October 2019 favorites

October 2019

The October stories ordered solely on my personal tastes.

  1. ‘The Death Of Halpin Frayser’ by Ambrose Bierce
  2. ‘Rip Van Winkle’ by Washington Irving
  3. ‘Heat’ by Joyce Carol Oates
  4. ‘On The Hill’ by Elizabeth Spencer
  5. ‘In The Region Of Ice’ by Joyce Carol Oates
  6. ‘Ghost Girls’ by Joyce Carol Oates
  7. ‘The Heroine’ by Patricia Highsmith
  8. ‘High Lonesome’ by Joyce Carol Oates
  9. ‘The Nine Billion Names Of God’ by Arthur C. Clarke
  10. ‘The Swimmers’ by Joyce Carol Oates
  11. ‘The Tragedy At Marsdon Manor’ by Agatha Christie
  12. ‘Three Is A Lucky Number’ by Margery Allingham
  13. ‘La Moretta’ by Maggie Shipstead
  14. ‘The Doll’s Ghost’ by F. Marion Crawford
  15. ‘Afterward’ by Edith Wharton
  16. ‘The Leather Funnel’ by Arthur Conan Doyle

As always, join the conversation in the comments section below, on SSMT Facebook or on Twitter @ShortStoryMT.

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June 2017 favorites

June 2017

The June stories ordered solely on my personal tastes.

  1. ‘My Purple Scented Novel’ by Ian McEwan
  2. ‘Roman Fever’ by Edith Wharton
  3. ‘The Lotus’ by Jean Rhys
  4. ‘Playing With Dynamite’ by John Updike
  5. ‘A Family Man’ by V.S. Pritchett
  6. ‘The Brown Chest’ by John Updike
  7. ‘A Piece Of String’ by Guy de Maupassant
  8. ‘The Lovely Troubled Daughters Of Our Old Crowd’ by John Updike
  9. ‘Some Terpsichore’ by Elizabeth McCracken
  10. ‘Gesturing’ by John Updike
  11. ‘Manikin’ by Leonard Michaels
  12. ‘The Man Who Loved Extinct Mammals’ by John Updike
  13. ‘The Duchess And The Jeweller’ by Virginia Woolf
  14. ‘Change Of Treatment’ by W.W. Jacobs
  15. ‘Good Intentions’ by Etgar Keret
  16. ‘Graven Image’ by John O’Hara
  17. ‘To Those Of You Who Missed Your Connecting Flights Out Of O’Hare’ by Amy Hempel

As always, join the conversation in the comments section below, on SSMT Facebook or on Twitter @ShortStoryMT.

Subscribe to the Short Story Magic Tricks Monthly Newsletter to get the latest short story news, contests and fun.

October 2014 favorites


October 2014

The October stories ordered solely on my personal tastes.

  1. ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ by Flannery O’Connor
  2. ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’ by Flannery O’Connor
  3. ‘The River’ by Flannery O’Connor
  4. ‘A&P’ by John Updike
  5. ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’ by Flannery O’Connor
  6. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman
  7. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe
  8. ‘Nilda’ by Junot Diaz
  9. ‘Young Goodman Brown’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  10. ‘The Lady’s Maid’s Bell’ by Edith Wharton
  11. ‘Luella Miller’ by Mary Wilkins Freeman
  12. ‘The Outcasts Of Poker Flat’ by Bret Harte
  13. ‘The Sutton Place Story’ by John Cheever
  14. ‘Premium Harmony’ by Stephen King
  15. ‘Paper Losses’ by Lorrie Moore
  16. ‘This Morning, This Evening, So Soon’ by James Baldwin
  17. ‘Three Players Of A Summer Game’ by Tennessee Williams
  18. ‘A Stroke Of Good Fortune’ by Flannery O’Connor
  19. ‘The Body Snatcher’ by Robert Louis Stevenson
  20. ‘Awake’ by Tobias Wolff
  21. ‘In Greenwich, There Are Many Gravelled Walks’ by Hortense Calisher
  22. ‘A Dark Brown Dog’ by Stephen Crane
  23. ‘Nothing Ever Breaks Except The Heart’ by Kay Boyle

‘The Lady’s Maid’s Bell’ by Edith Wharton

Wharton, Edith 1902b

The Lady’s Maid’s Bell by Edith Wharton, 1902

The magic trick:

Balancing credibility and doubt when it comes to the first-person narration

Written just four years after the publication of Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw, “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” is no doubt a close cousin to that ghostly psychological thriller. But that’s a good thing. Like James, Wharton is an expert at balancing our trust in our first-person narrator with just enough doubt to keep it interesting.

