10 Great Short Stories (Part 1 of 2)

Given the amount of short stories I’ve been working on recently, I got to thinking about some of the stories that have been so important to me, and authors I go back to time and again when I’m struggling with a story myself, looking for inspiration, or just after a damn good read.

What follows is part one of two. There’s little in common in terms of style, genre, length, or anything else going on here. If there are,  only three real common details spring to mind that I can spot:

Firstly, all of the following authors in this ten (and it is in no way intended to be a ‘Top 10″) are prolific in the short story field with all racking up literally hundreds of published works.

Secondly the stories are all really, really good – and if some of them may seem less than original to today’s reader, it is simply because they were so original at the time and their influence has left a lasting legacy for ‘homage’.

Thirdly, and somewhat controversially, they are all available online: not all of them necessarily in the most legitimate of ways. Anyone who knows me will know my  feelings about piracy and illegal downloads that would negatively affect an author or artist’s rights or means of making a living, I’m confident that one ‘free taste’ will lead to a full blown paid addiction to all of this good stuff.

And on that slightly unsavory analogy, Please “Enjoy…” – which leads quite neatly into…

1. The Specialty of the House- Stanley Ellin

Cover of Stanley Ellin The Specialty of the House
The Specialty of the House Penguin Original

I first read this in one of the Pan Book of Horror Stories:  a paperback anthology series edited by Herbert Van Thal which ran for over 30 years. This series was my introduction to horror.

The Specialty of the House was Ellin’s first short story, published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1948. The tale of one man’s introduction to (or is it an induction into?) a strange little restaurant ran by the enigmatic Sbirro with his signature dish of Lamb Amirstan. It’s a story I go back to read at least a couple of times a year – the writing is as exquisite as the meals Ellin describes, and the scenery building is wonderfully evoked throughout.

The influence of the story over the years can’t be over stressed: adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1959, and again for the 1987 version, Specialty of the House has been paid homage to, (or ripped off depending on your generosity…) in print and celluloid repeatedly over the years.

Art Taylor, writer and critic sums up much of Ellin’s approach (and certainly one which occurs in many of my favourite stories) when he writes: “…several of Ellin’s best-known and best-loved works end somewhere shy of telling the full story, instead leaving the reader him- or herself to fill in some of the blanks

If the ‘twist’ is less than surprising to today’s reader it can’t be blamed on the story- it’s the corner stone that built what has become something of a genre standard.


2. Not from Detroit- Joe R. Lansdale

Front cover picture of best of Joe R Lansdale
the best of Joe R. Lansdale

Joe R. Lansdale is a prolific short story writer – hell, he’s a prolific writer full stop. Some of his collections include By Bizarre Hands, Bestsellers Guaranteed, A Fistful of Stories and High Cotton among others.  The range of stories in these collections span a huge range of genres and include some of the best writing you could hope to find.

Not from Detroit is a funny, sweet short about Margie and Alex; an old couple sitting contemplating things one cold, wet and windy night and what it would mean for them if one of them were to die before the other, when a visitor stops by…

It’s a short piece – a shade under four thousand words, and of almost an allegorical nature. It’s not typical Lansdale but there isn’t a ‘typical’ Lansdale. It may at first glance seem more whimsical than some of Lansdale’s darker tales, but it’s recognizable as his work immediately. A touch folksy (in the best possible way), with a dark touch of humour, Not from Detroit is above all a story from the heart that makes you want to tell the one you love to read it immediately.

Don’t believe me? Try it here for free and click on the author’s name above to go to his website, where you’ll find new, free stories every week.


3. Talent- Robert Bloch

Complete Stories of Robert Bloch Volume 3
Complete Stories of Robert Bloch Volume 3

Robert Bloch is probably best remembered for Psycho – his novel which Alfred Hitchcock bought the rights for, for $9,000 and went on to film in 1960. That same year, the short story ‘Talent’ was first published.

Talent is a biographical-style story about the life of abandoned child Andrew Benson: a strange and, as the story goes on we learn, increasingly malevolent young man who is able to uncannily mimic those around him.

Featuring Bloch’s love of golden-age Hollywood, a sneaky mix of sci-fi, horror and some dark humour, Talent also has a great last line – and, like some of Ellen’s work, is one which makes the reader fill in a few blanks themselves.

