With a field as vast as short fiction, it is hard to select at Top 10 list. But here are some stories that have stood the test of time, offer a startling look at life, and haunt people after they have read them. These quick reads are a mix of classics and probably-will-be-classics. The proof is in their small literary package.
1. ”The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Take an ordinary day, a quintessential 50’s style family of homemaking mom, head of household dad, cute kids, little town where everyone knows each other, and an annual lottery. Add Shirley Jackson’s signature macabre twist and get ready for a shock.
2. ”The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin
An early feminist, Chopin focused on works that showed the limitations society placed on women. This remarkable story takes about two minutes or less to read, but longer to understand. Read it through a few times to really see the meaning. It’s not a simple as ‘she’s a happy widow.’
3. ”A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor adroitly sketches powerful characters and their relationships in short order, setting the scene for unexpected horror in this classic. A grandma, mom, dad, and kids are taking a drive on a sunny highway in the Deep South.
Skillful foreshadowing gives the merest hint that all will not be well, but some of the true horror lies in the characters’ reactions, which stay true to their portraits.
4. “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes
Keyes’ command of language is an essential part of the story of Charlie Gordon, a janitor with an IQ of just 68. Told from his point of view, we see his life as he struggles (and often fails) to understand the world around him.
When he is offered a chance to participate in an experiment to increase his IQ, we watch his language and personality change as his intelligence increases. His self-awareness and social awareness increase as well.
But with great knowledge comes great responsibility and sometimes great tragedy.
5. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
In the late 1800’s a young woman comes slowly unglued as she is stuck in a vacation home bedroom. We watch her sink slowly into complete madness as she focuses on the yellow wallpaper surrounding her.
Besides being a riveting psychological study, the story explores the themes of women’s roles in the male-dominated society of the time.
6. “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
This partly-autobiographical story centered on what items each man in a Vietnam platoon carried. When a fellow platoon member dies, the lieutenant must decide what should be carried and what should be let go.
The items come to symbolize the weight and cost of memories, hurts, and emotions that we often carry instead of putting down.
7. “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe
Fans of sadistic, psychopathic first person narrators will delight in this Poe classic. We watch as he manipulates people and situations to carry out his pre-calculated murder plan. We never know why the narrator wants to kill the unfortunate victim, but no reason could justify the tortuous method he chooses.
Rumors at the time claimed Poe was inspired by a real-life event, the supposed walling up of a drunk soldier within Fort Independence in Massachusetts. Though no proof was available at the time, in 1905 a renovation of the fort revealed the skeletal remains of a soldier chained to a wall.
8. “Passion” by Alice Munro
The Nobel Prize winner author doesn’t disappoint in this haunting story of a young woman on a visit to meet her boyfriend’s family. She is trying to sort through her ambivalent feelings towards her beau when she accidentally cuts her hand.
Her boyfriend’s plastered brother drives her to the emergency room. The two form a deep, unexpected connection…until tragedy changes everything.
9. “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin
A grim, violent, but painfully realistic piece, the story is set in the South. A white sheriff struggles to be intimate with his wife, and flashes back to his childhood. At that time the family outing with mom and dad was the lynching of a black man.
The description of the lynching is one of the most graphic scenes in literature, not for the faint of heart. But it is not gratuitous violence as it examines the themes of power, sex, violence, and racism.
10. “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado
Take a standard fairy tale, shred it, and pull out underlying ugliness. This is what Carmen Machado does in this eerie story about a new wife and the one secret she wants to keep to herself.
Her husband is determined to discover the mystery she hides, and the harder he tries, the more sinister he becomes. A mesmerizing study in characters, power, and boundaries.
A masterful short story crams the intensity and character development of a novel into a tightly packed narrative. These short reads may end quickly, but you may also find yourself reading them over again.