Stephen King once said a novel is a love affair, while a short story is a kiss in the dark. Hey, I’ll buy it. Novels are work. Commitments. Contracts in good faith. Often, intimate and soul-enriching partnerships. But they’re not without their trappings.
For one, they can go on longer than they should. They can be clunky in places. Rigid in their approach. Forceful, even. And while novels have the ability to whisk us off to new and fully-formed worlds, alongside fully-formed characters, there can be disagreements with where the narrative should be heading, or how things should turn out. At their most comprehensive, novels can make too many choices on our behalf, or reduce the celestial realm of imagination to a single, absolute conclusion.
It should be of no surprise then that, when it comes to speculative fiction—fiction of the weird, of the physically and metaphysically flexible—the short story may just be the perfect medium. It’s a peck in the dark for the recklessly imaginative, often providing something more precious and affecting than the mechanics of plots and resolution. In its ability to puncture little more than a peephole in the veil of reality, a good short story can provide not only a glimpse of an unfinished image, but conjure up the lingering and hopeful sense of infinite possibility.
Here are five short story collections that know just what I mean.
The Panic Hand: Stories by Jonathan Carroll
One of the most underrated magic realist authors of the past three decades, Jonathan Carroll (no relation to Lewis) has proven time and time again that the contemporary world may just be stranger and more flexible than any of us are letting on. Fresh, witty and quietly insightful, this master of “kitchen sink fantasy” breaks and restructures all the rules of common logic with a collection guaranteed to pop a neuron or two. I’ve never been quite the same since picking up “The Panic Hand” almost twenty years ago now.
Grimscribe: His Lives and Works by Thomas Ligotti
While it was his debut collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer that launched Ligotti into the limelight, inviting apt critical comparisons to the works of H.P. Lovecraft (minus the racial hullabaloo), it was his confident and creepy-as-hell second offering Grimscribe that solidified his status as the spokesperson for intellectual pessimism and the modern master of philosophical horror. It’s no wonder Nic Pizzolatto, creator of the hit show True Detective, has cited Ligotti as one of his greatest influences.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami
Mr. Murakami has been dazzling us for years in fiction both long and short. And while he’s pulled off a full-blown spectacle or two in tomes like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (loved) and 1Q84 (not so much), it’s in his short fiction collections that we get to wander the grand halls and myriad rooms of his palatial imagination. From a monkey that steals names to a woman recounting her relationship with a man literally made of ice, prepare to be both entertained and confounded, but never less than mesmerised.
Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman
Mr. Gaiman’s neither short of fans nor fame, but few can deny the plethora of small literary miracles the author pulls off to a seemingly inexhaustive degree. You could find yourself preferring his big, doorstopper adult novels like American Gods, tending towards his leaner (and often meaner) novels for kids and young adults, or simply loving everything the man puts to print, but it’s in his short story collections where the full spectrum of his wit, imagination and dexterity gets to go on show. Although he has released a number of excellent collections, for my money, Fragile Things is the crème (possibly only because it was the first I’d picked up), a generous and spirited offering of all things weird, wonderful and WTF.
Silence by Rodney Hall
There’s really no way to box this one in. It isn’t directly speculative in any of the ways we’ve come to understand this new sort-of genre, and some of the tales are so short they may cause more frustration than imagination. Halfway through this paradoxical meditation on silence itself, however, one can’t help but think the author has his own secret entrance to alternate realities beneath his writing desk, introducing us to places as mundane and familiar as they are fragile and uncanny. You won’t be able to put your finger on the method behind his unique brand of hypnosis, and as far as I’m concerned, that makes it a trip.
Fred Strydom studied film and media at the University of Cape Town. He has taught English in South Korea and has published a number of short stories. He currently works as a television writer and producer in Johannesburg, where he lives with his wife, three dogs, cat, and horse. The Raft is his first novel.