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Short Stories: Solitude and Loneliness

Five short stories—by Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Bharati Mukherjee, Anthony Doerr, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—explore various isolation, solitude, and loneliness pathologies from the perspectives of different lives and cultures.

During these times, many writers, artists, and public figures have taken to sharing their lockdown diaries or pandemic reading lists or advice on how to survive isolation . Thanks to this ongoing spate of articles and essays in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are well aware that solitude and loneliness are not synonymous words .

The respective histories of these two modes of being also show us that solitude is more about an autonomously-chosen, self-reflective time with oneself, while loneliness is about an undesired and imposed lack of connection with the world around us. Solitude is often a privilege while loneliness is seen as a curse. All that said, being unhappy while alone is a fairly modern idea . And, during these times of social distancing, a good number of us are working to understand and leverage our own isolation pathologies better.

The five short stories here—by Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Bharati Mukherjee, Anthony Doerr, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—explore some of these isolation, solitude, and loneliness pathologies from the perspectives of different lives and cultures. Almost all of them have had solitude or loneliness thrust upon them (not due to any pandemic-like situations) and are trying to cope as best they can. As always, fiction allows us to look at aspects of human nature that we are often unwilling to face within ourselves or in our loved ones. What the characters in these stories experience and how they respond to their isolationary solitude or loneliness allows us certain deeper insights that are, at once, both familiar and eye-opening.

“The Bet”,  by Anton Chekhov (translated by Constance Garnett)

In Chekhov’s short story “ The Bet “, a banker and a lawyer make a bet with each other about whether death is better than life in prison. As morbid as this sounds, this story explores more than the usual debate of capital punishment versus life imprisonment. To fulfill the bet’s conditions and win two million rubles from the banker, the young lawyer must live in total isolation for 15 years. The only contact he is allowed with the rest of the world is through letters.The story doesn’t progress as we might expect. But this is Chekhov, so we must put our expectations aside and let him take us on a journey with the evolution of these two characters. Whichever side of the fence we might be with this never-ending debate, it makes us question our beliefs and values while reading.

From a craft perspective, this is classic Chekhov. Even while exploring matters of life and death, there is no moral teaching or didactic personal opinion here. Like the doctor that he was in real life, he probes, diagnoses, and presents every important detail. The prognosis is ours to make as readers. And though the story is written to appeal to the intellect more so than to emotions, Chekhov’s mastery of showing versus telling is always a delight to savor.

Then he remembered what followed that evening. It was decided that the young man should spend the years of his captivity under the strictest supervision in one of the lodges in the banker’s garden. It was agreed that for fifteen years he should not be free to cross the threshold of the lodge, to see human beings, to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers. He was allowed to have a musical instrument and books, and was allowed to write letters, to drink wine, and to smoke. By the terms of the agreement, the only relations he could have with the outer world were by a little window made purposely for that object. He might have anything he wanted—books, music, wine, and so on—in any quantity he desired by writing an order, but could only receive them through the window.

“Miss Brill”, by Katherine Mansfield


Image by monica1607 ( Pixabay License / Pixabay )

Several of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories feature solitary, lonely women. The title character of “ Miss Brill ” is so beautifully and heartbreakingly portrayed that she has become a timeless literary archetype. Almost the entire story takes place on a park bench. And yet, Mansfield depicts the entire life of this singular character so effectively that we feel we know her as intimately as her writer. There is not one superfluous detail and every sentence builds the story, mood, drama, and emotions in the precise, signature Mansfield manner. Even the seemingly excessive use of metaphors and similes serve important purposes if we read close enough.

As Miss Brill sits in her “special seat”, she observes the people around her with a careful, acute curiosity. We’re deep in her point of view so we get to see, feel, hear, think, and sense her precise impressions of all the interactions teeming around her. But her illusions and delusions are thrown into sharp contrast with the twist ending that’s so brilliantly foreshadowed through all her own judging and romanticizing of others and herself.

Although it was so brilliantly fine—the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques—Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur. The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth, there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again a leaf came drifting—from nowhere, from the sky. Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again.

“The Management of Grief”, by Bharati Mukherjee

The New York Times headlined Bharati Mukherjee’s obituary with the label “writer of immigrant life”. She was certainly that. But she also tackled much more with her writing. Often, such labels are too reductive and they put readers off. Jhumpa Lahiri’s clapback at the New York Times when she was called an immigrant writer remains the best response yet: “If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? This distinction doesn’t agree with me. Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction.”

So, while Mukherjee’s “ The Management of Grief ” features Indian immigrants in the US, it’s about a lot more: a woman’s sense of isolation after losing her entire family in a mass tragedy and being surrounded by well-wishers and do-gooders; how communities and individuals deal with loss; how racism and justice play big roles in social acceptance; and how cultural traditions and customs, in the end, are of little help with personal grief.

Having already written an investigative account of the 1985 Air India flight 182 disaster with her husband, Dr Clark Blaise, (see The Sorrow and the Terror ; Penguin Books; September 1987) Mukherjee wrote this short story in one sitting. In a PowellsBook.blog interview , she recalls how she could have been on that fateful flight herself.

Mukherjee’s craft is sharp here as she reveals bits of information through the protagonist’s experiences and observations. We, as readers, begin to piece the tragedy together as Shaila tries to make sense of what has happened. Also, for a lot of readers, this well-anthologized story is their first introduction to this huge disaster that history texts often ignore.

A woman I don’t know is boiling tea the Indian way in my kitchen. There are a lot of women I don’t know in my kitchen, whispering and moving tactfully. They open doors, rummage through the pantry, and try not to ask me where things are kept. They remind me of when my sons were small, on Mother’s Day or when Vikram and I were tired, and they would make big, sloppy omelets. I would lie in bed pretending I didn’t hear them.

“The Deep”, by Anthony Doerr

“ The Deep ” won the 2011 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award—the biggest award in the world for this literary form. Doerr is a much-celebrated writer, well-known for both his novels and his short stories. This story was also anthologized in the New American Stories (Vintage Contemporaries; July 2015; edited by Ben Marcus.)

Death features strongly in this story as well because the protagonist, Tom, is diagnosed with a terminal illness at a very young age. Due to this life-threatening condition, he’s forced to lead a mostly reclusive kind of life until he meets Ruby at school. Ruby takes risks and gets him to sneak away with her to experience the little pleasures of life that his mother has, until then, protected him from. After they’ve gone their separate ways, Tom settles into a safe routine existence. Until he and Ruby meet again as adults.

Rather than giving us a formulaic story of unrequited love, Doerr goes, well, deeper. He shows Tom struggling with choosing how to live his life even as he manages to live past the age his doctor had predicted. In the last scene, when Tom shares his big epiphany with Ruby, Doerr avoids the many possible clichés and has our hearts aching for these two people trying to somehow connect, comfort, console each other.

Where Doerr’s storytelling craft shines is in the cinematically beautiful contrasts of Tom’s life before, with, and after Ruby. The story is set in 1914 Detroit, during the Great Depression and Doerr’s historically accurate details of how exactly the world around them is falling apart are notable too.

You can see actor Damian Lewis, reading an excerpt of this story here .

Tom is born in 1914 in Detroit, a quarter mile from International Salt. His father is offstage, unaccounted for. His mother operates a six-room, under-insulated boarding house populated with locked doors, behind which drowse the grim possessions of itinerant salt workers: coats the colors of mice, tattered mucking boots, aquatints of undressed women, their breasts faded orange. Every six months a miner is laid off, gets drafted, or dies, and is replaced by another, so that very early in his life Tom comes to see how the world continually drains itself of young men, leaving behind only objects—empty tobacco pouches, bladeless jackknives, salt-caked trousers—mute, incapable of memory.

“New Husband”, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“ New Husband ” was published in The Iowa Review in 2003 under this title and then in Adichie ‘s short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck (Anchor; June 2010) as ‘The Arrangers of Marriage’.

A newly-married woman from Lagos, Chinaza, joins her immigrant husband in New York. They barely know each other due to their arranged marriage. As she tries to adjust to both him and her new world, she deals with the inevitable sense of isolation and loneliness. And, while this might read on the surface like yet another immigrant story, it is also much more than that.

While her husband encourages assimilation into American culture, he discourages any ties back with their culture back home. Almost every impression or ideal Chinaza has of America, the land of opportunity and dreams, slowly crumbles on a daily basis as she tries to understand and accept her confusing reality. It is a lonely struggle because her husband, who likely went through his own assimilation challenges when he first moved to the US, can no longer appreciate or sympathize with what she’s going through.

Adichie adds a twist in the story that we’ll leave unrevealed. It’s not entirely unexpected when it surfaces but it does force Chinaza to make a decision, one way or another. That big decision is also inevitable because of how Adichie foreshadows it carefully. The symbolism of the opening door in the final lines is, of course, perfection.

My new husband carried the suitcase out of the taxi and led the way into the brownstone building, up a flight of brooding stairs, down an airless hallway with frayed carpeting and stopped at a door. 5D, unevenly fashioned from yellowish metal, was plastered on it. “We’re here,” he said. He had always used the word ‘house’ when he told me about our home. I had imagined a gravelly driveway snaking between cucumber-colored lawns, a wide doorway that he would carry me over, walls with serene paintings. Like the white newlyweds in the American films that Lagos Channel 5 showed on Saturday nights.
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famous short story loneliness


famous short story loneliness

Studies & NS

famous short story loneliness

Relationships / 11 February 2021

Feeling lonely 10 short stories that prove you’re not alone, words by justine ocampo, illustrated by nicole chan.

Loneliness can sting.

It’s not exactly an easy emotion to pin down and eloquently express. So much so that we can end up feeling alone in our loneliness. 

Depending on whether you’re 18 or 64, loneliness can strike in different ways, as these friends we spoke to will tell you.

Here are 10 short stories on what they discovered about loneliness.

Transitions are hard

famous short story loneliness

When I entered my first year in polytechnic in 2020, it felt like a culture shock. Many of my peers were dating, or finding dates and getting into relationships. I naturally felt very jealous and began questioning God on when He would send “the one”.

That was when I felt the Lord calling me to focus on Him. For some time, I meditated on the first line of Psalm 23 and just dwelled on what that meant.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”  

In pursuing my joy and happiness in the Lord, I found real satisfaction.


Being the third wheel is no fun.

famous short story loneliness

There was a period when my two best friends would share about guys who liked them. I also found out that the guy I liked got together with someone else!

I felt heartbroken knowing that no one was attracted to me, while my friends had a whole list of people liking them. After they had gotten boyfriends, I also found myself being the third wheel more than once. 

Maybe I did feel lonely in the area of romance, but when I looked around, I realised that I had God, my best friends and my family who loved me.

I’m learning to treasure my time as a single because it’s the best time to discover more about myself and what I’m looking for in a relationship.


God, are you hearing me.

famous short story loneliness

Within these past six months, I’ve had several friends either tell me or announce on Instagram their new relationship status. With each couple, I felt the salt rising. It was as if God was hearing everyone else’s prayers for a relationship but mine.

However, I have been consistently reminded of my life verse, Psalm 27:4.

David could have requested for his safety or kingship. But the one thing he asked was to dwell in God’s presence because I believe He knew God was the only one who could satisfy Him.

Our requests are reasonable, but more than that, we have to recognise that a partner is not going to cure that loneliness. They are ultimately human and thus limited – but God is not!


Instagram and fomo.

famous short story loneliness

My most recent experience of loneliness was when Phase 3 coincided with the festive period. I was busy with work and didn’t have the capacity to hang out.

But when I was scrolling through Instagram at home and saw that my friends were having fun, I felt FOMO (the fear of missing out).

The wake-up call came when the Holy Spirit reminded me that I had made these choices, whether it was to work more or to skip the gatherings. And I realised I had to be at peace with the decisions I made. I repented because I saw how I could have spiralled into bitterness and resentment. 

My advice is to be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling. It’s definitely painful to acknowledge loneliness, but I believe that is actually an invitation for the Holy Spirit to do His work within you!


My fear of new year’s eve.

famous short story loneliness

The feeling of loneliness tends to surface more strongly on special occasions. New Year’s Eve, for instance, is a day when much fear creeps in, as I’d think about whether I will continue being single for the upcoming year.

Loneliness can stem from a variety of reasons such as working from home, ending a relationship, changing jobs, etc. Ask God to reveal to you why you are feeling lonely, talk to someone about it and then find ways to deal with your loneliness.

What helps me is surrounding myself with friends as well as reminding myself of God’s love for me. Being with friends takes away that feeling of loneliness temporarily. But what really gives me assurance is knowing that God knows what is best for me, and waiting is part of trusting Him.


When it rains, it pours .

famous short story loneliness

The one time loneliness hit me hard was when my dad was hospitalised unexpectedly and the kitchen pipes at home had burst. I had a difficult time at work that same day, plus I was all drenched on the way to the hospital because of a thunderstorm.

Arriving at the hospital, I had to calm my dad who was very depressed while mentally calculating the hospital bills all by myself. At the back of my mind, there was still the kitchen sink to fix too.

In that moment, loneliness was very real and very big. Being a caregiver in my 20s is difficult, but being single and being the only child makes it even harder. 

At 25, I became a caregiver and sole breadwinner

I realised the depth of my own loneliness when I knew I wanted someone special to be there. Would having a husband by my side solve my family difficulties or make my burden lighter? Perhaps it would help, but perhaps it wouldn’t.

If I keep thinking that there is only one solution to my problem and God has to give me that or nothing, then my mind will be closed. That will lead to a closed heart and a closed door. I realised that what I do with my loneliness is important.

It helps to reach out to trusted friends and share with them what you’re going through. Ask them to cover you in prayer. Find things that you enjoy doing on your own.

And it’s important to always remember that even though we may feel alone, this does not mean that God has left us alone. Talk to God about how you’re feeling!

Just keep singing

famous short story loneliness

During the circuit breaker, I was living alone and it was really hard emotionally. I actually had this thought that if I died at home, no one would discover it. That really scared me.

One night when loneliness lingered and I felt a wave of sorrow so overwhelming, God tangibly spoke to me through a worship song . “Not for a minute was I forsaken, the Lord is in this place, the Lord is in this place…”

As I sang the bridge of the song over and over, I reminded myself of God’s faithfulness: that He was near. 

Feeling lonely and being alone are separate matters.

Later, I also asked my friends to check on me and initiated daily Zoom calls with a group of church sisters. This fellowship helped me get through my loneliness as well.

Learn to reach out and be vulnerable. Surround yourself with people who will remind you of God’s goodness and that it’s okay to struggle with loneliness!

Loneliness doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing – it can help to distinguish the truth from your emotions. Feeling lonely and being alone are separate matters. Our feeling of loneliness doesn’t mean that God is not present.


I thought we had something going.

famous short story loneliness

I met a girl through a dating app and we got to know each other before deciding to be more intentional about our friendship. I thought it was going really well, only for her to share that she had other plans. This happened in the week I had intended to ask her about potentially progressing further.

It was quite surprising and painful as I had made arrangements to include this person for Christmas gatherings with family and friends. On top of that, all this happened around the time I was going on leave for two weeks. 

I opened up my heart to God and told Him how I was really feeling. And when I didn’t have the words to say, I sat in silence, grieved and wept.

Raise a hallelujah: 6 Spotify playlists for times like these

I also put together a playlist of songs that echoed the goodness and faithfulness of God, which helped a lot. 

For those who may feel that same void I did, remember God’s promises and hold tightly to them, knowing that He cares deeply for you and his timing is perfect for everything.


When will it be my turn.

famous short story loneliness

Recently, a couple that I know got engaged. They were only 24 and 25 years old – how young!

In times like these, I get envious and wonder when will it be my turn. Sometimes, I even think, am I really that unwanted? Why hasn’t the right person come yet? 

The cliché answer is to go to God to pray and tell Him about it. But there is nothing closer to the truth than the cliché answer!

Despite our circumstances or emotions, God’s goodness never changes.

Papa God wants nothing more than His children to come to Him – no matter how trivial, how small, how insane, how angry or how ridiculous the matter is. 

When I look back at all the answered prayers or how God has delivered me from hopeless situations, I grow in confidence that He will see me through, even in my loneliness.

famous short story loneliness

When I was young and still staying with my parents, I thought that it was okay to be alone and I didn’t feel lonely at all.

But it’s very different once you reach my age and you’re truly living alone. Going out to work is not as bad as returning to a home where nobody’s there.

