All great literature is, in some way, a literature of consciousness. Through words, we enter an other—sometimes we find kinship in them, shadows of our own experiences, and other times the eyes we inhabit see a world we don’t recognize.
If novels are the luggage of consciousness, giant trunks taller than bellboys and bursting at the seams, then the short story is a valise of consciousness—a little carrying case that hides in its folds much more than it might at first appear able to hold.
I made for myself three simple rules while creating this personal anthology:
1. DO NOT include any stories previously recommended on this site.
2. DO include stories that expand the borders of what a short story can and should be.
3. MAKE the collection a showcase for the varying shapes and styles valises of consciousness take.
Right off the bat, I handicapped myself, as a number of my all-time favorite short stories had already been listed in the various anthologies previously published here: James Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ Julio Cortázar’s ‘Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,’ Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Mark on the Wall,’ Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,’ Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Bliss,’ Anton Chekhov’s ‘Gusev,’ to name but a few. But my second rule ballooned the list right back to an unwieldy size, as I reminded myself of stories tilting toward the essay, stories swelling to novella-length, stories dabbling in poetic form, stories that could be classified as chapters of a longer novel-like work, even stories on the verge of art criticism.
Thus, here are twelve valises of consciousness whose contents, I hope, will intoxicate, challenge, and surprise you. I have ordered them by date of initial publication.
“At first, I made an effort to shake off this nightmare of the soul. I walked vigorously— faster—still faster—at length I ran. I felt a maddening desire to shriek aloud. Every succeeding wave of thought overwhelmed me with new terror, for, alas! I well, too well understood that to think, in my situation, was to be lost.”
Though ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is likely my favorite Poe story—partly because I have a still vivid memory of closing my eyes with the rest of the students in an elementary school classroom at the behest of our teacher and listening for the first time with excitement and horror to the voice of Vincent Price intoning “‘Fortunado!’ No answer still”—I find myself drawn in near-equivalent measure to the lesser-known tale ‘The Imp of the Perverse.’ It is probably the least-read of his three main imp of the perverse stories (the other two being ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’), but it more directly interrogates the concept at its core because of its formal gambit.
Unlike those other two tales, which are fairly recognizable as the monologues of “mad” narrators from the outset, ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ rather perversely begins as a sensible scientific essay. We realize too late—once the story is half over—that we’re waist-deep in the ravings of another of Poe’s “mad” monologists. What is most notable here, though it is certainly true elsewhere in his stories, is that the supposed madman is more sane than we care to admit. The jargon-filled treatise of the story’s first half seduces us with its rational dissection of a pre-Freudian psychological concept. We may not have committed this narrator’s crimes, but we have no doubt felt the imp of the perverse gnawing at our consciousness. We too are in chains and know but one way to be fetterless. So why will we say that he is mad?
First published in the July 1845 issue of Graham’s Magazine, collected in just about any anthology of Poe’s stories, and available online at PoeStories.com as well as in many audio versions, including one by Vincent Price on YouTube
“It’s the finest, fullest intention of the lot, and the application of it has been, I think, a triumph of patience, of ingenuity. I ought to leave that to somebody else to say; but that nobody does say it is precisely what we’re talking about. It stretches, this little trick of mine, from book to book, and everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form, the texture of my books will perhaps some day constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it.”
In The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner depicts a scene in which Ezra Pound meets Henry James. Of Pound, Kenner writes: “He liked James, he wondered at James, as at a narwhal disporting.” I too like James and wonder at him—narwhals disporting and all that—and, in a way, that’s what ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ is about. Like other sublime stories about obsessive literary critics, including ‘The Portrait of Mr. W. H.’ by Oscar Wilde and ‘Shakespeare’s Memory’ by Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ interrogates how artists entrance us with their woven tapestries, how we long to understand their genius in the hopes of better understanding ourselves, but also how in our obsessive attempts at interpretation we often miss the forest for the trees. Or might it be missing the vast ocean for the disporting narwhals?
First published in the January/February 1896 issue of Cosmopolis, collected in some James story collections, printed individually as a novella, including as a Penguin Little Black Classic, and available online at Project Gutenberg
“The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness.”
Along with the two subsequent stories in my personal anthology, ‘Araby’ is one of the great evocations of boyhood. Though all the stories from Dubliners are dazzlers, there’s something particularly special about this brief encounter with a boy and the nameless object of his desire. We know her only as “Mangan’s sister,” though the narrator admits that “her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.” Poignantly, Joyce’s epiphanic revelation appears here not as some illuminating romantic disclosure, but as disillusionment in tented darkness, a crisis of maturity metastasized.
