I’ve been interested to notice in the book-blogging world that it seems to be a quirk to like short stories. I see a lot of people who read them but don’t get on with them, claiming that the form is too short and unsatisfying, that it doesn’t go anywhere, that it doesn’t offer what a novel offers. Others choose not to read them at all.
Personally, I love short stories. I have a shelf full of anthologies of them, both collections like Best American Short Stories and collections from extremely varied authors like Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Sherman Alexie, John Cheever, M. R. James, Henry James, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edith Wharton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jincy Willett, Laurie Colwin, Connie Willis, and a monstrous tome by T.C. Boyle that, genius though it was, Boyled me out (over?) for years. When I was younger, I used to read short stories like eating peanuts, one after another. Of course they don’t offer what a novel offers. Neither does Hamlet. Neither does Paradise Lost. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reading. You just have to find the good ones, like anything else.
Neil Gaiman’s collection of short-form fiction, Fragile Things, is mostly full of the good ones. The content and tone of these pieces varies a lot, from the slightly creepy to the gently humorous to the outright horrifying. Some of them are wonderful, but only if you inhabit the same world Gaiman does. For instance, the piece that introduces the collection, “A Study in Emerald,” is a mash-up of the universes of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft. If you know both universes fairly well, you will love this story (I did; I have read it several times and never fail to find it amazingly clever in every tiny detail.) If you don’t know either universe, or only know one, you’re likely to find the story baffling or even irritating. A few others are like this (though not depending so heavily on previous knowledge) : a story about the Haitian coffee girls, for instance, is delicate and hallucinatory, but leans on zombie mythology not everyone will know. The final novella, “The Monarch of the Glen,” will be more successful if you’ve read Gaiman’s novel American Gods, which I seem to be the only person on Earth to have loved.
However. There are stories in Fragile Things that are marvellous (in the original sense, to be marvelled at) even if you’re not usually a fan of fantasy, or horror, or even of short-form fiction. “Closing Time” is perhaps my favorite of the entire collection, a story that reminds me of Robert Aickman’s “strange stories” and lingers in the mind. “Diseasemaker’s Croup” packs an original punch. Anyone who has ever heard of a Gothic novel or seen any horror movie ever will love “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire”. And “The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch” is just real enough, and just strange enough, to be the perfect balance: did Miss Finch want to go? Was that her heart’s desire? Or was that another unintended consequence of that night’s strange circus?
All in all, most of these stories are worth your while (there are a few I’d skip — I think Gaiman should leave Narnia to Philip Pullman, and since I hate what Philip Pullman has to say about it, that’s saying something). Some are worth reading and re-reading. All are worth trying. After all, how do you know whether it’s a live mine or a dud unless you throw yourself at it headlong? It might blow your whole day.
* Note: Nymeth has a wonderful list of some of her favorite short stories on her home page. I encourage you to check them out if you’re dipping your toe in the waters. Among those she has listed, the Boyle recently blew my tiny mind.