It’s fall. Yikes. I’m not even halfway through my 100 book recommendations. I was intending to have this list finished up this year. Not that you should read them in a year. I think we’ve established that’s a bad idea. Trust me. But how long does it take to just crank out a suggestion list? Long, apparently. Sigh.
I took a short story writing class my last semester of university and when asked by a classmate on the way up to the workshop (three flights of stairs—some days it was a killer) what kind of things I liked to read, my mind went blank. I tried to narrow it down to categories, and, being in a short story class, that’s where I instinctively went: “As far as short stories go, I like older stuff, like Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allen Poe.” Then, in an attempt to be more conversational, I added this interesting piece of trivia: “You know, despite his grim reputation, Poe actually wrote some stuff that was pretty comedic.” And that’s about as far as that went. Did I specify why I liked Sherlock Holmes or Poe? No. Did I ask said classmate what he liked to read? No. Did I recommend anything to him? No.
So that’s what this list is—the short stories and short story collections I’d recommend anyone to read sometime and perhaps even a little bit about why. And if George ever finds this, he’ll know what I completely failed to communicate when we spoke that day on the way to class.
1. The Bottle Imp by R.L. Stevenson, short story
I had a hard time deciding between this one, “Markheim,” “Thrawn Janet,” or “The Body Snatcher” by Stevenson, (honestly, go read them all: they’re short and creepy and perfect for spook season) but I ended up on The Bottle Imp because it is a lengthier, meatier tale of a cursed object and what happens when you get everything you wish for. Stevenson showcases more range in his short stories than he does in his novels—at least the ones I’ve read—exploring cultures and mythology beyond his usual highland jigs, and The Bottle Imp is one of his best.
2. The God of His Fathers by Jack London, story collection
Whether or not you’re a fan of The Call of the Wild, you should read at least one of London’s short story collections: they form a mythos of the North. It is the last frontier, and the men and women who inhabit it tend to end up with the North inhabiting them. London picks up grand themes and sets them against sublimity of the white expanse; he explores the determination of man against a hostile environment, the phenomenon of human relationships in the wild versus civilization, and just for variety picks up a comedic incident or two in the everyday life of the northern “cowboys.”
3. The Chronicles of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery, story collection
A enchanted violin, a ghost child haunting a grieving mother, the silent treatment to end all silent treatment, and a changeling cat are just some of the scenarios in and around the environs of the Anne of Green Gables world. With all her genius for character, dialogue, and incident, Montgomery’s collection enriches an already vibrant locale with more unforgettable characters and heartwarming drama.
4. Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar A. Poe, story collection
Do I really need to sell this one to you? In case you live under a rock, Poe’s tales include such iconic titles like “The Masque of the Red Death” (timely, if I do say so) and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” And yes, he did write comedic gems such as “Some Passages in the Life of a Lion (Lionizing),” “Bon-Bon,” and “The Spectacles.” Filled with pseudo-intellectual language and sometimes truly profound observations, both his horror and comedy contain dark humour and twisted familiarity. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a precursor to the modern detective genre.
5. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, story collection
Speaking of the modern detective genre, Sherlock Holmes is thought to be the successor to Poe’s deductive reasoner, C. Auguste Dupin. With pipe, deerstalker, and Dr. Watson, Holmes is practically synonymous with our modern concept of a detective. One of the single most popular characters in all of fiction, his adventures are a must-read, containing cases from rigged races to strange kidnappings, all told with Watson’s evenly unfolding narrative style and wry humour.
6. Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde, story collection
Again, do I need to pitch this? It’s Oscar Wilde, he practically sells himself. In the vein of his more popular plays, Wilde explores society and socialites in two of his stories, the titular Saville story and “The Sphinx Without a Secret,” illuminating the superficiality and undercurrent of tragedy by his sparkling dialogue. He also dips into a tonally-jarring haunting and an encouraging little tale of unexpected kindness in “The Canterville Ghost” and “The Model Millionaire,” respectively.
7. Carry On, Jeeves! by P.G. Wodehouse, story collection
Bertram Wooster is a dissipated trust fund kid in the 1920s in need of some taking in hand. Enter Jeeves, manservant extraordinaire. A parade of half a dozen aunts and a few companionable losels troop in with their multifarious shenanigans, all depending on Bertie (woefully ill-equipped in the cranial department for hijinks of this calibre) to sort their troubles. What does one somewhat dim fellow do in a pinch? Why, delegate, of course: “Jeeves! I say, Jeeves!” Honestly, this series is hilarious. The language, the scenarios, the characters: all golden. It makes me want to jump on the “bring back 1920s slang for 2020” bandwagon.
8. Mosses from an Old Manse by Nathaniel Hawthorne, story collection
There is an air of grim fancy about Hawthorne and the world he writes into existence: the tragedy of humanity’s corruption of science in a push for perfection, Faustian deals with the devil, and a parodic sequel to The Pilgrim’s Progress, all set in remote, rustic rural America. Hawthorne is somewhat of a hybrid beast, combining religious principles and mystical aberrations to embody some kind of human universal. And don’t ask me what I mean by that, I just strung some intelligent words together to sound profound. Reading Hawthorne, you get used to it.
9. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, short story
It’s the essential American ghost story: “It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travels homewards, along the sides of the lofty hills which rise above Tarry Town, and which he had traversed so cheerily in the afternoon.” Exit, pursued by headless horseman. A quick read full of atmospheric scenery, rivalry, and terror, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one you should read just for the thrills.
10. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, short story
Another supernatural terror, this time with a little less of an open ending leading to nameless dread. Dickens’ spirits of Christmas and their target, the avaricious Scrooge, have taken readers on a journey into hearts and lives for a hundred and fifty years. But not only is it an example of Dickens’ genius for caricature and black humour, it is also one of his most poignant cries for social reform and humanitarianism.
So as fall’s chill starts to induce a coziness-desire in you, think about what short story you might be able to curl up with for an evening. You can be really on-brand with a spooky Irving or Poe tale for Halloween, or plan for your seasonal read of Dickens this December. I’ve reread A Christmas Carol every December for the past three years. Or you could, you know, go and try something summery like Montgomery or Wodehouse just to be different. Short stories are great because they’re a minimal time commitment. Which is the best way to be according to Poe, because,
If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed.The Philosophy of Composition
I know I, for one, am perfectly content to ignore those interfering world affairs and be absorbed into the united impression of a well-crafted short story. Anyone else?