When I have no appointments on the weekend, I often try and meet up with friends who are not believers to reach out to them. I will also find programmes to attend, or do housework to keep myself busy.

famous short story loneliness

After reading all these unique experiences, I see how loneliness really comes in different forms. However, the feeling of loneliness is still very much the same – a heavy, unexplainable weight we all often carry.

I’m saying this from a place where I’ve experienced loneliness as well. Although I’m attached, there are still moments when I feel lonely. It has made me realise that it’s not about being single or attached.

It can creep in at the most unexpected times and it can be something really hard to sit with. But what encouraged me was hearing how loneliness is not the end.

The unyielding hope you and I can continue to cling to is that our pain is seen and loved by God. 

We can feel lonely, but we never remain lonely. We may grapple with it through different phases of our lives, but God promises victory above all.

There will always be a greater love available for our taking – and that is in the person of Jesus .

famous short story loneliness

Justine doesn't wear a watch, but she's always just-ine time, just-ine case you were wondering.


famous short story loneliness

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11 Stories About Isolation and Loneliness

famous short story loneliness

Reading Lists

Pulitzer prize finalist hernan diaz recommends books on disconnecting from society.

famous short story loneliness

Literature, to me, seems to thrive on a curious contradiction. While it is an essentially solitary activity, it is also driven by the desire to commune with others. We wish to be alone with a book, but fulfilling this wish means engaging in a conversation so intimate that it overcomes the limitations of space and time — readers may reach out to the dead; writers sometimes touch the unborn.

famous short story loneliness

Many of my favorite books are about isolated people — either in a literal sense ( Robinson Crusoe ) or figuratively ( Jane Eyre , Villette ). My first novel, In the Distance , was initially conceived as an exploration of solitude. It tells the story of a Swedish immigrant who walks from San Francisco to New York, against the big push west during the 1850s. He spends most of his time alone in what was known as the “Unorganized Territories” and finds, paradoxically, that as these expanses grow, so does his feeling of claustrophobia. Sometimes, his hands and his feet are the only living things he can see.

These are some of my favorite books on isolation and loneliness. Some of them influenced my book; others, I read only recently; all of them have shown me how nuanced solitude can be.

famous short story loneliness

Against Nature ( À Rebours ) by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Full of “contempt for humanity” and “weighed down by splenetic boredom,” Jean Des Esseintes retires to the artificial paradise of his house in the outskirts of Paris, a temple dedicated to his decadent whims. “Nature, he used to say, had had her day.” In the perpetual color-tinted twilight of his seclusion, his few companions are his books, some mechanical fish in dyed water, and a gold-glazed, jewel-encrusted tortoise. Des Esseintes artificial isolation is so radical that it ends up transforming his body and its basic functions.

famous short story loneliness

Silas Marner by George Eliot

Different layers of isolation coexist in this quiet masterpiece. Silas, a weaver, is a member of a “narrow religious sect.” After being wrongly accused of theft, he is expelled from this insular congregation and lives like a hermit, reducing his life to “the unquestioning activity of a spinning insect.” He also becomes a money hoarder — but, strangely, not a miser. After years of solitude, Silas’s life ends up “narrowing and hardening itself more and more into a mere pulsation of desire and satisfaction that had no relation to any other being.” A lonely little girl wanders into his life and changes everything.

famous short story loneliness

Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Nowhere is the oppressive loneliness in the midst of a multitude felt more acutely than in Hunger . The protagonist of Hamsun’s novel wanders around the throngs of the Norwegian capital but is thoroughly alone and always at the verge of mental and physical collapse from starvation. “I was turning into a freak from hunger, right here in the city of Kristiana!” He loses his hair; his body decays; he eats woodchips, pebbles, and his own pocket. He almost eats his own finger. All while trying to write monographs, philosophical treaties, and plays.

famous short story loneliness

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

Sleep is the loneliest activity we can engage in — it takes us away even from ourselves. Still, the few works of fiction on this subject that I can think of — “Rip van Winkle,” Oblomov , Finnegans Wake, The Interpretations of Dreams  — are either concerned with the content of dreams or view sleep as an obstacle. Not so Moshfegh. Hers is the story of a solitary woman who, with the help of a prescription-writing quack, intends to “hibernate” for the better part of a year to then be “reborn.” To this “somnophile,” sleep becomes a goal in itself — thus showing how absurd our goal-oriented culture is. “I was finally doing something that really mattered. Sleep felt productive.”

famous short story loneliness

Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson

More than a novel, this is a collection of propositions, a text made up of lonely sentences. Kate, the narrator, is certain she is the last human left on the planet. Although she is (or believes herself to be) absolutely alone, the novel feels wonderfully populated, thanks to the ceaseless references to Western culture, from Odysseus to Marlon Brando, as if our entire tradition had been entrusted to this reverse Eve. Every now and then, Kate takes up residence in desolate museums — the Louvre, the National Gallery, the Met. “Once, in the Borghese Gallery, in Rome, I signed a mirror,” Kate confesses. “Though in fact the name I put down was Giotto.”

famous short story loneliness

Frankenstein and The Last Man by Mary Shelley

I find it remarkable that Shelley should write a novel about the first superman (Frankenstein’s creature is stronger and smarter than any human) and then, a few years later, a novel about the last man. Victor Frankenstein’s creation is one of the loneliest characters in literature. “I am an unfortunate and deserted creature, I look around and I have no relation or friend upon earth.” The monster’s revenge is to leave his creator as friendless as he is. Meanwhile, despite its title, The Last Man is a crowded novel with a rather melodramatic plot. But this only makes the final pages more poignant. The protagonist, the only survivor of a plague, wanders around Rome — a monument and a ruin among monuments and ruins.

famous short story loneliness

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

Can anyone be lonelier than a lonely teenager? Portia, the protagonist of Bowen’s novel, is the offspring of an illicit union that sends the family into exile. After her parents’ death, Portia is entrusted to her half-brother and his wife. Her isolated upbringing gives her a unique perspective on social relationships, which she commits to a journal that becomes the very core of the novel. Bowen’s breathtaking prose abounds in reflections on solitude: “The heart may think it knows better: the senses know that absence blots people out. We really have no absent friends.” Bowen’s book would pair well with Henry James’s What Maisie Knew , also about a lonely girl caught between dysfunctional adults.

famous short story loneliness

Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo

A ghost story like no other, Rulfo’s perfect novel narrates the return of Juan Preciado to Comala, his hometown, in search of his father, Pedro Páramo, the village’s tyrannical strongman. The plot’s chronology is so masterfully crafted that the reader immediately feels marooned in time. Whispers, echoes, shadows. . . Juan soon learns the town is deserted and that he is alone, surrounded only by specters: “the words I had heard until then . . . had no sound, they were soundless; they could be felt; but without a sound, like the ones heard in dreams.” Rulfo only published this short novel and a collection of stories, but his influence is immeasurable.

famous short story loneliness

“ The Yellow Wall-Paper ” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“To a house of some sort the woman has been confined for a period as long as history,” Perkins Gilman writes in The Home: Its Work and Influenc e . The most disturbing depiction of this form of domestic seclusion can be found in “ The Yellow Wall-Paper .” The narrator’s husband, a condescending and suffocating physician, orders her to rest in a room with a tattered yellow wallpaper. Gradually, she starts perceiving moving patterns and, finally, a woman trapped behind the wallpaper’s design. “She crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.” The ending of the story is chilling. It may be as a response to this domestic confinement that she wrote her best-known novel, Herland , about a utopian community of women, thriving in isolation.

famous short story loneliness

Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett

The monologue is the genre of solitude, and Beckett is its undisputed master. His trilogy shows a progression toward absolute loneliness and dispossession. Molloy, a crutched tramp, writes his story for an unknown man. The protagonist of the second book is no longer upright: Malone is a bed-ridden naked old man, scribbling incessantly with a pencil stump. In the last novel, there is just a head in a jar, which becomes a disembodied voice. But these loners are everywhere in Beckett’s work: in his early novels ( Murphy ), in many of his plays ( Not I ), and in his later stories ( Company ). From The Unnamable : “Yes, in my life, since we must call it so, there were three things, the inability to speak, the inability to be silent, and solitude, that’s what I’ve had to make the best of.”

Originally published on August 7, 2018

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The 10 Best Books About Loneliness of 2022

Finding peace in solitude

Emily is a writer specializing in health, wellness, and fitness. She writes about fitness and health products for Verywell Health, Verywell Mind, and Verywell Fit.

famous short story loneliness

Carly Snyder, MD is a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist who combines traditional psychiatry with integrative medicine-based treatments.

famous short story loneliness

Emily is a board-certified science editor who has worked with top digital publishing brands like Voices for Biodiversity, Study.com, GoodTherapy, Vox, and Verywell.

famous short story loneliness

  • What to Look For

Feelings of isolation and loneliness are more prevalent now than ever, as many of us are stuck at home and unable to see our loved ones.

What's more, three in five Americans consider themselves to be lonely, feel left out, or misunderstood. These numbers continue to rise, with young adults being hit the hardest. If you can relate, know that you are not alone. 

Reading can provide comfort and companionship through turbulent times . Whether seeking counsel or an escape, find comfort in our roundup of best books about loneliness.

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown

Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW—research professor, lecturer, and author—brings us on a journey to determine the meaning of belonging as a part of something bigger than ourselves and of standing alone.

Throughout the book , Brown addresses what she calls the "current spiritual crisis of disconnection." She believes we live in a world that has lost the art of meaningful interaction, and we no longer know what it means to belong or how to connect with our peers . Through timely research, intertwined with personal anecdotes, Brown guides the reader on a path toward reconnecting with oneself and each other. 

Brown illustrates the journey of braving the wilderness—the place that is feared, the unknown—and how to navigate feelings of loneliness, discomfort, and division through authenticity and vulnerability.

Price at time of publication: $18

Solitude: A Return to Self by Anthony Storr

The late English psychiatrist Anthony Storr challenges the psychological paradigm that places interpersonal relationships at the forefront of contentment. Storr shows us to embrace solitude, as it's crucial to fostering creativity.

Shining a light on self-discovery and independence, his insights widen our view of the relationship we have with ourselves and others, as well as how we define loneliness.

Through examining the minds of prominent figures who lived in solitude—Beethoven, Kant, and Kipling—Storr pronounces his belief that there are other means of fulfillment and satisfaction. Without dismissing the importance of human interaction , Storr views solitude as being equally responsible for cultivating creativity and good health.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing tells the story of moving to New York City in her mid-thirties and feeling helplessly alone . Laing embarks on a mission to unearth what it truly means to feel alone by way of art. 

Her tale of self-discovery paints a picture of paralyzing loneliness, engulfed in a bustling metropolis. Through dissecting prominent works of art, from Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" and Andy Warhol's "Time Capsules", to Henry Darger's hoarding and the depredations of the AIDS crisis, Laing examines what it means to truly feel alone.

Price at time of publication: $19

The Friendship Formula by Kyler Shumway, PsyD

At every age, we continue to seek new friendships , while also aspiring to strengthen existing relationships. Through psychological concepts and lessons, Kyler Shumway, PsyD. helps us understand our own minds as well as the needs and motives of others. 

Addressing the feelings of loneliness and isolation, Shumway’s teachings aim to give readers the tools to master the art of cultivating authentic relationships and fulfilling human connection. 

Throughout this book , he presents us with relevant research, scenarios, and discussion questions. Shumway addresses topics like communication styles, personality traits, and habits to help us discover our own psychological self and the purpose of friendship.

Price at time of publication: $12

The World According to Mister Rogers by Fred Rogers

Many of us grew up on the timeless teachings of Mr. Fred Rogers, aka Mister Rogers, on PBS’ “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood".

Through a collection of Rogers’ personal stories, scripts, interviews, and insights, this book explores universal themes addressing love, courage, inner discipline , and unity. Through an unfiltered lens, Rogers discusses the realities of life—from the hardships to the high points—that connect us all as human beings, and most importantly, as neighbors.

“Solitude is different from loneliness, and it doesn't have to be a lonely kind of thing,” Rogers said. His guidance and wisdom serve as comfort to readers, letting us know that our feelings of loneliness are valid and that we are truly not alone.

Price at time of publication: $17

Unlonely Planet by Jillian Richardson

Author and community builder, Jillian Richardson, shares a relatable tale of experiencing complete isolation in a big city. Richardson shares her vulnerable journey from loneliness to fulfillment through motivating and authentic storytelling.

“ Unlonely Planet ” dives into the root of feeling alone and how to overcome this steep obstacle. Richardson provides readers with seven actionable steps toward finding a community and one’s own people. By shifting your mindset and view of community, this book provides a road map for fostering meaningful relationships. 

Richardson is the founder of The Joy List, a weekly newsletter inviting people to meet at events, highlighting facilitated moments of connection.

Price at time of publication: $16

All Along You Were Blooming by Morgan Harper Nichols

Poet Morgan Harper Nichols shares a colorful collection of illustrated poetry and prose that inspires us to embrace the cards we are dealt and find the light in the present moment. Accompanied by her illustrations, Nichols helps readers find hope and positive affirmation. This ultimate love letter reminds us that we are not alone in our loneliness and that every day is an accomplishment. 

Stemming from a period of self-doubt, Nichols channeled her insecurity into creativity and connection. By inviting people to share their stories, she finds inspiration for her art and poetry.

Her book is described as, "A celebration of hope. An encounter with grace. A restoration of the heart. A healing of wounds. An anthem of freedom.” By reading her book, Nichols hopes the reader will feel both spoken to and heard.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Author Gail Honeyman observed that there's a blind spot in the conversation around loneliness. Thinking about how it might manifest itself differently in younger people and how the implications differ from generation to generation, Honeyman digs deeper. 

Also inspired by the idea of social awkwardness , Honeyman combined the two themes in her story about Eleanor Oliphant. The young adult lives a simple life, rarely straying from her normal routine. Whether it's her choice of clothing, brand of vodka, or how she spends her weekends, Oliphant chooses to live her life in a highly regimented manner. 

The uplifting story follows the quirky and socially awkward young woman as she navigates loneliness and meets a coworker who eventually changes her life forever.

Price at time of publication: $27

Stop Being Lonely by Kira Asatryan

There is a misconception that loneliness is a byproduct of physical isolation. In reality, it can happen when someone is both physically alone as well as with a group of people. Moreover, online friends don't necessarily fill the void for authentic relationships or fulfilling interactions. This practical book serves as a tool for anyone seeking “the feeling of closeness.”

Relationship coach Kira Asatryan helps us cultivate closeness in all areas of our lives—with family, friends, romantic partners, and at work. Her simple and effective techniques give us the tools to form stronger relationships and conquer loneliness in social situations.

Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin

Piggybacking on her book “The Happiness Project,” author Gretchen Rubin embarks on a quest to make home a happier place.

Sparked by feeling homesick in her own home, Rubin examines her life—including possessions, parenthood, marriage, body, neighborhood, and time—and discovers which factors influence her personal happiness the most. 

Dedicating a school year to her self-discovery project, Rubin dissects every aspect of her life at home. She explores the meaning behind her decisions, actions, and needs, and implements ways to enrich her home with comfort, love, and simplicity. 

Throughout her one-year experiment, Rubin recounts the details of her journey: what she tried, what worked, and the lessons learned.

What to Look For in a Book About Loneliness

Renowned author Ernest Hemingway once said, "There is no friend as loyal as a book." And in times of loneliness, a book that helps make sense of those feelings can be a life-changing companion. When seeking out a book on loneliness, it's important to look for something that will provide comfort.

Comfort is subjective, so ask yourself what makes you feel most supported and seek that out in a book. This could be a story that makes you laugh or feel seen, a book filled with imagery or frameworks to build upon, or one that offers kind words and affirmations. Audiobooks are another great option for feeling less physically alone. If a book's summary doesn't give much away about its contents, looking up reviews online can be helpful.

Relatable Stories

Everyone feels lonely at some point in their lives—it's only natural. In fact, a 2020 survey of 10,000 adults found that 61% felt lonely. And thanks to the internet, it's easier than ever to find stories that mirror our own experiences. When seeking out a book to help cope with loneliness, finding a story you relate to can actually help you feel less alone.

It's important to do your research when seeking out stories on loneliness. Just because a book is trendy or popular doesn't mean it's the right one for you. A book in which you relate to the author, their experience, the setting, or some other aspect of the story will have a greater impact and more staying power than one that's randomly selected.


It's important to seek out a book that will ultimately help you to feel better about life, not worse. By choosing a story that inspires you to be kinder to yourself or to go out in search of new connections and experiences, you're giving yourself something to work toward and look forward to. This alone can help combat loneliness.

