You know that feeling you get when you would love to sit down to read a book, but you can’t because you have quite literally forty thousand things to do? So, you start thinking embittered thoughts like, “Who are all these fancy, leisured folk who have the time to read entire books?!” and “Why, I remember when I could just sit around and read whole books, before I had this job/family/boyfriend/Jack Russell terrier! Those were the days!” Well, there is one simple solution to your conundrum, friend: short story compilations! The best short stories use each word to maximum benefit. With the first few sentences, the author has begun to set a tone—enticing you with strategic details about character, plot, and setting. Because you know the conclusion is fast approaching, you can feel the tension mounting with every turn of the page. By the end, the author has managed to hand you a slice of the human condition in a neat little package. You come away with new feelings, perspectives, and questions about this miracle we call life. Best of all, these little wonders work their magic without commitment. Toss a short story collection into your bag and sink into one story at a time, whenever you have the time. Because, after all—you love your terrier.
“The Pedestrian” (from The Golden Apples of the Sun, by Ray Bradbury)
Set in the year 2053, this brief tale is about a man who enjoys taking walks in the evening. Sounds pretty tame, right? How much could one possibly cram into a story that is only a few pages long about a man who likes to walk around his neighborhood at night? Then again, we’re talking about Ray Bradbury—the master of futuristic allegory. Like all of the stories in The Golden Apples of the Sun, this little nugget packs a profound punch in its commentary about the peculiarities of modern life. The entire collection is dripping with fantastic imagery, and generously drizzled with Bradbury’s wry humor.
“Healthy Rat, Sick Rat” (from Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, by David Sedaris)
Few things in life are more pleasurable than reading David Sedaris (are we all on the same page about this? Because it is an objectively true and real fact, not unlike the perils of gravity or the vast inferiority of the third Godfather movie). His genius is that he notices everything, especially the things that human beings find irritating about one another. Nowhere is Sedaris’s laser-like precision for skewering the uglier parts of our nature better showcased than in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. You’ll be howling with laughter all the way through “Healthy Rat, Sick Rat” and the rest of the parables in this collection. By imbuing animals with uniquely human traits, Sedaris shows us how ironic, hilarious, and just plain bizarre we truly are.
“My Pretty Pony” (from Nightmares and Dreamscapes, by Stephen King)
Nightmares and Dreamscapes is an essential collection for the true King aficionado. It boasts freakish romps through a Rock’n’Roll purgatory and a town beset with frog hailstorms, a story about a creepy many-jointed finger that has made it nearly impossible for some of us to ever look at a sink in quite the same way again, and other tales one might expect from the Master of Horror. So it might surprise you to learn that the gem of this collection is not a horror piece at all. In “My Pretty Pony,” King weaves a skillful narrative around a boy, his grandfather, and a watch. The true main character, however, is something much more universal. Be warned: finishing this story will likely lead to bouts of wistful window-gazing, the heaving of bittersweet sighs, and the persistent hugging of loved ones.
“Lamb to the Slaughter” (from The Roald Dahl Omnibus: Perfect Bedtime Stories for Sleepless Nights, by Roald Dahl)
Is it possible to perfectly blend the classy with the campy? In a word: yes, and Roald Dahl is up to the job. The man who brought you Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach didn’t only write for kids! A compendium of several story collections, The Roald Dahl Omnibus: Perfect Bedtime Stories for Sleepless Nights is brimming with Dahl’s eeriest and most macabre tales for adults. Dahl opens “Lamb to the Slaughter” with his usual gift for prose, painting such a soft, lilting portrait of a husband and wife enjoying their evening routine that we might never guess one of them is about to die a brutal, violent death. Though some of these horror stories might be considered tame by today’s standards, this mid-century tome has enough suspense to make even Hitchcock jealous. Read it after sundown at your own risk.
“Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” (from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower)
The title story of Wells Tower’s collection is positively masterful. As you make your way through the book towards it, the very last story in the collection, you begin to notice a common theme. Every story has tones of both hope and despair. Each tale will lift you to the loftiest heights of human potential before dropping you with a thud onto the cold, hard ground of reality. The irony? Tower manages to make it fun, funny, and fascinating. As you close the book after finishing the title story, you’ll shake your head in bewilderment over the beautiful mess that is life on Earth.
“The Night in Question” (from The Night in Question, by Tobias Wolff)
There is one word for The Night in Question, and that word is brilliant. It is an aptly titled collection in that it leaves us with more questions than answers about the nature of human beings. Wolff wonders whether we can ever find true happiness, whether we ever really know ourselves, and whether our drive to further our own gains will get the better of our drive to do the right thing. The title story begins and ends with the unbreakable bond between a sister and her brother, and in the middle, an ethical dilemma is presented that will make the hairs on readers’ necks stand at attention. Simply put, “The Night in Question” is the perfect short story. It takes you on a whirlwind journey through the ties that bind, the desires that divide, and the tightrope each of us walks between the two.
What short story collections do you love?