Continuing on with our Writer’s Edit Short Story Week, we’ve put together a reading list of our top ten classic short story recommendations. As we mentioned in Part 1 of this series, the short story emerged as a recognised and respected literary genre throughout the 19th century. What better way then, to celebrate this literary form, than by returning to some of the great tales and classic authors who helped shape this genre into the literary gem it is today.
Here’s our pick of the top ten, ‘must-read’, short story classics!
10. ‘The Signal-Man’
Author: Charles Dickens Year: 1866
Written by one of England’s greatest novelists, ‘The Signal-Man’ is an eerie ghost story about a railway signal-man who is haunted by foreboding, spectral visions.
Favourite Line: "So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.”
No doubt the best aspect of ‘The Signal-Man’ is the way Dickens establishes atmosphere. An example of this can be seen in the quotation above. Here, Dickens succeeds in creating a haunting, supernatural atmosphere by not only suggesting the narrator has “left the natural world”, but also by describing the setting much like a graveyard.
9. ‘The Happy Prince’
Author: Oscar Wilde Year: 1888
‘The Happy Prince’ is a melancholy tale, reflecting the style of a fairy-tale or fable - which is, after all, where short stories found their roots as a genre. The story looks at themes of love and sacrifice, wealth and poverty, and the nature of true beauty.
Favourite Line: “At that moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue, as if something had broken. The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two. It certainly was a dreadfully hard frost.”
This line is extremely effective and moving due to the dramatic irony of the narrator’s suggestion that it was merely the frost that had broken the prince’s heart. In contrast, the reader is able to recognise that it is the prince’s sorrow, and love for the poor, little swallow that has caused the “leaden heart” to snap in two.
8. ‘The Magic Shop’
Author: H.G. Wells Year: 1903
The Magic Shop is a curious tale that follows a father and son’s experience of visiting a ‘genuine magic shop’. While the little boy explores the shop, seeing only joy and wonder, his father is confronted with much more sinister visions. The story therefore examines how we experience the world as children versus how we experience the world as adults. In doing so, ‘The Magic Shop’ forces the reader to consider whether innocence and evil truly exist in the outer world, or whether these are merely determined by our own perceptions.
Favourite Line: “I felt him pull at something that clung to my coat-sleeve, and then I saw he held a little, wriggling red demon by the tail--the little creature bit and fought and tried to get at his hand--and in a moment he tossed it carelessly behind a counter... "Astonishing what people will carry about with them unawares!"”
The symbolic implication of this line seems to sum up the overall purpose of the story. The narrator, of course, believes the demon belongs to the magic shop, yet the shop owner claims that the narrator has been carrying the little devil around himself. This therefore begs the question – is evil born of our own perceptions?
7. ‘The Gift of the Magi’
Author: O. Henry Year: 1906
‘The Gift of the Magi’ is a simple story about a young, married couple’s quest to find each other the perfect Christmas gift. In securing these ‘perfect gifts’, however, each partner is forced to give up something highly valuable, and precious to them, resulting in a rather unfortunate twist.
Favourite Line: “But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.”
This line is made all the more wonderful by the contradiction of the line immediately preceding it, which suggests that the couple were extremely “unwise” for giving up their greatest treasures. The delightful contradiction forces the reader to consider how the couple could be considered both “unwise” and yet also the “wisest of all”. In doing so, O. Henry invites the reader to recognise that, although the valuable sacrifices the couple make for each other ultimately reduce their gifts to irrelevance, their sacrifices were made out of love, and are therefore the most valuable gifts of all.
6. ‘Rip Van Winkle’
Author: Washington Irving Year: 1819
After falling asleep in the woods, the ‘henpecked’ Rip Van Winkle awakes to find his village deeply changed, and is startled to discover twenty years have passed. One of the greatest, classic short stories to emerge in America, ‘Rip Van Winkle’ takes a metaphorical look at the changing American Identity following the event of the Revolutionary War.
Favourite Line: “I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, and they’ve changed my gun, and everything’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!”
Through this exclamation, uttered by Rip Van Winkle, Irving perfectly captures the crisis of identity he aims to represent. Through this line, more than any other, Irving portrays America as a nation that must struggle to map out its own, unique identity, after severing its ties from the previous monarch (much like Rip, after finding himself free of Dame Van Winkle).
