19 September 2020

Who Are Those Short People?

A few weeks ago I did a column here about obscure movies. The point was, all of us have seen good movies that everybody knows about, but there are some good ones that almost nobody's heard of--and those can be fun to find and watch.

The same goes for short stories, and their authors. Just as we're familiar with the names of famous novelists, a lot of us also know the names of famous short-story writers: Chekhov, Munro, Cheever, Bradbury, O'Connor, Poe, Welty, Doyle, Saki, Twain, Hoch, Dahl, Serling, Asimov, Jackson, Kafka, Joyce, Carver, Oates, O. Henry, Lovecraft, Baldwin, Ellison, etc. (And yes, most of them are famous for novels as well.)

But . . . there are some lesser-known writers of shorts who I believe were equally as talented. Here are a few I happened to discover, later in my writing life than I would've hoped.

Richard Matheson -- A master storyteller, and one of the writers (along with Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Earl Hamner, and others) for the original Twilight Zone. I first became award of Matheson when I found out he wrote the book that became the movie Somewhere in Time (which, God help me, I still love). I have here on my shelves two collections of Matheson's stories: Duel and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. The title stories of those two books are among my favorites. Others are "Steel," "Prey," and "Third from the Sun."

Jack Ritchie -- My favorite short-story writer, period. He wrote many, many stories for EQMM and AHMM. I have only one of his story collections--Little Boxes of Bewilderment--but only because they're extremely hard to find. Some of my Ritchie favorites: "The Absence of Emily," "Traveler's Check," "The Green Heart" (adapted into the movie A New Leaf), "Shatter Proof," "The Operator," "Play a Game of Cyanide."

Augusto Monterroso -- A Honduran writer who, like Ritchie, wrote only one novel. Everything else was short stories, some of them flash-length and some of them humorous. Here are a few that I think are worth finding and reading: "The Eclipse," "The Outdoor Poet," "Dinosaur," and "Mister Taylor."

Cornell Woolrich -- A great writer who led an incredibly sad life. Known mostly for the movie Rear Window, which was adapted from his short story "It Had to be Murder." He also wrote many novels that were made into movies. I own one of his story collections, Night & Fear, but loaned it out years ago. (If the guy who "borrowed" it is reading this, may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your Fruit of the Looms.) My favorites, of Woolrich's stories: "New York Blues," "Detective William Brown," "For the Rest of Her Life," "Endicott's Girl."

John Collier -- A British novelist, Collier is best known for his short fiction, much of which is witty, dark, and full of plot twists. He wrote or contributed to a number of screenplays, and more than a dozen of his stories have been adapted for TV, radio, and film. I have only one collection of Collier shorts--Fancies and Goodnights--but the stories in it are wonderful. My favorites: "De Mortuis," "Youth from Vienna," "Over Insurance," "Bottle Party," "Squirrels Have Bright Eyes."

Charles Beaumont -- An author of mostly short science fiction and horror stories, and another of the many writers of episodes for the original Twilight Zone. He wrote only a couple of novels, early in his career, but wrote a lot of screenplays, including 7 Faces of Dr. Lao and The Masque of the Red Death. I have one of his short-story collections--Perchance to Dream--and I've enjoyed every story of his that I've read. Favorites: "The Jungle," "The Beautiful People," "The Howling Man," "Night Ride."

Fredric Brown -- My second-favorite short-story writer. Brown's story output was almost all crime and science fiction. Among other things, he was a master at what's now called flash fiction, and he wrote several novels that later became movies. I own three of his collections--From These Ashes, Miss Darkness, and Nightmares and Geezenstacks. I think his standouts are "Arena," "Nightmare in Yellow," "Voodoo," "Rebound," and "The Laughing Butcher." I'm always amazed that so few readers know about this writer.

Have any of you read these seven authors? If so, what do you think of their stories, style, etc.?

NOTE: Two years ago I posted a SleuthSayers column about both Ritchie and Brown, in case you want to know more about them.

Changing the subject, here– If you're interested in reading some excellent lesser-known short stories by the better-known writers, here are my suggestions:

"The Last Rung on the Ladder," Stephen King
"Never Stop on the Motorway," Jeffrey Archer
"Strangers on a Handball Court," Lawrence Block
"The Last Night of the World," Ray Bradbury
"The Blood Bay," Annie Proulx
"Torch Song," John Cheever
"Dead Man," James M. Cain
"Fetching Raymond," John Grisham
"A Retrieved Reformation," O. Henry
"Perfect Timing," Bill Pronzini
"Not a Drill," Lee Child
"Carrera's Woman," Ed McBain
"Survival Week," James W. Hall
"Poison," Roald Dahl
"Come Dance with me in Ireland," Shirley Jackson
"The Last Good Country," Ernest Hemingway
"A Happy Man," Anton Chekhov
"Running Out of Dog," Dennis Lehane
"A&P," John Updike
"The Mule Rustlers," Joe R. Lansdale
"Tenkiller," Elmore Leonard

I can't finish a discussion like this without mentioning the many other short-story writers whose work regularly appears in magazines like AHMM, EQMM, BCMM, Strand, etc. I won't try to list them because I would probably leave someone out, but many of those fellow writers (and friends) are famous as well, and some have oatbags right here in the SleuthSayers stable. I hope you're already reading their stories.