I have a particular love/ respect for this story as it is the first one I am conscious of paying homage to (And this really was a case of ripping off…) when, as a 13-year-old, I submitted my creative writing piece required at school as an ‘updated imagining’ of the piece. (Pretentious- moi?) I re titled it ‘You’ve Got Talent, Kid’ which was probably the most imaginative touch I added to it in a clumsy rewording, other than my completely unnecessary afterward to ‘bring it up to date’. I got a solid B for that piece: I blame the afterward rather than my teacher’s comment on Bloch.

Like a lot, or probably even all, of these stories detailed here it’s no doubt very easy to find this story online, however unless officially linked to as in the case of ‘Not from Detroit’ I’d recommend picking up the original. My copy is in ‘The Complete Stories of Robert Bloch: Vol 3 (Paperback)’, which looking on Amazon I see is currently out of print, but available from buyers for as low a price as…£153???? Ah- Maybe I shouldn’t have read mine so many times in the bath…Never mind, it was worth it.

Given that this story appears to be pretty much unavailable in print these days, anyone with decent Google-Fu may be able to find it

4. A Touch of Petulance- Ray Bradbury

The Toynbee Convector by Ray Bradbury including A Touch of Petulance
The Toynbee Convector by Ray Bradbury including A Touch of Petulance

Choosing a great Ray Bradbury short story is not easy. Not because there aren’t many, but because there are too many. As a 12-year-old want-to-be writer it was probably Bradbury I read more than any other, and my love of the man is summed up in an article I wrote for another blog which can be found here on RagTagMagpie. 

Probably easiest found in The Toynbee Convector short story collection, A Touch of Petulance is a Twilight Zone perfect story (It was actually filmed as part of the Ray Bradbury Theater not TZ, but you get the idea…). Short and not-so-sweet in a delicious dark sort of way (and I don’t think I’ve  ever used the words deliciously dark before, but it makes me want to twirl my non-existent mustache and then laugh villainous),  AToP tells the story of a man meeting a younger fellow who tells him he is going to, at some point in the future, murder his wife…and to say more is a bit too much of a spoiler really, other than to say it is perfectly written in Bradbury’s unmistakable, nostalgic tinged,  perfect prose.

5. The Distributor- Richard Matheson

Cover of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet featuring 'The Distributor'
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet featuring ‘The Distributor’

Published in 1958 in Playboy, The Distributor stands as a perfect story for its’ recent Post McCarthy Era time.  Richard Matheson’s career spanned the ‘50’s to the ‘00’s and he was prolific pretty much until his death aged 87 in 2013. His most notable novels include I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man and A Stir of Echoes, and his short stories include such classics as Nightmare at 20,000 feet, Button, Button, Steel, Girl of my Dreams, The Funeral and many, many more – a lot of which (including all the previously mentioned), were transformed into TV episodes and movies.

Of all his stories The Distributor probably stayed with me more than any other of Matheson: the short tale (around 4,000 words) sees a newcomer moving into one of those white picket fence neighbourhoods seen in Douglas Sirk movies. After introducing himself to eight happy households the newcomer begins to dismantle their lives through initially childish and increasingly elaborate schemes.

The brilliance of this story for me is the amount of world building Matheson is able to create in such a short number of words. Characters within are lightly sketched, but we know them – we understand them and see beneath their surface facades. As the plan continues our discomfort grows: this is no protagonist versus antagonist tale; this is a methodical breakdown of the ‘perfectness’ of the American nuclear family and close-knit society and the rotten underbelly that lies beneath. (And I’ve always wanted to write ‘rotten underbelly’…)

The power of the story is evident in any number of celluloid and written pieces which have come in the fifty years since it was originally written: anyone who has read Stephen King’s Needful Things will see The Distributor’ influence running through it.

Would the story work today? Absolutely – F. Paul Wilson wrote a very interesting sequel to it entitled ‘Recalled’ in the Richard Matheson tribute ‘He is Legend’ which is worth checking out to see what would happen today. It’s not a patch on the sheer creepiness of the origin, but in its own way has some intriguing comment on society.

Part 2 coming soon but in the meantime, Happy Reading and feel free to recommend any short stories that have stuck with you over the years…

Oh, and in case I haven’t mentioned it yet, you can also find a few tales of my own in Basement Tales – available now in Kindle and Paperback.

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