Long, long week.
Lots of work. Our accounts manager resigned a few days ago, and I have more than a few projects to wrap up, and we're preparing for a company merger next month, and, well... more work for me.
I've been reading a lot more as of late. I recently located my long-lost copies of Roald Dahl's My Uncle Oswald and Harry Lorayne's Memory Book, and spent a couple of convenient evenings devouring their contents. There's a certain attractive quality in reading a book that you haven't seen in a long time, really.
Occasionally I do the same with short stories. Every now and then, the title of an old favorite will come to mind, and I'll spend the next few minutes searching for a copy of that short story on the Internet. Sometimes I'm successful, and I spend the next thirty minutes perusing each and every word of the glorious past. Sometimes I don't find anything, in which case I either go through the stacks of cardboard and paper in my room, or sit down and wait for the silly thing to become a classic. It's tough, trying to find and reread the short stories you really liked.
Heck, we all have stories that we like. Short stories, anecdotes, parables, fables, fairy tales... they play inevitable parts in our lives, I think. If we don't have memories of our parents telling us bedtime stories, then we're listening to the practical lessons in priests' homilies or picking up the occasional long-winded joke on the late-night talk shows. Our whole lives are one huge collection of stories.
I'm going to be vain today and share a few of my favorites here. Most people will only recognize some of the titles, if they recognize any at all. This is probably because I tend to stay away from the really popular stuff and instead go for the underdogs; You can find quite a few hidden treasures when you pick through the stuff that most people overlook.
I've linked to readable online versions of the stories where they're available, but I've included a bit of exposition for everything anyway:
The Scorpion and the Frog (L5R version; Author Unknown)
People know this fable: A scorpion and a frog come to a river. The scorpion asks the frog to carry him across the river. The frog refuses, because he's afraid that the scorpion will sting him. Yadda yadda yadda... you've probably heard this story already.
What you probably haven't heard, however, is a slightly revised version of the fable as only the Legend of the Five Rings setting can describe it. This retold tale only appeared in The Way of the Scorpion RPG book, but has quickly passed into player lore. In fact, some quarters will not even recognize you as an L5R player if you haven't read this story yet.
If you do manage to get your hands on a copy of the story, I strongly recommend that you read it to the end no matter what. The ending tends to raise quite a few eyebrows, and is a deep testament to the power of villainy in even the worst situations. What makes it all interesting is the fact that it all takes place in three little words...
The Monkey's Paw (W. W. Jacobs)
This short story dates all the way back to 1902, and seems to be a favorite of English teachers. I myself first encountered a copy of this story when I was 12; While the narrative has admittedly lost a bit of its charm for me since then, I still think that the main plotline is excellent. I have a long-standing dream of reading this story aloud to a small audience, in fact.
What I find interesting is that this story seems to be the forerunner of its own subgenre within the realms of suspense fiction: "Blessing becomes curse". Still, the original story maintains a good amount of dignity by itself. I learned quite a few things about mood from this story's approach alone.
The Jaunt (Stephen King)
Sadly, this story is only available in Stephen King's Skeleton Crew short story collection. But it happens to be one of the author's few science-fiction stories, and it's a very memorable one at that.
What The Jaunt really does is scare the crap out of you, and I know that few science-fiction stories can lay claim to that distinction. What makes this one unique is that it doesn't scare you by means of monsters, or by buckets of gore, or even by morbid atmosphere. It doesn't scare you with shock value, and it doesn't scare you with a look inside the heart of human evil. The Jaunt just gives you a setting -- a theoretically possible setting -- and lets you scare yourself.
Incredible stuff, once you think about it. Ask me to tell the story sometime. :)
Where Love Is, God Is (Leo Tolstoy)
Okay, okay... no more morbid tales. I know that Tolstoy happens to be one of the most long-winded writers in human history, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying some of his works. Darn you, Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy actually has other short stories that are more well-known. God Sees the Truth But Waits is a classic, and How Much Land Does a Man Need? frequently makes it to lessons on ethics. But although this short story tends to get overlooked in the face of the more popular ones, I find this to be an excellent treatise on man's better nature. If anything, it teaches a very beautiful lesson that many of us may have long forgotten.
The Last Question (Isaac Asimov)
I was first given a (xeroxed) copy of this short story by a friend in college, and I've kept the gift ever since. I will go as far as saying that this illustrates the pinnacle of science-fiction in a short-story format, and I am certain that a lot of familiar readers will agree with me.
For that matter, this seems to be a long-standing favorite of many science-fiction readers (including Asimov himself). The ending is as smooth and as remarkable as you can possibly get in a story, one that will immediately cause you to break into a smile at the very realization of the idea. In fact, the ending is so memorable that most readers actually forget the title in favor of remembering the climax.
I'm certain that I have a lot more than five favorites among the short stories I've read, but I have to admit that these are literally the first items that come to mind. And I figure that, if anything makes such a great impression that it tends to stick out in your head afterwards, then it's worth remembering when you're a little older, and it's worth sharing with the people you know.
For that matter, if I ever have kids, then I'm going to resolve to read them these stories sometime. One of the qualities of an excellent story, now that I think about it, is that you must fail to keep it to yourself. :)