Top 100 Short Stories
These are my favorite short stories, not in rank order. I'll update this page over time, adding stories until there are 100, and providing a synopsis of each.
1. “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury. I was a teenager when I discovered this story, and it hooked me on a life-long obsession with short stories. These days, "A Sound of Thunder" may feel dated (it was published in 1952) and the plot may be considered a bit contrived given the technological sophistication of our modern world, but I still find it compelling and well-written. The plot is this: An ordinary guy named Eckles wants to go back in time to hunt a dinosaur. There is a travel agency, Time Safari Inc., that can arrange it. The rules are iron-clad: The dinosaur world must remain as untouched by human interference as possible. The hunter must stay on the floating path, and is allowed to fire only in the final moments of the dinosaur’s life (the safari guide has already determined out which dinosaurs are going to die from natural causes anyway, and those become the target animal). No trophies can be brought back. In the confrontation with the terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex, Eckles panics and steps off the floating path, and then finds out when he returns to his world how seemingly insignificant actions in the dinosaur world have multiplied over 60 million years to cause frightening changes in his present-world. The story is a superb illustration of what is today called the “butterfly effect” -- a concept that philosophers have been discussing for centuries. Bradbury puts his own inimitable spin on it, and the effect is entertaining and thought-provoking.
“Red Pawn” by Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand is primarily known for her epic-length novels (the 1957 hardback edition of Atlas Shrugged runs 1,168 pages.) Can a novelist of such prolixity succeed in the tight space of a short story? Absolutely. In Red Pawn (written in the early 1930s), the pacing is good, the dialogue is tight, and the story reads like a movie treatment, showcasing Rand’s experience as a Hollywood screenwriter. At times the transition between scenes is a bit bumpy, and a little more editing would have tightened up the story, but the ride is worth it. The plot is this: On a harsh prison-island off the coast of Siberia, Commandant Kareyev has become indispensable to the Soviet regime because he has ruled the outpost longer and more successfully than any of his predecessors. If the regime wants him to stay, he has one condition: Send him a woman, any woman, to have as a mistress. From the next supply boat, Joan Harding disembarks. Joan is obviously not the type that the commandant had been expecting: She is an extremely glamorous American who speaks Russian. She is also quick-witted, poised, and not a professional courtesan. Beyond that, the commandant is unable to find out more about her. Who is she, exactly? And why did she choose that assignment? As the story unfolds, Joan’s true motive is revealed: She is there to rescue a prisoner, the courageous Michael Volkontzev who is the nemesis of Commandant Kareyev. Her plan becomes impossibly complicated when the cold, indifferent Karayev falls in love with her, and Volkontzev loses faith that she is really there to rescue him. An unlikely love-triangle forms as the three of them make plans to escape. But Joan’s true feelings are the mystery and the wild card right up until the end. Which man does she really love? Which of the three is making the biggest sacrifice? The story will surprise you with twists and turns worthy of any good Hollywood tale – and Rand’s unique take on the nature of sacrifice and selfishness. (Story is published in The Early Ayn Rand, Volume II, edited by Leonard Peikoff. New York: Plume/Signet New American Library. 1983, pp. 111-169. )