I'm a firm believer that short stories are one of the best kinds of entertainment, especially during these times filled with uncertainty and binge-watching. Sometimes it’s nice to peel our eyes away from one type of screen and glue them to another, you know? So, I’ve compiled a list (in no particular order) of some that I find particularly captivating, relevant, and/or resonant. Here’s the best part: if one isn’t your cup of tea, skip right on down to another. They’re free, people.
1. The Hostage by Amelia Gray in the New Yorker
In this flash fiction (meaning, it’s under 1,000 words), a bumbling bank robber seems to have met his match in a teller who offers to be his hostage. This story leaves readers wondering, and then wondering again—who's the real hostage here?
2. Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want by Danielle Evans in Barrelhouse
This entire issue of Barrelhouse was devoted to the theme of bad men being thrown into volcanoes, which is incredibly specific and produced some fascinating stories. This one by Evans follows the tale of a famous artist who has engaged in some serious misconduct, the women who have suffered as a result of his decisions, and the insane art project he embarks upon to try and turn his shortcomings into profit.
3. Horror Story by Carmen Maria Machado in Granta
You think you’ve seen it all when it comes to ghost stories—I mean, there are how many Paranormal Activity movies?—but Machado reminds us of the very human parts of horror stories that are oft-forgotten. And yes, there are also ghosts.
4. Madlib by Kim Magowan in Okay Donkey
This story is short—another flash fiction—but it packs a punch. Written in the form of a Mad-Lib and deftly ambiguous, it makes your heart drop into your knees when you decode what it might mean. (Content warning: sexual abuse.)
5. Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters, Because They Are Terrifying by Alice Sola Kim in Tin House
In this story, a group of teenage Korean girls adopted into white families conjure up a demonic “mother” figure (via, of course, dark magic). The piece explores identity, loss, and the fear and confusion of being young—all while maintaining a so-accurate-it's-funny-but-also-it-hurts teenage voice.
6. Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian in the New Yorker
If you’re a literature person, maybe you’re tired of hearing about this story. It went viral in 2017 and received mixed reviews, with some people not getting the hype, and others singing its praises. But as a short story writer, let me tell you: it is very rare that a short story goes viral like this one did, and it did for a reason. Roupenian’s cut-to-the-chase tone and handling of moral grayness had the world split. The story follows the highs, lows, and awkward points of a college student’s romantic encounter with an older man she meets at a movie theater, highlighting the confusing power negotiations of dating in the digital age.
7. Boxing Day by Rion Amilcar Scott in Catapult
This story by Rion Amilcar Scott, author of one of this year’s best story collections, The World Doesn't Require You, packs a lot of emotion into a small space. A child watches his father hit a punching bag in this piece that masterfully explores family and masculinity.
8. What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah in Catapult
The title story of Arimah’s stunning collection is a whirlwind from start to finish. A blend of surrealism and sci-fi, it tells the tale of a world in which scientists have the ability to do things far beyond what we know now, like figuring out which children will be mathematicians, or ‘curing’ people of negative emotions. Ultimately, the story examines—and makes us examine—uncertainty, pain, and the tough-but-real parts of being human.
9. Creative Differences by Curtis Sittenfeld in The Cut
In this story, the producer of a commercial-disguised-as-a-documentary gets more than he bargained for when one of his ‘subjects’ resists the mediocre corporate deal she’s given for her participation. The story explores the subjective meaning of ‘art’ and differences in class privileges, but perhaps the description in The Cut itself is what says it best: “A short story about exposure, creativity, and toothpaste.”
10. The Girl Gangs of Pacific Avenue by Heather Kamins in Guernica
This story starts with momentum and never relinquishes it. In this pulls-you-right-in piece, a woman moves into a new neighborhood only to find it dominated by unruly, mysterious, frightening, and ultimately empowering packs of young girls.
11. Until the Seas Rise by Anita Felicelli in Terrain
Felicelli’s story starts and ends with ominousness and determination. This piece begins with a tsunami warning but is about so much more, exploring the intersections of class, sexuality, and youth, with the threat of natural disaster constantly lingering on the fringes.
12. Patti Smith by Melissa Ragsly in Split Lip
The voice of the eleven-year-old in this story is both delightfully and heart-wrenchingly accurate. A story of youthful imagination, first periods, family dynamics, and of course, Patti Smith, this character-driven, darkly humorous piece grabs its reader and holds their attention tight.
13. The Gun Trees by Joe Kapitan in Atticus Review
Particularly relevant for fellow Americans, this short-short story explores what happens when guns start growing—literally—on trees in one town. Needless to say, chaos ensues for all—from the local baseball team to the FBI and the CDC—and the threats of violence and delusion permeate this nuanced, darkly funny story.
14. Low Tide by Jeanine Capo Crucet in Storyglossia
In this story that picks up momentum until you can’t tear away from it, a middle-aged couple goes to the beach and has a tense encounter with a group of teens. The piece brings up the complexities of dating, sex, and love—and realizing what it means to no longer be one of the youths.