Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Truly Mindblowing Short Stories

It's a theme we've been tackling here for some time now (Mutt mostly has been leading the charge, with me, being much less well-read at least in short fiction, yapping behind him like a junkyard dog!)(actually come to think of it, I've been doing that more or less my whole life... uh... let's pick that up some other time...). But it simply refuses to go away, and now it seems like everywhere you turn, people are writing and commenting about it. Famous people, like Stephen King and Joseph Epstein and Philip Roth and others. What am I talking about? Simply this:

Where have all the truly mind-blowing short stories gone? Why can't we (generally speaking) seem to write them anymore, and what will take to bring some back?

Stephen King, who was recently asked to edit the Best American Short Stories, 2007 edition, offered up this essay that was printed by the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/30/books/review/King2-t.html?_r=1&oref=slogin), taking on these very questions directly. It has generated a lot of debate and comment. And then just today, I come across this quote from perhaps America's most respected essayist, Joseph Epstein... which, while perhaps not directly related, gets to the same issue Mutt and I have been discussing that may well hold the key to this mystery:

"Belief goes to the heart of the problem: if you don't know what you believe in, you cannot construct moral dramas, which leaves you with making jokes through elaborate literary constructs to make the sham point about reality not quite existing, or that life is really no more than a dream, sha-boom, sha-boom."

Mutt, I sure don't know if he was thinking of the recent crop of stories from the much-ballyhooed New Yorker when he wrote this, but it sure does seem like the shoe fits in this case, don't it??

Well, I certainly am not the guy who's going to deliver the answer to these questions, not here or not anywhere else. But, to celebrate all that the craft can truly be, and secondly, because lists are just plain interesting, here is my personal list of truly mind-blowing short stories. My criteria for this list is simply that these are some of (certainly not all of!) the stories that stopped me dead in my (figurative) tracks when I read them, that lingered in my mind (in most cases) not for days, but for years afterward... and are obviously still there. These are stories that I, in fact, never expect to fully leave, and I don't want them to. They are pieces of writing I truly savor, go back to and will continue to go back to be reminded of the soul-shaking impact great fiction can have on your average ravenous mind.

As always, I end with a challenge: which stories would be on your list?


"A Distant Episode," Paul Bowles
One of the most powerful -- and appropriate -- endings I've ever read in a short story.

"Murders in the Rue Morgue," Edgar Allen Poe
The greatest whodunit ever conceived? Hollywood wishes it could conceive of a "twist" this shocking.

"Wickedness"/"Nebraska," Ron Hansen
The "bookend" stories of Hansen's only collection deserve to be mentioned together... perfect depictions of the malice, and the miracle (respectively), of nature.

"The Enduring Chill," Flannery O'Connor
Of course I could have picked literally ANY O'Connor story for this list... but this one's final image of the Holy Ghost descending in a stain on the ceiling might just be the perfect summation of her inimitable, sacramental art.

"Roman Fever," Edith Wharton
One of these brilliant stories whose final line changes all that came before it.

"An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge," Ambrose Bierce
Reads like a 19th-century era Sixth Sense... haunting and unforgettable.

"Mothers," Shusaku Endo
A remarkable, moving portrait of a hidden band of Japanese Catholics who have been making it up as they go along on a windswept island, without the spiritual or practical aid of any priests, for decades.

"To Build a Fire," Jack London
A story that is absolutely terrifying in its plausibility and detail. Makes a great companion piece to Hansen's "Wickedness."

"Benito Cereno," Herman Melville
A short but complex masterpiece without equal, I think, in American letters. Light years ahead of its time, like almost everything Melville ever wrote.

"Trilobites," Breece D'J Pancake
This story, written by a virtual unknown (at the time), is stunning from its opening lines and never lets up. Bleak, brutal and beautiful, like the West Virginia landscape he describes down to the exact geologic layer.

"The Falls," George Saunders
This last story from his amazing second collection Pastoralia is the one that proved to me there's a lot more than great humor to Saunders' fiction.

"Prince of Darkness," J. F. Powers
This classic about a selfish priest pining for a parish of his own has one of the greatest -- and most devastating -- last paragraphs I've ever read.

"The Dogs of the Great Glen," Benedict Kiely
Maybe it's my Irish sappiness coming out, but I was almost in tears at the end of this wonderful short tale about an American teacher visiting the land of his ancestors.

"In the Penal Colony," Franz Kafka
Like the entire Inferno in miniature, this horrifying story of a torturous machine incribing one's crime into one's skin is like the reading equivalent of a root canal.

"The Open Boat," Stephen Crane
A fascinating existential parable that prefigures Sartre and Camus, with men struggling on a flimsy boat against the endless, raging sea.

ALL of Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
I literally can't pick one in this astonishing collection, which to me is the first truly great work of American short fiction. I've never read any better collection... nor a better book on youthful passion and the desire to break away and make something for oneself. The stories are heartbreaking, but they hit you like the best poetry -- straight in the soul.

"The Races," Jude Joseph Lovell
I happen to know the author and know he will scoff with embarrassment at this choice, but it was the first story he wrote that caught me off-guard, hitting me in the soft underbelly where the emotions are vulnerable... a truly moving little tale about the fragility of young boys' dreams, and the tragedy when they are ignored.

"The Ballroom of Romance," William Trevor
This story of a young woman going to a local dance in a small Irish village manages to convey the heartbreak of wasted youth and unfulfilled love about as well as anything I've ever read. Another devastating last sentence.


Mutt Ploughman said...

This is a superb list. Awesome quote there from Joseph Epstein. Don't miss Stephen King's piece in the NY Times if you care about this topic. I am going to have to try to come up with my own list here, and I can guarantee you that nothing I wrote will be on it!!! Pretty cool though that Duke mentioned 'The Races', which doesn't belong here, but hey - this is America, we're all entitled to our own opinions.......the short story is a critical element of literature in general and I think there is a dire need for American talent to reassert itself in this form. Can't say I really feel capable of doing it myself, but I hope that this hole gets filled by the right people.....

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