Odd tales
March 8, 2009 2:21 PM   Subscribe

I'd like recommendations for short stories that are strange, humorous, or have a surprising twist.

I'm in an english class where we're reading long, kind of dull, "straight" novels, one after the other. I'm enjoying the class but I need some antidotes - stories that are off the wall, exotic, mysterious, or... something like that. They need to be short enough that I can read them in one sitting.

My favorite short story ever, which definitely qualifies, is Borges' The Secret Miracle. Donald Barthelme's short stories, which I've been reading recently (and enjoying very much), would also count. Recommendations for genre short stories - fantasy, science fiction, horror, whatever - would be very much appreciated as well.

Recommendations for specific short stories, rather than collections or authors, would be appreciated - but if everything an author's done is amazing, well... go for it.
posted by Rinku to Writing & Language (57 answers total) 83 users marked this as a favorite
You want every short story ever written by Roald Dahl. This was his stock in trade.
posted by jbickers at 2:23 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you want every short story ever written by James Thurber.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:26 PM on March 8, 2009

The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente is a collection of nested fairytale-type short stories that are often strange and gruesome. (Its sequel is also fantastic.) If you want a quick fix, her story "A Buyer's Guide to Maps of Antarctica" is online for free.
posted by bewilderbeast at 2:29 PM on March 8, 2009

2nding Roald Dahl.
posted by phunniemee at 2:33 PM on March 8, 2009

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

The Lottery

Almost all of Poe's stories - Fall of the House of Usher, The Telltale Heart, etc.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury - although the stories within are related, they are all short stories that can be read on their own, my favorite is Usher II
posted by radicarian at 2:40 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Check out Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthology series--in it you'll find consistently strange, spooky, exciting short stories.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:42 PM on March 8, 2009

I'm a big fan of Borges, too. Check out "Chapter and verse", one of my favorites for the ending.
posted by mateuslee at 2:43 PM on March 8, 2009

My favourite of Dahl's is Lamb to the Slaughter.
posted by riane at 2:48 PM on March 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

One more - Neil Gaiman's short stories are good ones that would qualify - of the ones I've read, Snow, Glass, Apples is my favorite
posted by radicarian at 2:50 PM on March 8, 2009

The amazing Fredric Brown
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 2:53 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

James Salter's "Last Night"
posted by robverb at 3:05 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

The first book I bought for my new Kindle is the following book of short stories, and New York Times picked it as one of its best of 2008 :

Steven Millhauser's Dangerous Laughter
posted by newfers at 3:14 PM on March 8, 2009

Saki! (And Roald Dahl, too. They are similar: clever British writers with a delicious taste for the macabre.)

Saki stories are creepy and hilarious and twisty and short. Many will stay with you forever.

His classic, called Sredni Vashtar, is one of the most memorable short stories ever written. Here is the full text, if you don't mind reading online. The Open Window is another.

(These are MUCH better read from a musty hardcover wrapped in a blanket with some tea or a nice tumbler of whiskey.)
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:37 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I came in here to push Dahl, Gaiman, Bradbury and Saki only to find I'd been beaten to the punch on three quarters on them.

So consider the first three Nthed and have some direct links to my favorite short stories by Saki.
posted by the latin mouse at 3:40 PM on March 8, 2009

posted by CunningLinguist at 3:42 PM on March 8, 2009

Anything by George Saunders. He's in the New Yorker a lot so some of his stories may be available online. But his collections are great. He's quirky, strange, dark, funny - just what you want.
posted by chowflap at 3:50 PM on March 8, 2009

If you like extremely short stories, check out Barry Yourgrau's work. The Sadness of Sex in particular. (Though the movie sucks so don't go by that.)
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 3:57 PM on March 8, 2009


A Perfect Day for Bananafish was the first "WTF???" story of my youth.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:57 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I write pretty weird stuff. But you should also check out the works of...

The always fantastic O Henry.

Someone earlier linked An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

Then there's the work of Robert E Howard, author of the Conan The Barbarian stories.

Last but not least, another pulp writer, Howard Philips Lovecraft

Those should do for a start. And look for any of the short story collections of Stephen King, with Everything's Eventual being a good place to begin
posted by tylerfulltilt at 4:25 PM on March 8, 2009

Haruki Murakami's short stories are short, easy to read, and definitely 'off the wall'.

