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Big Books Feature

The Storytellers

27 Writers on 27 Short Stories from 27 Authors

Posted 9/23/2009

Writers write, period. They're going to find the places to put their ideas, their characters, their feelings, their thoughts—their need to say it in their out-loud voice on the page. And some things are, quite simply, better said in short stories. Patricia Highsmith, the creator of the beguiling Tom Ripley series and the maestra at sculpting psychological tension, was never as heartbreaking as she was when turning to straight, old-fashioned realism in her soul-crushing short "When the Fleet Was in at Mobile." French author Boris Vian's imagination created new health afflictions, musical gadgets, drink-making devices, and all sorts of wild-hair ideas in his novels, but in his short story "Pins and Needles" you encounter a man who lived through World War II and saw what it did to soldiers. P.G. Wodehouse turned two characters created for a short story, Bertie Wooster and his gentleman's personal gentleman Jeeves, into two of the greatest comic creations in the English language.

Short stories are just that infinitely versatile. So CP asked its editorial staff, contributors, and some local writers to pimp a favorite short story. The catch: Do it in 60 words. Not everybody could hit that word count—so, please, admire the craftsmen and women who did—but the exercise bubbled up a wide swathe of writers and ideas, and collecting these has already sent this reader back to revisit a few collections, and added a few new stories to the list of things to read. (Bret McCabe)

Illustrations by Emily Flake

Woody Allen, "The Whore of Mensa" from Without Feathers (Random House, 1975)

The happily married Word Babcock's dirty secret: bright women. "I want a quick intellectual experience, then I want the girl to leave," he sobs to tough-guy P.I. Kaiser Lupowitz, whom he enlists when a madam blackmails him. Lupowitz discovers a secret underworld whose attractions are even worse than expected: "For fifty bucks, I learned, you could 'relate without getting close.'" (Michaelangelo Matos)

Clive Barker, "Pig Blood Blues" from Books of Blood Vol. 1-3 (Sphere Books, 1984-'85)

Barker's masterstroke in "Pig Blood Blues" is his grimily ordinary sense of place. The (literal and figurative) concrete-ness of his reform school setting only makes its inhabitants seem all the more inexplicable and ghastly, these adolescent predators who've taken to worshiping something ludicrous as God, their faith strong enough to kill you in tribute. Like all good horror writers, Barker sucks out any possibility of escape from this place and these boys, killing hope before he kills you. (Jess Harvell)

Donald Barthelme, "Some of Us Have Been Threatening Our Friend Colby" from The New Yorker, May 26, 1973

Barthelme was one of the fathers of surrealist writing, and his work remains as fresh as ever. In "Colby," Colby's friends have decided to hang him because he has "gone too far." The savage absurdity of the decision is further complicated by gibbet or tree, the music to be played, the type of invitations sent. Murder becomes a modern, decorated right of passage. (Jen Michalski)


T. Coraghessan Boyle, "We Are Norsemen" from Descent of Man (Penguin Books, 1979)

I fell in love with the short story in the bathtub, my humidity-bloated Descent of Man a keepsake of early dalliances. Boyle, strongest still in the short form, drives a single conceit, however improbable, to its logical end. In "Norsemen," a storyteller earns keep entertaining a hardy band of Viking pillagers, his psyche seeding the birth of culture. (Joab Jackson)


Ryan Call, "I Pilot My Bed Deep Into the Night" from Keyhole 7 , May 2009

Ryan Call's story tells of a drooling, imaginative boy in a domed city who builds his own airplane from neighborhood junk. Then, his brother—a pilot who battles the weather—dies in a storm. As the dome bursts and the weather peels everything away, the be-goggled hero resigns himself to death, saying: "I pilot my bed deep into the night." (Adam Robinson)

Nik Cohn, "I'd Rather Be in Philadelphia" from Ball the Wall (Picador, 1989)

Forty years before a gawping public got official confirmation that mad, bad record producer genius Phil Spector was indeed, mad, bad, and a homicidal maniac to boot, Nik Cohn absolutely nailed the real King of Pop as the Howard Hughes of the music biz—a haunted, obsessive, paranoid shell of a man, gazing down on the Sunset Strip from his gated mansion, burned out at the grand old age of 25. A triumph of brevity and detail, and proof that the truth is definitely stranger than fiction. (Neil Ferguson)

Julio Cortazar, "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris" from Blow-Up: And Other Stories (Random House, 1963)

I first stumbled across Julio Cortazar's "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris" in a crumbling paperback anthology when I was in high school, and it stood out against a gray background of required reading and interminable conversations about meaning in literature. It is a story of chaos helplessly unleashed upon a world of perfect order, and about the difficulties involved in secretly vomiting up small, perfectly formed rabbits, and it remains perfect in its ambiguity. (Chris Landers)

Roald Dahl, "The Swan" from The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More (Jonathan Cape, 1977)

