Four Short Stories That Made an Impact on Me Long, Long Ago
In Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Michael Corleone flees to Sicily after taking vengeance on two men who tried to kill his father. While in Sicily he meets a young woman and is hit by a thunderbolt. Not literally, but figuratively. He’d been struck by lightning, unintentionally, involuntarily.
That’s a description of what happened to me when I read Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, his first volume of short stories. I read it through, unable to put it down, then read it through again. I was mesmerized by the power of his prose.
The third time through I came to a page in “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” in which I could not read any further. The tension he created in this scene had built up so tight that I read and re-read this one page ten times in a row, trying to comprehend how he achieved this effect.
One consequence is that felt motivated to apply myself to discovering how to writer with power. By studying other masters of the short story form I learned much. Though I can’t say I’ve achieved the highest rungs of what is possible with language, I can say I was helped along by being able to better discern quality writing from pablum
Four of My Favorite Short Stories
The Bet by Anton Chekhov
Chekhov is an acknowledged master of the short story form. As a playwright he also knew how to entertain, hence he makes great use of comic characters and situations to occasionally make us laugh out loud. There poignancy as well, woven through stories that often have tragic outcomes.
The Bet begins at a party comprised of people of wealth and influence. If you’ve ever been at one of these social gatherings you will find people standing in circles of various sizes, drinks in hand, some listening and some talking. The discussion at the beginning of this story has to do with capital punishment. One banker asserts that capital punishment is more just because a life imprisonment is so dehumanizing and cruel.
When a young lawyer is asked his opinion he replies, “Capital punishment and life-imprisonment are equally immoral; but if I were offered the choice between them, I would certainly choose the second. It’s better to live somehow than not to live at all.”
A heated discussion follows until the banker finally loses his temper and furiously declares, “It’s a lie. I bet you two millions you wouldn’t stick in a cell even for five years.”
“If you mean it seriously,” replied the lawyer, “then I bet I’ll stay not five but fifteen.”
What a great set up for a story!
Here’s a link. Tell me I’m not wrong that this story is exceptional to the highest degree. http://aliclassroom.weebly.com/uploads/6/1/2/2/61229617/the-bet_pdf.pdf
A Piece of Steak by Jack London
When I set about to become a serious writer of fiction, I read all the short story authors I could find. Sometimes, while painting apartments, I listened to audio cassettes by various writers. I especially remember a set of six tapes with stories by Jack London. “A Piece of Steak” made such an impression that I found a copy of the story in a library volume and photocopied it. I’ve read it many times over the years and written about it a few times as well.
It’s another wonderful story and you’ll find it here: https://www.classicshorts.com/stories/steak.html
The Lagoon by Joseph Conrad
I first listened to “The Lagoon” on a 1969 audio disc recording by Ugo Toppo. I can’t tell if it had been the story or the narrator that made it so memorable. He had a deep, rich baritone voice akin to James Earl Jones.
Joseph Conrad is probably best known for his Heart of Darkness, “The Secret Sharer” and his stories of the sea. This story is about betrayal and failure, about a man who sacrifices his brother’s life to obtain something else that he coveted, and it is heartbreaking.
Years later I imagined trying to rewrite the story in a modern context, but it never came to pass. What has happened from that first audio reading is that my love of listening to audiobooks has never abated.
Here’s a link to this rewarding read: http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Lago.shtml
There Are More Things by Jorge Luis Borges
The title comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but the terror this story evokes comes from a place wholly other. In many respects it’s been compared to H.P.Lovecraft, but it’s Borges through and through.
When the narrator learns that his uncle has died, the house is sold to a man names Max Preetorius. The story is told in the manner of a mystery in which detail after detail gets presented so as to arouse in the reader a hunger to learn more. The strange rumors and details accumulate so that you have a real foreboding, while simultaneously desiring to know, just like the narrator.
The more you care about the protagonist, the more you want to say, “Don’t go in there!” But he goes inside anyways and we discover… There are indeed more things than you can possibly imagine.
Here is one place you can find this frightening tale for now. https://vicusyd.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/borges-there-are-more-things.pdf
Many other Borges stories could have been substituted here. See at the end.
I began with a Mario Puzo anecdote and will close with another. Puzo had been writing for near two decades before hitting the jackpot with his blockbuster The Godfather. The wealth it generated enabled him to go ‘round the world and do everything he’d ever dreamed of and more. After a year though, he found himself getting bored with that life. In the end, there was one thing that he never tired of, reading great books.
If you’re unfamiliar with the stories above, check them out, and get acquainted with their authors. That is my gift to you.