First published in Joyce’s collection Dubliners, 1914, Grant Richards Ltd., available now in numerous print editions and online at The Literature Network
“Harry didn’t like wetting his clothes, or muddying his shoes, because these things felt uncomfortable and he knew they might make him sick. He didn’t like to tie cans to the tails of dogs, because that didn’t make him split with laughter; it only made him sorry for the dogs.”
Probably best known as either the man who typed and edited James Joyce’s handwritten manuscript of Ulysses or the publisher of Ernest Hemingway’s first story collection, McAlmon deserves to be remembered as more than just an ancillary character in the lives of the more famous literary modernists. You don’t even have to take my word for it; listen to Kay Boyle, who said: “If Robert McAlmon had only written ‘A Boy’s Discovery’ and ‘A Vacation’s Job’ he would be more than worth remembering.” He doesn’t festoon his prose with excessively purple frills and he leaves much of the story under the surface—stylistic traits shared with his friend Hemingway. In fact, it was almost certainly Hemingway whom Ezra Pound was demeaning when he said, “America is now teeming with books written by imitators of McAlmon, inferior to the original.” Though McAlmon published much of his own work in Paris under his Contact Editions, he struggled to find an American publisher (only publishing one book of poems in his native country during his lifetime). Speculation abounds as to why it was so difficult for him to find American publishers, when many of his more famous contemporaries championed his work, but it is likely that his homosexuality played a role in the lack of interest in his writing. ‘A Boy’s Discovery’ pricks with homosexual tension, mystery, and misery, and remains one of the most heartbreaking accounts of adolescence.
First published in McAlmon’s collection A Hasty Bunch, 1922, Maurice Darantière, included in Post-Adolescence, 1991, University of New Mexico Press
“There were more important things. Miracles. Beyond the thoughts of trees, mere elms. Beyond the thoughts of sidewalks, mere stone, mere brick, mere cement. Beyond the thoughts even of his own shoes, which trod these sidewalks obediently, bearing a burden—far above—of elaborate mystery. He watched them. They were not very well polished; he had neglected them, for a very good reason: they were one of the many parts of the increasing difficulty of the daily return to daily life, the morning struggle. To get up, having at last opened one’s eyes, to go to the window, and discover no snow, to wash, to dress, to descend the curving stairs to breakfast.”
Conrad Aiken has for years seemed to me—much like the inner blizzard of this story’s young protagonist—a secret, preciously concealed, and to that very fact he owed an enormous part of his deliciousness. By the time I founded The Scofield, a literary magazine that focused on underappreciated authors, I felt duty-bound to forsake that secret deliciousness by building an issue around my favorite writer no one reads. If the luggage of consciousness is what I am stalking in the hunt for great literature, then Aiken belongs near the top of my list, as he is without doubt one of the most consciousness-obsessed men to have put pen to paper. Though he did not invent the “stream of consciousness” techniques, he was the first to wed these formal modernist experiments in consciousness to the psychoanalytic theories contemporaneously being developed by Sigmund Freud. In ‘Silent Snow, Secret Snow,’ Paul Hasleman, a school-age boy, grows distant from “the ordinary business of daily life” as he daydreams of snow. Only in James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and Anna Kavan’s Ice, two other wintery masterpieces, does the snow possess such mythopoetic (and psychopoetic) heft.
First published in the August 1932 issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review, included in The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken, World Publishing Company, 1960, which had a new Kindle-only release from Open Road Media in 2015, and available online at VQR Online
“Evening is kind to Sussex, for Sussex is no longer young, and she is grateful for the veil of evening as an elderly woman is glad when a shade is drawn over a lamp, and only the outline of her face remains. The outline of Sussex is still very fine. The cliffs stand out to sea, one behind another. All Eastbourne, all Bexhill, all St. Leonards, their parades and their lodging houses, their bead shops and their sweet shops and their placards and their invalids and chars–á-bancs, are all obliterated. What remains is what there was when William came over from France ten centuries ago: a line of cliffs running out to sea. Also the fields are redeemed. The freckle of red villas on the coast is washed over by a thin lucid lake of brown air, in which they and their redness are drowned. It was still too early for lamps; and too early for stars.”