In closing, who are some of your favorites short-story authors, known and unknown? (And some stories to point us to?)

Keep writing, and be safe.


  1. I caught you napping, John. When you wrote John Morris you meant John Collier, whom I wrote about here: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2020/06/fancies-and-goodnights.html

    You and I have discussed our mutual admiration for Jack Ritchie, master of the comic crime short. Did you know "The Green Heart" became a musical? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvO0rFwt2v4

    I'm surprised you didn't mention Stanley Ellin, another shorts master (I found his novels mediocre, except the stunning STRONGHOLD). Among his masterpieces: "The Specialty of the House," "The Payoff," "You Can't Be A Little Girl All Your Life," and "The Moment of Decision."

  2. Oh, yes. Love Richard Matheson, Cornell Woolrich, Charles Beaumont, Frederic Brown.
    Some of my favorites:
    George Alec Effinger "One" "Schrödinger's Kitten"
    Harlan Ellison "Jeffty is 5" "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream"
    Roger Zelazny "The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth"
    Louis Untermeyer "The Dog of Pompeii"
    C.L. Moore (Catherine Moore) "Shambleau"
    Isaac Asimov "Nightfall"

    I could go on and on.

  3. Ha! Rob, you sure did catch me. I've updated that now, and I'll tell you what happened. When I typed up a draft of this post, I plugged in a last name (Morris came from someplace in my memory, as just a placeholder) for Collier because I didn't recall it at the moment, and then completely FORGOT to go back and change it. The crazy thing is, I have Collier's book right here and recently re-read it, and loved his stories. I wish I could blame that mistake on our new version of Blogger, which gave me huge problems during the creation of this post, but this was just my forgetfulness. Thanks so much for catching my error.

    No, I didn't know about the musical version of "The Green Heart," but I'll check that video today. Thanks for that also. Ritchie was wonderful.

    Yep, should've included Ellin. I bet there are others also, who don't come quickly to mind when folks think of short stories but who were wonderful writers.

  4. O'Neil, I appreciate these names, stories, and suggestions. I'd not heard of some of these, and I intentionally left Ellison and Asimov off my list because I consider them well-known rather than little-known. (But this is vague, since different names are familiar to different readers.)

    I plan to try to find the stories in your list. It's always fun to hear about writers I didn't previously know about, and I'm always a bit surprised that some of these older stories can be located and read online.

    Thank you as always!

    1. Asimov is well known, yes. Writers like us know of Ellison and some know Effinger but go into Barnes & Noble or just about any bookstore and try to find a book by either.

    2. O'Neil, you're right--many of these writers (and some of my favorites, like Ritchie and Brown and Ellison) are names few readers have heard of, and their work is certainly not easily found in bookstores. I've picked up a lot of tips from you and Rob and Leigh and others about writers who later became some of my favorites. Makes me wonder how many undiscovered (by me, at least) authors might be out there.

  5. Cornell Woolrich was my inspiration, when I started writing. Many movies have been made of his work - you mention Rear Window, but also The Bride Wore Black, and a few others. Love your list! Just wish we had a few women to add. Maybe I can write that one.

    1. Melodie, please, please write that one. John's list cries out for it, but I don't read enough short stories altogether to do it. Just make sure you include B.K. Stevens on the list, along with Shirley Jackson—and if we don't have to stick to crime, Dorothy Parker and Grace Paley spring to mind.

    2. I second that, Liz. Thanks!

  6. John Collier, of course. And Cornell Woolrich.
    And while he's very famous, I like Somerset Maugham's short stories better than many of his novels. (The Round Dozen is fantastic)

  7. Hey Melodie. Yep, Woolrich had a lot of his fiction adapted to the screen, and--unlike some of the others in my little list--wrote a LOT of novels as well. Jack Ritchie wrote (I think) only one novel, Tiger Island, and Monterroso also.

    I thought of plenty of female shorts writers, but none that I considered lesser-known. Yes, please do post a column on that!

    Eve -- I too think Maugham's shorts were better than some of his novels. I have a collection here of his stories, called W. Somerset Maugham: 30 Great Short Stories--but it doesn't include "The Round Dozen."