Inspirational books on this topic can look like a memoir of someone who overcame loneliness or found healthy ways of coping, or a guide filled with tips and strategies for putting yourself out there. A book that can help you better understand your own goals and aspirations will do more than just make you feel less lonely.

Frequently Asked Questions

The first step toward feeling good while being alone is building a strong, healthy relationship with yourself. There's a difference between being alone and being lonely, and alone time can be incredibly fulfilling when it's spent getting to know yourself and doing things you enjoy.

Keep in mind that too much time spent on social media can negatively impact alone time by actually increasing feelings of loneliness and causing FOMO, or "fear of missing out." Instead, fill your time with more beneficial habits and deepen your understanding of yourself and what matters to you.

Studies have shown that just 30 minutes of reading can help reduce psychological distress. Whether you're reading or listening to an audiobook, losing yourself in a story can help combat feelings of loneliness.

Even though reading is a solitary activity, diving into a book that's dedicated to dealing with loneliness can help you feel less alone in the moment while also providing tools to cope with those feelings in life.

Cigna. Cigna takes action to combat the rise of loneliness and improve mental wellness in America .

Cigna.  Loneliness and the workplace .

Rizzolo D, Zipp G, Stiskal D, Simpkins S. Stress Management Strategies For Students: The Immediate Effects Of Yoga, Humor, And Reading On Stress .  Journal of College Teaching & Learning (TLC) . 2011;6(8). doi:10.19030/tlc.v6i8.1117

By Emily Stone Emily is a writer specializing in health, wellness, and fitness. She writes about fitness and health products for Verywell Health, Verywell Mind, and Verywell Fit.

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ebook ∣ 7 Best Short Stories: Specials

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7 Best Short Stories: Specials

Ambrose Bierce

Tacet Books

12 May 2020

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7 best short stories - Loneliness

Publisher description.

Loneliness has many faces - it can be a moment of sadness and the result of bad choices or some abandonment, but it can also arise as a gift for us to enjoy our own company, seize the silence and meditate on life. The critic August Nemo has selected for this book seven short stories by great authors that explore the different ways of experiencing loneliness. This book contains: - Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield. - Vanka by Anton Chekhov. - The Door in the Wall by H. G. Wells. - Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf. - The Bet by Anton Chekhov. - A Painful Case by James Joyce. - The Boarded Window by Ambrose Bierce. For more books with interesting themes, be sure to check the other books in this collection!

More Books Like This

More books by ambrose bierce, virginia woolf, anton chekhov, katherine mansfield, h.g. wells, james joyce & august nemo, other books in this series.

Illustration by Peter Crowther/The Guardian

Bite-sized: 50 great short stories, chosen by Hilary Mantel, George Saunders and more

Quick and easily shared, is the short story the form for our times? Leading authors pick their favourites

“The Tribute” by Jane Gardam (1980)

John McGahern and Annie Proulx are among my favourite authors, but to dispel gloom I choose this story from Jane Gardam’s 1980 collection The Sidmouth Letters . Reading this gleeful story in my expatriate days, I recognised the cast of “diplomatic wives”, trailing inebriate husbands through the ruins of empire. Mostly dialogue, it is a deft, witty tale in which a small kindness – though not by a diplomatic wife – pays off 40 years later. I must have read it a dozen times, to see how its note is sustained and the surprise is sprung; every time it makes me smile with delight. Hilary Mantel

“The Stone Boy” by Gina Berriault (1957)

This great and underrated masterpiece is a meditation on good and evil and especially about the way that people’s expectations and assumptions about us may wear us down and eventually force us into compliance with their view. But it is a much deeper and more biblical story than that and, like any great work of art, resists reduction. Berriault, who died in 1999, is known as a San Francisco writer. A wonderful sampling of her stories is available in Women in Their Beds: New & Selected Stories . George Saunders

“The Love of a Good Woman” by Alice Munro (1998)

Among the handful of short stories closest to my heart, I’ve chosen “The Love of a Good Woman” by Canadian writer Munro, from her 1998 collection of that name. It’s about a murder – probably it’s a murder, because nothing is certain – and a love match that depends on keeping that murder secret. Like so many of Munro’s stories, this one has the scope of a novel yet never feels hurried or crowded. The sociology of a small town in rural Ontario is caught on the wing in the loose weave of her narration; the story takes in whole lifetimes, and yet its pace is also exquisitely slow, carrying us deep inside particular moments. A woman moves among the willows beside a river at night, making up her mind. Tessa Hadley

Alice Munro.

“The Siren” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1961)

Born in Palermo in 1896, Lampedusa was a learned prince who died before his work was published. In addition to his celebrated novel The Leopard , he left behind some short stories, including “The Siren”, a mysterious masterpiece that jolts and haunts me every time I read it. It contains two narrative planes, two central protagonists, two settings, two tonal registers and two points of view. There are even two titles; though published as “La Sirena”, it was originally called “Lighea”, the name of the siren, portrayed as a 16-year-old girl. Lampedusa’s description renders this fatefully seductive creature specific, vulnerable and real. Jhumpa Lahiri The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, edited by Jhumpa Lahiri, will be published on 7 March.

“A Simple Heart” by Gustave Flaubert (1877)

Flaubert wrote this story for his old friend and “fellow troubadour” George Sand. It’s the story of Félicité, an old servant-woman, and the diminishing loves in her life, the final one being a (live – at first) parrot. It has a sombre novelistic density, and is touching and tender, comic and grotesque. Control of tone is central to its effect. It also exemplifies the Flaubertian principle that irony and sympathy are not incompatible. Sand died before she was able to read it. “So it is with all our dreams,” noted Flaubert. Julian Barnes

Books that look like sushi

“Friends” by Grace Paley (1985)

This story tracks three friends as they visit a fourth who is dying. The women then go home on the train. It ends with a brief conversation between the narrator, Faith, and her 18-year-old son. The piece has warm intimacy as well as cold spaces within it. It captures the all-encompassing intrusion of the world and its conditioning of our day-to-day emotions, our children’s colonisation of our hearts and our powerlessness ultimately to protect them. Its understated tone is perfectly pitched: the narrative moves gently, then soars, into either sadness, or joyful contentment – again and again. I am in this story, and so is the world. Ahdaf Soueif

“My Life” by Anton Chekhov (1896)

This is Chekhov’s longest short story and one of the very few he wrote in the first-person singular. It’s the autobiography of a young man in provincial Russia struggling to live up to his lofty ideals and being brought down by life’s random contingencies. I actually adapted “My Life” for a play and know it intimately. If you could only read a single Chekhov story then this is the one: all his gifts and genius – the wry, dark comedy of his voice, his unique angle on the human condition, his refusal to judge – are contained in it. William Boyd

“In the Night” by Jamaica Kincaid (1978)

Part poetic incantation, part eccentric kaleidoscopic vision, this is a story which contorts each time you read it. Born in Antigua, Kincaid invents aesthetics which are wholly unique, transfiguring human form and surroundings, in particular, the Caribbean landscapes. Here, she conveys the multiple textures of smaller islands, creating a literary geography which remains experimental, new and indefinable. Irenosen Okojie

“Music at Annahullion” by Eugene McCabe (2004)

McCabe’s story is set on the border between Monaghan and Fermanagh sometime in the 1950s or 60s. Two brothers and a sister are uneasily sharing a smallholding. The landscape itself and the states of sour feeling are described with sharpness and precision. When the sister announces that she would like a piano that is advertised for sale locally, one of the brothers buys it for her. But it won’t fit into the house and is left to rot outside. The failure to get the piano into the house has an extraordinary power and pathos. Its purchase has stood for all hope, and now there is no hope. The hard-won sense of despair and darkness in the final pages of this small masterpiece is memorable and chilling. Colm Tóibín

Jo Ann Beard

“Werner” by Jo Ann Beard (2007)

Only afterwards did I discover that this was in fact a piece of densely textured reportage, but it taught me so much about how to write a short story that I will always see it as one. A young man, Werner Hoeflich, trapped by a fire, escapes by leaping from the window of his New York apartment, across the intervening gap and in through the window of the adjacent building. It has the richness of a novel, the raw and dirty grip of life and was, for me, a revelation. Fine language and a deftly conjured mood are all well and good, but fiction – of whatever length – should thrill. Mark Haddon

“The Window Theatre” by Ilse Aichinger (1953)

Miscommunication, antic disposition, voyeurism, glee – this translation of one of Aichinger’s most famous stories provides windows upon windows upon windows. Simply expressed and made to linger long in the mind, it was my first experience of the prizewinning Austrian writer and her dark, precise prose styling, and the start of an ongoing pursuit on my part to read more of her work. Eley Williams

“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)

Poe’s obsessive theme was the terror of losing sanity – never more dramatically evoked than in this masterpiece. In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, one of Poe’s shortest “tales of the grotesque and arabesque”, and the one that seems most contemporary in the hallucinatory intensity of its narration, an unnamed individual commits a brutal, seemingly unprovoked murder of an old man with whom he lives, disposes of the body by dismembering and burying it beneath the floorboards of the residence they share, and succumbs to madness and self-destruction in the aftermath of guilt. Throughout, the narrator insists on his sanity: “True – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them.” That the murder is entirely irrational is acknowledged by the murderer: “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it.”

Poe is a master of the “unreliable narrator” – a voice that speaks with devastating spontaneity and is utterly convincing – that has come to be a staple of much suspense and horror fiction in the 20th and 21st centuries. Unhampered by the literary pretensions of certain of Poe’s other, longer stories, totally committed to its unrepentant pathology, and its visceral celebration of this pathology, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is the very essence of Poe, as Poe is himself the very essence of the American gothic tradition. Joyce Carol Oates

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce (1890)

Many readers might come to this from the short film, made rather confusingly in French. But it’s a tale set during the American civil war. Peyton Farquhar is being hanged by Union soldiers on a small bridge in Alabama. To say more might ruin the experience of reading it. When I happened on the story a few years ago, I thought I might be one of only a few intrepid readers. Of course, it is considered to be one of the best stories in American literature. Sebastian Barry


“After Rain” by William Trevor (1996)

William Trevor has influenced me more than any other writer, and it’s impossible for me to name one story by him that is an absolute favourite. I can, however, name 20 to 30 stories that I return to often. One of these is “After Rain”. A woman travels alone to recover from a love that has ended too abruptly, but the wish that solitude could exorcise loneliness is as faulty as the wish that love could exorcise disappointment brought by love. The story to me is like an eye drop for the mind. It doesn’t offer a resolution to life’s muddiness, but it offers a moment of clarity. Yiyun Li

“In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H Gass (1968)

The thing that is most striking about this story, aside from its restrained, grave beauty, is that it should manage to be so moving. On one level it is a dryly detailed and topographically exact portrait of a small town in the American midwest, but on another it is a devastating threnody for lost love. Gass was one of the great prose stylists, and the writing here is typically smooth and pellucid, conjuring its effects by stealth and unflagging control. Simply, and by simple means, a masterpiece. John Banville

“American Express” by James Salter (1988)

The temporal shifts in James Salter’s short fiction are its distinguishing glory. Decades unfold inside the beat of a sentence; a single moment might linger unspoken for many pages. Time seems to concertina, expanding and contracting to open out pockets of aromatic description. In “American Express”, a pair of venal New York lawyers make a shabby killing and embark with their riches on a playboy jaunt through Italy, where one of them takes up with a schoolgirl. The story deals in oxymorons – bitter desire, weak power – and jolts to a conclusion that is harsh, cool, indelible. Kevin Barry

“Paradise” by Edna O’Brien (2014)

Key to a great short story is the tension and torsion created within each sentence. “Paradise” combines remarkable disquiet, poetry and narrative drive. O’Brien is a phenomenal architect of landscape, both physical and human, imbuing her setting with exact detail, lush discomfort, intrigue and counterintuitive fate. The main character, a nurse, has been taken to the overseas villa of her rich lover. Not only must she learn to swim and entertain his companions, she’s interviewing – without any real prospect – for the position of wife. The story is lit with sexual chemistry, but travels a horribly misaligned path. Its true test lies in finding an exit from the female dream. Sarah Hall

“Hands” by Sherwood Anderson (1916)

This is a strange, dark little story. Its charm comes from the eccentricities of its subject, former schoolteacher Wing Biddlebaum, since “the story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands”. Anderson evokes the Ohio town of Winesburg by focusing on the hands of its inhabitants. Wing’s hands are “slender, and forever trying to conceal themselves” and he notices how the hands of those around him are “quieter, inexpressive”. And it’s the wandering hands of Wing Biddlebaum, who has changed his name from Adolph Myers, that leads to the story’s disturbing conclusion. Guy Gunaratne

“Let It Snow” by David Sedaris (2003)

Sedaris is in the fifth grade when heavy snow closes the schools. After a few days, his mother breaks down: “Get the hell out of my house,” she says, “and stay out!”. The little Sedarises go off sledding and return to find the door locked against them. They peer through the window to see their mother watching TV and glugging wine. ‘Open the door,’ they yell, ‘it’s us!’. She closes the drapes on them. “That bitch!” shouts a Sedaris sister. Fun turns to fear, mild sibling savagery follows and then, suddenly, it’s OK again.

A story – more memoir than fiction – that starts with the recognition that the very sight of you drives your mother to drink is attractive to me. But when it ends with that mother wading barelegged through five inches of snow to reach you, it’s everything a story should be. It’s The Sound of Music / Lord of the Flies / Owl Babies in a few short pages. He is a genius. Nina Stibbe . Reasons to Be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe will be published by Viking on 28 March .

“The Distance of the Moon” by Italo Calvino (1963)

This is a gloriously sensual story, narrated by a man who wants another’s wife – but the true star of the show is the moon. Calvino imagines it so close it risks dipping its scales in the sea. Fishermen gather lunar milk as the protagonist writhes in unrequited love. It is a great example of magic realism – full of texture and motion and mischief and longing. Leone Ross Come Let Us Sing Anyway , by Leone Ross, is published by Peepal Tree.

Contemporary and classic tales picked by Chris Power

“civil peace” by chinua achebe (1971).

Achebe didn’t write many short stories (in the preface to his 1972 collection, Girls at War , he notes that “a dozen pieces in twenty years must be accounted a pretty lean harvest by any reckoning”), but his best are deeply memorable. “Civil Peace” takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Biafran war, and gives vivid life to the luck and misfortune experienced by Jonathan Iwegbu – an incorrigible optimist in a devastated society – and the surviving members of his family.

“In a Bamboo Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1921)

Akutagawa’s ingenious riddle of a story takes the form of seven testimonies given to a magistrate in the course of a murder investigation. A samurai has been found dead in a bamboo grove, but the narrative doesn’t end with the confession of the notorious bandit Tajōmaru. Instead, two subsequent testimonies, that of the samurai’s wife and of the samurai himself, via a spirit medium, contradict each other and the bandit’s story, and ask the reader to turn investigator and puzzle out the truth.

Margaret Atwood.

“Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood (1983)

Alice Munro once said: “I want the story to exist somewhere so that in a way it’s still happening … I don’t want it to be shut up in the book and put away – oh well, that’s what happened.” Atwood articulates the same position in this fun, thought-provoking story that begins with a man meeting a woman, then offers variants of what happens next. Any ending that isn’t death, she concludes, is false, and the interesting part of stories isn’t what happens, but how and why.

“Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin (1965)

A southern white deputy sheriff tries and fails to have sex with his wife. As she goes to sleep he talks about the vicious beating he gave a black protestor earlier that day, and returns to a deeper and even darker memory from his childhood: the ritual killing of a black man. After the killing, there was a picnic. Baldwin doesn’t deny his character humanity, but as the story’s shocking climax shows, neither does he forgive him.

“The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges (1941)

When described in summary, there is a danger of reducing Borges to a collection of tropes: labyrinths, mirrors, invented books (he avoided “the madness of composing vast books” by pretending they exist and writing commentaries on them). But with these elements he explored some of the most thrilling ideas in fiction. Labyrinths and strange books are both present here, as is a theory of existence that anticipates the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Extraordinarily, all these elements are enfolded within an account of a wartime espionage mission.

“This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” by Tadeusz Borowski (1946)

From spring 1943 to summer 1944 the young Polish poet Borowski was a political prisoner in Auschwitz. His stories are some of the darkest documents in world literature. This one describes the narrator’s first shift as a kapo unloading trains packed with Jewish men, women and children. Borowski’s prose alternates between a blunt numbness and image making of extraordinary power.