"How much farther could this madness go? Peter wondered." A morbid folie a deux of two mean teenagers, a loaded gun, and a small boy they fatally menace, in a "children's" story more sour and frightening than Dahl's usual turf—and more cathartic in its unexpected and enchanted denouement than most other children's writers would ever dare. (Violet Glaze)

Tony Earley, "The Prophet From Jupiter" from Here We Are in Paradise (Little, Brown & Co., 1994)

Earley takes up many of the tropes of Southern Gothic fiction—the religious eccentric, the outlandish small-town history, the twisted racial dynamics, the monster catfish—and refashions them into a miniature epic of the New South, complete with ravening real-estate agents, petty town-hall power struggles, fertility specialists, tourism, and tit fucking. Lake Glen, N.C. , being a small town, everything is connected, from the cuckolded dam keeper who narrates to the subaquatic ghost town of Uree, flooded behind the dam he keeps, and past and present, rise and fall intermingle, sometimes from sentence to sentence. (Lee Gardner)

Bret Easton Ellis, "Discovering Japan" from The Informers (Vintage, 1994)

Set in 1984, "Discovering Japan" follows aging rock 'n' roll Godzilla Bryan Metro during a several-day tour sojourn in the titular country, through bouts of groupie abuse, drug binges, darkly comedic business meetings, and varying degrees of penthouse suite desecration. Metro's core tragedy? Chemically fried, he exists in a bewildered, Neanderthal stupor that leaves him socially and emotionally impotent, stripping him of the ability to recognize that his nursemaid-cum-enabler-cum-manager is casually robbing him blind. The act of one man adjusting another's sunglasses has never seemed quite so sinister. (Raymond Cummings)


William Faulkner, "A Rose for Emily," first published in Forum , April 30, 1930

I love Faulkner's tale of race, class, and murder because it encompasses everything he does so well. With its unreliable narrator and authorial playfulness, "A Rose for Emily" challenges the reader to construct a timeline, poses questions that are never really answered—What did she say to the preacher? How much did Toby know?—and, like all great literature, rewards many re-readings. (Vincent Williams)

Barry Hannah, "Constant Pain in Tuscaloosa" from Airships (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978)

I recently read this story aloud to a friend and could barely get through it because I was weeping with laughter. Barry Hannah does things with language that would never occur to me in a million years: "He laid scrutiny on me." "Constant Pain" showed me that a short story can be like a cartoon, that it can be anything at all. (Tim Kreider)

Jon A. Harrald, "Slime" from Phobias: Stories of Your Deepest Fears (Pocket Books, 1994)

When bullies discover their school's overweight outcast has an intense fear of all things gooey, they begin a malicious gross-out crusade that results in sickening tragedy. Despite its grotesque plot, "Slime" is all the scarier because of its hints of real-world desperation. Its grim description of poverty, humiliation, and trauma far outweigh the gasp factor of rotting cabbage and slugs. (Chris LaMartina)

Ernest Hemingway, "Hills Like White Elephants" from Men Without Women (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1927)

The American, the girl, a flat conversation, a nearly featureless landscape. Every quiet adjective, every sparing adverb cherry-picking silenced ache from the lives you've lived. It's happening somewhere right now. My life as a writer has two phases: what came before "please please please please please please please," and what came after. Gaps that can't be bridged or forgotten. (Jamie Gaughran-Perez)

William Trevor, "Three People" from The Hill Bachelors (Viking, 2000)

I don't read many short stories, but I treasure William Trevor and the way he takes us into small, ordinary lives, exposing their poignancy and their secrets, as he does in "Three People." Trevor revels (and reveals) in details: the spinster Vera's navy blue skirt on bony hips, the Sunday dinner of "chicken cooked her way and her good salad," the dull, virginal "Lace Cap" colored paint in the bath, and Vera's repetition of Sidney's name when she speaks to him. The name sits on her tongue, reinforcing their unspoken secret, a treat in Vera's mouth. (Mary K. Zajac)


Jonathan Lethem, "Super Goat Man," first published in The New Yorker , April 5, 2004

I adore this fantasy-meets-real-world tale about a washed-up superhero (half man, half goat) settled into retirement as a womanizing, partying college professor who loves jazz. Until I stumbled across this oddly appealing story in The New Yorker in 2004, I'd all but burned out on short fiction. Too many humorless, sour narratives, too few that simply celebrate a story for story's sake. This one reminded me that short fiction shouldn't have to hurt. (Erin Sullivan)

Dambudzo Marechera, "The Transformation of Harry" from The House of Hunger (Heinemann, 1978)

Rhodesian author Dambudzo Marechera realized words were early man's stones: bludgeon together until sharp and serrated. And in this terse brain bomb he equates/conflates sexual anticipation, the dream of Zimbabwe, opportunistic counterintelligence, and the casual quicksand of the colonized mind into an uncanny picture of modest hopes becoming an everyday oblivion, ending in an ineffable moment of deafening silence. (BM)

Lorrie Moore, "Charades" from Birds of America (Picador, 1998)

