Short stories can be captivating for all sorts of reasons – perhaps you want to be able to get through a story in one sitting or become deeply involved with one character or setting. Despite their seeming simplicity, short-story writing is an art that only a few authors have mastered to great effect.
But when a writer crafts a well-written short story, a world of escapism and brilliance awaits us all. To celebrate National Short Story Day which is, fittingly enough, on the shortest day of the year (December the 21st), here we look at five short stories that have captured readers’ imaginations throughout the generations.
‘At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be’ – The Yellow Wallpaper, 1892.
This seminal feminist text, which is considered part-memoir, part-gothic fiction, explores the mental distress of a woman confined to her bedroom in a bid to ‘cure’ her hysteria. As she spends an increasing amount of time in solitude, unable to express herself through writing, she becomes increasingly obsessed with the room’s yellow wallpaper. In addition to being a gripping tale, Gilman’s classic is a scathing attack on Victorian medical practices and the patriarchal foundation that made them possible.
‘There were shrubberies and big trees, but I remember the clear assurance I felt that none of them concealed him. He was there or was not there: not there if I didn’t see him’ – The Turn of the Screw, 1898.
Henry James is considered by many as a master of suspense, with his 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, showcasing his incredible talent for intricate plotting. James was inspired to put pen to paper after a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who told him of a ghost story involving orphans and a menacing servant. James utilised the literary technique of the unreliable narrator, making the Governess’ account of events all the more riveting.
‘I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up DOES rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone’ – Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, 1982.
When most people hear The Shawshank Redemption, they probably think of the Oscar-nominated 1994 film starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Yet years before it hit the silver screen, it was penned by best-seller Stephen King. The short story it is based on is called Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Narrated by the character Red, The Shawshank Redemption is an almost-perfect story that demonstrates the human spirit’s power to overcome even the most hopeless of circumstances.
‘So death, Shelagh decided, was a moment for compliments, for everyone saying polite things about everybody else which they would not dream of saying at another time’ – Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, 1971.
Don’t Look Now is another short story that you might be more familiar with due to its 1973 film adaptation. This slow burner tells the story of two bereaved parents, who escape to Venice to try and overcome their pain after their daughter, Christine, tragically drowns. But all is not as it seems in Venice, and when the couple meets two sisters who claim to be in touch with Christine’s spirit, their lives are turned upside down once more. With its electric atmosphere, Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now is a classic that generation after generation will continue to enjoy.
‘“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her’ – The Lottery, 1948.
First published in a 1948 issue of The New Yorker, short stories don’t get much more chilling or notorious than The Lottery. Set in a small town in America, the story depicts an annual ritual simply known as ‘the lottery,’ where each resident is allocated a paper clip. A paperclip marked with a black dot signals the ‘winner’. Both the New Yorker and Jackson received negative feedback following its publication, with it even banned by the Union of South Africa. Over seventy years on from its publication, it remains one of the most popular short stories ever written, proving that infamy doesn’t always damage success.
Jessica is a freelance copywriter and content writer based in Richmond-Upon-Thames. With a degree in English Literature from University College London, she has experience as a private tutor for 14-18 years olds and adult learners. She has also worked in Widening Participation as a Mentor, Student Ambassador, and Student Leader. As someone who achieved A-Levels through distance-learning, Jessica has first-hand experience of the unique challenges and rewards that distance-learning offers. She regularly contributes content to educational websites including eNotes and Tutorful.