    I can think of several novelists, and Hemingway is one, whose short stories were (I thought) as good or better than their longer fiction.

    Thanks for the comments, both of you!

  8. For those who haven't read it and would like to, "The Round Dozen" can be found here online:

  9. Whoa! Thanks, Eve. Headed there right now.

  10. Great line-up of short story masters, John. I just finished re-reading a collection of Matheson's tales. Some of my other favorites are M.R.James, H.H.Munro (what is it with English writers and initials?), Flannery O'Connor, Ambrose Bierce, Daphne du Maurier, and Guy De Maupassant.

  11. Hi David. Great writers, there. As for Matheson, I can't remember a short story of his I didn't like. When I was re-watching all the Twilight Zone episodes I was surprised at how many RM wrote, and I've seen what I believe is every filmed version of "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," including one called "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet." (I think I liked the one with John Lithgow best.)

    Thanks for the names!

  12. "The Great Slow Kings" by Roger Zelazny. This story was in a book I loaned to my sister & when she eventually returned it, I was reminded of when you loaned out a copy of Cornell Woolrich's book, flea infestation etc.
    "Collision" by Al Nussbaum. While he was in prison for bank robbery he sold stories to the mystery magazines.
    "Why I Live at the P.O." by Eudora Welty. Remember the Eudora email program, it was named for her.
    "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" by Carson McCullers, although it's too long to be a short story. It is probably a novella or novelette or something.

  13. Thanks, Elizabeth, for the story suggestions--especially the first two. I'll make a point of finding those. The second two I'm familiar with (remember, I'm in Mississippi, so I think I've read everything Miss Welty wrote).

    One the the things I remember most about "Why I Live at the P.O." is that she used half a dozen southern regional expressions in there that I doubt a lot of folks would even understand. Love that story.

  14. Love this, John! I've read a bunch of these authors and stories. I'll recommend the little-known short stories of L. Frank Baum (Yes, THAT L. Frank Baum!), especially one of his few mysteries: "The Suicide of Kiaros." A fine locked-room mystery (from 1897!) it contains a last line worthy of any of the writers mentioned in this column! You can find the story in Peter Haining's anthology "Knights of Madness." Some of Baum's best short work can be found in his anthologies "Animal Fairy Tales" and American Fairy Tales." I'll recommend "The Glass Dog," "The Stuffed Alligator," "The Dummy That Lived" and "The Enchanted Buffalo" as some of the very best.

  15. Jeff, I always learn something from you. I plan to check these Baum stories out.

    Many thanks!

  16. Oh, of course GREAT female short story writers: Shirley Jackson (besides the classic The Lottery, The Demon Lover's a knockout), Eudora Welty, Ursula LeGuin (Changing Planes is a wonderful short-story collection, as well as 5 Ways to Forgiveness), Annie Proulx, and many, many, many more.

  17. I am probably the only person who feels this way, but I don't think Shirley Jackson's best story was The Lottery. Read The Possibility of Evil sometime. That last paragraph...

    I got tired of Sue Grafton's novels about halfway through the alphabet but she wrote stunning private eye stories. Try A Poison That Leaves No Trace.

    Ursula K LeGuin was the best fabulist after Borges died. I don't know who, if anyone, takes her place. Read The Author of the Acacia Seeds, or She Unnames Them.

  18. Eve, I have one of Shirley Jackson's collections here, and I love her stories. I've heard a lot of folks say they're tired of "The Lottery," just because they've read it so many times, but I'm still crazy about that story, and used it in my classes as a great example of detached POV, foreshadowing, etc. etc. I still get chills when I read it, after all these years. I also have Close Range, Proulx's collection that includes "Brokeback Mountain," and I think ALL of her stories in that one are great.

    Rob, I didn't specifically include LeGuin because I consider her well-known, but I agree that her stories are fantastic. Thanks for the mention of some of these short stories to look for. (You too, Eve.)

  19. Sorry for the late comment but my internet had been down for three days. Let me add three wonderful short stories.

    "The Enemy" by Charlotte Armstrong, one of the greatest writers of domestic suspense -- unfairly well on her way to being a forgotten writer.

    "The Night They Missed the Horror Show" by Joe R. Lansdale, certainly one of the most original writers practicing today.

    "The Face" by Ed Gorman, whose empathy with the common man helped secure his literary reputation.

    All three stories could well hold their own in any literary anthology.

  20. Jerry -- Thanks for the additions. I love everything Lansdale writes, horror and western and mystery/suspense too, and I remember "The Face" also, by Gorman. Those guys are two of my longtime heroes.

    I have NOT read "The Enemy," and it's now on my list.

    Many thanks!


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