Does Anyone Still Read Short Stories?

Observatory, Reading & Writing


(This article contains an edited version of a passage in ‘Paperboy’)

With the arrival of e-reading I’ve found that short story anthologies seem to have largely vanished from shop shelves. My first break into fiction was via a collection of short stories, and I went on to produce ten volumes of them, most of which have never been seen outside of the UK. There are moves now to get them reprinted, so I hope some of these stories, quite a few of which won awards, will finally get a decent airing.

Now, though, it’s almost impossible to sell a short story collection unless it’s through small press, with a limited readership. Have we lost our taste for short stories? The books in the photo are just a smattering of the short story collections I kept, and there are so many brilliant gems of tales in them. So why won’t publishers produce collections any more?

I’m sure I’m not alone in recalling that books were always the cheapest form of decent entertainment as a child, when I discovered a chain of seedy South London second-hand stores called the Popular Book Centres. They stamped their smudged triangular logo inside all their books, and made enough money from thrusting, pointy-breasted top-shelf smut to keep racks of yellowing, soon-to-be-lost, dirt-cheap paperbacks going for real readers. In this way, they were every bit as useful as public libraries.

The Popular Book Centre in Greenwich was presided over by a gimlet-eyed man with black fingernails and the complexion of an old haddock. He looked as though he had been cast to play a lecherous plumber in a porn movie. The great thing about the shop was that I could always find something rare and wonderful lurking in the racks, and as everything was 1/6d I could afford to take a chance on the dodgiest-looking books.

The library had been good to me, but I deserted it for something grubbier and more delinquent. Alfred Hitchcock had put his name to a series of dog-eared anthologies that were wonderful assorted literary ragbags, and from these I started making informed decisions about the writing I enjoyed most. It was important; I did not play sports or ‘join in’, as my mother called it, and reading, by its nature, was an unsocial occupation.

I made my first list of favourite short stories.

‘The Cone’ – HG Wells

‘Leningen Versus The Ants’ – Carl Stephenson

‘Camera Obscura’ – Basil Copper

‘Evening Primrose’ – John Collier

‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ – Evelyn Waugh

‘The Fly’ – George Langelaan

In time I discovered a wealth of beautifully written stories, most of which are now lost from view. In my head I built the ultimate anthology. Dino Buzzati’s story ‘Seven Floors’ was a heartrending study of our fear of illness, while his tale ‘Just The Very Thing They Wanted’ chilled because it denied its characters the rights to their most basic needs – the right to sit down, to be calm, to drink a glass of water. John Collier’s ‘Evening Primrose’ concerned a man who moved into a department store to live among the mannequins, because he could not cope with urban life. Tennessee Williams wrote of searching a cinema for companionship and discovering a ghost in ‘The Mysteries Of The Joy Rio’, as did Graham Greene in the classic ‘A Little Place Off The Edgeware Road’. The first time I read the Williams’ story I was so shocked that I felt he could see directly into my mind. orror

Meanwhile, The Fifty Strangest Stories Ever Told remained under my bed until every story was digested. When the supply of new stories dried up, I headed back to the Popular Book Centre like an itchy drug addict, creeping shamefully past the soft porn in the window to root about in the barely fingered fiction section. Here, the Pan Books Of Horror provided the next benchmark that all other collections had to reach. Their anthologist, Herbert Van Thal, edited the first twenty five volumes, but as the tales became more explicitly gruesome they lost much of their power; heavier shocks were clearly required in jaundiced times. The darkest shadows are found in brightest sunlight, so it’s natural to discover them in childhood, but I still felt guilty about my nascent literary tastes. Other kids weren’t even reading, or if they were, stuck to pilots and pirates. They weren’t checking out worst case scenarios by trawling through horror stories, hoping to find survival tips.

Where are the great popular collections now? Could it be that reading is becoming a more elitist leisure occupation, and traditional ‘popular’ collections are no longer viable?

All thoughts on the subject – pro and con – in the comments please!

22 comments on “Does Anyone Still Read Short Stories?”

  1. Skywatcher says:

    Anthologies used to trawl the best from the magazines that published short stories. How many mainstream magazines are there nowadays that publish short stories? If you’re the sort of person that likes the sort of stories that they publish in ELLERY QUEEN/ALFRED HITCHCOCK MAGAZINE then you probably already buy those magazines regularly.

    What I love about the best anthologies is the fact that you can find something that you had previously never even heard about. Sadly, some editors simply trawl up the same old stuff (is there anyone interested in vampires who hasn’t read DRACULA’S GUEST?) One of my favourite short stories is CONTENTS OF THE DEAD MAN’S POCKETS by Jack Finney. It’s not only nail-bitingly gripping, it also makes its point beautifully in a few pages. I’ve only seen one copy in an obscure anthology from years back. How many other gems are waiting to be rediscovered?