Published in a posthumous essay collection, ‘Evening Over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car’ blurs the line between narrative essay and nonfiction short story. Though the gorgeous descriptions of Sussex are enough of a draw on their own, the real wonder here is Woolf’s evocation of technology’s ability to transform modes of perception and categories of aesthetic experience. In this case, the new technology explored is the automobile. Woolf’s “reflections” catalogue our anxious need to name and classify in the face of excessive beauty, though they also get at something very particular to my interests as an avid roadtripper, an aspect of driving that I’ve rarely seen discussed, but know all too well: the way the self proliferates, consciousness splits, while one drives on a lonely road. In the solitude of the car, we multiply. It’s not just that Woolf is the first writer I know of to describe this phenomenon, but that she remains its best chronicler in this brief, elegiac story/essay.
First published in Woolf’s collection The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays, 1942, Hogarth Press, available now in numerous print editions, and also available online at Berfois
“There’s no question that every day he’ll get older, farther away from when he was called Bob, from his blond hair hanging over his temples, from that smile and those sparkling eyes when he’d silently enter the room, murmuring a greeting or slightly moving his hand near his ear, and go sit down under the lamp near the piano with a book or simply motionless and separate, lost in thought, looking at us for an hour, his face expressionless, his fingers moving every once in a while to handle his cigarette or brush ash off the lapels of his light-colored suits.“
Onetti had the strange quality of being inimitable and at the same time creating an entire school of writing,” Carlos Fuentes once said of this poet of time and decay. The Uruguayan master has enjoyed a minor revival of late in the U.S., thanks in part to the publication of his collected stories in English, A Dream Come True (Archipelago, 2019). No title could better describe this brick of a book which abounds with memorable stories, perhaps none more memorable than the hilarious and bitter ‘Welcome, Bob.’ Here an unnamed narrator—envious of the titular character’s youth, looks, vigor, and ideals—expresses excitement in welcoming him into the world of adulthood, disappointment, failure, and cynicism.
First published in 1944. First published in English translation in 1963 in the Odyssey Review (translation by Hanna Ewards). The Silver translation first published in the Onetti collection A Dream Come True (2019, Archipelago). The only version online is a translation by Donald L. Shaw at the Short Story Project
“It was as if he had been driving in a fog, and the one thing he did remember was an image as precise and as unrelated as something one might see through a sudden parting of fog—a group of small white houses grouped at an intersection, and a clock (was it on a steeple?) with the clock’s hands pointing to ten minutes to six. There was a faint suggestion of a dirt road, too, but even as he tried to consider it, it floated off into nothingness.“
There’s nothing more depressing to me than a writer worthy of a readership whose name seems, to borrow a phrase from John Keats, “writ in water.” I’m realizing that, even though it wasn’t one of the three rules I set forth in creating this personal anthology, part of what I’ve done here has been a meager attempt to save certain writers like Conrad Aiken and Robert McAlmon from the ash heaps of history. Another author I love from the List of Writers Whose Names Are Rarely Uttered is Robert M. Coates. Coates, if he is remembered at all, is remembered as the art critic who coined the term “abstract expressionism” to describe a group of painters in the 1940s that included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, and Arshile Gorky. But it is his fiction that has long enraptured me: the dadaist sci-fi novel Eater of Darkness, published with the help (and praises) of Gertrude Stein; Yesterday’s Burdens, in which Coates attempts “to reverse the usual method” of the novel, “and instead of trying to individualize [his protagonist] and pin him down to a story, to generalize more and more about him—to let him become like the figures in a crowd, and the crowd dispersing”; and his stories, which often appeared in The New Yorker, where he was resident art critic, including ‘The Hour After Westerly,’ about a man who loses an hour while driving home from work and can’t make sense of the lost time. Though it has the trappings of an unaired episode of The Twilight Zone, Coates’s story is much more than that: an atmospheric rumination on the ravages of time, the malleability of memory, the regrets of middle age, and our innate nostalgia for the possibilities of roads not taken.
