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Imprints Literary Supplement

The Short List

Our Choices for the Best Short Stories . . . Ever

Smell of Steve Inc.

Imprints Literary Supplement 2000

In Praise of the Short Story If we had any sense...Americans would love short stories. We all complain about being short on time....

Word Processing Clicking on the Web's Short-Fiction Offerings | By Lily Thayer

Whistling Dixie Short Stories Built Southern Fiction, but All That's Left Now Is Redneck Lit | By John Sewell

Pulp Fiction Why Short Stories Thrive Among Crime, Horror, and Sci-Fi Fans | By Mahinder Kingra

Small Things in Big Packages Three of the Best Recent Genre Collections

A Short History of a Large Place Baltimore's Mini-Lit Milestones | By Michael Anft

The Short List Our Choices for the Best Short Stories . . . Ever | By Eileen Murphy

By Eileen Murphy | Posted 9/20/2000

1999 was the year for literary lists, but we weren't happy with many of the selections the bigwigs made. In honor of this year's Imprints theme, we decided to compile our own list of the best-written, most influential, most ahead-of-their-time short stories.

We polled City Paper's literary-minded staff and contributors and eventually whittled an inventory of more than 60 stories to the following 10. We chose stories that we thought best represented a particular writer, best exemplified a genre, and/or had the greatest literary influence. As with any such list, ours is terrifically subjective, so we've taken the time to justify our choices. Herewith, our top 10 short stories, in chronological order:

"The Cask of Amontillado," Edgar Allan Poe (1846) A man impassively plots to murder a friend by luring him to and then walling him up in a wine cellar. There's no way around it: You've seen the hand of Poe in every horror tale you've ever read. This story relies on the master's standard techniques--deliberate pacing, the interior dialogue of a madman--but "Amontillado"'s villain never suffers the remorse that plagues most Poe characters, rendering this tale even more bloodless and horrific.

"Bartleby the Scrivener," Herman Melville (1853) A Wall Street clerk exhausts his boss' good nature by refusing to perform additional tasks, then any work at all, and finally by withdrawing from all interaction with others. With "Bartleby," Melville may have sown the seeds for the Albert Camus' The Stranger (1946). The existential story of man who keeps opting out of the activity of life, this tale continues to inspire writers (and curmudgeons) everywhere. It also serves as a cautionary tale to permissive employers.

"The Yellow Wallpaper," Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892) An overwhelmed wife and mother becomes obsessed with the wallpaper lining her bedroom and comes to believe that it, as well as her husband and housekeeper, are plotting against her. This disturbing tale combines the interior dialogue of a Poe story with a decidedly feminist sensibility. "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a precursor to the feminist tales that followed, up to and including Diary of a Mad Housewife.>

"To Build a Fire," Jack London (1910) While walking along the Yukon Trail in temperatures that dip to 80 below zero, a man struggles to keep from freezing to death. London explores the difference between instinct and knowledge in this frightening story of man vs. nature. There's nothing tragic about the man's fate--London establishes early that his main character is ill-suited to his mission--but this cautionary tale breaks the cold ground later trod by the recently popular true-life adventure tales.

"The Killers," Ernest Hemingway (1927) Two hit men visit a small-town diner to kill one of the patrons. All of the Hemingway trademarks are present: muscular dialogue, economy of language, the symbolic shorthand that stands in for more traditional foreshadowing. "The Killers" shows the writer's skills in their finest light, as his terse language instills fear in the reader and his relentless pacing keeps the suspense taut.

"The Aleph," Jorge Luis Borges (1949) While visiting the house of a mediocre writer, a man is introduced to a wonder of quantum physics, a single spot that contains the entire universe. This absurd melding of the small and the universal is what all of today's postmodern writers are going for, and Borges did it first, from the self-referential narrator to the thinly veiled autobiographical elements to the introduction of science into a fictional narrative. The difference is, Borges was a genius.

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Flannery O'Connor (1955) Know-it-all grandmother destroys an otherwise quiet Florida vacation and delivers her son and his family directly into the hands of an escaped convict. Through perfect characterization and a deft touch with irony, O'Connor's signature short story turns reality on its head. Her careful foreshadowing creates unease from the first sentence, and as a college professor we once knew used to say, "When the car flips, the story flips." By the story's end the reader can't help but side with the criminal as he utters the money line: "'She could of been a good woman,' The Misfit said, 'if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.'"

"The Country Husband," John Cheever (1958) A repressed, middle-aged, middle-class Manhattan commuter yearns for a life less common in the suburb of Shady Creek. Four decades before American Beauty, Cheever's man in a midlife crisis lusted after the baby sitter, insulted the neighbors, and tormented his wife. Like last year's film, this story delivers a dead-on depiction of the family dinner table. Cheever's version ends more happily, perhaps, with our antihero sublimating his desires through the very respectable hobby of woodworking.

"The Things They Carried," Tim O'Brien (1990) The story behind the unnecessary death of a Vietnam soldier emerges from a recitation of the items his platoon carried through the jungle. O'Brien's unblinking account of life during wartime painfully reveals the youthful humanity of soldiers, who worry more about the photos they carry in their wallets than the ammunition they tote on their backs. With Vietnam-based art something of a cottage industry, O'Brien cuts through all of the clichés to unearth genuine emotions and remind readers of the real horror of war.

"People Like That Are the Only People Here," Lorrie Moore (1998)

A mother attempts to keep an objective record of the events following her baby being diagnosed with a Wilms' tumor. Moore adopts a first-person, nonfiction-style narrative that lends extraordinary power and hipness credentials to this tense tale of a family in crisis. The narrator, a writer and teacher like the author herself, chronicles her son's treatment with a wavering, terrifically vulnerable voice, which alternates between Moore's trademark off-kilter humor and expressions of overwhelming emotional pain.

Related stories

Imprints Literary Supplement archives

More Stories

In Praise of the Short Story (9/20/2000)

Word Processing (9/20/2000)
Clicking on the Web's Short-Fiction Offerings

Whistling Dixie (9/20/2000)
Short Stories Built Southern Fiction, but All That's Left Now Is Redneck Lit

More from Eileen Murphy

The View From the Hill (12/26/2001)
Resevoir Hill Residents in Their Own Write

Home Front (11/7/2001)
In The Struggle To Renew Reservoir Hill, Housing Is The Biggest Battleground

Growing Pains (10/10/2001)
A Reservoir Hill Childhood, Yesterday and Today

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