5. ‘Désirée’s Baby’
Author: Kate Chopin Year: 1893
Set in Louisiana, prior to the American Civil War (a time when slavery was still considered ‘lawful’), ‘Désirée’s Baby’ examines the injustices of racism and gender discrimination.
Favourite Line: "But above all," she wrote, "night and day, I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery."
The sense of karmic justice in this final line leaves the reader feeling smugly satisfied. After expelling his wife and child from their home, merely for their mixed heritage, the reader takes great delight in discovering that it is Armand himself who is not entirely of white descent. Within this ending, Chopin highlights that all people are ultimately the same, and that not one of us, for any reason whatsoever, have the right to treat another person as less human than ourselves.
4. ‘The Body Snatcher’
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson Year: 1884
Inspired by the Burke and Hare murders of 1828, ‘The Body Snatcher’ is a gothic tale that follows two med students, involved in crimes of grave robbing, in order to keep their anatomy professor supplied with instructional cadavers.
Favourite Line: “We were all startled by the transformation, as if a man had risen from the dead.”
What makes this line so intriguing is the way it seems to strongly foreshadow Stevenson’s grotesque, gothic ending.
3. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’
Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman Year: 1892
Flying the flag for feminism in this story, Charlotte Perkins Gilman provides an interesting and unsettling exploration of the oppression of women in nineteenth century society.
Favourite Line: “At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.”
The rich symbolism of the emerging wallpaper pattern as we witness the narrator’s gradual descent into madness is definitely what makes this story so memorable and effective. It is clear to the reader that, just like the woman in the wallpaper, the narrator is being held prisoner by her husband, and is desperate to break free.
2. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’
Author: Edgar Allan Poe Year: 1843
Of course, we couldn’t have a Classic Short Story list without including the ‘Father of the Short Story’ himself, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. It is always difficult to choose only one story from such a prolific writer, but in our opinion, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ serves as an excellent example of Poe’s prowess in the Short Story genre. (If readers wish to view more of Poe’s stories, a complete collection is available for Kindle on Amazon.)
Favourite Line: “True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”
What makes this story so memorable is Poe’s brilliant use of the unreliable narrator. From the very opening line (included above), the reader is given the strong sense that the narrator is not to be entirely trusted. The structure of the introductory line is erratic and disjointed, creating the impression of mad ramblings. In addition to this, the narrator plants the seed in the reader’s mind himself that he is, in fact, ‘mad’. Of course, the wonderful irony of this is that the narrator is attempting to convince the reader of his sanity, and yet with every sentence, the reader only becomes more and more certain of the opposite.
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Year: 1899
Anyone who has heard the name Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would know he is most famous for his hugely popular Sherlock Holmes stories. But perhaps not everyone realises what a talented, and prolific writer he truly was – particularly in the genre of the short story. The Sherlock Holmes stories themselves are, of course, exemplary of this. Of the sixty stories, chronicling the adventures of the consulting detective, fifty-six of them are short (And all sixty are well worth the read, if ever you get the chance. The complete collection is available here). But for anyone who has ever wondered what this author can do outside of the Holmes stories, ‘B24’ is excellent in highlighting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a master of the short story.
Favourite Line: “I have only you to look to, sir, and if you will clear my name of this false accusation, then I will worship you as one man never yet worshipped another. But if you fail me, then I give you my solemn promise that I will rope myself up, this day month, to the bar of my windows, and from that time on I will come to plague you in your dreams if ever yet one man was able to come back and to haunt another.”
Spoken directly from the narrator to the reader at the end of the story, this line is extraordinary in a number of ways. By addressing the reader in this way (both here, and in the opening) Doyle personally drags the reader into the story and places a great deal of responsibility on his/her shoulders. In doing so, Doyle establishes an acute sense of realism in the tale, allowing the reader to feel as though the narrator can, in fact, extend beyond the page and come back to haunt them as promised. The line is also notable for the seed of doubt it places in the reader’s mind, that the narrator may be unreliable.
Written from the perspective of a thief, attempting to convince us he has been wrongly accused of murder, the assertion that he will hang himself if we, the reader, refuse to help him, makes us question the narrator’s sanity (much like the narrator in the Tell-Tale Heart). If the narrator is mad enough to hang himself if he is not listened to, perhaps the reader cannot trust his testimony after all? In this way, the reader is left wondering, do they really know who the killer is?
Keep an eye on Writer’s Edit for our upcoming third and final article, celebrating Short Story Week - where we will cover how to write a short story of your own.