First published in the November 1947 issue of The New Yorker, included in the collection The Hour After Westerly and Other Essays, 1957, Harcourt Brace & Company, and available online for those with access to The New Yorker archive
“The ragpicker worked in silence and never looked at anything that was whole. His eyes sought the broken, the worn, the faded, the fragmented. A complete object made him sad. What could one do with a complete object? Put it in a museum. Not touch it. But a torn paper, a shoelace without its double, a cup without saucer, that was stirring. They could be transformed, melted into something else. A twisted piece of pipe. Wonderful, this basket without a handle. Wonderful, this bottle without a stopper. Wonderful, the box without a key. Wonderful, half a dress, the ribbon off a hat, a fan with a feather missing. Wonderful, the camera plate without the camera, the lone bicycle wheel, half a phonograph disk. Fragments, incomplete worlds, rags, detritus, the end of objects, and the beginning of transmutations.“
Of the pieces in Under a Glass Bell, the collection ‘Ragtime’ comes from, Nin explained: “These stories represent the moment when many like myself had found only one answer to the suffering of the world: to dream, to tell fairytales, to elaborate and to follow the labyrinth of fantasy. All this I see now was the passive poet’s only answer to the torments he witnessed…” Adrift in a mostly plotless story, Nin’s narrator visits a ragpickers’ camp on the outskirts of Paris and catalogues the detritus. I fell in love with this surreal, ephemeral dream as a teen, and unlike many of my other teenage loves, it has stayed with me. There is a certain melancholic romance in seeking the broken, the worn, the faded, the fragmented, in recognizing that “Nothing is lost but it changes.”
First published in Nin’s collection Under a Glass Bell, 1948, Swallow Press, and available in audio form, read by the author herself, on YouTube
“Something about the corpse was vaguely irritating. Although perfectly still, it gave an impression of subtle but incessant movement, rather like the hands of a clock. Probably this was because of the way it was lying. It had an artificially posed look, like snapshots of dancers in midleap.“
Abe is up there with Kafka as one of the great writers of 20th-century existential horror. His work exists in that terrifying sweet spot where the mythic and the mysterious manifest absurdly in the modern world. David Remnick wrote of Abe’s writing, “There are no samurai warriors, as in Mishima, no tea ceremonies, as in Kawabata.” Abe told Remnick, “I get a little tired of hearing about tea ceremonies. I think tea ceremonies are for tourist brochures and the propaganda put out by Japan Air Lines.” Instead, Abe gives us ghosts and corpses, queer disappearances and Sisyphean tasks, metamorphosis and alienation, overwhelming bureaucracy and deteriorating ipseity. In ‘An Irrelevant Death,’ a man comes home from work to find a dead body in his apartment. The act of locking the door behind him sets off a series of thoughts and actions that progress naturally, if horrifyingly, toward a conclusion that may or may not actually be a conclusion.
First published in 1961 and collected in 1964, with the Carpenter translation first published in the Abe collection Beyond the Curve, 1991, Kodansha USA
“Apollinaire could look so German from time to time that you could see the pickelhaube on his bandaged head, the swallow-wing moustache, the glint of disciplinary idiocy in his sweet eyes. He was Guillaume, Wilhelm. Forms deteriorate, transformation is not always growth, there is a hostage light in shadows, vagrom shadow in desert noon, burgundy in the green of a vine, green in the reddest wine.”
Taking place in a geography and a history of the imagination, riddled with the gaps and incongruities of such a setting, where figures from various eras converge for the funeral train of the last emperor of Ethiopia. As in much of Davenport’s idiosyncratic fiction, we find a consciousness foraging the tatterdemalion alleys of our collective culture for meaning, for understanding, for knowledge. He proceeds by daring synapses, and finds in them—if not the holy grails of meaning, understanding, knowledge—then at least the baubles of minor epiphany.
First published in Davenport’s collection Da Vinci’s Bicycle, 1979, New Directions, and available online in audio form, read by Miette, at Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast
“Janet Leigh was never completely naked during the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but she did have breasts. They’re hinted at and alluded to, never revealed exactly, but she did have them, and in a way it’s why she was killed. The movie begins with her, with a long shot of Phoenix, Arizona. The camera pans across the city to a building, to a window in the building, then under the venetian blinds of the window and into the room where Janet Leigh is lying half-naked on a bed. She’s wearing a white bra and a white slip, and the bra, sitting on top of her chest like two white pyramids, looks as if it ought to be enough protection.”
If ‘The Judgment of Psycho’ had not been published in Haskell’s collection of short stories, it could have been published as a piece of film criticism in some cinema magazine. The story braids together scenes (both real and imagined) from Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark horror film with retellings of the mythology surrounding the Trojan War and descriptions of a figure in the underpainting of a Jan Vermeer. There’s a lot going on here, but the story never feels overburdened, for Haskell’s sleight of hand is masterful. He willfully confuses Psycho’s actors with the characters they play—for example, attributing the desires of Norman Bates to Tony Perkins—which is, of course, exactly what the viewer does while watching a film, losing a sense of the separation between the real and the fantasy. We—like Tony Perkins, like John Haskell—wrestle with ghosts.
First published in Haskell’s collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock, 2003, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. You can hear an excerpt of it in audio form, read by the author himself, at WNYC’s Studio 360