English translations generally come in collections:

Blind Willow Sleeping Woman

The Elephant Vanishes

After the Quake
posted by Griffinlb at 4:26 PM on March 8, 2009

I have the complete collection of Guy de Maupassant and love nearly every story. He was a master. Many, maybe most, have a surprising twist.
Here's a favorite: The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant
posted by Gerard Sorme at 4:41 PM on March 8, 2009

Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier is exactly what you're looking for.
posted by ROTFL at 4:49 PM on March 8, 2009

Philip K. Dick.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 5:05 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love Borges, and coming across this guy Benjamin Rosenbaum's stuff (though meta, actually) tickled some of the same parts of my brain. His collection "The Ant King and Other Stories" is online for free through CC. I would particularly recommend the title story, and also "Biographical Notes to “A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes,” by Benjamin Rosenbaum".

Also, Kelly Link is really great too. "Magic for Beginners" (another creative commons link) is possibly my favorite short story collection of all time, even above Gaiman. Her stuff is very weird, funny, weird again, and tingly.
posted by Tesseractive at 5:10 PM on March 8, 2009

Naked by David Sedaris - each chapter is it's own little story, and so funny.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:12 PM on March 8, 2009

Ehh whoops missed the "specific story" part of the ask, as for Kelly Link, read "Stone Animals" and "Catskin", available at that link.
posted by Tesseractive at 5:12 PM on March 8, 2009

Sheila Heti's The Middle Stories. You can read the whole thing online. I would particularly recommend the second one, 'Mermaid in the Jar', for general absurdity. 'The Princess and the Plumber' is also really great.
posted by heatherann at 5:23 PM on March 8, 2009

Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man is one of the best collections of short stories I've ever read (and one of my favorite books ever). It's a story about a man who has tattoos that come to life and tell stories. Each tattoo is it's own short story, all very different.
posted by geeky at 5:33 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


sandkings, totally fantastic. If you can find the whole collection of George R.R. Martin short stories named after this story, even better
posted by Redhush at 5:37 PM on March 8, 2009

Patricia Highsmith: Nothing That Meets the Eye
posted by aquafortis at 5:42 PM on March 8, 2009

Came in to recommend "A Shower of Gold" by Barthelme, the story that first made me realize there was such a thing as a short story of this kind. Presumably you've already read this one, but if not, go straight to it.

Some other contemporary books that are, in one way or another, a little like Barthelme: Miranda July's No One Belongs Here More Than You. Matthew Derby's Super Flat Times, which is somewhere between Barthelme, Ben Marcus, and SF. And Ben Marcus himself, of course, though he's far enough on the "experimental side" that you might want to read a bit of The Age of Wire and String in the store before you commit.

My very favorite book in this vein not actually by Barthelme, if you can find it, is George W.S. Trow's sadly out-of-print collection Bullies. I also have a soft spot for Diary of a Flying Man, by Randy Cohen, who sometime between the 1980s and now gave up being an experimental short-fiction writer and is now The Ethicist for the New York Times Magazine.
posted by escabeche at 5:46 PM on March 8, 2009

Michael Faber's Fish for the quirk.

Alice Munro because she's the best.
posted by Alex Voyd at 5:58 PM on March 8, 2009

Short Story collections-- some strange, some humorous:
Jesus' Son- Denis Johnson
No One Belongs Here More Than You- Miranda July
Cosmicomics- Italo Calvino
Laughable Loves- Milian Kundera
Lost in the Funhouse- John Barth

Obvious/Traditional picks just in case you missed them:
Edgar Allen Poe
In Our Time- Hemingway
Tales of the Jazz Age- Fitzgerald
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love- Carver
Where are you going where have you been
The lottery
Shooting an Elephant-Orwell

And I don't like sci-fi so much, but when I did I read Asimov and Phillip K. Dick.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 6:21 PM on March 8, 2009

Borges' countryman and contemporary, Enrique Anderson Imbert, is lighter on the philosophy and heavier on the oddball fantasy. His collection El Grimorio has been translated into English as The Other Side of the Mirror. Most of these stories are very short -- as in 2 paragraphs to 5 pages.
posted by dr. boludo at 7:01 PM on March 8, 2009

"In Persuasion Nation," by George Saunders

Since you asked for funny and strange.
posted by Beardman at 7:16 PM on March 8, 2009

Humorous short stories: P.G. Wodehouse - The Jeeves stories are great, clever and satisfyingly, excruciatingly happy!
posted by storybored at 7:47 PM on March 8, 2009

Thang by Martin Gardner
posted by Confess, Fletch at 7:50 PM on March 8, 2009

Oh man, get your paws on another one of Italo Calvino's works, entitled Invisible Cities. A story on every page, and it's both absurdand fantastic. Not to mention lyrical, gorgeous and bittersweet.

