I think a lot of this comes from my childhood. I was an only child, and my parents were 40 when they adopted me; everyone around me was (it seemed) at least 40 years older than me, and back then children were expected to keep their mouths shut and just be there while the adults talked, talked, talked. Luckily for me, most of them were storytellers. A story, told in the night, to make you sigh or smile or shiver... still pretty much the ideal.
And I like reading short stories. I don't understand why so few magazines carry short stories anymore. Why there are so few short-story magazines. (Especially considering that attention spans seem to be growing shorter and shorter all the time, but that's another rant.) I love them. And some of the finest writing anywhere has been done in that format. Here are my picks for some of the greatest short story writers:
John Collier. "Fancies and Goodnights" contains some of his best work. (It won the Edgar Award in 1962.) Read "Bottle Party" to find out what really happens with a genie in the bottle. "The Chaser" - on how tastes change over time. "If Youth Knew What Age Could"... One of my favorites, "The Lady on the Grey." And on and on. Many of his stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected. He also wrote screenplays (including "Sylvia Scarlett", [uncredited] "The African Queen", and "I am A Camera"), and a couple of novels of which my favorite is the mordant, devilish, unforgettable "His Monkey Wife."
Ray Bradbury. There are not enough words in the English language to praise his amazing output of short stories. From "The Fruit in the Bottom of the Bowl" to "I Sing the Body Electric," "April Witch" to "The Veldt", "A Sound of Thunder" to the heartbreaking "There Will Come Soft Rains", "Dark They Were and Golden Eyed", the whole body of "The Martian Chronicles", and on and on, I gobbled each and every one of his stories I could get my hands on. His work inspired me, amazed me, touched me... couldn't get enough of it. And he was primarily a short-story writer: aside from "Fahrenheit 451", his other novels didn't really gel for me. ("The Martian Chronicles" is a collection of short stories, with a narration in between.) He showed what could be done in the medium of short fiction. And, of course, he was a regular writer for "Twilight Zone" and other TV shows...
Somerset Maugham. One of the few who could write both great novels, and great short stories. "The Letter" - made into film twice, most notably with Bette Davis as the cool and collected murderess. "The Lotus Eater" - when Paradise runs out... "Red" - what really happens when you look up your old childhood sweetheart... "The Luncheon" - never ask questions you can't take the answer to... The hilarious "Three Fat Women of Antibes", "The Vessel of Wrath", "The Verger"... and, of course, the "Ashenden" series which practically began secret agent stories. (Alfred Hitchcock combined "The Hairless Mexican" and "The Traitor" into the 1936 movie "Secret Agent" with John Gielgud and Peter Lorre.) Seriously, his short stories are like popcorn at the movies - once I start reading them (I have a four-volume set), I can't quit until I've worked my way through... way too many.
Arthur Conan Doyle. Let us never forget that 90% of the Memoirs of Dr. John H. Watson about his inimitable companion, Sherlock Holmes, are short stories. We all have our favorites. (Sadly, the relentless reinterpretations of Holmes and Adler have reduced my pleasure in "A Scandal in Bohemia".) Among mine are "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches", "The Speckled Band", "The Greek Interpreter", "The Devil's Foot", and "The Norwood Builder". I have spent many a rainy afternoon curled up in a couch with a hot cup of tea and my father's one-volume "Complete Works", reading, reading, reading, time travelling to Victorian/Edwardian London, as Sherlock Holmes - the world's only private consulting detective - solves case after case after case... Ah... Excuse me, I have some reading to do...
NOTE: These are, of course, only a few of the many tremendous short-story writers I've read. Flannery O'Connor, Guy de Maupassant, Rudyard Kipling, Roald Dahl, Daphne du Maurier ("The Birds", yes - but never forget "The Little Photographer"), Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov, Ursula LeGuin and Isaac Asimov, and so many of my esteemed colleagues... I really do have some reading to do!