Written by Fiona Dakin
How often do you read for pleasure?
Somewhere between finishing our favourite childhood series and getting stuck into the world of work, many of us slip out of the habit of regular reading. “But I don’t have the time!” we cry, all too mindful of the hours spent... well, insert your vice here. Yet there is a space between the whole of War and Peace and endless Netflix. Short stories are a great way to maximise brief and infrequent reading, with a satisfying conclusion in every sitting. Here are some stunning examples of the short story form to inspire you.
Roald Dahl - Someone Like You
At first, Roald Dahl’s short stories appear nothing like his canonical children’s books: drugs, sex and death feature prominently and unashamedly, and Someone Like You lacks the characteristic heart-warming morality of Matilda or The Twits. This is a thoroughly adult collection, with twisting plotlines, and not a neat happy ending in sight. Yet Dahl as we know him shines through in the sheer strangeness of his storytelling – think of James’ giant peach, or Willy Wonka’s fantastical sugary creations – and this is what makes his short stories so great. Just as in his children’s writing, he does not shy away from magical, or unexplainable, elements, weaving them into a normal universe for an intriguing and thought-provoking read. Dahl also retains his wicked sense of humour in these stories, but with a wonderfully dark twist. My favourite has to be the memorable and darkly comic 'Lamb to the Slaughter'.
James Joyce - Dubliners
Easily Joyce’s most readable work (don’t let the reputation of Finnegan’s Wake put you off!), Dubliners is quite possibly perfect. A varied and complete study of a distant time and place, the work nevertheless resonates within today’s readers as if written yesterday, and everywhere. Originally produced as a whole, the stories deserve to be read in order, building to a momentous and almost unbearable climax in 'The Dead'. One of the most refreshing aspects of the collection is that Joyce does not allow you to believe that you can get to know a character after a few pages, and surprises, even shocks you with glimpses of their hidden complexities. 'Eveline' is darkly beautiful and softly unnerving: an enduring, yet incomplete, portrait which will long outlast my tattered copy of the book.
Charlotte Perkins Gillman - The Yellow Wallpaper
While not strictly a collection of stories, 'The Yellow Wallpaper' is a stand-out work of short fiction from the turn of the last century. In her best-known work, Charlotte Perkins Gilmore boldly exposes a tradition of shame and neglect towards mental health patients, particularly women, which you could argue is even still being overturned today. The device of unreliable narration is pierced with moments of transparency, which cleverly allows the reader to keep hold of the plot’s flow in spite of the main character’s instability. Both fascinating and eye-opening, 'The Yellow Wallpaper' provides its reader with a new perspective which feels only increasingly necessary as the new century rolls on.
Sylvia Plath - Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and other prose writings
Plath’s poetic language, teamed with her insightful treatment of dreams, childhood, and mental illness, make for a haunting, melancholy read. The volume is not, however, outright depressing. Glimpses of hope and humour shimmer through its pages, and the bleakness of the subject matter is knowingly blunted with an observational tone, making it a surprisingly easy read. Unlike many prose writers, Plath’s imagery is rich and vivid, her syntax fresh and unusual. For this blissful act of poetry to be teamed with strong, engaging storylines is a rare and impressive feat, which Plath carries out warily, and meticulously. 'Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit' is a stimulating complement to the title story’s exploration of the world of dreams.
Jorge Luis Borges - Labyrinths
Borges’ work is always deeply philosophical, but it remains comfortable to follow at leisure, even through the maze of translation. He creates engrossing worlds, both rampantly imaginative and rigorously precise: I find myself reading slowly just to absorb every morsel of his versions of real life and alternate universes. The detail is exquisite, and utterly comprehensive, and yet the images are so vast that, as a reader, you are left wondering, and wandering in the land of Borges, long after the book has been shelved. 'The Garden of Forking Paths' (trans. Donald A. Yates) is a classic well deserving of the title, and in a mere eleven pages it will leave you much smarter than you began.
The Bloody Chamber - Angela Carter
The Bloody Chamber is a very adult take on a series of recognisable fairy tales, from Beauty and the Beast to Little Red Riding Hood. Carter isn't afraid to place these fantastical tales more solidly into the real world, with historical references and relatable characters. Expect flashes of feminism, plenty of sex and an excess of violence: these are not your average bedtime stories. The first story in the collection, also called 'The Bloody Chamber', has enough clever twists and turns to keep any reader on their toes.