A Selection of My Favorite Short Stories

Every year for awhile now a friend of mine sends me an image for my birthday which is usually Clark Ashton Smith themed. I figured one of these would go well here.

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.

Dead Authors

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.

Living Authors

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.

Thomas Ligotti and Tantric Horror

‘Consciousness has forced into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are-hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.’ ~Thomas Ligotti

‘The awesome, horrifying renunciation of the aghori sadhu seems to defy the norms of civilized life. He will live only in the cremation ground, cook his food on the fires of the funeral pyre, eat and drink from a hollow skull that he uses as the sadhu’s bowl.’ ~Rajesh Bedi, ‘Sadhus’

I have been a Thomas Ligotti fan for almost a decade now. While not my top favorite author for exploring the macro-tale of humanity, he is always an author I return to, again and again. I do not share his relentless pessimism, but I do share his scorn for optimism. And in his endlessly dour world view I find something intensely useful to meditate on. For indifferentists and ‘true neutrals’ like myself do share a very common world view with the Ligotti’s and Cioran’s of the world, we simply respond differently.

For Ligotti, a previously underground horror writer who writes mostly short fiction and whose fame increased greatly after it was realized by the public that he was a big inspiration of the first season of True Detective, the cut of his work is to write philosophical fiction with a dose of cosmic horror. His style is like that of an early Twentieth Century absurdist mixed with the gothic elements of Poe and the themes of a very modern alienation that come with certain trends in postwar fiction. He tends to ruminate on ruins, dying and diseased towns and cities, and the innate intrinsic horror of existence. Obviously of a depressive character, he, like the philosopher Emil Cioran with whom he is often compared, has a wry and quite funny sense of humor wrapped up among this bleakness. Not everyone sees it…though I do.

I have also seen much ink spilled about the intellectual traditions of pessimism that such figures belong to in the western tradition. But I think they are a far closer approximation to the school of thought I have become most interested in these past couple years, Tantra. I have shared my thoughts on Tantra before in its own right. How a school of thought began as rebellion from Brahmanical pieties and embraced a kind of material baseness as a method to investigate the inter-connectedness of things. While I disagree with the monist trends in most modern practices, I find the exploration of the self and the world through challenging oneself by confronting-by-embracing the darkness of both self and the world to be a remarkably interesting and novel approach, specifically for those who find little use in our present self-censoring eggshell-treading age.

In Tantra, one confronts the fear of death by meditating on a corpse. The fear of lust by engaging in sex to attain full control. The fear of the forbidden by eating what society proscribes. Deities of compassion and wisdom are depicted as terrifying relentless monsters for only such could cut through illusions and shock you into the ruthless nature of reality. Once shocked into reality one is less likely to be shocked by it again. One lives with reality as it is, without fear. Tantra is the opposite of a trigger warning. It challenges you to define your greatest fears and then plunge into them. You are going to think about them after all, so why not face them directly?

Ligotti’s fiction (and his one non-fiction work, ‘Conspiracy Against the Human Race’) does exactly this but in a modern post-industrial context. The charnel ground is no longer representative of our fears of the future, but the dying blighted town or the crumbling ruin is. It is on such subjects that Ligotti likes to focus on. ‘The Red Tower’ is a rumination on a ruined factory and the connections it made throughout the community when it manufactured whatever it was that it made in a pointless process of self-replication. ‘This Degenerate Little Town’ (spoken by the author himself in this clip no less) sees the entropy of the universe reflected in the image of a horrific miserable small town that lies symbolically at the center of everything. Having once visited one of ‘the most dismal towns in Britain’ specifically because it was near a ferry I had to catch and the town was described as such in a guidebook, I have the specific image of the small and suitably named community of John O’ Groats in mind whenever I hear this prose poem. Perhaps the greatest Tantra-adjacent work of Ligotti’s, however, is ‘The Shadow, The Darkness.’ A longer story bordering on novella about a hack artist who suddenly becomes filled with talent and drive after a near death experience forces him to confront his lack of self, humanity, and practically anything save the terrifying Schopenhauerian ‘will’ that drives his body to simply perpetuate its own existence. But even this is not enough for both the artist, and his social clique, and they respond in various ways depending on their psychological disposition.

While Tantra’s end goal is liberation from fear, weakness, and myopia, Ligotti promises no liberation. Even death is not an end of the horror for reasons best summed up in a Cioran quote, ‘It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.’ Of course, I see the humor in that quote. I would also say that there is a form of liberation-through-darkness that lurks implicitly in the background of Ligotti’s works. This is most apparent in his one novel, ‘My Work Is Not Yet Done.’ This novel is often not talked about by Ligotti fans, the consensus seeming to be it is more a send up of insufferable co-workers and office culture than part of his serious canon. I could not disagree more.

While ‘My Work Is Not Yet Done’ is a workplace revenge fantasy involving making a dark pact with a cosmic being in order to torment ones workplace foes to death or fates worse than death, it is in some ways the ultimate modern Tantric novel and thus has as much philosophical value as Ligotti’s other works, if with a different tone. Like the works of contemporary horror author Richard Gavin, himself a Tantra-adjacent author in my view, its a story that speaks to people who walk a different path from the sunshine lollipops and rainbows of most of society while also avoiding the mopey ennui of those kinds of manic depressives who, by their aspect, let tell that they are really dejected and scorned optimists at heart. ‘My Work’ shows us that an immense amount of capability can be bestowed on one willing to plunge the depths of horror. The reward is still basically to die, but to die honestly with no illusions about what oneself is and what the world at large is as well. Ligotti’s (and Gavin’s) works are for those who walk a different path and are not enlightened nor empowered by the things we are taught are supposed to bring joy to our lives. The band Garbage had a catchier way of putting it, I suppose.

The Tantric approach is an attitude, one befitting those of trickster like disposition I might even say. It need not be followed like the counter-establishment religion of a very specific time and place that gave rise to it to be worthy to us today. Our cremation grounds are rotting towns and cities and our holy men are horror authors. Our world can be thoroughly material and yet still one of immense and awesome horrors. But rather than the Lovecraft protagonist who shrinks from exposure a world where humans are not at the top of the food chain, we embrace the shattering of our illusions because, as Ligotti himself says, ‘We can hide from horror only in the heart of horror.’

Indeed, the Cult of Dionysius back in the classical era arrived to similar conclusions on its own. As Professor E. R. Dobbs wrote about Euripedes’s play ‘The Bacchae’: ‘The moral of The Bacchae is that we ignore at our peril the demand of the human spirit for Dionysiac experience. For those who do not close their minds against it, such experience can be a source of spiritual power and eudaimonia. But those who repress the demand in themselves or refuse its satisfaction to others transform it by their act into a power of disintegration and destruction.’