“The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter (1979)

In The Bloody Chamber Angela Carter rewrote some of the best known fairytales – “Beauty and the Beast”, “Snow White”, “Bluebeard” – challenging their assumptions about gender, sexual cruelty and morality. In “The Company of Wolves” Red Riding Hood is no longer the meek victim of the wolf, but a woman of agency and courage who uses her sexuality to tame him.

Sushi books

“Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver (1981)

The best Carver stories don’t require the conventional techniques of exposition or backstory but create an extraordinary immediacy. Here we witness a man who has taken his furnishings and arranged them on his lawn: bed, couch, desk, turntable, lamp. It’s all for sale, and as the man gets drunk with a young couple looking to furnish their apartment, we can guess how he has got here. But a hangnail of the unknowable remains, and stays long in the memory.

“The Country Husband” by John Cheever (1954)

Cheever is known as a chronicler of the suburbs, but in this story the leafy neighbourhood of Shady Hill, a recurring location in his fiction, blends the domestic with something much stranger, almost magical. The story is comic (its title mirrors William Wycherley’s 1675 comedy of manners The Country-Wife ), but darker currents work beneath its surface and it builds to a stunning finale that is one of the most rapturous passages Cheever ever wrote.

“An Outpost of Progress” by Joseph Conrad (1897)

Kayerts and Carlier, agents for the Great Trading Company, are “two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals” left in charge of a remote trading station. Conrad mines a deep vein of irony as he describes their work “serving the cause of progress”. As the story unfolds, and the men are shown to be idiotic cogs in the engine of colonialism, Conrad exposes the gap between the high-flown language of such projects (“progress”, “civilisation”, “virtue”) and their brutal reality.

“Twilight of the Superheroes” by Deborah Eisenberg (2006)

Eisenberg’s story is high on the list of great literature about 9/11. Since the 1990s she has examined the effects of American power on the world and asked the question one of her characters asks here: “How far away does something have to be before you have the right to not really know about it?” The attack on New York, that “terrible day”, although it seemed to come from nowhere, “had been prepared for a long, long time, though it had been prepared behind a curtain”.

Mavis Gallant

“In the Tunnel” by Mavis Gallant (1971)

Sarah’s father sends her from Canada to Grenoble as a way of ending her relationship with a married professor, but she ends up on the French Riviera. There she meets Roy, an ex-prison inspector, and rashly moves in with him. The story’s charge arises from a combination of wit, the awfulness of the relationship’s collapse, and Gallant’s profound grasp of the psychology of love affairs. She talks about her characters in a way that makes you feel your own perceptiveness is being worked like a muscle.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

During her lifetime Gilman was best known for her nonfiction, and she was forgotten after her suicide. Her fiction, in particular “The Yellow Wallpaper”, was rediscovered in the 1970s by feminist academics. This chilling story takes the “madwoman” figure of gothic fiction, memorably used by Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre , and describes her experience from the inside looking out. Having been told to avoid mental stimulation by her doctor following an episode of depression, Gilman wrote the story to “convince him of the error of his ways”.

“The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol (1842)

It is uncertain whether it was Turgenev or Dostoevsky who said, “We all came out from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’”, but his influence on those writers – as well as on Tolstoy, Kafka, Nabokov, Borges and many more – is profound. The main character of this bleakly hilarious story, the downtrodden government clerk Akaky Akakievich, is arguably the first antihero in modern literature, and his doomed pursuit of a new overcoat one of the most memorably absurd quests in fiction.

“Six Feet of the Country” by Nadine Gordimer (1953)

The reality of apartheid, and later the effects of its aftermath, dominates Gordimer’s fiction. Here her narrator, who has escaped the tension of Johannesburg to play at farming in a rural suburb, becomes enraged when, following the death and autopsy of one of his workers’ brothers, the authorities return the wrong body for burial. Despite his efforts to achieve justice, the story’s final, bitterly ironic lines reveal that he is blind to his own racism.

“Big Two-Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway (1925)

Hemingway’s distinctive style – which John Updike described as “gleaming economy and aggressive minimalism” – is stunningly showcased here. Nick Adams’s journey into the Michigan backwoods is also a journey into his own war-damaged psyche, and his unwillingness to fish the deep water of the swamp a resonant evocation of trauma.

Kazuo Ishiguro.

“A Village After Dark” by Kazuo Ishiguro (2001)

The tension in this uncanny piece is stoked by Ishiguro’s refusal to provide more than tantalising fragments of backstory. At nightfall an old man, Fletcher, arrives at a village where he once held great influence, but is now resented (“I was mistaken about a lot of things,” he admits). This might be an alternative Britain, or a future one. The dilapidated buildings and Fletcher’s tramp-like appearance give the story a Beckettian feel, while its allegorical quality carries over to Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant .

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948)

Asked to describe her writing, Jackson once noted its fascination with “the uncontrolled, unobserved wickedness of human behaviour”. “The Lottery”, in which a crowd gathers for a ceremony in the main square of a New England village on a sunny June morning, ends with one of the nastiest surprises in fiction. When the New Yorker printed the story it became the “ Cat Person ” of its era as letters flooded in expressing admiration, disgust, and – unbelievably – concern that the gruesome story was true.

“Emergency” by Denis Johnson (1991)

Johnson’s story begins in a hospital emergency room. It’s the night shift, and Fuckhead (his nickname is the only name for him we get) and Georgie are taking care of hospital business while swallowing every pharmaceutical they can get their hands on. When their shift finishes, they drive into the countryside and reality unravels completely. Johnson rides a line between the sacred and the profane, between hilarity and sadness., and writes prose that will take your breath away

“Araby” by James Joyce (1914)

The stories in Dubliners divide into the four stages of life, and “Araby” encapsulates the turbulence and humiliation of adolescence in a boy’s lonely night-time journey across Dublin to buy a gift for the girl he loves.

James Joyce.

“A Bright Green Field” by Anna Kavan (1958)

If you love JG Ballard, you should read Anna Kavan. Few novelists, Ballard said, “could match the intensity of her vision”, and that same intensity fuels her stories. The narrator of “A Bright Green Field” claims to encounter the same, unnaturally vivid field of grass wherever she goes. It’s an unlikely candidate for a bete noire, but Kavan’s descriptions of a mountain town in the gathering gloom, loomed over by “the sheer emerald wall that was the meadow”, create an atmosphere of powerful unease.

“Extra” by Yiyun Li (2003)

Granny Lin is 51, and doesn’t know when everyone started calling her granny. Working as a maid at a boarding school in the Beijing suburbs she develops feelings for six-year-old Kang, a rich man’s illegitimate son, an unwanted “extra” who “has to be got rid of”. Granny Lin’s love is complicated; is it maternal, or is it perhaps the great romance she missed out on in her youth? Li has a Chekhovian ability to disappear from the text, allowing a remarkable intensity to develop between reader and story.

“The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado (2014)

Machado takes a grisly campfire tale (“The Green Ribbon”), combines it with the purported medical practice of suturing a woman’s perineum with an extra stitch or two after childbirth to increase her husband’s pleasure, and creates a powerful modern fable about misogyny and motherhood. Before her wedding day, as Machado expertly builds the atmosphere of foreboding, the narrator notes that, “Brides never fare well in stories. Stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle”.

“Madame Tellier’s House” by Guy de Maupassant (1881)

Maupassant, probably the only short-story writer as influential as Chekhov, wrote in two modes: short, impressively constructed but one-dimensional stories with trick endings (“The Necklace” is the most famous of these), and longer, more interesting work. He wrote “Madame Tellier’s House” after a friend reported passing a brothel in Rouen with a sign on its door saying, “Closed because of First Communion”. His expansion on this irresistible detail resulted in one of his greatest stories.

“A Horse and Two Goats” by RK Narayan (1970)

Narayan, who wrote more than 200 short stories, called them “concentrated miniatures of human experience in all its opulence”. The opulence of the clay horse at the centre of this story has faded beneath the Indian sun, but the conversation it triggers between an American tourist who speaks no Tamil and Muni, a poor peasant who speaks no English, is not only very funny, but also telling about the degree to which misunderstanding is an unavoidable part of human interaction.

“Minutes of Glory” by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1976)

This story by Kenya’s most prominent writer follows the struggles of barmaid Beatrice as she works in a succession of increasingly seedy establishments. Men prey on her, buying her body as if it were “a bag of potatoes or a sack of cabbages”, and her hopes of living the high life in Nairobi become more unlikely by the day. “She fought life with dreams,” Ngũgĩ writes, and through a reckless action Beatrice’s fantasies briefly become reality before the story reaches its sorrowful conclusion.

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor (1953)

This story is a vicious and darkly funny account of a family’s encounter with a criminal gang led by the psychotic Misfit. Its closing lines, and the apparent act of grace they describe, are as memorable as they are ambiguous.

Akhil Sharma.

“We Didn’t Like Him” by Akhil Sharma (2013)

Two boys grow up together on a lane in Delhi. One, the narrator, becomes a lawyer. The other, Manshu, becomes pandit of the local temple. The narrator’s burgeoning dislike for Manshu, the way the events of life bring them back into contact with one another, the Hindu burial process and the mechanics of “putting someone in the Ganges”: these elements are so absorbingly animated that the story’s emotional impact, when it arrives, feels like an ambush.

“Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology” by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (2015)

Police shoot two black men outside a comic-book convention in LA, while halfway across the country an artist buys his daughter a cupcake at a vegan bakery. Thompson-Spires’s self-reflexive story is “angry, like a big black fist”, but it’s also breathtaking in the way it loops back and forth in time and constantly second-guesses the reader’s assumptions.

“Smote (or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You in Front of a Print by Bridget Riley)” by Eley Williams (2015)

“To kiss you,” this story begins, “should not involve such fear of precision.” Williams’s story is less a stream of consciousness than a barrelling wave, as a woman debates whether or not to kiss her girlfriend in an art gallery, and all the doubt, thrill, uncertainty, hilarity and panic of love is compressed into a few seconds of indecision.

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SHORT STORIES: It’s The Loneliness That Kills You

"Beauty cannot last forever."

famous short story loneliness

Dr. Jacob Walter had become used to the slight motion of the boat on the waves. The dips of the floor beneath his feet no longer induced nausea. He had grown accustomed to rising with dawn and retiring with nightfall. The sun was high in the clouds on this March day, the heat of the morning already rising. He could feel the sweat starting to blossom on his forearms as he dragged the lines in from the deep.

He and Michelle had been here for a little over a week. They were both professors at a university back in California. They had received a grant for this research expedition to the coast of Brazil to study and document the Chiropsalmus quadrumanus , also known as the four-handed box jellyfish. There had been little research done into this particular cubozoa, and the Walters were hoping to find something of value to add to the international discussion.

Jacob stepped barefoot onto the deck, still damp with dew. He took a sip from the coffee mug in his hand and took in the morning, which was arriving with majesty. There was little to compare to the beauty of light falling across the waves of the lower Atlantic, glistening and rolling across the sea. He heard a stirring and looked behind to see Michelle emerge up the steps. The sea wind rustled through her blonde-graying hair. Sunlight rippled golden across her face as she squinted in her bathrobe. He stepped over and pulled her close, resting his chin atop her head and burying her face into his chest. She snickered, but held there for a few minutes.

“I wish we never had to leave this place,” he said.

“I know,” she replied, reaching her hand up to run her fingers through his already-thinning hair. At 37, she had finally gotten the courage to chop her own short above her shoulders before the trip. It was a fresh start after everything.

They went inside to prepare breakfast – oatmeal from the can. It was all simple, vacation-style meals for the month of their research. Occasionally, Jacob would motor over to shore and they would walk to the road and catch a taxi to the nearest city to pick up groceries or eat at one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Brazil was a beautiful country. Strings of colored flags hung from stucco buildings faded by decades of harsh sunlight. Children kicked soccer balls through side yards while shirtless street performers strummed guitars and beat drums for change. Still, they both felt alone and strange on their trips into town. Eyes seemed to constantly follow them, and Jacob felt bad for expecting to be mugged. They were the only foreigners in the area. The government had allowed them to stay, but the locals occasionally got curious about them. A few times, small boats would motor over and make broken conversation. Jacob’s Portuguese was sloppy, but he was able to explain that they were scientists, here to study the jellyfish.

The things were living in the bay by the hundreds, floating like pale ghosts amidst the waves. Innocent medusas. Jacob and Michelle had several sample subjects in aquariums below deck that they had taken for observation in the last week. There was something thrilling in being one of a small number of people devoted to researching and analyzing something so small and specific, a substratum of a substratum, really. He took pride in his and his wife’s work, stayed up-to-date on the current papers making the rounds, and submitted his own. They already had nearly 60 pages of notes from the past week’s studying, which would then have to be sifted through and contextualized into a document half that size.

The cruiser they were working from was sparkling white and christened the Sarita . The boat was made to carry a small crew, so Jacob and Michelle had plenty of room to work and relax. There was a top and bottom deck as well as a platform above for fishing and shade. The Sarita sported two outboards and a trolling motor. The university had subsidized the lease. There was no television or Internet connection on the boat, so during downtime, the Walters had brought boxes of books. Only light reads – Cussler adventures, L’Amour westerns, history books. The world was tragic enough that neither felt any need to seek out fictional heartbreak.

Jacob slid out of bed in the dark and slipped up to top deck again. A voice seemed to be calling him. Was it the song of the whales, calling from the blue deep? Or something older, something from the black heart of the sea? The stars were out, sprinkled across a sky fading indigo down to a horizon of purple, where the sun waited to rise. It was a calm night, the water docile and flat. He listened to the quiet, to the soft lapping of the boat in the sea, the slight buzz of the electric light, the low calls of distant gulls readying for their morning runs.

He waited to hear that voice again, but there was nothing.

His rational mind fought against it. He hadn’t been sleeping well. Even in this tropical paradise, surrounded by light and beauty, the memories kept surging through his mind. Her face, her name, her smell, her laugh. In the darkest moments, he almost wished to forget. He almost wished he had never known her.

No parent planned on losing their child. No one expected it. There was no way to prepare, no word in the English language. Nothing to do except bear the pain as best as possible. Bear it or break.

All his life, he had listened to others’ stories of tragic deaths, had faithfully nodded and intoned about purpose and promise and all the usual clichés. Car wrecks. Gunshots. Cancer. A dare pushed too far. A careless moment. A lapse in judgment. None of these were why Lily was gone, her presence taken from the world, now only a face in photographs. It had been something else.

He took a deep breath, inhaled the strong salt air that never failed to give him a little bit of strength. He returned below deck, his stomach roiling. He searched the cabinets and tried to quietly pour himself a bowl of corn flakes, the echo of the cereal hitting the bowl seeming to fill the entire cabin. His watch read five minutes past four.

He heard Michelle stir and enter the room. There was no quiet on a boat. She yawned and sat down with him at the table. They stared at each other silently, eyes red and crusty from sleep, minds not fully awake.

“Can’t sleep?” she asked.

He shook his head and took another bite of corn flakes. “Want some?”

“No thank you.”

There was another pause.

Jacob started. “I hear her at night.”

“Oh, Jacob.”

“I hear and I feel her and I almost see her. Out there on the ocean. On the back of a dolphin. Singing with the whales. Out in the blue.”

“She’s out there somewhere. You’re probably sensing her spirit. From Heaven.”

Jacob had to restrain himself from screaming whenever someone mentioned Heaven. He had a brief, embarrassing infatuation with Eastern religion after college, but the concept of faith clashed with his personal philosophy. No, Lily was not in the clouds. Her soul had not ascended. She was not an angel. She was gone, and would never be again. But then, what was that voice, faint in the darkness?

Michelle had trouble reconciling this. Unlike him, she had grown up Catholic and lapsed out, but she still held onto some strands of the belief. She told him that she would rather fall back on that then surrender to nihilism. He worried for her, but knew she was strong.

Hours later, Jacob woke at dawn, buttoned his shirt, and zipped his shorts before grabbing his tablet and clipboard. The cabin of the Sarita had been modified into a miniature lab, partitioned off with curtains, which Jacob pulled behind him. He had the lights turned off, in order to better see the glow of the jellyfish. He studied them in awe. Every time was like the first time with these things.

How strange and beautiful they were, these silent phantoms of the sea. They plied beneath the waves, luminescent in the dark. They would group en masse and, seen from above, resembled hundreds of tiny lightbulbs sinking slowly into the ocean, sending up one last dying glow.

Like all beautiful things, they were both fragile and deadly. The venom these jellies carried in their nematocysts caused intense pain and left rashes that took months to heal. In one case, a child had died after being stung by one. But jellies were gentle monsters; they avoided confrontation whenever possible, content to float forever in the blue. These stings were the result of careless contact with the tentacles extending from the jellies’ bell bodies. They never asked to be born this way: seen and not felt.