Family is a complicated relationship with oneself, and no one illustrates that better than Lorrie Moore. In "Charades," Therese narrates the titular game played at the end of a holiday spent with her bitchy sister Ann, angry brother Andrew, their partners and parents, and her husband Ray, who she is cheating on, but, in her own words, "It is nothing, except that it is sex with a man who is not dyslexic, and once in a while, Jesus Christ, she needs that." (Wendy Ward)

Vladimir Nabokov, "Signs and Symbols," first published in The New Yorker , May 15, 1948

On the surface, "Signs" chronicles an evening in the life of Eastern European immigrants as they wait—in passive melancholy—to hear about the status of their mentally incapacitated son. Under the hood, Nabokov imbued this jewel with hints that allude to a calculated back-story sure to please the soduku-addict in you. (Eli Perlow)

Breece Pancake, "Trilobites," first published in The Atlantic , December 1977

No other voice has recreated the lonesome and juvenile wisdom of Breece Pancake's "Trilobites." Compact, dexterous, gentle, and brutal all on the same page, his West Virginian honesty mesmerizes—making us perpetually wonder what this unlikely prodigy would have become if he hadn't died so damn young. Decades later, Dave Eggers, David Berman, Andre Dubus all continue to imitate him, and so will I. (Justin Sirois)

J.D. Salinger, "The Laughing Man," first published in The New Yorker , March 19, 1949

This story within a story is about the transition from youth into adulthood and fantasy into reality. The Comanche Chief—hero and role model to his Comanche scouts, awkward and submissive in his other daily affairs—invents a character whose wild adventures and hero-status parallel his own relationship to his scouts. As his personal troubles become more pronounced, the Chief manipulates the seeming omnipotence of his protagonist, at the expense of the scouts’ feelings and understanding of the world. (Alex Ebstein)

George Saunders, "The 400-pound CEO" from CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (Random House, 1996)

Bitter and prophetic, George Saunders' "The 400-pound CEO" is the late 20th-century equivalent of a Dostoevsky novel. With a spiritual end as soul-searching as "The Grand Inquisitor," the story encapsulates the weird, pre-apocalyptic wordy terror that hung like a low cloud for all the 1990s, whether or not we had a "Chill 'n' Pray" cooler to save us. (Martin L. Johnson)

Iceberg Slim, "Airtight Willie and Me," from Airtight Willie and Me: The Story of Six Incredible Players (Holloway House, 1979)

The titular tale from street-fiction god Iceberg Slim's only short-story collection, is thoroughly swamped in slang—you'll need to know what a "jasper" is—and the ugly details and minor victories a life of conning and pimping brings, all wrapped up in a surprisingly neat, though appropriately cruel, O. Henry in the hood surprise ending. (Brandon Soderberg)

Wallace Stegner, "The Traveler," first published in Harper's , February 1951

Sometime in mid-century America in rural mid-America in the middle of the night, a traveling salesman—the bleak, lonely, probably morally troubled kind that American short fiction loves—breaks down on a remote snow-packed road in a frozen countryside. Leaving behind his wares, pharmaceutical drugs mostly, he wanders on to a farmhouse, and inside, a dying old man and a grandson. In about three pages, we get three biographies, a commentary on the death of "true rural," and a landscape so efficiently and deftly related a reader might start looking for firewood. Stegner is a master of capturing enormous places and enormous things in tiny, tiny places, and "The Traveler" is just the beginning. (Michael Byrne)

Dylan Thomas, "A Child's Christmas in Wales" from A Child's Christmas in Wales (New Directions, 1955)

Christmas is coming. It's always coming. This Scrooge soothes her nerves with whiskey laced with Dylan Thomas. Reading is good; listening to Thomas read it himself is better, "the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep." Conjures my mother laughing at "Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires" and the universal auntie who "got on to the parsnip wine, [and] sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death." Cheers. (Heather Harris)

Jules Verne "The Storm" from Blackwater: The Book of Fantastic Literature (Three Rivers Press, 1984)

Some would credit Verne with anticipating the advent of crucial 20th-century developments such as the internet, television, and the Apollo space program. Better known for books about outer/inner space travel, he's been written off to young readers' territory. But in the past couple decades, Verne's work has been retranslated by editors with less of a British agenda—and with shows such as Lost and Heroes drilling to the center of the earth and milking the time/space continuum—he is long overdue for re-evaluation. Poe-like in intensity and mood, "The Storm" may at first make you think Verne has portended the current health care crisis, but this tale set on a windy, rainy coast in a faux Ukrainian village speaks to the root of our problem: greed. (Joe Tropea)

Richard Wright, "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" first published as "Almos' a Man" in Harper's Bazaar , January 1940

Black boy fires gun to claim his emasculated manhood. Errant shot strikes and kills an innocent. Crowd gathers taking comfort in their own piety and self-regard. An allegorical, pitiless truth, dark beauty, rendering Baltimore's own Lamont Davis, et. al, GPS attached, firing, firing. "Them niggers can't understan nothing. One of these days he was going to get a gun . . ." (Michael Corbin)

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