  2. Ken Murray says:

    Ah this post does bring back memories of the type of books one read as a youngster… I do remember reading a lot more short stories in my teens and this was probably due to a shortened attention span. Though I think that a lot of the novels of the type you mention (gaudy covers and titles) were also quite short in length. Moreover I recall reading novels like Bony and the White Savage by Arthur W Upfield, complete with half-naked woman on the cover. Probably not pc enough now though but a good read at the time. Also the Hitchcock associated collections pictured reminded me of another series I loved as a child, the Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators books. Although he briefly appeared in the stories I never understood why there was a connection?

  3. admin says:

    ‘Contents of a Dead Man’s Pocket’ can be found in the First Pan Book Of Horror Stories.

  4. Dylan Lancaster says:

    I remember reading at least half those books in the picture you posted. I still love a good short story. Waterstones in Manchester (the Deansgate branch) are still quite good at stocking them but you need to know where to look. Sadly all the small independent book shops have gone now so we’re restricted to the big ones and charity shops.

  5. Leonie says:

    I also read a lot of short stories as a child/ teen; most of the Pan Horror series (some of them gave me terrible nightmares!!) and Roald Dahl’s adult books of short stories (ditto!)and many more…
    Although I do miss the character development that is only really possible with longer stories, I think short stories are a particularly good medium for shocking tales- some of Dahl’s are almost haiku-like- and leave you a bit breathless. Possibly it’s due to the average attention-span of a teenager? I do still read short stories, but find that I’m often disappointed when they end and keep hoping for more!

  6. Ralph Williams says:

    I would recommend, if you can find it, “Isaac Asimov Presents the Best Science Fiction of the 19th Century” which includes the excellent The Shapes by J S Rosny, and the excellent series of reprints by the Wordsworth Editions, especially the collection by Edith Nesbit.

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    I have two shelves of short stories and some collections scattered around the house. I like to dip in and read a couple, then put a small mark next to the title in the index. And add a bookmark.
    Haven’t read the Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock magazines since the late Seventies; too much template used in their writing. But the Ellery Queen was very good when it was edited by the creators of Ellery Queen. It also contained a monthly book review column by Anthony Boucher and then after his death by John Dickson Carr, which he then wrote until he grew too ill to continue.
    The very first Alfred Hitchcock hardback was “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” with a gray cover, a bit of blood red, and his TV caricature. This was the only volume – according to my Father – that he actually suggested stories for inclusion. It was a mix of the new and the old. “Creeps by Night” was a 20’s-30’s collection supposedly edited by Dashiell Hammett and there was another good one by Dorothy Sawyers; also a collection of stories edited Gypsy Rose Lee, who wrote a pair of novels, for exp. The G-String Murders.

  8. Mike Brough says:

    The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror (up to Volume 23 now) has been a reasonable replacement for the Pans. The Ellen Datlow Best Horror of the Year also gets good reviews but I haven’t read any of those.

  9. Nicole Seelig says:

    I started reading horror stories in my teenage years, Stephen King and Dean Koontz mainly, and later moved on to read other authors, including your good self, when I came to London. Short stories were always handy if you wanted to just read a little something before bedtime, or in between doing other stuff, without having to put the book down halfway through, and wondering what happened next. It would be a pity if this type of story telling were to die out. While a full novel has more depth, it is also quite a skill to cram all the necessary information into a short format, without the whole thing feeling rushed. By the way, On Edge left me completely freaked out for a good three hours afterwards, and I didn’t dare see the film version by the great Frazer Lee for quite a while 🙂

  10. Laura Humphrey says:

    I remember those Popular Book Centre’s, I used to go to the one in Lewisham in the late 70’s as a kid. I lived in Greenwich, were was that one. I loved the Armada and Fontana books of ghost stories, I liked Pan but found them too grisly at times. My mum used to work in the bookshop opposite the seamans hospital on the corner. I spent many a happy hour wondering around there.

  11. Dan Terrell says:

    Laura – A happy hour wandering in a bookstore WAS great. My first job was in a small bookstore for two summers followed by four more in a friendly Doubleday’s. Cut open the UPS boxes and unload dozens of new titles, or special orders – smell the fresh print, feel the crisp papers sticking slightly to each other, and the odor of the binding glue. That evening put a brown paper cover on the book, wash hands first and read it at home after work, no cracking the ligatures!,so you could talk to customers about it on the floor. Happy times and usually at 40% discount.

