a dream and lives the rest of his life paranoid of people and the community. It’s a big allegory about seeing the evils of human nature and a piece loved by authors like Stephen King and, well, everyone.
Symbols and Signs by Vladimir Nabokov
The author of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov wrote the subtly mind-bending short story “Symbols and Signs” in 1948 about an old couple who try to visit their son in a sanatorium. The son suffers from referential mania (a term invented by Nabokov) and tried to commit suicide so the couple returns home. They receive a series of phone calls leaving the state of the son uncertain. Simply describing the events of the story doesn’t translate the power of this short, which leads the reader down a cryptic assessment of the signs and symbols to mimic the mania of its character. Basically, it’s like watching Inception, only better.
Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin
This essential short story is vicious, violent, and deeply necessary to read. It opens with a white sheriff in the South trying to be intimate with his wife. When he can’t, he remembers being a little boy and going out with his parents to a community spectacle, which turned out to be a brutal lynching — a scene that is arguably the most heart-wrenching in literary history. The story echoes themes of historical racism and repression, sex, violence, and power.
Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote
The short story — in fact, the entire non-fiction/fiction collection “Music for Chameleons” of which it is a part — is one of Truman Capote’s greatest works; however, the anthology is often overlooked by his other masterpieces, In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In this single instance, we’re going to recommend the full book of short stories, which work together like an arcing evolution of Capote’s prose and demonstrate his unique eye for dandy and strange human behavior. Included is a short piece about Marilyn Monroe (they were good friends) and Handcarved Coffins, the account of a serial killer in a small town.
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