While doing the daily tests of the water, a vivid memory floods into his mind. The three of them in some cozy diner, the smell of sausage and pancakes circulating through the air as the waitresses pass by with their plates. Rain seeps down the glass outside as the day wears into night. A song plays on the loudspeaker – an old Kenny Loggins track. Jacob is looking for a jukebox in vain and complaining to Michelle about the inauthenticity of the place, but really, he is enjoying the night.

Lily sits across in the booth, her hair all over the place. Michelle reaches over to smooth it down, to which Lily groans. She insisted on wearing a sundress even though the spring day took a turn for the chilly, and so he had let her wear his windbreaker. The sleeves are comically over-long and she rolls them up in order to dig into her chocolate-chip pancakes. The syrupy smile on her face as she chews and swallows that first bite is unforgettable.

It had been one of those perfect nights that a person is lucky to get a few times a year, and luckier still if the memory of them lasted. Jacob worried sometimes that entire sections of his life were fading as they drifted further into the past, taking on a dusty, monochrome tint. He struggled to remember his own childhood growing up in Rhode Island. He couldn’t remember where he’d met his wife; it had been through a mutual friend, but he didn’t know which. When Lily was born, he’d bought an actual camera and carried it everywhere, capturing every mundane activity. He never wanted those days to fade — and they hadn’t. But when he looked at the man in those photographs, he had trouble reading the face staring back at him. Who had he been?

He was startled out of his reverie by the trill of a dolphin twenty yards off. He saw the silver body break the waves. Suddenly, the entire sea seemed to erupt in splashes of white. He called for Michelle, It’s a pod! Big one!

They stood, the wind blowing wet across their faces. Droplets splattered into their eyes as they watched the group of dolphins course past them. Joyful whistles pierced the air. Light glinted off the animals’ gray skin as they cascaded in and out of the water. Jacob counted at least thirty of the animals before they faded into the distance, a mass of whitecaps on the horizon. He hugged Michelle next to him and breathed in deeply, savoring the moment. Going, going… gone.

All the memories were good memories, even the bad ones. The long car trips across state, the air conditioner struggling against the summer heat, sticky sweat running down their foreheads as Lily whined in the backseat to change the radio station. Helping her with homework. The evenings she would run inside from the backyard with bruises and scars. The nights her crying had kept them awake until dawn – they had been first-time parents muddling through as best they could. The tantrums, spilled drinks, soiled diapers – he missed all of it and wouldn’t trade it for anything.

When she was young, Michelle would read Lily stories about the ocean and all the wonderful creatures that lived in it. She watched The Little Mermaid repeatedly and the house would often echo with her pitchy renditions of “Under the Sea.” During trips to the beach, he would catch her bent over, staring into shallow tide pools filled with starfish and tiny octopi, mesmerized by the array of life that scurried and splashed in the water. He was always so proud of her, proud that he had instilled in her a love of the sea. It hurt to imagine how blindingly bright her future would have been, but he couldn’t stop himself from picturing her.

An auburn-haired beauty standing on the yellow shoreline. A blossom of freckles across her sun-drenched cheeks. She would be doing something heroic and important. She would bide her twenties doing low-level research before getting a break with one of the big conservation or activism gigs. She would travel the world, become successful, make them proud. Or maybe she would find some other calling in college: medicine maybe, or teaching. Whatever she would have done, Jacob would have supported her in her decision. But now, he would never know the person she could have become. The world should have known her name, he thought.

He reclined in bed and opened up the pink DS handheld that had been Lily’s. He inserted the card and booted up the game, taking comfort in the familiar sounds. They had never owned any pets, but Lily had always loved the game Nintendogs , where players could learn about and take care of virtual dogs. He had never paid any attention to her games before, but a week after, he had found the system and saw the log, the last save she had ever input, the remaining dreams of a dead girl, and had felt moved to continue her quest. This was how he found himself feeding and petting a digital husky named Mal. This was what his life had come to. He heard a sound from above and glanced up, slipping the system into his pocket. A part of him didn’t want Michelle to see him doing this. How could he explain to his wife that continuing Lily’s game eased some small piece of the pain? This was the closest he could be to her and something she had loved.

Each night, he stirred in bed, Michelle asleep beside him. He slid from beneath the covers and up above, as if in a trance, half in dream. He gripped the railing and leaned out as far as he could over the water. His brain knew this made no sense. There was some logical reason for why this was happening, but for once in his life, he felt the yearning to slip the science from his shoulders and believe. Each night, the voice grew more distinct until he could make out words, then a melody, a song drifting with the ocean. In his heart, he knew it was her. Lily’s voice singing and calling out to him. But what was she trying to say?

Why had she come to him here of all places? Tears streaked down his cheeks as the night air shifted around him. He felt them smack warmly onto the top of his bare feet. His eyes grew red and he wanted to scream back to her that he was here. He was listening. He always would be.

And then he saw her. A pale vision far in the distance. Glowing like the jellyfish. Translucent and transparent and beautiful. He nearly fell off the deck leaning over the railing. He wanted to call to her, but all he could do was reach out a hand. She was there, floating above the calm sea rippled with moonlight. She was coming closer. In the distance was the far song of the whales, a song that followed its own ancient rhythm, so strange to human ears. There was some kind of old magic in those sounds, the echoes of an alien world beneath the surface. Lily drifted closer and closer until Jacob could make out her smile and the starlight reflected in her eyes. He wanted to tell her everything. He wanted to hold her close and never let her go. But even in the heart of the moment, he knew that this small miracle was all he would be granted. She held his gaze for an eternity and then dissolved into the night, as if she had never been at all.

The next day, Michelle turns 38, and Jacob beaches the boat and extends his hand to help her onto the shore. He has not told her of his vision the night before. The sand sinks and slushes beneath their shoes as they walk to the road. Palm branches wave in the wind and a hermit crab skitters by. It is a Sunday afternoon, and they arrive to find the town packed. People fill the streets and sidewalks. Music filters on the evening breeze. They find a small churrascaria and order steak from a moustachioed waiter. At the table, they sip água de coco and talk about how they will present the findings of the study to the board when they get back. They have studiously documented everything, but Jacob can’t help but wonder if he has forgotten to do something.

In the evening, after too much wine, he pretends to be a captain.

He controls the ship.

Where to, myyy lovely senoriiiita?

Michelle laughs and attempts to wrest his glass away before he spills it. Her attempt is unsuccessful. Wine spills onto the fiberglass floor and they are both laughing.

The sky above is a flaring purple with clouds of ember on the horizon. The moist, tropical breeze portends night rain, as do the veins of heat lightning in the distance. They can hear the calls of stirring animals in the jungle from across the shell-strewn beach. They will be returning to the states soon, to social media and traffic, to the reign of white walls and glass, to an empty room and silent hallways. Beauty cannot last forever. In the wake of the moment, Jacob staves off the memories and inhabits the present, feeling each second course by him and fade away until nothing feels real at all but the water and the wine and the salt wind licking across his skin. He is nothing but this moment. He is nothing but himself. He is nothing. He is.

He spins the wheel and points. Land ho! We shall arrive shortly!

The wine is running low.

They are alone together.

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Best Short Stories and Collections Everyone Should Read

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Blog – Posted on Sunday, Jun 17

Best short stories and collections everyone should read.

Best Short Stories and Collections Everyone Should Read

If you are on the lookout for great storytelling but don’t want to commit to a full-length novel, then short story collections are the answer. Whether it’s just before bed, during your commute, or waiting to see your doctor, small chunks of time are perfect for reading short stories.

Here we have gathered thirty-one of the best short stories and collections , from all sorts of backgrounds and sources, to help you grow your “To Be Read” pile.

For your convenience, we've divided this post into two parts: 1. the ten best free short stories to read right now , and 2. best short story collections. Feel free to jump to the section that you prefer!

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the number of great short stories out there, you can also take our 30-second quiz below to narrow it down quickly and get a personalized short story recommendation 😉

Which short story should you read next?

Discover the perfect short story for you. Takes 30 seconds!

Free Short Stories to Read Right Now

These individual short stories are the best of the best — and the even better news is that they're available for free online for you to peruse. From classics published in the 1900s to a short story that exploded in late 2017, here are ten of the greatest free short stories for you to read.

1. “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl

While not exactly a philosophical or political tale like our first two examples, this twisty short story from Dahl does delve into some shady moral territory. We are introduced to Mary Maloney: a loving wife and dedicated homemaker. In just a few short paragraphs describing how she welcomes her husband home, Dahl makes us sympathize with Mary — before a rash act turns her life upside down and takes the reader with her on a dark journey.

For those who haven’t read it, we won’t spoil the rest. However, it’s safe to say that Dahl serves up a fiendish twist on a platter.

2. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

A perennial feature in many a high school syllabus, Shirley Jackson’s best-known short story clinically details an unusual ritual that takes place in a small town. There’s not exactly a lot of plot to spoil in The Lottery — but within a few short pages, Jackson manages to represent the mob mentality that can drive reasonable people to commit heinous acts.

3. “How to Become a Writer” by Lorrie Moore

Told in the second person point of view , this story from Moore’s debut anthology Self-Help takes an honest look at the inner life of a struggling artist. Through the use of an unusual POV, the author manages to turn her reader into a confidante — making it abundantly clear that the ‘you’ the narrator is speaking about is actually herself.

This story is a standout, but the entire collection is well worth a read for its insight, humor, and disregard for literary norms.

4. “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian

In the Social Media Age, no short story has gone viral the way this New Yorker contribution from Roupenian has. Arriving at the height of #MeToo, it begins with 20-year-old Margot embarking on the early stages of flirtation with an older man, Robert. As she gets to know more about this man (as well as filling in the gaps with her imagination), the power dynamic in their relationship starts to fluctuate.

Lauded for its portrayal of Margot’s inner life and the fears many modern women face when it comes to dating, it also has its fair share of detractors — many are critical of the central character, some are downright outraged by the story’s success. Still, this story undeniably struck a chord with the reading public, and will likely remain relevant for some time.

5. “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver

First published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1981, “Cathedral” is today known as one of Raymond Carver’s finest works. When it opens, we meet a narrator whose wife is expecting a visit from an old friend, a blind man. Dissatisfied and distrusting of people not like him, our narrator struggles to connect until the blind man asks him to describe a cathedral to him. 

 “Cathedral” is one of Carver’s own personal favorites, and deservedly so. His characteristic minimalist style is devastating as the story builds up to a shattering moment of emotional truth — an ultimate reminder that no-one else can capture the quiet sadness of working-class people like him. 

6. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

Innocuously titled, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is nevertheless Flannery O’Connor’s bleakest — and most famous — work. It begins unassumingly with a Southern family who’s planning to go on a road trip. Yet the journey is rudely interrupted when their car overturns on an abandoned dirt road — and they are met by an enigmatic group of three men, coming up over the far hill. 

This short story inspired some strong reactions from the public upon publication — and the conversation continues today as to its frank depiction of the nature of good and evil. Again, we won’t spoil anything for you, except to say that “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is well worth your time. 

7. “Symbols and Signs” by Vladimir Nabokov

The famous author of Lolita wrote “Signs and Symbols” in 1948. Its premise is seemingly simple: an elderly couple visits their mentally ill son in the sanatorium in America. Yet their background and trials come into sharp focus as the story develops, until an explosive ending disrupts everyone’s peace of mind. 

As you might expect, the somber “Symbols and Signs” diverges sharply from Lolita in terms of both tone and subject — but its ending will keep you awake at night thinking about its implications.  

8. “Sticks” by George Saunders

Not so much a short story as it is flash fiction, “Sticks” is written from the perspective of a young man whose father has an unusual habit: dressing up a crucifix that’s built of out a metal pole in the yard. One of America’s greatest living short story writers, George Saunders explained: "For two years I'd been driving past a house like the one in the story, imagining the owner as a man more joyful and self-possessed and less self-conscious than myself. Then one day I got sick of him and invented his opposite, and there was the story." 

The result is a masterful piece of fiction that builds something out of seemingly nothing — all in the space of only two paragraphs. 

9. “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury

If there’s anyone who you can trust to deliver thought-provoking, terrifying science fiction on the regular, it’s Ray Bradbury. In “The Veldt,” George and Lydia Hadley have bought an automated house that comes with a “nursey,” or a virtual reality room. Worried about the nursery’s effect on the kids, George and Lydia think about turning off the nursey — but the problem is that their children are obsessed with it. 

As an ominously prescient prediction of the downside of technology, “The Veldt” is a short and shining example of how Ray Bradbury was an author before his time. 

10. “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes

In this classic short story, we are privy to the journals of Charlie Gordon, a cleaner with an IQ of 68. ("I reely wantd to lern I wantid it more even then pepul who are smarter even then me. All my life I wantid to be smart and not dumb.”) Charlie’s luck changes when he is selected for an experiment that purports to turn him into a genius — but everything that goes up must come down in the end. 

“Flowers for Algernon” won the Hugo Award in 1960 for its groundbreaking presentation. Heartbreaking and rich with subtle poignance, it is likely to remain a staple for centuries to come.  

Best Short Story Collections to Devour

If you'd like many short stories at your fingertips all at once, short story collections are where you should look. Here, we've collected 21 of the best short story collections — along with the standout story in each volume.

11. A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

famous short story loneliness

Standout Story: “A Manual for Cleaning Women”

12. Blow-up and Other Stories by Julio Cortázar

famous short story loneliness

Standout Story: “House Taken Over”

13. Drifting House by Krys Lee

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Standout Story: “Drifting House”

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14. Dubliners by James Joyce

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Standout Story: “The Dead”

15. Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales by Stephen King

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Standout Story: “Riding the Bullet”

16. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

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Standout Story: “The Garden of Forking Paths”

17. Florida by Lauren Groff

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Standout Story: “Above and Below”

18. Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman

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Standout Story: “The Flints of Memory Lane”

19. Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl

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Standout Story: “The Pig”

20. Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

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Standout Story: “Samsa in Love”

21. Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

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Standout Story: “For Esme - With Love and Squalor”

22. Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

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Standout Story: “In a Bamboo Grove”

23. Runaway by Alice Munro

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Standout Story: “Runaway”

24. Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel García Márquez

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Standout Story: “The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow”

25. The Collected Stories by Grace Paley

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Standout Story: “A Man Told Me the Story of His Life”

26. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway

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Standout Story: “Hills Like White Elephants”

27. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

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Standout Story: “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

28. The Essential Tales of Chekhov by Anton Chekhov

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Standout Story: “The Lady with the Dog”

29. The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Standout Story: “I’d Love You to Want Me”

30. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Standout Story: “The Thing Around Your Neck”

31. The Youngest Doll by Rosario Ferré

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Standout Story: “When Women Love Men”

Ready to write your own short story? Check out these short story ideas for all your inspiration needs.

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The Best Short Stories of All Time

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Annika Barranti Klein

Annika Barranti Klein likes books, obviously.   Twitter: @noirbettie

View All posts by Annika Barranti Klein

What are the best short stories of all time? How does one measure such a thing? One might look at famous short stories, iconic short stories, but how do we define that? Are the best short stories the stories that have best stood the test of time? If so, what does that mean? Perhaps they are still in every reading list, from middle school English class to postgraduate literary studies. Perhaps the best short stories ever written simply take root in our minds, our hearts, our very souls, demanding that we remember their imagery, their characters, their plots, the way they made us feel . 

In an effort to keep this from simply being a list of my personal favorite short stories of all time, I solicited suggestions from other Rioters, and owe a debt to Anne Mai Yee Jansen, Connie Pan, Elisa Shoenberger, Eileen Gonzalez, Chris M. Arnone, Cassie Gutman, Carina Pereira, Nikki DeMarco, Jaime Herndon, Margaret Kingsbury, Sarah Davis, Rachel Brittain, Laura Sackton, Patricia Thang, Jamie Canavas, Liberty Hardy, Tika Viteri, Kelly Jensen, and Lyndsie Manusos for filling out this list. You all have brilliant taste, thank you.

Despite my efforts, I am sure I’ve left off one or two of the best short stories. Please forgive me, and remember: I did it on purpose.

In alphabetical order by author’s last name.

“Quiet Please” by Aimee Bender in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

A librarian looks to patrons for sex on the day her father dies. NSFW!

“Where to Hide in a Synagogue” by Karen E. Bender in The New Order

Two women discuss what to do if there is a shooter in their synagogue. (Content warning for, well, that)

“The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter in Burning Your Boats

What happens in the seconds leading up to Lizzie Borden’s parents’ infamous murder? Carter sets the scene.

