By Brittney Reed-Saltz
For a long time I thought that I disliked short stories. Maybe this was the result of only encountering the form in school, where stories were assigned as examples of form or technique, read quickly and squeezed of all their juice and left, at the end of a class discussion, wrung out dry. I spent so much time reading short stories in school that I didn’t seek them out for leisure reading, preferring novels.
But as an adult, I rediscovered the short form and how downright enjoyable stories can be. True, they’re not the full-blown escape of a novel, but they are portals, little interludes into other worlds, and they can do things that novels can’t. Their brevity affords them the freedom to be more poetic and occasionally less logical. They can experiment and confound and beguile. They’re great fun.
Here are three collections of short stories that I love, all of which were written by women. All of them are, more or less, dark fantasy, though each author’s interpretation of the genre reflects different influences, and provides something for very different readers.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Recently I wrote about book hangovers, and this is the specific book that inspired that post. Machado’s work blends magical realism, horror, and absurdism to comment on the everyday horrors of existing as a woman: sexual assault, body image issues, sexism. To say that Machado is unafraid to tread into weird territory or to leave readers with lingering questions is an understatement. On occasion I would finish a story and wonder what I had just read, but if you’re okay with open-ended resolutions that will make you keep thinking about the stories after you finish them, you’ll be at home with this collection.
– “Inventory,” which charts an apocalyptic pandemic through a list of the narrator’s lovers.
– “The Husband Stitch,” a feminist retelling of “The Green Ribbon” that name-drops a litany of beloved urban legends.
The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black
Holly Black is one of my most beloved authors. She always delivers a mixture of beauty and darkness that I find irresistible, and she’s among the best writers working within the framework of faerie folklore today. Some of the stories in this collection are more memorable than others, but all of them are enjoyable, and this would be a good introduction to Black’s writing if you’ve never read her before.
– “The Night Market,” an atmospheric faerie story that recalls shades of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.”
– “The Coat of Stars,” which features a tender and affecting love alongside lush descriptions of fabrics that made me want to dust off my neglected sewing machine.
– “Going Ironside,” which fits into Black’s Modern Faerie Tales series, one of my favorite urban fantasy trilogies.
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
If you want fairy tales in the Brothers Grimm sense, this book is a must-read. Carter captures the darkness of the original stories that Walt Disney edited out in favor of singing birds and helpful mice, and she adds her own shades of darkness. Female characters in fairy tales often exist in more shadow than might initially be made apparent by the unadorned, matter-of-fact language in which they’re usually written, and Carter delves into those shadows with eagerness and intelligence. Her writing is lyrical, bawdy, and sharp, perfectly tuned to her subject matter, timeless while maintaining an underlying modernity of attitude.
– “The Erlking,” a folkloric story about a woman drawn to a wildman in a forest despite the dangers he poses.
– “The Lady of the House of Love,” the profoundly Gothic tale of a vampire Countess living in a moldering Romanian castle on the eve of World War I.