I feel like the short story gets too little attention. Proportionally speaking, I read them (and write them) much more than full length novels. In the future, perhaps, I will list some of my favorite novels. But make no mistake, this list is more important to my interests then that of the novels would be. The short story, much like the film (compared to , say, the currently in vogue television season) is a much more self contained creature whose focus tends towards a focused approach. That being said, I do tend to prefer longer rather than shorter short stories. The difference between a novella and a longer short story can be hard to pin down, but personally I would classify it as whether you could read something in 1-2 sittings on average. Therefore, for example, I will not be listing anything from my favorite author Jack Vance (who I have written about here before and will do so again), whose best books are mostly novellas requiring more than 2 sittings to complete. Though ‘Guyal of Sfere’ is his best short work, for what it is worth.
I will not be listing all of my favorite stories. Nor will I be ranking them in a specific order. I have also limited the list to only one story per author, lest a few people (and especially Clark Ashton Smith) dominate this list overmuch. What I like most in short stories is a strong evocative mood whose power is unique to a particular tale, and I will try to get one author per the type of story I most like. Obviously, this being me, this is heavily biased towards horror and sword and sorcery. If I feel so inclined, I may include a ‘runner up’ from the same author of another tale I almost made the entry. There are no (major) spoilers and descriptions are meant to say why the story is good rather than great detail about its contents.
I also will not be including stories that are not as good if read just on their own and thus require other stories for better context (sorry Lean Time in Lankhmar by Fritz Lieber). To be on this list, the story must be fully contained and not need any context outside itself.
Clark Ashton Smith–The Dark Eidolon:
No point beating around the bush here since his name has already been dropped twice. Also, even though I am not ranking these, there is still such a thing as first among equals.
The Dark Eidolon, which is in the public domain and you can listen to it here, is a masterpiece of dark fantasy and lush vivid imagery. Smith, who is already like if Dionysius wrote tales in a setting part Kentaro Miura and part Baudelaire, goes all out to make a story of supernatural revenge involving mass necromancy and stunning visuals which he himself said was ‘among his best’ and that would have looked great in the then young field of film. As such, I have always imagined it rendered in lush high contrast interwar black and white within my mind when I read it. Overall, it is a feast of mental imagery that calls to mind the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch in prose.
(Runner Up: The Double Shadow)
H. P. Lovecraft–The Shadow Over Innsmouth:
The one extremely famous author on this list, so the one I am inclined to say the least about. Let us just say, all of Lovecraft’s best writing and pathos come together in a now famous tale of alienation, fear of the other, and ultimately, fear and embrace of oneself. People say this tale of exploration of a dying seaside town and the human-fish people hybrids within is an ultimate example of Lovecraft’s (even then) quite legendary racism, but if so it also predicts his evolution in later life towards more nuanced perspectives when he realized he was just as monstrous as everyone else and his true hatred was for humanity in general.
(Runner Up: The Music of Erich Zann)
Robert E. Howard–Black Colossus:
Of course the big three from the original Weird Tales heyday of the 1930s are all here! My personal favorite Conan tale combines many different elements that make the character and his setting so iconic. Conan as an adventurer who becomes a leader, aspects of survival horror, and epic battles where swords and pikes clash on shields. While the first tale I read to really hook me into Howard was (Runner Up:) The Scarlet Citadel, and thus it retains a special place in my heart, Black Colossus remains the ultimate Conan story.
Alice Bradley “Raccoona” Sheldon–The Screwfly Solution:
It is very hard to pull off a horror story that reads like a thriller and retain both the atmosphere and the pacing of watching events unfold in real time. Watching human civilization crumble through mass femicide and placed firmly in the context of zoological experimentation has a cold detached logic of its own, which in this case is expertly paired with the very real personal loss and madness of the observing characters for an impressive roller coasting of building tension.
Karl Edward Wagner–Lynortis Reprise:
KEW is hugely underrated and might just be second only to Howard in the field of low fantasy. While I personally prefer Wagner’s full book length fantasy tales most of the time, the one of his short stories that really stands out to me is Lynortis Reprise. (Runner Up:) Where the Summer Ends covers him for horror and may be a technically better story, but Lynortis is just so damn unique. It uses the nature of Wagner’s recurring immortal protagonist to his best extent, having Kane return to the site of an awful siege he fought long ago to find old veterans there still living as the horror of the combat made them too broken to go anywhere else. These living ghosts serve as a foil for the lingering effects of war long after history moves on, and they revere the brutal and amoral Kane for his role in the battle that made their new cursed life.
John Langan–Mother of Stone:
An astonishingly executed second person story that begins as an academic investigation into the statue of a lost god that gradually evolves into one of the moodiest and actually fear inducing tales to ever exist. The less I say about it the better, but it and its (Runner Up:) ‘The Revel’ from the same collection was what got me back into writing horror after a few years in hiatus and experimenting with new ways of style to do so. The sheer ornate power of Langan’s prose is unmatched and this is is simply his best story.
Laird Barron–The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven:
Well, you know me from past posts. I love coyotes and I love Coyote (singular). Here we have what seems a simple set up of two women on the run from one of their abusive ex’s who end up in the woods. There’s a coyote pelt, some shape shifting, and the best single example of that earthy pagan TerrorWonder (perhaps the author would call this ‘Mysterium Tremendum?) that only Laird Barron does so perfectly. Its a simple and shorter story, but its execution is flawless.
T.E.D. Klein–Nadelman’s God:
If you are like me and of a weird-creative bent, you will love (or possibly hate) this story. What if one of those strange monstrous characters you periodically invent actually came to life, but outside of your control? Nonsense song lyrics used to make an angsty tune in one’s youth ends up becoming a summoning ritual for a mentally ill person who years later happens upon the author’s work. And the ritual succeeds. And garbage made animate to the instructions of forgotten about lyrics now seeks reunion with its erstwhile creator.
(Runner Up: Children of the Kingdom–its like if the movies C.H.U.D. and Summer of Sam were combined in prose and were not only good, but *extremely good*)
Richard Gavin–Mare’s Nest:
Gavin is an underappreciated gem who I suppose would be considered a horror author, but is really more like the dark reflection of pagan wonder on the surface of an algae-shrouded pond in the forest on an overcast day. His ability to be poignant and moving while inspiring wonder in nature and the uncanny is always apparent, but none more so than in his tale of tragedy and renewal for an artist couple.
Honorary Yet Redundant Mention: Thomas Ligotti–The Shadow, The Darkness:
I have written about Ligotti before, particularly about my heretical view that his best work is his novella. However, the one story that stands out among the shorts is the one whose themes are already explored in this prior post here.
There are many, many more short stories I love of course. And yes, many of them are not even in horror! But these were the stand outs to me in this first foray into examining them as a concept.