This is my all-time favorite book outside of the Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster (which you should also read, although it's not short stories, but fits your bill in every other way).
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 7:54 PM on March 8, 2009

Ray Bradbury's "The Illustrated Man," specifically I recommend "Marionettes, Inc." Short, interesting, and there's a twist! But really, the whole collection is pretty great.

From Kurt Vonnegut Jr's "Welcome to the Monkey House," try "Harrison Bergeron."
posted by illenion at 7:58 PM on March 8, 2009

Cortazar was kind of Borges' heir:

Island at Noon
Southern Thruway
Blow Up/Devil's Spit
Apocalypse at Solintename
posted by minkll at 8:17 PM on March 8, 2009

Adam Johnson, Emporium (especially "Teen Sniper").

George Saunders, Civilwarland in Bad Decline (especially the title story).

J.G. Ballard, just about anything (especially "The Terminal Beach").

Barry Hannah, Airships.
posted by googly at 8:32 PM on March 8, 2009

"The Same To You Doubled" (also known as Can you Feel Anything When I Do This?) is an exceptional collection of short stories by Robert Sheckley. Although I loved pretty much all of the short stories contained within, I'd have to say my favourite was 'The Petrified World'.
posted by h00py at 8:48 PM on March 8, 2009

T.C. Boyle gets a good way out there, with humor and twists are not uncommon.
posted by ambient2 at 9:11 PM on March 8, 2009

Seconding O. Henry for short stories with a twist at the end.
posted by pravit at 9:14 PM on March 8, 2009

posted by PercussivePaul at 11:34 PM on March 8, 2009

"Hairball," by Margaret Atwood. You can find it in her short story collection Wilderness Tips (which contains many other fine short stories too). Atwood is polarizing--people seem to either love her or hate her--but if you are looking for an odd, interesting short story, "Hairball" fits the bill. Definitely not for the squeamish.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:21 AM on March 9, 2009

M R James - Classic British ghost stories. 'The Casting Of The Runes' is probably his most famous one. I'm slowly making my way through one of his collections right now between novels.

Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame) wrote several really good twisty dark (and often dark humoured) short stories.

Also second Dahl and Stephen King (especially his early collections)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:29 AM on March 9, 2009

I would strongly recommend Kelly Link too and agree with Tesseractive that 'Stone Animals' is a good place to start.

Black Juice by Margo Lanagan is another excellent collection in a similar new wave fabulist vein to Link.
posted by ninebelow at 6:31 AM on March 9, 2009

Robert Bloch's "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper"
posted by kirkaracha at 7:24 AM on March 9, 2009

The Secret Miracle is probably my favorite short story as well. Have you read the rest of Borges' fictional output? Pick up his collected fictions if not. There are many more gems to be found. The Garden of Forking Paths, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, The Lottery in Babylon, The Wait, and Funes the Memorious are some of my favorites. The collection also includes his 1960s and later work, much of which inhabits a sort of lovely border area between short story and prose poem.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:10 AM on March 9, 2009

Your references to Barthelme and Borges makes me think you are looking for slipstream material. Feeling Very Strange is a nice collection of stories in the genre from multiple authors.
posted by rtimmel at 9:48 AM on March 9, 2009

Check out Gary Lutz. He's frequently on the list of "best writers you've never heard of" --- especially if you are looking for something entirely out of the ordinary.
posted by mattbucher at 11:01 AM on March 9, 2009

Anything, but particularly The Specialty of the House by Stanley Ellin.

Anything by Jack Ritchie. This book is a great collection.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 2:30 PM on March 9, 2009

"The Swimmer" by John Cheever.

"A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:43 AM on March 10, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the wonderful suggestions! I sense much reading bliss ahead of me.
posted by Rinku at 7:12 PM on March 12, 2009

Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt".
posted by aheckler at 4:37 PM on March 13, 2009

I'll second the recommendation for Italo Calvino. Here is a collection of his books, If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, Invisible Cities, The Baron In The Trees. I'll also add The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. It is a collection of short stories, each one related to a different chemical element. Some of the stories are fictional, but some of them relate to Levi's experiences as a chemist, Italian Resistance fighter, and Auschwitz survivor.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:52 PM on January 9, 2010

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