“Division by Zero” by Ted Chiang in Stories of Your Life

Perhaps “Story of Your Life” is a more obvious choice, but this story uses mathematics in such a clever way that it captures the imagination of any reader.

“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin in The Awakening and Selected Stories

A woman is told of her husband’s death, and everyone fears she will become ill — but what if it isn’t actually bad news?

“Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros

What’s it like to be a year older? Is eleven different than ten?

“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djeli Clark

George Washington’s teeth weren’t made of wood; they were stolen from enslaved people. Clark tells their stories.

“A Scandal in Bohemia” by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes attempts to recover a photograph from Irene Adler (or “the woman”) for a client.

“ The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King ” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, retold by Alexandre Dumas

A young girl saves a Nutcracker from the Mouse King, and is told the story of Princess Pirlipat by her Uncle Drosselmeyer. Tchaikovsky’s ballet is based on the Dumas version, so it is my choice here — but a comparison read of Hoffmann and Dumas is a delight.

“Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867” by Kim Fu in Lesser Known Monster of the 21st Century

A conversation between a customer and the operator of a simulation and a potential customer. The simulation has rules.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A postpartum woman’s physician husband makes her stay alone in a room that haunts her, but she knows she is ill, not hysterical.

“A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell

While the sheriff looks for evidence of murder in a mysterious death, his wife and a neighbor woman find it by looking at things the men deem unimportant. Based on the author’s play, Trifles .

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow

Some people come to the library looking for an escape; some librarians know just the books to push them toward. This story won the Hugo and was nominated for the Nebula.

“The Summer People” by Shirley Jackson in Dark Tales

Every list includes her slightly more famous story “The Lottery,” but have you read this one? A New York City couple decides to stay in their Vermont summer home for a few extra weeks, but the locals don’t like that.

“The Dead” by James Joyce

Gabriel attends a family party and frets about a speech he is to give.

“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid in At the Bottom of the River

A mother instructs her daughter on life in a single, 650-word sentence.

“Creature” by Lily King in Five Tuesdays In Winter

A girl takes a live-in babysitting job and observes the lives of the adults in the house while over-identifying with the heroine of Jane Eyre .

“This Is Paradise” by Kristiana Kahakauwila in This is Paradise

The locals at a Hawaiian resort observe the tourists while they go out to celebrate.

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Omelas is a utopia where everyone is happy and fulfilled, except one child who is kept miserable. (CW: ableist language)

“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu in The Paper Menagerie

A man reflects on his childhood and the way his mother brought paper animals to life. This story won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award. It is also available as read by LeVar Burton .

“Mummy and Honey” by Shahriar Mandanipour, Translated by Sara Khalili, in Seasons of Purgatory

A man traps his family in a house that is falling apart, full of opium smoke, and has a hungry viper hidden beneath the floorboards.

“Mansion on the Hill” by Rick Moody

Andrew’s sister has died by accident just before her wedding, and his memories of her are interspersed with his thoughts about his job.

“Spider the Artist” by Nnedi Okorafor

A woman in an unhappy marriage takes solace in her guitar, and makes a strange new friend through her music.

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™ by Rebecca Roanhorse

You work at the Experience, giving Tourists their choice — mostly they want the Vision Quest. But one of them wants more. Also available as read by LeVar Burton !

“The Prospectors” by Karen Russell

Two girls attend a party in a remote ski lodge where they discover that they are the only living guests.

“Robert Greenman and the Mermaid” by Anjali Sachdeva in All the Names They Used for God

A fisherman with insomnia meets a mermaid and loses interest in his life on the shore.

“To Esme—With Love and Squalor” by J.D. Salinger in Nine Stories

A man reminisces about the time when he was about to deploy in World War II and met a young lady who corresponded with him.

“The Werewolf Gambit” by Robert Silverberg in The Ultimate Werewolf

A man claims to be a werewolf to get his date to come home with him, and is surprised when she readily agrees.

“Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” by Anthony Veasna So in Afterparties

A woman and her daughters run a 24 hour donut shop. A customer comes in every night, buys an apple fritter, and sits for an hour without eating it.

“The Thing Waiting Outside” Barbara Williamson in Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Space

The children’s parents have taken away their books, but there’s one book still hidden, and they plan to use it.

“The Barrens” by F. Paul Wilson in The Barrens

A woman from the Pine Barrens reluctantly agrees to bring an old college friend she’d lost touch with into the Barrens to research the Jersey Devil. (CW: extremely dated man-writing-woman nonsense, but not overwhelmingly so, in my opinion)

How the Trick is Done by A.C. Wise in The Ghost Sequences

The magician is shot to death every night, and every night he comes back to life, until one night he doesn’t.

“Standard Loneliness Package” by Charles Yu

The narrator’s job is to feel other people’s pain, but someday he hopes to buy himself a better life.

“The Sleeper” by Roger Zelazny in Wild Cards

This is the only story I’ve included that really doesn’t stand alone well. Every time Croyd Crenson goes to sleep, he hibernates and wakes up in a new form, with new abilities.

Where to Find More Great Short Stories

If you’re in search of more of the best short stories of all time, but don’t know where to start, may I recommend starting with the various awards given to short stories? There’s the Hugos and Nebulas for SFF, not to mention the World Fantasy Awards ; the Shirley Jackson Award , the Stoker , the Edgar , and the O. Henry ; the Ignyte and the Locus . Then there are anthologies such as The Longlist Anthology, Year’s Best Science Fiction, and the Pushcart Prize. And of course, we have a few more recs for you in our short story archives — or see below to find more of the best short stories of all time.

Further Reading

  • Free Short Stories Online
  • Short Stories To Read in High School
  • Short Stories by Black Authors

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The 10 Best Short Story Collections of the Decade

And then some.

Friends, it’s true: the end of the decade approaches. It’s been a difficult, anxiety-provoking, morally compromised decade, but at least it’s been populated by some damn fine literature. We’ll take our silver linings where we can.

So, as is our hallowed duty as a literary and culture website—though with full awareness of the potentially fruitless and endlessly contestable nature of the task—in the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the best and most important (these being not always the same) books of the decade that was. We will do this, of course, by means of a variety of lists. We began with the best debut novels of the decade , and now we’re back with the best short story collections of the decade—or to be precise, the best collections published in English between 2010 and 2019.

The following books were chosen after much debate (and several rounds of voting) by the Literary Hub staff. Tears were spilled, feelings were hurt, books were re-read. And as you’ll shortly see, we had a hard time choosing just ten—so we’ve also included a list of dissenting opinions, and an even longer list of also-rans. Feel free to add any favorites we’ve missed in the comments below.

The Top Ten

Claire vaye watkins,  battleborn 2012.

Claire Vaye Watkins’ searing, Nevada-set debut collection—which includes a sixty-page novella that takes place during the 1848 Gold Rush and a dazzling, devastating opening tale in which Watkins audaciously blends fiction, local history, and myth with the story of father’s involvement in the Manson Family during the late ’60s—is as starkly beautiful, as lonesome and sinister and death-haunted, as the desert frontier through which its stories roam. There’s an enviable fearlessness to Watkins’ writing, a refusal to look away from the despair that lies within the hearts of her lost and weary characters, to give them tidy trajectories or tidy resolutions. Her landscapes are exquisitely drawn, full of lush sensory detailing and characters stalked by the sorrows and violence of their pasts, the parched desperation of their presents. In one particularly aching story, a man finds a bundle of letters amid the strewn wreckage of a car crash, and proceeds to carry on a therapeutic, and increasingly revealing, one-sided correspondence with their owner, onto whom he superimposes the identity of a desperate neighbor he killed decades previous. In his reverie he remembers how nature marked the season it happened: “Late that Spring, a swarm of grasshoppers moved though Beatty on their way to the alfalfa fields down south. They were thick and fierce, rolling like a thunderstorm in your head.” It’s remarkable to come across a debut collection in which the voice, the vision, is so fully formed, so assured, but that’s what Watkins has achieved with this exceptional work. –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

Alice Munro, Dear Life 2012

Well, this one’s not really fair. I mean, any Alice Munro collection published in any given period of time has to automatically be on the list of best collections of said period. (I guess what I really mean is that it’s not really fair to other writers that Munro is such a goddamn genius.) Most of the stories in Dear Life were previously published in The New Yorker , Harper’s , and Granta ; they all display Munro’s uncanny ability to take a lifetime—or even generations of a single family—and shrink it into a thirty-page text—not by spinning out event after event, but by delivering a character so textured, and a series of moments so precise, that we can’t help but feel we know all about them. These stories and characters are not flashy, there’s little in the way of high concept; it’s simply that Munro knows people, and represents them so accurately, so wisely, and so humanely, that you can’t help but be moved. This is despite the fact that, as Michiko Kakutani pointed out, with age, Munro has gotten a little bit sharper in her portrayals of the common man. “Though Ms. Munro has not become judgmental exactly, she seems more focused on the selfishness, irrationality and carelessness people are capable of.” The collection also includes a few semi-autobiographical sketches—“autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact”—we are told. She writes: “I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.” They too are wonderful.

Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature the year after the publication of Dear Life , in 2013; the Swedish Academy called her a “master of the contemporary short story.” No shit. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

George Saunders, Tenth of December 2013

It can be hard to tell what historical era you’re actually living through, as its happening. Is this the post-9/11 era or the Trump era? Or maybe we’re really in what will one day (I hope) be labeled the Misinformation Era. Honestly, though, this is probably the “we had a chance to save the planet but did nothing” era, in which case, there probably won’t be historians around in 200 years to call it anything… How ever you choose to see the last decade of life on Planet America, it is likely some version of it appears in George Saunders contemporary classic, Tenth of December .

This collection is as remarkable for its range of emotional registers as it is for its formal variety. From the aching, class-conscious pathos of “Puppy,” in which two families intersect around the possible purchase of a dog, to the grim, neo-futurist allegory of “Escape From Spiderhead,” in which clinical drug trials go way too far, Saunders sets his characters down in a series of bespoke narrative dioramas, a wry and loving god forever suspicious of the disappointments his creations engender, yet unable to resist setting little boobytraps to see how they’ll react. With a tenderness and generosity that catalyzes satirical clarity rather than the cloudiness of sentimentality, Saunders lets his characters puzzle their way through the confines of their own fictional lives, as wounded and joyous and magnificently broken as any among us, the living.

It is a dark timeline, in which reality has outpaced satire, but at least it is a world we have seen before, in the short stories of George Saunders.  – Jonny Diamond, Editor in Chief

Clarice Lispector, tr. Katrina Dodson, ed. Benjamin Moser, The Complete Stories 2015

It’s complicated to include a “complete stories” collection in our list for the best of the decade, not least because Clarice Lispector has been considered Brazil’s greatest writer more or less since 1943 when her revolutionary debut novel, Near to the Wild Heart , was first published (she was 23). But in 2012, publisher New Directions began releasing new translations, from four different translators, of Lispector’s novels, a concerted effort to bring her remarkable work to the attention of an English-speaking readership. In 2015, the novels were followed by these “Complete Stories”—86 in all, originally published between 1952 and 1979. Translated by Katrina Dodson, the collection received dazzling reviews, establishing Lispector firmly in America’s consciousness as one of the preeminent writers of the last century.

A Clarice Lispector story is not easy to describe; they are feminist and absurdist, charting familial drama, love affairs, and existential surrealism, wheeling through the preoccupations and modes of twentieth century literary experimentation with a disorientating facility—and disorientation is the point. “Coherence is mutilation,” a character reflects at one point, “I want disorder”—an urge that Lispector understands and brings to life with more power than almost any writer I can think of, and perhaps with more relevance and urgency in these times than in any other in the four decades since her death.  –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Lucia Berlin, ed. Stephen Emerson, A Manual for Cleaning Women 2015

Is it all that remarkable that a short story collection by a writer who died in 2004 should, in fact, be one of the best collections of the decade that followed? Aside from the earthy brilliance of Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women itself, the fact of its phenomenon—at least among those who consume multiple story collections a year—speaks to a great gap in our literary culture. It won’t ever be possible to fully account for the stories and novels that went unheralded and untaught in a literary culture geared toward canonizing the anxieties and insights of well-to-do white guys, but at least in Berlin’s posthumous collection—and its frank rendering of women’s lives—we have a small correction to the record.

When Berlin writes of last-chance bus depots or cheap borderland hotels or third-rate nursing homes she does so minus the literary tourist’s appropriative bravado, that triumphalist wild boy tick that seems to define so much of the fiction of her male contemporaries. For Berlin, these are not places we pass through, to mine for epiphany or authenticity, but rather the locations in which life happens: as one reviewer put it, the stories in this collection are “all beginnings and middles with no ends,” and one only wishes Berlin had lived long enough to see the beginning of her own renaissance.   – Jonny Diamond, Editor in Chief

Colin Barrett,  Young Skins 2015

I first read Colin Barrett’s stories when I worked at The Stinging Fly magazine and press in Dublin. The editor had been working with Barrett for a couple of months on a few stories, and we were publishing one in an upcoming issue. I distinctly remember finishing the copy edit and turning to the editor and simply saying, “Holy shit.” When we put out Colin’s collection Young Skins in 2013, it wasn’t long before Grove Atlantic picked it up in the US, and it was published here in 2015. In the vein of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, its seven stories all take place within the limits of the fictional town of Glanbeigh on the west coast of Ireland. Barrett’s characters live hard lives in the aftermath of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger years, an economic boom time that happened to other people but the effects of whose abrupt end are felt everywhere. There is drink and there are drugs and moments of shocking violence. There is the steady inescapability of failure and loss, and every so often there are moments of soaringly lyrical writing. Barrett’s mastery of the short story form won him the Guardian First Book Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize, and a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 honor. It’s a collection that’s striking for its audacity to be a debut—completely assured of voice, of character, and of a setting that is utterly realized. Thus, we’re calling it one of the best short story collections of the decade. –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie 2016

“Whatever has been lost in translation in the long journey of my thoughts through the maze of civilization to your mind, I think you do understand me, and you think you do understand me,” Ken Liu writes in the preface to The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories , a collection in which metaphors are fully unwound into tangible corollaries. The Paper Menagerie gathers some of Liu’s most celebrated stories, summaries of which do little to convey the scope of his imagination. Take, for example, “State Change,” a bleak office rom-com set in a world where people’s souls are physical objects—an ice cube, a cigarette pack, a beech tree branch—that must be protected from mundane things like hot weather and nicotine addiction. “Good Hunting” begins as a folktale about a demon-hunting father-son duo in a small Chinese village and ends with a critique of British colonialism and modernity in Hong Kong, as well as a surprising reversal of misogynistic narrative tropes. The titular story, which won Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, shows Liu in top form. The protagonist, born of a Chinese immigrant mother and white father, grows up loving the origami animals that his mother brings to life with her breath, only to spurn his Chinese heritage as he grows older. Though not all the stories here are quite as moving as this one, The Paper Menagerie cemented Liu as one of the decade’s most inventive (and popular) short story writers, adept at infusing his shapeshifting work with a touch of Charlie Kaufman-esque hyperreality and Eastern Asian folklore. –Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor

Lesley Nneka Arimah,  What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky 2017

Lesley Nneka Arimah calls herself a pessimist . Thus unfolds her collection of short stories, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky , most of which are set in Nigeria and utilize dystopian themes to reveal the bleak consequences of humankind’s ruthlessness towards the natural world as well as fellow humans. The title story, for example, is about a world ravaged by climate change, where a group of scientists try, by the creation of a “formula,” to undo what has been done and make it so the human body can defy gravity. The flaws in this hubristic, quick-fix mindset are immediately revealed when the eponymous man falls from the sky. Another story in the collection “What Is A Volcano?” reflects a similar human urge to play god, drawing on myth and literally presenting feuding gods who argue over each other’s primacy. Arimah blends magical realism and fable into her narratives to illuminate as she says, the “baser instincts” of humankind, to watch humanity “turn grotesque.”

