The short story, at least in America, has vacillated in popularity since its virtual birth as a literary art form (storytelling, long or short, has existed ever since primordial humans gathered in caves around the fire) in the early19th century. Writers like Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Washington Irving were among the progenitors of the form. Edgar Allan Poe wrote many popular stories between 1832 and 1849 including what is widely recognized as the first ever mystery story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which features detective Auguste Dupin and an ape. Poe, in his 1846 essay The Philosophy of Composition, argues for the brevity of all literature, novels and poetry included: “It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art – the limit of a single sitting” he writes, and by so doing, presumes the short story to be not merely the highest form of literary art; but perhaps, with a few exceptions, the only literary form with any artistic effectiveness in his view.
I’ve always been interested in short stories, even as many like-minded readers cast off their tolerance for the form citing insufficient plot immersion or unmemorable characters. There is something about a well written short story that can move the reader more intensely than, say, a 350 page novel. A short story will demand more of a reader, just as a masterfully directed film will of its viewers: by way of omission. The short fiction reader is required to fill in the blank spaces, enhancing the reading experience. In many classic tales it is indeed what is not said that affects one the most. I’m thinking of the classic spinetingler The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs which I remember reading back in high school and recently heard performed by John Lithgow. In this perennial classic, after returning from the exotic far east, a family friend reluctantly reveals a mysterious artifact: an all too real and distinctly creepy monkey’s paw. Soon he divulges its powers to the family (a married couple and their adult son): Three wishes will it grant – which reminds the mother of the Tales of the Arabian Nights. Destroy it, cast the paw in the fire, warns the friend, for it will only bring you grief. But of course, before long the family is wishing away. After the first wish, their son meets with a grisly end. Jacobs does not go into any gory detail, though enough gore is hinted at. After the second wish, we only hear the terrible rapping, like Poe’s Raven, on their chamber door, and by the third wish, we are so terrified, Jacobs need not even verbalize it. It is superfluous to the effect.
Other memorable stories from my early reading include Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, O’Henry’s The Cop and the Anthem and William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily. I like to believe my tastes matured a bit through my teens and twenties with the appreciation of the complex grotesques of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and the wonderfully uneven Nine Stories of J.D. Salinger. One of my all time favorite short fiction writers to date is T. Coraghessan Boyle. who happens to be a wizard of black humor, irony, and the brutal ending. Boyle can be read regularly in the New Yorker magazine along with other of the best in the genre today: Alice Munro, William Trevor, George Saunders, Laurie Moore and Tobias Wolff to name just a few. His latest concise tale published in that storied (forgive the pun) journal, is a gem titled The Relive Box, which takes place in an alternate present-day reality and features an immersive device which allows one to relive, as a spectator, any slice of one’s past life one may specify. So you can imagine just how obsessed Boyle’s protagonist may become. With a mere five to six thousand words, Boyle is able to move me (and I’m sure countless others), to tears. Why? He evokes memory; and human memory in its basest form is where all pain and joy lurk like forgotten athletes just waiting to be called off the bench to re-enter the game. It shouldn’t take an entire novel to release those devastating bench warmers, just a few carefully crafted sentences.