Orca Blog for February, 2019 – 10 Great Short Stories You Can Read for Free Online

We could easily link to dozens more short stories that have moved us, inspired us, or racked us with jealousy of their brilliance, but the internet likes lists and it likes them pithy. So what follows should prove a nice primer to the great resources available for those who hunger for literary language in their lives, or for anyone who just needs a quick vacation from reality. In no particular order:

1) In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, by Amy Hempel, 1983
A classic story that deals with aspects of friendship, regret, and our ability to face death, by one of the true masters of the short form. Amazingly, this is the first short story Hempel ever wrote, when she was a student in Gordon Lish’s New York City fiction class. The story has become one of the most widely anthologized, and has long been one of my favorites. —Joe

2) A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, by Ernest Hemingway, 1933
It is easy, perhaps even fashionable now, to dismiss Hemingway. His contribution to the English language is inestimable, but perhaps his time has come and gone? This story, however, is impossible to dismiss. It cuts right to the core of our humanity. The foil of the two waiters (old and young / apathetic and impassioned) is inspired and its message is timeless. —Zac

3) Division by Zero, by Ted Chiang, 1991
Chiang is perhaps unique in his ability to combine complex scientific and mathematical concepts with deep, emotionally satisfying fiction. His story, “Story of Your Life,” was the basis for the movie “Arrival.” A computer scientist by education, his work has won four Nebula awards, four Hugo awards, and many other honors. Plus he was born just a couple of miles from where I lived when I was a kid. —Joe

4) Museum of the Dearly Departed, by Rebecca Makkai, 2015
A lesser writer would have stumbled upon this story’s excellent surface premise (people cleaning out loved ones’ apartments following a fatal gas leak) and have been satisfied with it. Makkai, one of the modern masters of the short story, deftly combines several interconnected ideas that generate whole new levels of meaning and new layers of emotional depth. —Zac

5) In the Dry, by Breece D’J Pancake, 1978
When Breece Pancake was a student at the University of Virginia, he was already being considered as one of the potentially great writers of his time. He hailed from Appalachian West Virginia (although he was not a “hillbilly”), and wrote almost exclusively about the rural people of that area. The depth of his short fiction is still incredible. But Pancake could never fit in with the people and pace of mainstream and university life. At the age of 26 he committed suicide. He wrote only 12 stories in his brief career. —Joe

6) Girls, At Play, by Celeste Ng, 2012
I’m a firm believer that any talented writer can and should write from any perspective, regardless of his/her/their race, gender, or background. However, there are certainly stories that can only be written by a woman, and this is one of them. The first time I read it felt like having my brain rewired. I’m sure this disturbing story doesn’t speak for every 8th grade girl, but it must speak for some, and I’m grateful for the opportunity this narrative gave me to exist in that challenging world for a spell. Plus, I’m a sucker for the first person, plural narrator. —Zac

7) Sonny’s Blues, by James Baldwin, 1957
Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, has recently been released as a motion picture, but it’s “Sonny’s Blues” that placed Baldwin among the greatest writers of his generation and beyond. It’s a complex story of self-discovery in black America, during a time when “separate but equal,” although outlawed by the Supreme Court three years before, was still the de facto law of the land. —Joe

8) The Last Rung on the Ladder, by Stephen King, 1978
Throw aside everything you might think you know about “The Master of Horror.” The literary establishment loves to dismiss genre authors, especially if they sell well, but there’s a reason behind King’s success: strong writing. There is not a drop of horror to be found in this story. There is only heart, tears, and a resounding need to reach out to your loved ones after you read it. —Zac

9) Bullet in The Brain, by Tobias Wolff, 1995
Wolff does something in this story they tell beginning writers not to do: his main character is a complete ass, with apparently no redeeming social qualities at all. He’s such a jerk that readers can develop more sympathy for the armed bank robbers who threaten him. But by the end of this tale you may, like me, be reduced to a puddle of emotion, because at its heart this is a story about hope and dreams, and how we never completely let go of them. —Joe

10) Where are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates, 1966
We all have that first story we read that lights up our imagination like a roman candle. This is mine; the story that made me want to be a writer. It was the first piece I remember reading that worked both as a straight-forward narrative (a harrowing one at that) and as a rich allegory. Enjoy it for its story, its language, or for its biblical and social allusions, but enjoy it you will. —Zac

BONUS STORY: The Dead, by James Joyce
We both had this one on our list, so it gets special status.
• A great candidate for the best English language short story ever written. —Zac
• I could read the ending of this story a thousand times and it would still exhilarate me. (PS: If you’ve never seen the John Huston movie based on this story, rent it.) —Joe