The 21-day lockdown in South Africa felt like an incredibly scary concept in the beginning. Yet, the w&h team realises that the need to stay at home and flatten the curve is important. To fill your at-home journey with a little more excitement, we suggest diving deep into the world of short stories. They’re quick to read and most of your favourite novelists have tried their hand at short story writing. So, without further ado and in no specific order, let’s take a look at 21 short stories you can read over the remainder of the lockdown period.
21 short stories to read while staying at home
1. Two Words by Isabel Allende
A Long Petal for The Sea author Isabel Allende writes magical abstract texts that interweave historical fact with fiction. In Two Words, Belisa Crepusculario makes a living by selling words. A war hero contacts her in the hopes that she will write a speech for him. She accepts the offer, and writes a powerful, moving script. Later, it is revealed that Belisa has kept something secret. Read Isabel’s story here.
2. The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
For a ghoulish story, turn your gaze towards Edgar Allen Poe’s Gothic writing. In this quick read, an unidentified narrator murders an old man. Although he has performed a criminal act, the narrator insists that he has not gone mad. Read Edgar’s fantastic 1843 short mystery tale here.
3. Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf was a phenomenal writer of long-form texts, both fiction and non-fiction. But not many people know that the author dabbled in a bit of short story writing, too. Kew Gardens follows four groups of people as they roam the London Botanical Gardens. The story is Virginia’s own take on finding beauty and pleasure in unconventional spaces. Read the story for free here.
4. Kino by Haruki Murakami
You’ll relish this moody read from Haruki Murakami while enjoying your morning cuppa. In true Haruki style, there’s a bar in a back street in Tokyo where a regular customer always makes his way to the same uncomfortable corner. The bar owner, Kino, plays a vital role in the story. Of course, there’s some jazz music and a cat, too. Read Haruki’s wonderful prose for free here.
5. Graveyard Shift by Stephen King
Stephen King has mastered the art of crafting spine-chilling stories, and the Graveyard Shift is no exception. When a group of men must clean the abandoned basement of a textile mill that’s infested with rats, uncanny things begin to appear. Read Stephen’s writing on unspoken horrors for free here.
6. The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith
The acclaimed English author writes just as thought-provokingly in The Embassy of Cambodia as she did in On Beauty. The embassy becomes a place of questionable mystery in this tale where immigrants must make a living in London. You’ll ponder Zadie’s lyrical musings long after the story meets its end. Read her evocative words here.
7. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood delivers a cunning, evil narrative in Stone Mattress. Verna has had many husbands over the years – each having died from mysterious ‘natural causes’. She manages to escape being pegged as murderer, but what happens when Verna decides to go on a cruise to the Arctic? Someone from her past has embarked on the cruise voyage, too. But is it someone she’s delighted to see? Read the captivating story here.
8. The Soul is Not a Smithy by David Foster Wallace
This entry into our list of short stories will arguably require the longest reading time. Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace is known for his wildly imaginative, intellectual, and thoughtful prose. In this short story, the narrator revisits a particular day from his childhood. Read David’s story here.
9. Spider the Artist by Nnedi Okorafor
10. The Diamond as Big as the Ritz by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald draws inspiration from his own life in this narrative about a young man named John T. Unger who spends a summer vacation in Montana. The story pays tribute to the American West and all of the glorious and unlikely promises it offered. Read it for free here.
11. Scarlet Stockings by Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott is perhaps most notably known as the author of Little Women, which was adapted for the big screen again last year. In Scarlet Stockings, Harry Lennox travels to his hometown to visit his sister. Unexpectedly, Henry finds himself falling in love with his sister’s friend, Belle. Will Belle share Henry’s sentiments? Or are the pair never to be married? Read on and find the answer here.
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12. The Daughters of the Moon by Italo Calvino
Consumerism becomes the order of the day in a parallel universe not too distant from ours. The moon, in return, suffers and becomes yet another object to be consumed and discarded. But, luckily, the earth finds a way to reinvent itself. Cities, on the other hand, begin to suffer an opposite fate. Read Italo’s full poignant story here.
13. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville
This classic narrative is the very short story that famously offers the occurring sentence: “I would prefer not to”. Here, Herman writes about a Wall Street lawyer who hires a new clerk. After initially working very well, the clerk eventually refuses to do any tasks at all. Instead, he continuously says, “I would prefer not to”. This widely acclaimed tale is available to read here.
14. Down to a Sunless Sea by Neil Gaiman
Neil creates an eerie and haunting atmosphere in his take on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Singing Bone. In Down to a Sunless Sea, notions of loss and grief become significant story motifs. It’s a surprisingly quick read that will leave the imagination buzzing. It’s available for free here.
15. A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel García Márquez
One day, Pelayo and his wife Elisenda find an old man with wings in their courtyard. Their neighbour soon informs them that the man is an angel and that he came to fetch her sickly child. Word on the presence of an angel quickly spreads across town and the old man becomes a circus-like attraction. But if the old man truly is an otherworldly being, shouldn’t he be feared instead? Read what happens here.
16. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
A family road trip goes horribly south when grandmother decides she wants the clan to visit her childhood home. The family gives in to her request, but without her knowing, grandmother is leading the group into a horrendous trap. This unsettling narrative is considered one of the great satirical short stories in the Southern Gothic canon. Read it for free here.
17. Symbols and Signs by Vladimir Nabokov
An elderly couple hopes to visit their mentally unstable son on his birthday. He lives in a sanatorium, where authorities inform the parents that their son has attempted suicide and they can’t see him anymore. Troubled by the news, the couple return to their home and discuss taking their son out of the sanatorium. Later, a few mysterious phone calls begin to plague the household. Read Vladimir’s intriguing story here.
18. Olikoye by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda was commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to write this story. It formed part of a collection of tales about how vaccines have changed the course of history. In Olikoye, a small act of chance results in vaccinatios being introduced to a rural village. It’s an ode to Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, former health minister of Nigeria. Read Chimamanda’s beautiful storytelling here.
19. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber
This popular story has already been adapted for the big screen. It follows Walter Mitty as he and his wife meander along to their weekly shopping destination. It isn’t long till Walter begins to have five heroic daydreams – one in which he even becomes a smart surgeon. Read on about Walter’s daydream adventures here.
20. The Nose by Nikolai Gogol
A young man named Kovalyov wakes up one morning to find that his nose has disappeared. He normally thinks very highly of himself and his rank but now, without a nose, Kovalyov feels ashamed. Nikolai’s splendid surreal writing offers a satirical look at mankind’s obsession with social status. Read the clever and bizarre tale here.
21. The City Born Great by N.K. Jemisin
Cities are personified in this speculative tale and New York City in particular is about to be born. Unfortunately, there are ancient enemies whose one desire is to stop new life from entering the world. It’s up to a midwife to save the day, but will her efforts keep New York safe? An extraordinary fantasy short story that will stay with you long after. Find it here.
By Features Writer Marike Watson