I came across an article titled ““Can Short Stories Still Shock?”, a title which, frankly, surprised me. There are SO MANY wonderful short stories in such a variety of anthologies, I can’t even believe that’s a question. You don’t believe that short stories have power? Take a hint from Flannery O’ Conner. Okay, she’s been dead a while now, but she’s not wrong, even when we’re talking about the current literary scene.
The author of the article was really talking about “realist” literary fiction. I don’t read huge quantities of that, but I can certainly find stories there that have the ability to shock. And I really love to read them, because I can pick them up and put them back down without feeling like I need just one more chapter. You read a lot of short stories of all kinds in high school and college, because they’re required reading, and I read huge numbers of short story anthologies as a middle schooler.
Anyone remember those Alfred Hitchcock anthologies, like Monster Museum? My first exposure to Stephen King was in an anthology, Skeleton Crew. Now, granted, most of these weren’t necessarily realistic, but it’s possible that is because reality isn’t all that exciting. As Walter Mitty might say, who wants to escape to reality?
The author also complained that there’s nothing new out there– the plots are all tired and the tropes overused. Now, there are a lot of familiar plots and tropes out there used in unimaginative ways. I can’t deny that. But familiar plot elements and tropes don’t guarantee that you will be reading a predictable story. In an interview about her story “Abomination Rises on Filthy Wings”, Rachel Swirsky actually talks about her motivation in writing the story to disrupt a very disturbing trope in the horror genre.
So, a list of short stories that shocked me.
The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
The Specialist’s Hat by Kelly Link
The Veldt by Ray Bradbury
An Abomination Rises on Filthy Wings by Rachel Swirsky (this is a really difficult and extreme read, fair warning).
The Wind in the Rose-Bush by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Harlequin Valentine (I first experienced this as a graphic novel, and it was a real shocker: this is an audio version) by Neil Gaiman
The Kugelmass Episode by Woody Allen
The Hall of New Faces by Kit Reed
The short story still has a lot of life left in it, and you’ll find that many short stories today will give you enough of a kick to jumpstart your brain and get your circuits going.