Between New Year’s resolutions, quarantine boredom and a general lamentation about a lack of reading, I think many of us — myself included — wish we were a little more well-versed in the classics, or even just a better reader. Perhaps you get tired from taking so long to read one book or you get bored by lengthy plotlines or you just don’t seem to have the time necessary to commit to consuming huge novels. If that’s the case, short stories are a great way to expand your literary palate; they can generally be read in one sitting, have the same kinds of impactful themes as lengthy classics, and contain complex and developing characters throughout the course of the narrative.
And if you’re unsure about which genres or authors you like, a short story lets you dip your toe into the literary waters. These are seven underrated, timely and engaging short stories that will entertain and challenge your thinking in a wide array of different genres.
1. “The Book of the Dead” by Edwidge Danticat
In an amalgamation of sculpting, Egyptian mythological references, mysterious pasts and a young woman’s maturing view of a parent, this story feels like a conversation with a friend or perhaps a relatable experience of growing up. Danticat chronicles one artist’s journey to Florida to sell a sculpture of her father, and things don’t quite go to plan. This is definitely the most modern story out of this list — in terms of writing style, tone and setting — so if you’re still easing yourself into classic fiction, “The Book of the Dead” would be a good starting place.
2. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
You may have read this short story early in high school and been a little confused by the spiraling, quietly chaotic nature of the unnamed main character’s account of her mental health while on bed rest. That chaos is entirely intentional though, and it paints a poignant picture of depression and the effects of isolation, while also addressing gender equality and the importance of a sense of purpose. If you didn’t get to fully appreciate “The Yellow Wallpaper” in high school or if you just don’t remember it, the story is worth revisiting, especially given our current socially distanced circumstances.
3. “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov
This is another story you may have encountered at some point in one of your classes, but it’s a classic — the ol’ banker meets lawyer, banker bets lawyer to 15 years of isolation for two million rubles (Chekov was Russian), lawyer accepts bet storyline. If you’re looking for something a little more philosophical from your reading list, Chekhov is a master at asking big, real world questions from the comfort of a simple fictional setup. Be prepared to question your thoughts on solitary confinement versus the death penalty, youth and arrogance, and what it really means to be wealthy.
4. “Talma Gordon” by Pauline Hopkins
For fans of thrillers, you’ll feel at home reading this story; the twisted, spiraling narrative almost gave me whiplash — in the best way — and it kept me engaged the entire time I was reading. Hopkins doesn’t shy away from the taboo or fantastical, and this story felt like both a larger-than-life legend and something you’d read in the news. Although it seems like a murder mystery, the story incorporates different elements of other genres in popular fiction. It starts with a doctor’s story of the shocking murder of a well-known family, and by the conclusion of the piece, you’ll be amazed by where you ended up.
5. “Graveyard Shift” by Stephen King
Stephen King is a pretty notable author already; he’s the master of writing horror, and you probably already know of some of his other works from film adaptations like “It,” “The Shining” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” But unlike “It” — which clocks in at a whopping 1138 pages — “Graveyard Shift” is a much shorter introduction to Stephen King’s works without sacrificing any of the bone-chilling and unsettling effects his stories produce. In this short story, a college dropout works in an old — read: eerie — textile mill, complete with a seedy supervisor and some seriously creepy rats, but things only go downhill from there.
6. “A Murder is Announced” by Agatha Christie
On a completely different note, Agatha Christie is the queen of murder mysteries, and it really shows in this piece of detective fiction. In a BBC-esque snapshot of an idyllic English village, the morning paper announces there will be a murder, and the beloved literary detective Miss Marple investigates the case. If you love “Sherlock” or “Broadchurch” but don’t want any gore or graphic details, “A Murder is Announced” is a great story to read. It’s all of the intrigue and suspense of crime fiction without the gross-outs or horror. Good luck guessing who did it.
7. “Transcendental Wild Oats” by Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott has received an impressive amount of hype recently — and before now — because of “Little Women,” but she’s written other works too; in fact, she penned far more short stories than novels. In this semi-autobiographical story, “Walden” meets “Little House on the Prairie” as the Lamb family joins a Transcendental commune in an attempt to live a better life free of exploitation and full of love. Equal parts tongue-in-cheek satire and thoughtful commentary, “Transcendental Wild Oats” is a careful contemplation on how one man’s utopia may be one woman’s misery.