Why We Love Our Favorite Short Stories

05 October 2018 on Blog, Fiction, Storystorm  

I’ll never forget the first time I read “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. My tenth-grade English teacher passed around a Tupperware container filled with folded squares of loose leaf—one piece of paper had a black dot scribbled into the center. I can’t remember who in my tenth-grade class picked the dotted paper, but I can still feel a gnawing sensation in the pit of my stomach upon the realization that the winner of the lottery would be stoned to death. In undergrad when my professor read aloud “Adams” by George Saunders, I had never been so delighted by the use of language and voice. This summer when I read “Real Women Have Bodies” by Carmen Maria Machado, I rewrote these lines in my notebook: “‘I love you,’ I say. It’s the first time I’ve said it, and it tastes strange in my mouth—real but not ready, like a too-hard pear.”  

I have read countless short stories over my career as a student. I can always appreciate beautiful language, unique syntax, or a masterfully though-out plot, but it’s the stories that unravel some emotional truth that leave the longest impact—if a story makes me feel something, I will remember it. With this in mind I asked some of the Barnstorm fiction team to explain what made them fall in love with their favorite story.

Alexandra’s pick: “The Midnight Zone” by Lauren Groff

Though I’d be hard-pressed to select my all-time favorite story, I’m currently and giddily obsessed with Lauren Groff’s “The Midnight Zone.” I love that Groff breaks all the rules and gets away with it—the panther never appears after being announced in the opening lines; the narrator takes little to no direct action in the story; a good third of the story takes place with the narrator in a dreamlike state. None of these structural “faux-pas” matter because Groff’s densely, achingly rich prose—and the narrator’s haunting, soaring consciousness—carry the piece.  The story’s final word (“pelt”) continues to give me chills, even after my first time reading the story months ago.

Ben’s pick: “In the Reign of Harad IV” by Steven Millhauser

The story takes one image and hyper-focuses on it, creating a hypnotic, spiraling effect. Aside from being a heartbreaking analogy for the creative process, it is mesmerizing, whimsical, frightening, and the closest thing to real magic I’ve ever encountered.

Carly’s pick: A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri 

It’s my favorite because it was the first literary story I read (during my first semester of freshman year) that made me want to write! It was also the first story that led to me combing my mother’s bookshelves to see if she had anything else by Lahiri. Reading Lahiri was the first time I truly felt like I wanted to read everything a single literary author had written. 

Charlotte’s pick: “The Apple Tree” by Trevanian

When I think of favorite short stories, I remember those with an element setting them apart from what is in vogue today. For me, there must be an emotional connection, as well as vivid language and a peek into worlds beyond my own experience. Even in the darkest stories, I always love a glimmer of humor, too. “The Apple Tree” by Trevanian, originally published in The Antioch Review and anthologized in Best American Short Stories 2001, stands out. In its depiction of Basque village life via two women’s lifelong companionship through rivalry, it is a nearly magical portal to a place that I have never read about, let alone experienced.  In the simplest terms, this little gem puts a new, yet age-old spin on the idea of “frenemies.” The story is funny. Its fable-like quality and the light touch with which it captures the collective mindset of villagers belies an underlying depth.

Esther’s pick: “A Good Man is Hard To Find” by Flannery O’Connor

While I wouldn’t say this is my favorite favorite, this is definitely high on my list and one of the most memorable stories I’ve read. The first time I read it during my freshman year in college, I sat back and contemplated the final exchange between the Misfit and the grandmother and the last statement the Misfit made that perhaps the grandmother would've been a good woman if someone was to hold her at gunpoint all the time. This scene left an impression that is stuck with me even now, years later. I believe this is what a short story should ultimately do: to leave a memorable impression and to get its readers to rethink what they think they know. 

Laura’s pick: “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter 

It’s not necessarily my all-time favorite, but I’ve reread it recently. It’s a feminist retelling of the fairy tale “Bluebeard” that references a lot of other fairy tale and horror tropes along the way.  I remember being terrified the first time I read it.  Carter’s language is so decadent and sensual—the story itself is violent and suspenseful.  It’s a slow burn and sort of oozing along until these great moments of panic.  I love it. 

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As some of my fellow readers have expressed, it can be hard to pinpoint an ultimate favorite. For me, though, I think my favorite story of the moment is “Secretary” by Mary Gaitskill. The vulgarity of this story has the potential to put some people off, but I think that’s also what makes it so compelling. There is something about the narrator that touches me. She’s starved of intimacy and I think this story explores that—the complexities of living without being truly seen, without deep human connection. It’s a story that makes me excited to write. Hopefully some of the stories listed here will do the same for you, serving as inspiration to sit down before a blank page and face that most intimidating of stories: the one that is yet to be written.

Rachel Bullock is one of Barnstorm’s two fiction editors.

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