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The top 20 short story collections

From Anton Chekhov to Ali Smith, these authors have nailed the art of the short story. Charlotte Cripps picks the best

Monday 22 July 2019 09:30 BST

There is nothing more appealing, particularly when time is limited, than dipping into a short story collection.

And just because this genre is written in fewer words than a novel, it doesn’t mean it’s any less potent.

The short story can be a mechanism for writers to explore and find their own voice. For others, the themes in a short story can gestate and make it into their greatest novel.

Some writers are simply more prolific at short story writing, while others just don’t have time to write a novel, finding short stories less of a commitment.

Here, we round up 20 of the best short story collections for those who want an enduring story in fewer pages.

Dancing Girls and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale author – whose sequel, The Testaments, is out on 10 September – reveals the complexities of human relationships in ordinary people’s lives in her occasionally violent short story collection. Standout stories include “The Man from Mars”, in which a college student with a creepy stalker almost comes to appreciate this unhealthy obsession, when it gives her the attention that is lacking in her mundane life.

The Collected Short Stories of F Scott Fitzgerald

This career-spanning collection of stories brings together the Tender Is the Night author’s most famous stories, including “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”. This sinister fantasy tale about the perils of fabulous wealth is a topic he explored in greater depth later, especially when writing his best-known novel The Great Gatsby.

Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is better known for children’s books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but these creepy, tense and dark stories are a real treat for adults. A highlight is “Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat”, about a married woman who pawns a mink coat her lover gave her, with a jaw-dropping twist at the end. Alfred Hitchcock directed the screen version.

The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

This is the third and most revered short story collection by the pioneering modernist writer, whose psychologically in-depth characters tend to have sudden epiphanies. It was written towards the end of Katherine Mansfield’s short life (she died aged 34 of tuberculosis), and includes the title story, one of her best-known works. In it, the wealthy Sheridan family prepares for a picnic, and through this seemingly mundane affair, the author deals with issues of life and death as well as the British class system.

The Acid House by Irvine Welsh

The Trainspotting author’s first collection of short stories is a real page-turner, bursting with colourful characters and humour. He plays with surrealism and fantasy in standout stories including the title story, about a football hooligan on an acid trip and a pregnant feminist on her way to the hospital who are struck by lightning. In “Eurotrash”, a Scottish junkie hangs around Amsterdam in typically hopeless, Trainspotting fashion.

First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan

The author admitted that his first published work allowed him to experiment and discover his voice. The perverse and ominous stories in this collection are linked by a theme of adolescence and include “Butterflies”, in which a man has a sordid meeting with a girl who he then drowns. The man describes the murder himself, and is alarmingly void of emotion when doing so.

Public Library by Ali Smith

The Man-Booker shortlisted author of Autumn and How To Be Both defends UK public libraries against threats of mass closures in her most recent, must-read short story collection. All of the characters in its 12 stories are passionate about books. Highlights include “The Ex-Wife”, in which Katherine Mansfield becomes the other woman in a relationship, when the narrator feels left out of his partner’s life as she researches the famous author’s life and works.

Nine Stories by JD Salinger

The American author of The Catcher in the Rye was deeply affected by his experiences as a soldier in the Second World War, and this is reflected in his writings. This collection includes two of his most famous short stories – “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, about a combat veteran recently discharged from an army hospital, andFor Esmé – with Love and Squalor”, a tribute to those former Second World War soldiers suffering from PTSD.

The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro

The master of the contemporary short story won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, at the age of 82. She started writing short stories when she was at home with three young children and didn’t have time to write a novel. Her 2004 collection contains stories about 12 women whose romantic lives are derailed by broken marriages and betrayed affections.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

Angela Carter made it very clear that her intention was not to do “horrible, ‘adult’ fairy tales” but to “extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories”. These dark and sensual new tales include the famous title story, which acts more like a novella within the collection. This gruesome story is about a beautiful young girl who finds the bodies of her husband’s previous wives in a castle chamber.

Dubliners by James Joyce

The author’s only short story collection, which is taken up largely by the subject of death, nearly never made it into print. One publisher even burnt the manuscript when he changed his mind about publishing it. Highlights include “Eveline”, about a girl deciding between staying at home like a dutiful daughter or leaving Dublin with her lover. “The Dead” is considered his best short work and a masterpiece of modern fiction.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

Carver’s breakthrough short story collection is a punchy and concise portrait of the lives of people ambling along in middle America. The writer digs deep into the themes of friendship and heartache with his use of vivid dialogue. The unedited version of the stories were first published after his death under the title “Beginners”, with the approval of Carver’s widow.

The Collected Stories by Jean Rhys

In 1945, Jean Rhys said that her stories were “too bitter... and besides, who wants short stories?” She found fame in 1966 with her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which went unpublished for over 20 years. Her stories draw on autobiographical material, moving between the Caribbean, London and Paris – all places where she lived – and the characters are mostly women living life on the periphery of an indifferent society, dealing with alcoholism, doomed relationships and poverty.

The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is best-known for his poem “The Raven”, but fans of his Gothic tales of horror will love these macabre stories that include “The Fall of the House of Usher”, in which a brother buries his sister alive in the family tomb, and one of Poe’s best known short stories, “Tell-Tale Heart”, in which the narrator tries to convince the reader of his sanity while describing a murder.

Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka is a master of the short story and never finished any of his full-length novels. This collection, published in Kafka’s lifetime, brings together the few works that he actually wanted to be published. It includes his most famous story, “Metamorphosis”, about a man’s alienation when he turns into a beetle, and “The Judgement”, which Kafka saw as one of his most perfect literary creations. He instructed his executor to burn all his unpublished writing after his death – but this was not upheld. These stories can be found in The Burrow.

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

This posthumous collection by the author of For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea includes a foreword by his sons, as well as the classic First Forty-Nine Stories and a number of other stories. Considered to be one of his best stories is “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” about Harry, a writer dying of gangrene while on Safari in Africa, who is musing on his life experiences. It was turned into a 1952 film starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward, with an extra part written especially for Ava Gardener.

The Happy Prince and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde

Though he is best known for his novels and plays, Oscar Wilde’s stories for children are fairytales for any age group. Wilde, who believed it was “the duty of every father to write fairytales for his children”, enjoyed reading “The Selfish Giant” to his two sons. The collection’s title story is about a statue who asks a swallow to strip him of all the jewels and gold leaf on his body, to help the poor – a tale which can’t fail to make you cry.

Mouthful of Birds by Samantha Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell

The Argentinian writer’s novel Fever Dream made the shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. Her debut collection of eerily unnerving and nightmarish short stories translated into English includes Headlights, in which a jilted bride is dumped at a roadside petrol station by her new husband – along with lots of other rejected women. In the title story a young woman’s transformation from a teenager involves her eating live birds, much to the disgust of her parents.

Selected Stories by Anton Chekov

Considered the greatest short story writer, Chekov collated his 30 best stories into this collection. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky – who translated War and Peace, Doctor Zhivago, and Anna Karenina – it includes “The Lady with the Dog”, about an adulterous affair that turns to love.

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

These 12 melancholic short stories, from the Orange Prize-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, focus largely on the lives and experiences of Nigerian women. Standout stories include Imitation, in which a young mother’s new life in Philadelphia is turned upside down when she finds out that her husband has moved his mistress into their Lagos home, and the title story, about the loneliness of a Nigerian girl who moves to America.

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