I’ve read a great many short stories in my life. I don’t remember most of them. This isn’t because they weren’t, in many cases, quite good. I think that if you read a great deal something has to strongly resonate with you if you are going to remember it.
Some psychologist could probably construct a personality test based on the types of stories that really grab a given reader. Academics have been doing armchair psychoanalysis of writers at least since Freud. Is anyone other than the publishing industry looking at readers?
The following are a few examples of shorter fiction (I decided to exclude novellas) that made some sort of impression on me that remains after many years. The stories are in no particular order other than how I happened to stack the books I carried to where my computer is set up.
“Ripples in the Dirac Sea” by Geoffrey Landis. A young man builds a working time machine small enough that he can easily conceal it on his person. He checks into his hotel room at a conference where he plans to announce his discovery. A huge fire breaks out, and he is trapped in his room. Any time now, the flames will burst in, and he will die a horrible death. He uses his machine to escape into the past.
He soon learns two things: (a) any changes he makes in the past are temporary and will sooner or later wash away (b) no matter what he does, including suicide, he will inevitably keep returning to that motel room, each time a few seconds closer to incineration. He visits many times and places, but keeps returning to San Francisco during the brief Summer of Love. He makes the same friends and lovers again and again (they never remember him), but finds that all the possible variations of what begins as a episode of happiness end tragically.
“Red Star, Winter Orbit” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Humans discover that by parking occupied spacecraft – robot probes don’t work – in certain areas of the solar system we can sometimes hitch a ride with incomprehensible beings. Astronauts who make the trip sometimes return years later with fragments of astonishing technology. They return broken, mad people. Yet some are willing to volunteer to be bait. What does it do to people who are driven to volunteer, but are never picked up?
“Funes, the Memorious” or “Funes, His Memory” (the English title depends on who does the translation from Spanish) by Jorge Luis Borges. Do you really want to be able to remember everything? A number of Borges’s stories make my list, such as the “Garden of Forking Paths” and “The Library of Babel,” but, perhaps because Funes was the first Borges story I ever read, it remains my favorite. His fictions are sometimes thought experiments about Big Questions conducted through the literature of the fantastic. I like that.
“Afterward” by Edith Wharton. This little gem may be the quietest horror story ever written. Unlike a lot of later horror fiction, there is a premise that when the unspeakable comes for you, you probably deserve it.
“The Book of Blood” by Clive Barker. This is the first Barker tale I every read, I believe it was in OMNI magazine, decades ago. Barker once remarked in an interview that horror fiction is religious at its roots because where else – outside of really dreadful “Christian” or other religious fiction – can you take superhuman good and evil seriously in the context of life after death?
This is a tiny sample of the sort of stories that stay with me. What would yours look like?