Arimah tackles the pressures of womanhood, familial relationships, and Nigerian culture, including its religious and social expectations. “Glory” is about a girl of the same name, bearing the pressure of her family to achieve greatly; “Who Will Greet You At Home” is about a woman so desperate for a child and her mother’s blessing that she risks weaving one out of hair: “Everybody knew how risky it was to make a child out of hair, infused with the identity of the person who had shed it. But a child of many hairs? Forbidden.” Despite the variety of its incarnations, this collection portrays a variety of hauntings, often literal in the form of ghosts or dolls coming to life, and others figurative, as in a father’s fear for his daughter out in the world. Underlying all of Arimah’s narratives ultimately though, is emotion: the ways in which we show or suppress love and affection and display vulnerability. Being as we are each an entire mind away from another, grief accompanies not only big events but even everyday instances of a missed chance at getting across to someone we care about what we really mean and want. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties 2017

“[P]erhaps you’re thinking,” the narrator of “Resident,” a short story by Carmen Maria Machado in Her Body and Other Parties , muses, “that I’m a cliché—a weak, trembling thing with a silly root of adolescent trauma, straight out of a gothic novel.” The reference to being in a gothic story is intriguingly apt. On the one hand, “Resident” deliberately conjures up a gothic atmosphere of dread that feels like it could have been taken from many other stories in the genre; on the other, though, it says something about Machado’s haunting collection as a whole. Many of the stories in Her Bodies and Other Parties contain echoes of the images and themes that so often constellate gothic literature and “the gothic” as a mode or atmosphere of writing: ghosts, beheadings, violence, trauma, claustrophobic environments, a pervading sense of unease or uncertainty. But while many classic tales of gothic literature—with a few exceptions—have portrayed women as tropes at best and monsters at worst, Machado’s stories beautifully and poignantly focus on what it means to be a woman, to inhabit a woman’s body, in a gothic landscape that, for all its ghosts and mysterious plagues, feels all too terrifyingly, traumatically like the world we live in. Women are harassed in the stories, as much by people as by the unsettling atmospheres around them. From the title itself, Machado makes it clear that collection will focus on women’s bodies–and her deployment of the dispassionate-sounding “parties” as the title’s second half suggests the cool detachment with which male harassment, for instance, so often involves equating women’s worth to their bodies. Yet “parties” can also suggest festivity, and her women, for all the horror around them, have moments of happiness and release, too. Her Body and Other Parties is a masterful reimagining of what the gothic can do and be, creating a world in which the tremendous weight of being a woman is chillingly palpable throughout nearly all of the stories. It’s a powerful collection that surprised me in the best of ways, and I think it will continue to for a long time to come. –Gabrielle Bellot, Staff Writer

Ottessa Moshfegh, Homesick for Another World 2017

Even before Ottessa Moshfegh had published her first book, people were calling her “the best writer of our generation.” I know this for a fact, because one of those people was me, and I was sure of it based on the short stories she’d been publishing in The Paris Review , including the wonderful (and frequently horrifying, in the best way) “ Bettering Myself ,” the opening story of Homesick for Another World , which won the Plimpton Prize in 2013.

Most of the stories in Homesick for Another World were originally published in The Paris Review —though a couple are from The New Yorker and Vice , one each from Granta and The Baffler , one original. They are all basically realist, if dark, psychological portraits, but there’s something fabulistic about them—Moshfegh pushes humanity to its logical extension, and the results are grotesque and poignant. It’s not quite surrealism—maybe I would call it slime-coated realism. She has a sharp, ironic eye, and a flat affect, which contributes to the sense of irreality, but she’s doing more than just rolling her eyes at her—often horrible—characters; she’s getting into the muck with them, and pulling us along for the ride.

It may not be my actual favorite, but the story I think about most often from this collection is “ The Beach Boy ”—which may be because, as a committed hypochondriac, I am in constant fear of dying the way Marcia does in this story, but also because of the expert unspooling of her husband once she’s gone. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Dissenting Opinions

The following books were just barely nudged out of the top ten, but we (or at least one of us) couldn’t let them pass without comment.

Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove 2013

The title short story of Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove is my favorite short story of all time, but the collection itself is mesmerizing. A friend, a fellow English teacher at the high school where I used to teach, first shared a copy with me when I had my seniors read Dracula , and I read it at my desk, towards the end of the day. I discovered that it’s a book that doesn’t so much draw you in as creep up on you. You don’t glide through it, you’ll burrow into it; you’ll start reading it, and by the time you’re finished, the lights in the department office will be out, dusk will have fallen outside, and all your colleagues and some passing students will have stood in front of you trying to get your attention and wave goodbye before giving up and walking out. You don’t simply finish this book, you are released from it. Materially speaking, anyway. It’ll still haunt you after you’re done. This might be because its stories are so tender, so perfectly painful—another reason might be because that they can be so genuinely creepy, so softly scary that you’ll find yourself rereading parts over and over, trying to experience the section more deeply to make sure that what you think is happening is really happening. And then, when it is finally done with you, you’ll walk yourself home in the dark, and it’s a good thing you’ll know the route by heart, because you won’t be able to think about where you’re going. –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow

Diane Cook, Man V. Nature 2014

When I first read this collection, during graduate school, I remember having to stop in the middle and take a break. The collection was making me feel bad, and almost panicky. It was just too good. It was so good that I felt confident there was no reason for me to ever write another word; Diane Cook had already done everything I was trying to do and more. Eventually, I got over it (the writer’s ego being a slippery but unquenchable fiend) and finished this surreal and glorious book of stories.

I mean, what to say: in “The Way the End of Days Should Be” one of the last survivors of what is apparently a watery apocalypse tries to keep out invaders as the seas rise around their (Doric columned) home: “This man in the nice suit asked for food and water, then tried to strangle me, choked back tears, apologized, asked to be let in, and when I refused, tried to strangle me again. When I managed to close the door on him, he sat on my veranda and cried.” Did I mention Diane Cook is hilarious? Especially at her darkest, she is a comedic genius. The title story is equally funny and equally bleak; it also involves water as an adversary, and also the men who used to be your friends. At least one of them, anyway.

In closing: where is the next book from Diane Cook? I’ve been waiting for years; it’s starting to feel unfair. Who knows what a woman might do without one? –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Hassan Blasim, tr. Jonathan Wright, The Corpse Exhibition 2014

It’s rare for a conflict to go on for so long that witnesses may begin to record its history before the conflict is over, and yet that is what has happened as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, and publishing does its duty to bring suffering into print. Hassan Blasim was a vocal critic of Saddam Hussein’s government, in exile in Finland for much of his literary career, so it makes sense that his story collection would explore the Iraqi expat experience as well as crafting stories immersed in the war itself; several stories are stranded between judging and defending those who have gotten out and who then, refuse to return. Whether Blasim is writing about the war itself or its many rippling effects, he brings a sardonic sensibility to his stories, parodying the language of bureaucracy and always pointing to the violence common to both order and chaos. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand both the war and the ongoing attempts to process the conflict through literature, and a necessary complement to the wide array of fiction by American veterans released over the past few years. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor

Dorthe Nors, Karate Chop 2014

Karate Chop was the first of Dorthe Nors’ books to be available to the English-speaking world (translated from the Danish). It was pressed into my hands by the amazing Julie Buntin (author of Marlena ) when she was my internship supervisor, back in 2014. She told me it was a perfect gem of a collection, and that I was going to love it. Boy oh boy was she right! Karate Chop is a compact powerhouse, with fifteen pithy stories (no more than a few pages apiece!) that pull back the curtain on everyday life to reveal something much more odd and sinister. (A few notable examples: after his wife goes to bed, a man obsessively falls down the online rabbit hole of female serial killers; two hunters agree to kill each other’s dogs in an exploration of male friendship; a young woman leaps from thought to thought, trying very hard to avoid thinking about something traumatic that’s happened. I could go on!) Dorthe Nors writes with such a dry, biting specificity. Her matter-of-fact tone makes you trust her. And then she pulls the rug out from under you in the best way! The situations she throws her characters (and her readers) into could only be conjured up by her. (The story about the hunters that hatch a plan to kill their dogs? It’s also a story about a failing marriage. But in a Dorthe Nors story, it has to be tangled up in this amazing way. Just surrender to the logic.) In a lot of ways, this is a collection about the ways we fail to connect to one another, and the mental and emotional acrobatics we partake in to avoid hurt. –Katie Yee, Book Marks Assistant Editor

Phil Klay, Redeployment 2014

Redeployment is a classic exploration of the veteran’s experience, going back and forth between stories immersed in the moment of trauma and those exploring the dislocating experience of return to a peacetime world after the disruptions of war – my favorite story in the collection details a philosophical confrontation between a veteran at college on the GI Bill and a student activist who feels threatened by him (and whom he, in turn, feels threatened by). Their attempt to understand each other is one of the best dialogue sequences I’ve ever come across, and symbolic of the book’s larger message of humanism, although some stories embrace a bleaker message of the dark comedy of errors and bureaucracy that is war. I’m including this on the list as the first of many works to be written by returning veterans – the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have had the dubious honor of being long enough for an entire generation to have returned home, enrolled in MFA programs, and published novels en masse as the war continues. If fiction is the first step in processing trauma, than perhaps this means we’re getting a head start—or perhaps, there’s just too much suffering in the world to wait for a thing to end before writing books about it. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor

Amelia Gray,  Gutshot 2015

In my former life as a bookseller, this one made its way around the story with hushed whispers and bated breath, furtively paged through and softly recommended in brief lulls between helping customers, perused at the registers as we yawned and waiting for the store to close, on the quiet second floor in the early hours of a Saturday morning, or in the deathly quiet of the children’s section in mid-week to a soundtrack of Muzac radio and the booms and thuds of near-by construction. You have to read this , we said to each other; s tart with the story in the middle , we commanded to friends and colleagues; don’t talk to me until after you finish reading it , we mock-warned to those who appeared on the fence about finishing.

What makes this one so special, in a sea of collections that each try their hardest to capture some kind of zeitgeist with sentences beautiful enough to guarantee that the era their contents define will be remembered? Amelia Grey is the grand-guignol heiress to Angela Carter, crafting grotesque body horror and immersed in the violence of everyday life, full of more blood, sugar, sex, and magic than a 90s-era record store. Although perhaps, given the matter-of-fact way her characters accept their bloody, inglorious fates, I should describe her as Angela Carter meets Etgar Keret, whose story collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God ushered in a new era of magical realism grounded in the everyday, ordinary, and mundane. If art is meant to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, then Amelia Grey’s Gutshot is very high art indeed. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor

Kelly Link, Get In Trouble

Kelly Link,  Get In Trouble 2015

I am here for literally everything Kelly Link writes (have you heard she’s writing a novel ?)—after all, she is an official genius whose work combines fairy tale archetypes, horror tropes, pop culture references, and surrealist play with some of the finest literary writing around. I know, this isn’t as uncommon as it once was, but Link is the OG short story irrealist, and she’s also the best. People who haven’t read Kelly Link can’t really understand that they need Kelly Link in their lives, but they do. This is part of why I always think of her work as being a secret, like something only my friends and I know about and reference and pass around to one another and try to copy, a kind of shibboleth for a certain type of writer.

However, when I think this, I am wrong: not only did Link win a MacArthur, but her most recent collection, Get In Trouble , was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and widely and well reviewed . The secret’s out. And well, fine, because I want (most) people to be happy. Like every Link collection, Get In Trouble is full of classics: all killer, no filler, as the kids—maybe once, one time, used to—say. “The New Boyfriend” is like something out of Grimm’s My So Called Life , “The Summer People” is mysterious, atmospheric masterpiece, and “Valley of the Girls” is a story that I do not fully understand, and never will, but that I read again every year and think about all the time. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Kirstin Valdez Quade,  Night at the Fiestas 2015

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s debut collection, Night at the Fiestas , came out almost five years ago now, in early 2015, and it’s not overstating to say that it managed on a first reading to expand my conception of American literary fiction, what it could do, what a story collection could do, and the kinds of stories that could and should be told. Returning to the stories in the time since—especially to the visceral, driving “Five Wounds” and the haunting “Nemecia”—has only confirmed that feeling, that Valdez Quade is one of the most talented storytellers at work today. New Mexico—its landscapes, its cultures, its families—is the setting for her work, and the majority of the stories center around people dealing with the weight of everyday life, spiritual striving, and the deep, complex connections that bind them. In “Five Wounds,” a man reenacts the Passion of the Christ; in “Nemecia,” two girls reckon with a dark family legacy. Throughout the collection, the strange textures of sin, blood, and relations arise again and again. The stories are intense, finely observed works of realism, but they pulsate with a special kind of energy that seems to allow for an enhanced reality, another plane of possibility. A religious feeling, in short. It’s rare to find that kind of power or preoccupation in contemporary fiction. When you do, it’s a reminder of why we tell stories in the first place, of the kind of communal reckoning we’re undertaking when we explain our stories, our families, our pasts. –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Managing Editor

famous short story loneliness

Adam Johnson, Fortune Smiles (2015)

I’m a little perplexed as to why more people haven’t read this book. Or, if they have, why it seems to have all-but disappeared from the Best Books of the Twenty-First Century conversation (despite having won the National Book Award for Fiction less than five short years ago). Perhaps the rapturous reception that greeted The Orphan Master’s Son , the grimly absurdist novel for which Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize three years previous, served to drown out his quieter follow-up. Perhaps it’s the fault of the book’s cheery cast of characters, which includes an uncomfortably sympathetic child-porn addict, an unrepentant former Stasi prison guard, a young mother with cancer, a pair of North Korean defectors, a hologram of a recently-assassinated US president, and a woman with advanced Guillain-Barré syndrome. Or perhaps it’s that every one of these six lengthy tales—dark, disquieting, and all the more unsettling for their subtle infusions of tenderness—leaves an indelible, but rarely pleasant, mark on the reader’s consciousness. As Lauren Groff wrote in her New York Times review: “Each of these stories plants a small bomb in the reader’s head; life after reading Fortune Smiles is a series of small explosions in which the reader—perhaps unwillingly—recognizes Adam Johnson’s gleefully bleak world in her own.” This is not an uplifting collection. It will illicit chuckles only as a means to further devastate. It will not make you feel good about yourself, about technology, about our ability to successfully navigate life’s random cruelties. But it will exhilarate. It will suck the breath from your lungs. –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

Steven Millhauser, Voices in the Night 2015

I’ve never understood why Stephen Millhauser isn’t more widely read (at least in the United States—apparently he’s big in France, which makes sense, because the French tend to appreciate the finer things). Maybe it’s because his “most famous” book— Martin Dressler , which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1997—is his least interesting. Listen, I love Millhauser, and I can easily imagine someone reading Martin Dressler , thinking “hmm, okay,” and then forgetting all about him forever. But no one should do this. Because Millhauser’s stories , on the other hand, are wonderful, weird things, steady and fantastical at once, as if Raymond Carver had developed a thing for ghosts and girls who die of laughter.

This latest collection contains some of my favorite stories from Millhauser’s long career, including the opener, “Miracle Polish,” which I won’t describe, but will tell you that I return to it regularly, and am moved every time. If you find that more frustrating than intriguing, I’ll tell you that at the beginning of We Others , Millhauser’s 2011 collection of new and selected stories (also considered for this list, naturally), he writes: “What makes a story bad, or good, or better than good, can be explained and understood up to a point, but only up to a point. What’s seductive is mysterious and can never be known. I prefer to leave it at that.”

So I’ll leave it at this: these stories are better than good. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Helen Oyeyemi,  What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours 2016

Helen Oyeyemi’s writing is woven with imagination, complexity, and such fierce intelligence that I have always been thoroughly amused and fascinated with anything she writes. In her collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours , Oyeyemi showcases this talent by planting keys, hidden rooms, puppets, ghosts, magical libraries, and secret gardens which the reader follows, as if they were breadcrumbs, hoping they will lead to answers. Admirably, equal to Oyeyemi’s appetite for adventure is her commitment to attaining truth. In that way, she reminds me of storytellers like Angela Carter, Ursula Le Guin, and Jorge Luis Borges.

