I love the short story. Don’t get me wrong – I love reading novels, sinking into a good book, immersing myself in another world, in another character’s head. But these days we live in such a rush, the day carved up into tiny slivers of time, that getting the opportunity to immerse oneself in a good book is often pretty tricky. A short story or two over a lunch break, or during the commute, can be more rewarding than a few pages of a novel.
There’s a great article here: http://electricliterature.com/let-us-now-praise-famous-short-story-writers-and-demand-they-write-a-novel/ about the relative unpopularity of short stories. And it’s true that even in discussion at my local writing groups, the novel tends to be preferred over the short story. But I would argue that there are some powerful short stories out there which will haunt you long after you’ve read them, and which prove the genre is just as worthy as the novel. Here are three examples of such stories:
1) ‘We Wave and Call’ by Jon McGregor. (from the collection This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You https://www.amazon.co.uk/This-Isnt-Thing-Happens-Someone/dp/1408830388
Disturbing and beautifully written. A young man is snorkelling in the sea whilst holidaying with friends. The rest of his party leave the beach to head back to the hotel, but he elects to stay a little longer and swims out a little further. He can see his friends as they wend their way back up the hillside along the coast, and he reflects on various moments from the last few days as he swims. And then he realises he’s out further than he thought, and he’s getting tired. He imagines telling the story of his narrow escape that evening when he’s back sharing a cold beer with the others. And all the while, he’s trying to swim back to shore and getting a little more tired, muscles aching. The image of this lad alone in the sea, watching his friends walking further and further away, but not able to get their attention, has stuck with me ever since I read this story – especially when I’m swimming! The story captures the moment perfectly, sickeningly perfectly.
2) ‘Playing Sandwiches’ by Alan Bennett (from the Talking Heads series)
I’m a huge Alan Bennett fan. His characters are rich and varied and wholly realistic. The mix of humour and pathos in his writing means that as a reader (or listener, or member of an audience – depending on the medium) you come away both deeply moved and fabulously entertained…and sometimes wincing inwardly. Within the Talking Heads series there are several stories which stand out for me. I love the painful missed opportunity in ‘The Hand of God’ and the building tension in ‘The Outside Dog’, but arguably the most disturbing of the series is ‘Playing Sandwiches’, in which the protagonist is a paedophile. If anyone is in any doubt about whether a short story can achieve anything like the power of a novel, I would suggest this is all the proof you need. Even in the short form, we are drawn completely inside Wilfred’s world as he battles to live a normal life under an assumed name, working as a maintenance man at the local park. We watch with horror, yet we watch all the same.
3) ‘The Octopus Nest’ by Sophie Hannah (from The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets)
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fantastic-Book-Everybodys-Secrets/dp/0954899547 but also available as a stand-alone download: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Octopus-Nest-Sophie-Hannah-chiller-ebook/dp/B00PPH5KSA
In her novels, Sophie Hannah proves she is a master of ramping up the tension and keeping the reader turning those pages. This particular story shows that she is also a master of the twist in the tale. As a general rule, I’m not a huge fan of this style of story – it’s all too easy to end up feeling somehow cheated. Either the twist is too obvious and can already be guessed, or it’s too obscure and therefore not quite credible. This story strikes the perfect balance. With its domestic setting, it still manages to be a disturbing tale of stalking (the heroine becomes aware that a strange woman appears in the background of all the family’s holiday snaps). The ending is both a revelation and completely satisfying – what more could you ask for in a short story?
If you have other short stories that stand out for you, please share them in the comments below. In the meantime, I humbly offer my own collection of short stories Beyond Words (available as an eBook in the Amazon Kindle store: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Beyond-Words-short-stories-deception-ebook/dp/B01JWLPKW0/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8 ) which features 12 stories which have achieved success in a variety of competitions. I hope you enjoy them, and continue to be inspired by the short story form.