Even though I can’t write them (every idea I think up is just too “long”), I love short stories. I think it may take more skill to write a coherent short story than it does a long one, where you have time to get to know characters and reveal their personality. And to craft a story with beginning, middle and end in so few words! Talent, that’s what it is.
Well, here are some of the best ones I’ve found. Fair warning: here there be spoilers.
The Last Question by Isaac Asimov
I’m sorry that I only just read this recently. Asimov thinks of it as his best story and considering how prolific he was, that’s saying something. It really is worthy of praise as intriguing, philosophical, and as per usual with him, with a believable glimpse at the distant future. There was once a website that had this story on it for free but it’s shut down now, possibly for legal reasons. I’m afraid your best bet for finding this is in a collection.
The Picture in the House by H.P. Lovecraft
I don’t think I could mention short stories without bringing up Lovecraft. Most of his works are wordy for supposed shorts, with meandering yet vivid sentences that tend to bog down the reader. But if you want one that’s interesting and fairly concise, you could do worse than “The Picture in the House”. It starts out as eerie, builds to unsettling and stays there until the end where it spikes into OMFG!!! If you want a collection, there are several out there and they tend to flush out the weaker ones as well. Since he’s been dead for over seventy years, his work is in the public domain. There are several sites filled with his short stories.
The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe
Hey, Halloween is in just over a month. It’s time to get in the mood, and you probably can’t do better than Poe. Unlike most nineteenth century writers, I find his work engaging, even when the main character isn’t named and his circumstances mostly unknown, as in this story. We learn a man has been imprisoned during the Inquisition (and even that isn’t described accurately)—that’s all, and yet that’s all we need to know. None are better than at putting the reader into the body of the main character, making his stories intense and powerful. As he’s also been dead long enough for copyright to expire, many of his works are available.
Where Are You Going, Where Have YouBeen? by Joyce Carol Oates
See? It’s not all horror and sci-fi. I read it in college and it made a strong impression on me. Oates is absolutely eloquent with her words here. In a few sentences, the reader has a sense of the main character, Connie, her family, and how Connie views her family, something that becomes absolutely painful when you get to the end. In a word: haunting. It’s available for free on Joyce Carol Oates’s webpage at the University of San Francisco.
To Build a Fire by Jack London
And if that last story didn’t depress you, how about one about dying of exposure? You might think that spoils something, but I don’t. It doesn’t convey the desperation, the fear that the short story does. It’s available for free at several sources since, again, copyright has expired. Definitely worth a read.