By Jonah Ruddock
With public libraries opening and closing indecisively, online short stories are an easy and accessible way to get reading material. They provide a welcome escape from dull Zoom classes and have proven endlessly entertaining. Below are some of my favorites. It should be noted that not all content is suitable for all readers.
1.The Things by Peter Watts
“And in all that time, a million years perhaps, there’d been no rescue. I never found myself. I wonder what that means. I wonder if I even exist any more, anywhere but here.”
A shape-shifting life form, freed from ice during an archaeological excavation in Norway, studies the morphology of human beings while hiding within them. It is astonished at the fragility of mankind’s anatomy and social structures. “I’ve worn these bodies, felt them from the inside… They are not built to last. No somatic evolution to shape them, no communion to restore the biomass and stave off entropy. They should not even exist; existing, they should not survive.” Fraught with chilling imagery, the story will transport you into a completely alien perspective, painting humans in twisted shades. “The Things” is based off of John Carpenter’s 1982 film of the same name, but can still be enjoyed and understood by those who have not seen it.
2.Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin
“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it.”
Two brothers in 1950s Harlem struggle through loss and change. After the death of his mother, Sonny joins the army to escape from drugs and a life he no longer understands. It does no good: “When I came back, nothing had changed, I hadn’t changed, I was just- older.” Upon his return to the city, he’s jailed for peddling heroin. His relationship with his brother is strained and permeated with worry, especially when Sonny chooses to pursue his dreams of being a jazz pianist. Told from the perspective of his unnamed older brother, the story is an exploration of siblinghood and of promises you don’t know how to keep. The narrator connects with Sonny most deeply when he sees him play in a club one night. For once, while seated at the piano, Sonny belongs. Baldwin never fails to describe music in achingly real and poignant terms.
3.Secrets of the Kath by Fatima Taqvi
“The putliwallah knows the lineages, and he makes the puppets. He whittles them out of secrets and stories. They move with strings and sorceries.”
A woman brings her son back to the village of her childhood, hoping to show him the enchanting puppet shows of the putliwallah. She is accompanied by her wealthy and controlling husband, who moved the family from Pakistan to America some years earlier. However, the show does not go as she had anticipated. There is something more sinister to it than ever before. The lines between stories and reality are blurred until she takes an action that will radically transform her future. “The night is moonless out on the terrace, and I stand against a black backdrop. Soon the lights would turn on behind me, illuminating my true form to the audience. And I would perform.” Written with the quiet portent of a dream just gone sour, “Secrets of the Kath” is a captivating read.
4.Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime by Oscar Wilde
“Was there no escape possible? Were we no better than chessmen, moved by an unseen power, vessels the potter fashions at his fancy, for honour or for shame?”
A young man engaged to be married encounters a cheiromantist at a party. He is told that he is going to commit a murder, so he, being a moral and sensible person, decides he shouldn’t marry his fiancee until the murder has already happened. He decides to get it over with as quickly as possible so that the wedding doesn’t have to be delayed for too long. What ensues is twelve thousand words of him unsuccessfully trying to kill various friends and acquaintances. The comedy of “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” is in its absurdity; Arthur believes that none of this is his fault, but simply his ineluctable destiny- all because of one palm reading.
5.Tears of the Gods by Sarah L. Byrne
“You were supposed to get less reckless with age, weren’t you, not more? That depended on your priorities, maybe. On what you had to lose. How much of a hurry you were in to meet your gods.”
A grieving microbiologist exiles herself to an obscure outpost after the death of her partner, devoid of the wonder that once drove her. Her career is revived when the survey project manager sends her on a mundane mission to study volcanic clefts on the planet, which is called the planet of the gods in lore but has no official name. She chances upon a dazzling life form that rekindles her passion for her work. Collaborating with a linguist to decode the whistling, clicking language of the curious cobalt swarm, she finds a new friend. “Tears of the Gods” is striking in the beauty of its language and its portrayal of curiosity, pain, and hope.
6.The City Born Great by N. K. Jemisin (Explicit)
“And just as in any other part of nature, there are things lying in wait for this moment, hoping to chase down the sweet new life and swallow its guts while it screams.”
A homeless graffiti artist meets a man who tells him that New York City is on the verge of becoming something more than just a location. It gasps for breath, growing, becoming a sentient thing with only our unprepared narrator to protect it. “That’s why I can clear the city’s breathing and stretch and massage its asphalt limbs. I’m the midwife, see.” Something dark and ancient is lurking, hoping to destroy the city before it can be truly born. Fraught with slang and expletives, “The City Born Great” is also bursting with astonishing imagery, and the narrator’s voice is a joy to read.
7.Raised in Captivity by Chuck Klosterman
“His father had once told him that the key to life was an ability to ignore other people’s imaginary problems. But he wasn’t sure to whom this particular problem belonged, or if it was real or imaginary, or if his father had ever considered what that advice actually implied.”
A man finds a living, two-hundred-pound puma in an airplane bathroom. He spends the rest of the story discussing with a stranger how such a thing could possibly have happened, and what should be done about it. “Raised in Captivity” is part of the eponymous collection of short stories that Klosterman, usually the author of rather chaotic nonfiction, presented us with last year. Each one is brief, bizarre, and invigorating.
8.Yearning by Maya Beck
“Teach me how to do that firedreaming y’all do.”
A group of freed slaves make their living as croppers by day, but at night they gather around the fire for the yearning. This is when the unnamed narrator, skilled in the ways of vodun, allows them to venture into their own pasts and futures, wandering down their lineages to meet the unborn. One day, the landowner’s son approaches her, asking if he can be a part of it. Their bloodlines have mixed in the past, although violently; the rape of her mother by his father made them half-siblings. “We have the same face, and everyone knows why. We all know never to discuss it.” She takes him into the dreamscape of family and time, and sees that their family trees will intertwine in the future as well. Separated by race and class, they will live their lives at bitter odds with each other, but their distant relatives will unite. The story is a study of hope and spirituality.
9.The Landlady by Roald Dahl
“There were no other hats or coats in the hall. There were no umbrellas, no walking sticks— nothing.”
A teenager finds himself in a foreign city for the first time. He decides to lodge at a charming bed and breakfast. He seems to be the only one there except for the landlady, a pleasant old woman who acts as if she’s been waiting for him. Slowly, he begins to realize that something is seriously amiss.
10.Exhalation by Ted Chiang
“I was an everted person, with my tiny, fragmented body situated at the center of my own distended brain. It was in this unlikely configuration that I began to explore myself.”
In the far-flung future, a robotic anatomist conducts experiments on himself to discover how his brain works. He finds that his thoughts and memories are the product of currents of air streaming through the machinery. In the society around him, things begin to go wrong. Clocks speed up. Reality seems to be rushing. The anatomist is the only one who can figure out why: their enclosed world is reaching an equilibrium of air pressure, causing their brains to work slower. “Eventually, all the air in our universe will be evenly distributed, no denser or more rarefied in one spot than in any other, unable to drive a piston, turn a rotor, or flip a leaf of gold foil. It will be the end of pressure, the end of motive power, the end of thought.” The anatomist contemplates the demise of his civilization.