Embracing a voice uniquely her own, however, Oyeyemi toys with the reader with titles like “if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that don’t you think.” Then, she infuses that wryness with piercing emotion, as in the story “is your blood as red as this,” in which the narrator, uninhibited, observes a character at a party, “you had a string of fairy lights wrapped around your neck. I sort of understood how that would be comforting.” The narrator continues, “Sometimes I dream I’m falling, and it’s not so much frightening as it is tedious, just falling and falling until I’m sick of it, but then a noose stops me short and I think, well, at least I’m not falling anymore.” A signature of Oyeyemi’s creative talent is that she can begin a story from somewhere, drag the reader by the hand and then suddenly drop them into unknown territory.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours deserves a place on this list because each narrative is immersive, a complete universe onto itself. Each story flaunts a whole cast of diverse characters imitating life in the many comings-and-goings of people; it delves into historical moments, like the Spanish saint’s day, The Day of the Book and the Rose, just to tell the obscure story of some character affected by this moment in time. Though curiosity may launch an Oyeyemi story, the ultimate joy of it is that it’s all about connection, forged under unexpected circumstances by moments of pure synchronicity. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

Samantha Hunt,  The Dark Dark 2017

This is Samantha Hunt’s first short-story collection, though her fourth book. She’s an eccentric, imaginative creator and a candid storyteller, often presenting slightly fantastical, vaguely supernatural scenarios frankly and unblinkingly. She can make the most far-flung ideas seem very real. The Dark Dark dials this tendency back down. The most common site of magic in these stories is actually the female body, which, she points out, always transforms itself and has the power to make life and to kill parts of itself and can turn women into endless new versions of themselves. The Dark Dark is about women, mostly, and about fear, loneliness, being a parent, losing a parent, becoming someone else, realizing you’re losing yourself. Despite the lack of literal magic, these stories are still shivery, still eerie, and still, when they need to be, dreamy. –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow

Honorable Mentions

A selection of other books that we seriously considered for both lists—just to be extra about it (and because decisions are hard).

Danielle Evans, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (2010)  ·  Brad Watson, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives (2010)  ·  Patricia Engel, Vida (2010)  ·  Don DeLillo, The Angel Esmeralda (2011)  ·  Charles Baxter, Gryphon (2011)  ·  Colm Toíbín, The Empty Family (2011)  ·  Can Xue, tr. Karen Gernant, Vertical Motion (2011)  ·  Jamie Quatro, I Want to Show You More (2013)  ·  Aimee Bender, The Color Master (2013)  ·  Susan Steinberg, Spectacle (2013)  ·  Rebecca Lee, Bobcat (2013)  ·  Ramona Ausubel, A Guide to Being Born (2013)  ·  Laura van den Berg, The Isle of Youth  (2013)  ·  Rivka Galchen, American Innovations  (2014)  ·  Naja Marie Aidt, tr. Denise Newman, Baboon (2014)  ·  Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t (2014)  ·  Stuart Dybek, Paper Lantern (2014)  ·  Donald Antrim, The Emerald Light in the Air (2014)  ·  Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege (2015)  ·  Thomas Pierce, Hall of Small Mammals (2015)  ·  Jen George, The Babysitter at Rest (2016)  · Rion Amilcar Scott, The Insurrections (2016) · Alexandra Kleeman, Intimations (2016)  ·  James McBride, Five-Carat Soul (2017)  · Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees (2017)  ·  Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (2018)  ·  Jamel Brinkley, A Lucky Man (2018)  ·  Lauren Groff, Florida (2018)  ·  Xuan Juliana Wang, Home Remedies (2019)  ·  Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Friday Black  (2018)  ·  Karen Russell, Orange World  (2019), Edwidge Danticat, Everything Inside (2019).

Emily Temple

Emily Temple

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Screen Rant

All 4 of wes anderson's short roald dahl movies, ranked worst to best.

Four new short films from Wes Anderson have been released on Netflix, all based on short stories by Roald Dahl, but all have their pros and cons.

  • Esteemed director Wes Anderson has released four new short films to Netflix, all adaptations of lesser-known Roald Dahl stories.
  • Each short film showcases Anderson's signature style, with the use of 16mm film and a fascinating color palette.
  • Poison ranks at the lowest while The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is arguably the best out of the four.

Esteemed director Wes Anderson has released four new short films to Netflix, all adaptations based on short stories of writer Roald Dahl. This isn't the first time Anderson has done this and saw success in 2009 with a stop-motion adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox. The four shorts: The Swan , The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar , The Rat Catcher , and Poison , are all lesser-known short stories of Dahl's, brought to light by Anderson's imagination.

While there are other Roald Dahl books Wes Anderson could adapt next , these four all have clear features of his signature style. The four shorts were all filmed on 16mm film, edited with a fascinating color palette: a staple in Anderson's directing style. Although Wes Anderson says he doesn't have an aesthetic, which is arguable, there are definitely certain creative aspects that he uses frequently and can be noticed in these four short films.

Related: Asteroid City Cast & Character Guide: Every Actor & Cameo In The Wes Anderson Movie

Poison is definitely the most interesting of the four stories Anderson chose, especially because of its rather abrupt ending. Poison follows Harry (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is found by servant Woods (Dev Patel), frozen solid in his bed as a small snake lies upon his stomach. In a fast-paced and tense seventeen minutes, Harry is treated by Dr. Ganderbai (Ben Kingsley), only for the doctor to eventually find no evidence of said snake.

Poison is set in colonial India, and is displayed beautifully in the set of Harry's cabin, which stays prominent throughout. It can also be seen in the little details, especially in Cumberbatch's performance: his face dripping with sweat and face muscles twitching throughout. Poison is another of these shorts that use little narration, but for this story, it's not really needed.

At the end of the piece, Dr. Ganderbai jokingly wonders whether Harry had dreamed of the snake, which sets Harry off on a tirade of racial slurs and attacks on the doctor. This same thing happened in the story, but it was a divisive choice that Anderson chose to include this part, considering there's an array of creative ways it could be portrayed, without exact words being used. Anderson previously spoke out in early 2023 over the republishing of Dahl's stories, but his decision to select Poison and keep its insensitive material has brought it to the lowest ranking on this list.

3 The Rat Catcher

The Rat Catcher 's cast of characters includes two side-by-side shop owners (Richard Ayoade and Rupert Friend), and their interactions with a Rat Catcher (Ralph Fiennes), trying to clear the area. Fiennes' performance as the Rat Catcher is creepy and unsettling, decorated with life-like, scraggly yellow fingernails, perfect for the character he's portraying. However, this short differs from the others in one key way, making it number three on this ranking.

It's interesting to note how props are used in The Rat Catcher. There are multiple occasions in the piece where instead of holding a physical prop, the holding of them is mimicked. This choice makes sense at times, for example, when the Rat Catcher releases the ferret on the rat inside his shirt. However, when the Rat Catcher is talking about the poisoned almonds, their hands are outstretched to mimic holding a small tin. It's an interesting choice from Anderson and would make more sense if the piece used zero props at all, but this isn't the case.

Related: Wes Anderson's The Rat Catcher Ending Explained

At one point, a second rat is revealed by the Rat Catcher, but this time a physical prop is used. At a glance, it looks like a piece of taxidermy, a particular interest of Anderson's. The rat then becomes animated using stop-motion, the only scene in the short that uses this format. It's an odd choice, seeing as the other shorts saw stop-motion sprinkled throughout the scenes subtly, and the visual aspects that it provides help drive the narrative forward, but missed the mark in The Rat Catcher.

The Swan was based on a true story, Dahl gathering inspiration from a newspaper article of the account, and kept in a book filled with his ideas. Dahl kept the clipping for over thirty years, before deciding to write The Swan in October 1976. The Swan 's characters include a young Peter Watson being tormented at the hands of his bully, Ernie. Peter Watson is shown throughout the piece as a child (Asa Jennings), whilst retelling the story as an adult (Rupert Friend).

The story pushes forward with the narration and uses only a few settings throughout, the main one being an extended lane surrounded by reeds of wheat. Although the other adaptations Anderson has just released all follow a similar format, The Swan has very few shots that are unique from one another, and large chunks are the spoken monologue by itself, which makes the story harder to follow in parts without a visual aid that connects to the story.

Related: Wes Anderson's The Swan Ending Explained

Stop-motion was used in The Swan, in such a style that it appears to be hyper-realistic, and many could miss this unless looking closely. Stop-motion is used in the scene where Peter is balanced on the tree, being taunted to jump with the bloody wings of a swan tied upon his shoulders. This scene is a beautiful example of Anderson's cinematography, as a blur of stop-motion and live-action follows Peter's fall and land in his mother's garden, ranking The Swan at number two.

1 The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar follows rich socialite Henry Sugar, who discovers a medical report about a man who refers to himself as "The Man Who Sees Without Using His Eyes" . The film is split into two: the retelling of the patient's (Ben Kingsley) story from the point of view of his doctors (Dev Patel and Richard Ayoade) up until his death, followed by the story of Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch) as he tries to use the knowledge he'd gained to raise a large amount of capital.

Related: How Wes Anderson's Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar Movie Compares To Roald Dahl's Book

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar uses a combination of live-action and stop-motion throughout the piece. The audience is whisked across a multitude of settings, all shot at such an angle that the narrator is always seen, often looking back over their shoulder as they continue the story. Although fast-moving, just like the other three shorts, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar manages to keep the viewer enthralled, and paced at such a rate that it keeps it exciting, but still easy to follow.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is the longest of the four Wes Anderson shorts, with a forty-minute run time. Anderson didn't aim for all four films to be the same length, rather letting each story take the exact amount of time it needed to be told. Out of the four, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar has the most developed story, so it makes sense that it's the longest, and is ranked the best out of them all.



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    MorgueFile By Dodgerton Skillhause Introduction Loneliness, to some degree, is a part of nearly everyone's lives. It can come about due to the breakdown of a relationship, the passing of a friend or relative, relocating to a different part of the globe, or an over-all sense of social exclusion.

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    1. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719) Drenched in the contemporaneous racism of crusaders and cannibals, Robinson Crusoe is often read as a study in religious redemption and a search for the...

  4. Feeling lonely? 10 short stories that prove you're not alone

    JUNHENG, 21 God, are you hearing me? Within these past six months, I've had several friends either tell me or announce on Instagram their new relationship status. With each couple, I felt the salt rising. It was as if God was hearing everyone else's prayers for a relationship but mine.

  5. 11 Stories About Isolation and Loneliness

    Hunger by Knut Hamsun Nowhere is the oppressive loneliness in the midst of a multitude felt more acutely than in Hunger. The protagonist of Hamsun's novel wanders around the throngs of the Norwegian capital but is thoroughly alone and always at the verge of mental and physical collapse from starvation.

  6. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness

    Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is a collection of short stories written by Richard Yates from 1951 to 1961. All of the stories also appeared in the posthumously released Richard Yates, The Collected Stories (2004), which includes other stories. Contents "Doctor Jack-o'-lantern" "The Best of Everything" ...

  7. "Alone" by Edgar Allan Poe

    My heart to joy at the same tone—. And all I lov'd— I lov'd alone—. Then —in my childhood—in the dawn. Of a most stormy life—was drawn. From ev'ry depth of good and ill. The mystery which binds me still—. From the torrent, or the fountain—. From the red cliff of the mountain—. From the sun that 'round me roll'd.

  8. Alone In the Big City: How Short Stories Grapple With Urban Loneliness

    The coat was a metaphor for her existence. She was someone who herself was stuck in a kind of "storage." She was lonely and whiled away her Sundays watching the lives of other people pass by her. Her intense love for these weekly trips proves that she herself wasn't aware of her loneliness.

  9. The 10 Best Books About Loneliness of 2022

    Solitude: A Return to Self by Anthony Storr The late English psychiatrist Anthony Storr challenges the psychological paradigm that places interpersonal relationships at the forefront of contentment. Storr shows us to embrace solitude, as it's crucial to fostering creativity.

  10. 7 best short stories--Loneliness

    Loneliness has many faces - it can be a moment of sadness and the result of bad choices or some abandonment, but it can also arise as a gift for us to enjoy our own company, seize the silence and meditate on life. The critic August Nemo has select...

  11. 43 of the Most Iconic Short Stories in the English Language

    Ambrose Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) I will leave it to Kurt Vonnegut, who famously wrote, "I consider anybody a twerp who hasn't read the greatest American short story, which is "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," by Ambrose Bierce. It isn't remotely political.

  12. 7 best short stories

    Loneliness has many faces - it can be a moment of sadness and the result of bad choices or some abandonment, but it can also arise as a gift for us to enjoy our own company, seize the silence and meditate on life. The critic August Nemo has selected for this book seven short stories by great au…

  13. Bite-sized: 50 great short stories, chosen by Hilary Mantel, George

    "The Love of a Good Woman" by Alice Munro (1998) Among the handful of short stories closest to my heart, I've chosen "The Love of a Good Woman" by Canadian writer Munro, from her 1998 collection...

  14. SHORT STORIES: It's The Loneliness That Kills You

    "Beauty cannot last forever." Colton Ray · June 26, 2019 Home Writing Short Stories SHORT STORIES: It's The Loneliness That Kills You Dr. Jacob Walter had become used to the slight motion...

  15. 7 best short stories

    - Vanka by Anton Chekhov. - The Door in the Wall by H. G. Wells. - Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf. - The Bet by Anton Chekhov. - A Painful Case by James Joyce. - The Boarded Window by Ambrose Bierce. For more books with interesting themes, be sure to check the other books in this collection! Skip carousel Psychological Language English

  16. Best Short Stories and Collections Everyone Should Read

    As an ominously prescient prediction of the downside of technology, "The Veldt" is a short and shining example of how Ray Bradbury was an author before his time. 10. "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes. In this classic short story, we are privy to the journals of Charlie Gordon, a cleaner with an IQ of 68.

  17. The History of Loneliness

    March 30, 2020 Solitude and seclusion are different from loneliness, a state of profound distress. Illustration by Francesco Ciccolella The female chimpanzee at the Philadelphia Zoological Garden...

  18. The Best Short Stories of All Time

    There's the Hugos and Nebulas for SFF, not to mention the World Fantasy Awards; the Shirley Jackson Award, the Stoker, the Edgar, and the O. Henry; the Ignyte and the Locus. Then there are anthologies such as The Longlist Anthology, Year's Best Science Fiction, and the Pushcart Prize. And of course, we have a few more recs for you in our ...

  19. Read Short Loneliness / Solitude Stories

    Read the best short stories online by short story writers of all ages from around the world, listed below in order of the date they were published, with new stories first. All Alone By Tammera ... The loneliness Sarah feels now and then. Things get quiet, the house gets dark. She talks to the walls, and things unseen or unheard answer her.

  20. Famous Short Loneliness Poems by Famous Poets

    by Carl Sandburg. The young child, Christ, is straight and wise And asks questions of the old men, questions Found under running water for all children And found under shadows thrown on still waters By tall trees looking downward, old and gnarled. Found to the eyes of children alone, untold, Singing a low song in the loneliness.

  21. 75 Short-Short Stories

    Short Stories to enjoy when you have 5 minutes to spare, sorted by category so you can find what suits your mood. Stories average 1,000 words, including morality tales, feel-good/love stories, other-worldly stories, witty stories, dramatic stories, and farce/political stories. Featured authors include Mark Twain, Anton Chekhov, Kate Chopin, James Baldwin, H.H. Munro (SAKI), Virginia Woolf, O ...

  22. Poems about Loneliness and Solitude

    In the book Journal of a Solitude, the poet May Sarton once wrote that "Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self.". Poetry's relationship to solitude is paradoxical: while many poets savor the isolation needed to write their best work, the finished product will ideally create connection, or even community.

  23. The 10 Best Short Story Collections of the Decade ‹ Literary Hub

    Clarice Lispector, tr. Katrina Dodson, ed. Benjamin Moser, The Complete Stories 2015. It's complicated to include a "complete stories" collection in our list for the best of the decade, not least because Clarice Lispector has been considered Brazil's greatest writer more or less since 1943 when her revolutionary debut novel, Near to the Wild Heart, was first published (she was 23).

  24. How Similar Is The Big Short to the Real Life Story It's Based On?

    The 2015 Academy Award Best Picture nominee The Big Short is a financial cautionary tale — which also happens to be very funny —based on true-life events. Adam McKay and Charles Randolph ...

  25. All 4 Of Wes Anderson's Short Roald Dahl Movies, Ranked Worst To Best

    Esteemed director Wes Anderson has released four new short films to Netflix, all adaptations based on short stories of writer Roald Dahl. This isn't the first time Anderson has done this and saw success in 2009 with a stop-motion adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox.The four shorts: The Swan, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, The Rat Catcher, and Poison, are all lesser-known short stories of Dahl ...

  26. 17 Ways Company Leaders Can Combat The 'Loneliness Epidemic'

    5. Promote Open Communication And Team Building. In times of loneliness, leaders must foster a sense of connection and belonging. By promoting open communication and virtual team-building ...

  27. Nikki Haley skewers opponents in second GOP primary debate

    September 28, 2023 at 1:53 a.m. EDT. Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley at the second Republican primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on ...

  28. Padres finish strong, fall short in long season

    Oct. 1, 2023 6:06 PM PT. CHICAGO —. The Padres' 2023 season finally came to its too-soon conclusion, as they played their last game on the first day of October. "It's been a really hard ...