What are the best short stories of all time? How does one measure such a thing? One might look at famous short stories, iconic short stories, but how do we define that? Are the best short stories the stories that have best stood the test of time? If so, what does that mean? Perhaps they are still in every reading list, from middle school English class to postgraduate literary studies. Perhaps the best short stories ever written simply take root in our minds, our hearts, our very souls, demanding that we remember their imagery, their characters, their plots, the way they made us feel.
In an effort to keep this from simply being a list of my personal favorite short stories of all time, I solicited suggestions from other Rioters, and owe a debt to Anne Mai Yee Jansen, Connie Pan, Elisa Shoenberger, Eileen Gonzalez, Chris M. Arnone, Cassie Gutman, Carina Pereira, Nikki DeMarco, Jaime Herndon, Margaret Kingsbury, Sarah Davis, Rachel Brittain, Laura Sackton, Patricia Thang, Jamie Canavas, Liberty Hardy, Tika Viteri, Kelly Jensen, and Lyndsie Manusos for filling out this list. You all have brilliant taste, thank you.
Despite my efforts, I am sure I’ve left off one or two of the best short stories. Please forgive me, and remember: I did it on purpose.
The Best Short Stories of All Time
In alphabetical order by author’s last name.
“Where to Hide in a Synagogue” by Karen E. Bender in The New Order
Two women discuss what to do if there is a shooter in their synagogue. (Content warning for, well, that)
“The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter in Burning Your Boats
What happens in the seconds leading up to Lizzie Borden’s parents’ infamous murder? Carter sets the scene.
“Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros
What’s it like to be a year older? Is eleven different than ten?
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djeli Clark
George Washington’s teeth weren’t made of wood; they were stolen from enslaved people. Clark tells their stories.
“A Scandal in Bohemia” by Arthur Conan Doyle
Sherlock Holmes attempts to recover a photograph from Irene Adler (or “the woman”) for a client.
“The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, retold by Alexandre Dumas
A young girl saves a Nutcracker from the Mouse King, and is told the story of Princess Pirlipat by her Uncle Drosselmeyer. Tchaikovsky’s ballet is based on the Dumas version, so it is my choice here — but a comparison read of Hoffmann and Dumas is a delight.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A postpartum woman’s physician husband makes her stay alone in a room that haunts her, but she knows she is ill, not hysterical.
A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow
Some people come to the library looking for an escape; some librarians know just the books to push them toward. This story won the Hugo and the Nebula.
“The Summer People” by Shirley Jackson in Dark Tales
Every list includes her slightly more famous story “The Lottery,” but have you read this one? A New York City couple decides to stay in their Vermont summer home for a few extra weeks, but the locals don’t like that.
“The Dead” by James Joyce
Gabriel attends a family party and frets about a speech he is to give.
“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid in At the Bottom of the River
A mother instructs her daughter on life in a single, 650-word sentence.
“This Is Paradise” by Kristiana Kahakauwila in This is Paradise
The locals at a Hawaiian resort observe the tourists while they go out to celebrate.
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
Omelas is a utopia where everyone is happy and fulfilled, except one child who is kept miserable. (CW: ableist language)
“Mummy and Honey” by Shahriar Mandanipour, Translated by Sara Khalili, in Seasons of Purgatory
A man traps his family in a house that is falling apart, full of opium smoke, and has a hungry viper hidden beneath the floorboards.
“Mansion on the Hill” by Rick Moody
Andrew’s sister has died by accident just before her wedding, and his memories of her are interspersed with his thoughts about his job.
“Spider the Artist” by Nnedi Okorafor
A woman in an unhappy marriage takes solace in her guitar, and makes a strange new friend through her music.
“The Prospectors” by Karen Russell
Two girls attend a party in a remote ski lodge where they discover that they are the only living guests.
“To Esme—With Love and Squalor” by J.D. Salinger in Nine Stories
A man reminisces about the time when he was about to deploy in World War II and met a young lady who corresponded with him.
“The Werewolf Gambit” by Robert Silverberg in The Ultimate Werewolf
A man claims to be a werewolf to get his date to come home with him, and is surprised when she readily agrees.
“Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” by Anthony Veasna So in Afterparties
A woman and her daughters run a 24 hour donut shop. A customer comes in every night, buys an apple fritter, and sits for an hour without eating it.
“The Thing Waiting Outside” Barbara Williamson in Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Space
The children’s parents have taken away their books, but there’s one book still hidden, and they plan to use it.
“The Barrens” by F. Paul Wilson in The Barrens
A woman from the Pine Barrens reluctantly agrees to bring an old college friend she’d lost touch with into the Barrens to research the Jersey Devil. (CW: extremely dated man-writing-woman nonsense, but not overwhelmingly so, in my opinion)
“Standard Loneliness Package” by Charles Yu
The narrator’s job is to feel other people’s pain, but someday he hopes to buy himself a better life.
“The Sleeper” by Roger Zelazny in Wild Cards
This is the only story I’ve included that really doesn’t stand alone well. Every time Croyd Crenson goes to sleep, he hibernates and wakes up in a new form, with new abilities.
Where to Find More Great Short Stories
If you’re in search of more of the best short stories of all time, but don’t know where to start, may I recommend starting with the various awards given to short stories? There’s the Hugos and Nebulas for SFF, not to mention the World Fantasy Awards; the Shirley Jackson Award, the Stoker, the Edgar, and the O. Henry; the Ignyte and the Locus. Then there are anthologies such as The Longlist Anthology, Year’s Best Science Fiction, and the Pushcart Prize. And of course, we have a few more recs for you in our short story archives — or see below to find more of the best short stories of all time.