  12. agatha hamilton says:

    A couple of George Orwell’s short essays, ‘A Hanging’ and ‘Shooting An Elephant’ read like fiction, I think, though obviously they’re not. Was reminded of them on reading your post, and have just re-read them. The horror remains. V. powerful.

  13. pheeny says:

    I remember reading “The Cone” as a nipper and it played on my mind dreadfully.

    I am too much of a wimp for horror stories, even the best.

  14. snowy says:

    What hasn’t yet come up is the micro-economics and lack of entertainment choices.

    If there was nothing on the TV [only one or two channels], and you’d already seen the film on at the local flea-pit. There was little else to do apart from reading, [or torturing a sibling, and that never ended well].

    Luckily the Public Library was close by, [3 little cardboard folders, with your name on, which meant you could borrow books for up to 14 days]. But eventually you would have exhausted all that could offer. And have to dip into your own pocket.

    Even if you had a part-time job, there was usually much more ‘week’ than ‘cash’ and you would usually be pot-less by midweek. So investing half your money in a book was a slightly fraught affair, What if you bought something and it was rubbish?

    Much safer to buy a collection of short stories, not only were they cheaper, you got more book for your money and if a few stories were duffers it didn’t matter so much.

  15. Sam Tomaino says:

    I loved short stories as a kid and still do now that I am 60. Some of my favorite anthologies had Alfred Hitchcock’s name on them, even though he did not edit them. I started with his children’s anthologies like Ghostly Gallery & Haunted Houseful. These ere not stories that were written for children, but adult one that kids could like. Later, I went on to Stories for Late at Might & Stories That Scared Even Me.
    The best classic anthology was Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural ed. by Herbert Wise & Phyllis Fraser, published by the Modern Library, owned by Bennett Cerf. Wise was his uncle and Fraser his wife, but they put together a hell of a book!

  16. J. Folgard says:

    As Mike said, Stephen Jones’ ‘Best New Horror’ is a very good and reliable anthology, year in & year out -I’ve got some of Ellen Datlow’s annuals, and their quality is quite nice too. I also enjoy Maxim Jakubowski’s Best British Crime, and Solaris’ short story collections put together by Ian Whaites, Jonathan Strahan or Jonathan Oliver: these little books have made me fall in love with science fiction all over again after a long, long time!

  17. Jo W says:

    There was a Popular Book Centre in Old Kent Road,known locally as the ‘Dirty’ bookshop. My older brother would get these horror story collections and then pass them to me,much to my mother’s consternation.(I suppose in early teens she expected love stories to be more suitable.) When I moved on to murder mysteries I found that the short story didn’t give as much depth to the plot and characters as the full novel. But collections of short stories are always handy when to have when travelling,easier to put down for a while,without losing the plot!

  18. Bob Low says:

    If you wandered into a bookshop in the seventies, and came to the Horror section, short story collections were mostly what you would find-the Horror Novel didn’t really take off until the eighties, with Stephen King. There were Horror novels before of course, but they tended to be by James Herbert, Guy N. Smith, or their various immitators-oh, and rip-offs of ”The Exorcist”. The Horror story works best in the short form. I think it might be because horror stories-much as I love them-tend to be formulaic, and so are most effective in small doses.If a Horror story is stretched out to novel length, the reader has too much time to notice this, and to spot the machinery creaking away in the back-ground. It’s a pleasure to see all of these paperback covers-I’ve still got a lot of these anthologies, and treasure them.”The Man Who Liked Dickens” is still a favourite.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Bob,Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! Reading too much of any genre will provide a dose of creaking machinery.

  20. Bob Low says:

    Helen-what man behind the cu………..AAAHHHRRGHH!
    Creaking machinery, but still loveable.

  21. Steve says:

    When I was busy surviving my teenage years, my mother subscribed to several different monthly pulp magazines; science fiction mostly. The only title I can recall is “IF”, but there were at least three of them. Living at the time in a small town I really had no access to bookstores; so I had to rely on the library, my mother’s tastes and the books and magazines she bought. Thankfully they were mostly as stated above science fiction. My taste for horror was my own and satisfied by weekends at the Palace Theater.
    I read short stories then, more because they were readily available than because I preferred them. I rarely read them anymore; they don’t last long enough and leave me feeling dissatisfied.

  22. Helen Martin says:

    I have been accused of compulsive reading: for sale signs, cereal boxes, milk bottles (our dairy has put “107 years” on this year’s bottles, magasine inserts left in the bathroom, hang tags on merchandise I happen to be standing next to, but there’s something about horror-horror that turns me off. I mean really scary horror. I heard somewhere that children read scary books because it helps to turn on something in the brain that helps us develop caution. That’s an interesting theory, but obviously I was cautious enough by nature not to need that. Too bad it can’t be analyzed with your DNA.

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