10 Great Short Stories (Part 2 of 2)

Thanks to everyone for the reads and likes of part 1 of Great Short Stories  As promised, here is part 2. As I said in part 1, these aren’t necessarily what I consider to be the best stories of all time, or even the best of the respected authors. They are all stories I think are great reads, representative of their authors, and ones which have influenced me in one way or another.

I hope there’s something new for you to discover, or something to revisit. They’re all very much worth it.

6. The Last Rung on the Ladder– Stephen King

Cover from Night Shift by Stephen King
Cover from ‘Night Shift’ collection featuring Last Rung on the Ladder

Taken from his first short story collection, Nightshift, The Last Rung on the Ladder was probably my first experience of King’s non-horror writing. The story of a young brother and sister and their love for adventures jumping into hay in their father’s barn, TLROTHL is a poignant tale of childhood of the type King would later revisit in The Body and elements of IT – it reminds me of elements of Bradbury in its’ halcyon depiction of a rural America that doesn’t exist anymore and possibly never did. And, in all honesty was probably one of the three stories I imitated most in my teenage years: if I recall correctly I think my own version of it was what got me my ‘O’ level English Language…

7. The Real World – Andrew Vachss

Everybody Pays- Short Story collection by Andrew Vachss
Everybody Pays- Short Story collection by Andrew Vachss

Taken from the short story collection Everybody Pays and like a number of Vachss’ stories, available for free download on his website  The Real World is typical of Vachss’ works in some ways – lean, very mean, and brilliantly written, but the subject matter is more mainstream than much of his writing: at its most basic it’s the story of two fathers and their dispute over a playground fight between their boys. But really it is much more than that: it’s a potted history of one man’s life and everything he has gone through to make him the person he is today. After reading it you may well ask, “That’s your idea of mainstream??”. Well, for Vachss it is.

Vachss is not an easy read – if you haven’t read him before you should know that upfront. Whether it is in his novels – the Burke series or his stand alones, or in his short stories, much of what he writes about is around violence, homophobia, racism, abuse, and more than anything else, child abuse. So not an easy read at all. But the only thing harder than reading his fiction is reading Vachss’ non-fiction. An Attorney and Consultant, Vachss works only in matters concerning children and youths. As his bio explains from the Zero website: cases in abuse/neglect, delinquency, custody/visitation, related tort litigation.

What Vachss has to say is not  easy in any way, but damn, it is important.

8. The Man in the Long Black Sedan – Ed Gorman

Borderlands cover by Dave McKean
Borderlands Volume 1: featuring The Man in the Long Black Sedan by Ed Gorman

Back in the mid ‘90’s I was looking for good horror shorts. The Pan collections were long gone, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror annual collections seemed nothing but an old boys’ club – with the same authors popping up each year and for the most part offering nothing new, the Internet was still not available enough for me to really explore new avenues, and the small print independents in the UK at the time were embarrassingly bad: clearly put together for and by a small group of fans who were still writing twists where the protagonist turned out to be the murderer/ vampire/ werewolf.

Then I found Borderlands – edited by Thomas F Monteleone and featuring a cover by Dave McKean it promised: No ghosts. No maniacal slashers. Nothing that goes bump in the night.

And it was true to its’ word. If there were any of those things appearing in the first few volumes, then they were turned on their head. These were writers I had not for the most part heard of before

(at the time – since then I would a number of the contributors to be in my favourites list).

The Man in the Long Black Sedan appeared in Volume 1 of the series and does, in some ways, contain certain similarities in theme to both the movie Frailty and the Joe Lansdale short  Not from Detroit referenced in part 1 of these 10 short stories post but only on the most surface level – in tone they are world’s apart. THitLBS can be read on several levels and depending on your affinity with the horror genre may be read as an allegorical piece or a genre one: whichever way it is read it is really disturbing.

In a nutshell, a seemingly normal suburban dwelling family man pays a visit to the titular character at a motel one sunny August morning with a singular purpose on his mind…

Ed Gorman was one of the most peer respected writers working, penning over 50 novels in his career – not starting writing until the early ‘80’s after more than 20 years in advertising. He proudly saw himself as a ‘genre’ writer and claimed trying to write a mainstream novel ‘bored (him) out of (his) mind’. (I don’t know why I look to him as an exemplary model…)

For anyone thinking genre=lesser writing, Gorman should be read and The Man in the Long Black Sedan is a good place to start, with the added bonus of being contained in a collection featuring a lot of interesting stuff: increasingly difficult to find in print over the years, Kindle does make these things more accessible where most of the Borderlands series can be found

9. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge – Ambrose Bierce

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Ambrose Bierce
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Ambrose Bierce

is an 1890  short story by the Civil War veteran  and probably  one of the most famous in American Literature.

During the American Civil War, a Southerner is about to be hung by Union Troops, but on the rope breaking he manages to make his escape and heads for home.

I don’t recall if I saw the Twilight Zone version of the story, read a description of it, or actually read the thing first; my guess is the former, being the TZ addict I was back in the late ’80’s, but the story has stayed with me, and re-reading it I am always struck by the ‘cleanliness’, and the ‘minimalism’ of the writing – and as one who struggles with verbal diarrhea in my own writing it is a skill I admire and recognise in the likes of Hemingway, Maugham, and probably most of all Steinbeck. Looking back at Bierce’s work which preceded them all, that writing is never clearer than in this piece.

If, like The Specialty of the House, the twist ending does not hold the shock it might once have had, it is for similar reasons – that it has been used time and time again in movies and TV over the years – sometimes well (Boardwalk Empire employs it well for one particular character), but more often than not as a cheap ‘dream sequence’ type. If this is not the origin of the ‘trope’, it is still one of the most effective.

Widely available online.

10. Funny You Should Ask- Lawrence Block

Funny You Should Ask Lawrence Block
Funny You Should Ask by Lawrence Block

Like most of the authors mentioned in parts 1 and 2 here, I could choose any one of a hundred stories by LB. (And in this case, that is not mere hyperbole; in The Collected Mystery Stories alone there are 71 great tales). I chose Funny You Should Ask, if not at random, as typical of a Block story: short, sharp, with great dialogue and a wonderfully dark sense of humour running through it, not to mention a great ending and an interesting perspective on the economics of fashion.

As a description of the story this benefits from the less is more in the explanations stakes – a man has a question of a shop keeper about how he manages to make profits on the second hand jeans he sells, and the ensuing short tale gives us the answer, and a few questions…

While I would never be coarse enough to try and sell any short story collection on this blog (‘Basement Tales’ available now…) The aforementioned Block collection is to me, one of the best £3.99 you could spend on Kindle. Not only a whole range of standalone tales, but also self contained short story introductions to some of Block’s most popular series creations including Keller – the stamp collecting hitman, Bernie Rhodenbarr – the gentleman burglar, and more.

There’s a reason Lawrence Block is an icon of the mystery writing world – the writing first and foremost of course, but also for his graciousness and support of writers and would-be writers, of which I can personally attest. The man has the patience of a saint in his encouragement. His website provides a ton of good stuff for readers and writers…and keep checking out the resources section of this site for a future article on his writing manuals.

Well that’s my initial top ten of recommended shorts. There were only about a thousand I could think of off the top of my head which I could have included. As always if there is something you’d like to recommend or any comments you have please leave a comment.

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