This time of year will always make me think of getting ready to go back to school, despite the fact that I’m no longer a student. One of my favorite things about the beginning of the school year was looking over the syllabus to see what new books and stories we’d be reading in English class. Last August, I wrote up a basic primer of five Gothic novels you might find on a high school syllabus. This year, I want to do the same for short stories. If you’re heading back to school this fall, check your reading lists for these stories to see if you’re in for a treat! And if your school days are long behind you, see if you missed out on any of these great reads. It’s never too late to read a classic!
1) “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
I believe my earliest exposure to Poe was reading this short story in my middle school English class. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous works apart from his poem, “The Raven,” which many students also read in class. The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who murders a man and almost gets away with it, but is driven to confess by the incessant sound of the heart beating beneath his floorboards. The tale can be used to teach a number of important concepts, from the language and imagery associated with the horror genre to discussions about points of view and the reliability of the narrator.
2) “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
This story and the one that follows are two pieces of literature that have stuck with me most since first reading them in school. Shirley Jackson is also known for her horror novel The Haunting of Hill House, but it was this short story that scared me more than any ghost story possibly could. Regarded as an American classic, “The Lottery” portrays a small rural town engaging in what at first seems to be an innocent local tradition. The adults of the village gather in the square discussing the future harvest, while children excitedly gather stones. Eventually, slips of paper are drawn for the lottery, and a woman named Tessie Hutchinson ends up with the black spot. As she begs and protests, the other villagers pick up the gathered stones and pelt her to death as a sort of sacrifice. This slow-building escalation to violence is what gives the story its creepiness. “The Lottery” teaches important lessons about mob psychology, scapegoating, and human cruelty. Today’s young readers may recognize elements of the story as being similar to the popular dystopian novel, The Hunger Games.
3) “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury
You’re most likely to encounter Ray Bradbury in school by reading his anti-censorship dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, but many classrooms also teach this particularly unnerving short story of his. The title of the story refers to the open grassland of Southern Africa. In “The Veldt,” the wealthy Hadley family moves into a high-tech automated house which features a virtual reality nursery room for the two young children. The kids become obsessed with the moving scenes on the nursery walls, but their parents are unnerved by the all too realistic lions they can see eating a carcass in the African veldt setting. The Hadleys consider shutting the room down, and they call a psychologist in for help. But the children aren’t happy about the idea of their playroom being taken away from them, and they lock their parents in the veldt. When the psychologist returns, all he finds are lions and vultures feeding on the carcasses. “The Veldt” is perhaps even more poignant now than when it was written, considering how much technology has taken over our lives in the intervening decades. It can be very tempting for parents today to quiet their child with smartphone games and Youtube videos, but what’s the cost? The story also plays on one of the computer era’s biggest fears: What happens when our technology gets away from us and starts to take on a life of its own?
4) “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Many high schoolers will read Hawthorne’s famous novel The Scarlet Letter, but if you’re lucky, you also get a chance to read this delightful little story of sin and Satanism. Set in Salem Village before the time of the witch trials, “Young Goodman Brown” follows the title character as he takes leave of his wife, Faith, to go on an unknown errand in the forest. As he walks through the woods, he meets a mysterious stranger with a black serpent-shaped staff and comes across several townspeople traveling in the same direction. Eventually, Goodman Brown comes to a clearing where he sees all of the townspeople gathered there, performing a ritual to worship the devil—even those townsfolk he thought most virtuous and had looked up to. Goodman Brown and his wife are brought forward as converts to be initiated into the wicked cult. The next morning, Goodman Brown returns home, unsure if the events in the forest were real or a dream. But he is never able to look at his wife or fellow townspeople the same way. The story presents an allegory about losing faith and recognizing the evil within humanity. The character’s names contain clear, and often ironic, meanings and the fairly obvious color symbology is great for teaching about literary devices. The ending is ambiguous, which allows the reader to examine multiple interpretations.
5) “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell
This one was another memorable story from my youth that is often taught in American literature classes. The protagonist in the story, Sanger Rainsford, is a big game hunter who falls overboard while journeying to Brazil to hunt jaguars. Unable to make it back to the ship, Rainsford swims to a nearby island where he meets fellow big game hunter, Zaroff. Zaroff has grown bored with hunting animals and has instead devoted his island to hunting “the most dangerous game”: humans. He captures shipwrecked sailors and makes them try to evade him for three days, thrilling in the challenge that their intelligence and ability to reason provides. Rainsford is horrified but sets himself to the task of avoiding capture. Ultimately, he survives, but one may question whether his morals are intact. “The Most Dangerous Game” uses a trope common in the horror genre: being hunted like prey. As the world’s universal predator, it is no wonder that humans fear the roles being reversed. The story questions the morality of the popular early-twentieth-century sport of big game hunting by putting the protagonist, and therefore the reader, in the animals’ position. It also questions the concept of civility by juxtaposing Zaroff’s urbane manners with his brutal disregard for human life. The story is both a thrilling horror and a poignant social commentary.
What short stories did you read in school that left a mark on you? What other stories would you add to this gothic curriculum? Let me know in the comments!