The narrator is the reader’s only eyes for the story. She also is the only character who sees the ghost. This situation inherently creates a dilemma for the reader that drives the suspense throughout the story. She certainly seems kind. She earns the trust of a few key characters in the story. We want to believe her. But then again, Wharton makes sure to mention several times that she has recently been battling typhoid. It’s also true that the ghost seems to want, coincidentally enough, the same things that the narrator wants – to protect her mistress, to aid Mr. Ranford.

Ultimately, Wharton provides no real answers. It’s up to the reader to decide if the narrator is reliable or not. It’s on the reader to pick apart the text for the truth. And that’s quite a trick on Wharton’s part.

The selection:

After a while I slept; but suddenly a loud noise wakened me. My bell had rung. I sat up, terrified by the unusual sound, which seemed to go on jangling through the darkness. My hands shook so that I couldn’t find the matches. At length I struck a light and jumped out of bed. I began to think I must have been dreaming; but I looked at the bell against the wall, and there was the little hammer still quivering.

I was just beginning to huddle on my clothes when I heard another sound. This time it was the door of the locked room opposite mine softly opening and closing. I heard the sound distinctly, and it frightened me so that I stood stock still. Then I heard a footstep hurrying down the passage toward the main house. The floor being carpeted, the sound was very faint, but I was quite sure it was a woman’s step. I turned cold with the thought of it, and for a minute or two I dursn’t breathe or move. Then I came to my senses.


September 2014 favorites


September 2014

The September stories ordered solely on my personal tastes.

  1. ‘The Lady With The Little Dog’ by Anton Chekhov
  2. ‘Barn Burning’ by William Faulkner
  3. ‘Gooseberries’ by Anton Chekhov
  4. ‘The Man In A Case’ by Anton Chekhov
  5. ‘The Tall Men’ by William Faulkner
  6. ‘The Ice Palace’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  7. ‘May Day’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. ‘Pomegranate Seed’ by Edith Wharton
  9. ‘That Evening Sun’ by William Faulkner
  10. ‘The Student’ by Anton Chekhov
  11. ‘About Love’ by Anton Chekhov
  12. ‘A Bear Hunt’ by William Faulkner
  13. ‘The Diamond As Big As The Ritz’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  14. ‘His Father’s Son’ by Edith Wharton
  15. ‘The Jelly-Bean’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  16. ‘Hand Upon The Waters’ by William Faulkner
  17. ‘The Other Two’ by Edith Wharton
  18. ‘Winter Dreams’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  19. ‘April Showers’ by Edith Wharton
  20. ‘The Fullness Of Life’ by Edith Wharton
  21. ‘A Cap For Steve’ by Morley Callaghan
  22. ‘The Net’ by Robert M. Coates

‘His Father’s Son’ by Edith Wharton

Wharton, Edith 1909

His Father’s Son by Edith Wharton, 1909

The magic trick:

Allowing Mason Grew to tell his own story in the story’s second half

Sometimes autobiography is the best way. In “His Father’s Son,” the reader learns about Mason Grew’s life and marriage from a biographical standpoint. The omniscient narrator tells us of Mason’s career, his passions unfulfilled, the story of his marriage, etc. Of course, the trick is the information that Wharton leaves out.

It is only in Section 3 of the story, when the perspective shifts toward the autobiographical, that the reader gets the complete picture of the man. Mason Grew explains his life, his passions, his marriage, and, specifically, the mystery of his wife’s written correspondence with a famous musician, to his son, thereby filling in all the gaps Wharton had previously left empty during the story’s first two sections. Mason’s version of events completely alters the view for both the son and the reader. And that’s quite a trick on Wharton’s part.

The selection:

“Well, they weren’t bad,” said Mr. Grew drily. “But I’ll tell you
 one thing, Ronny,” he added suddenly. Ronald raised his head with a
quick glance, and Mr. Grew continued: “I’ll tell you where the best
 of those letters is – it’s in you. If it hadn’t been for that one 
look at life I couldn’t have made you what you are. Oh, I know 
you’ve done a good deal of your own making – but I’ve been there 
behind you all the time. And you’ll never know the work I’ve spared 
you and the time I’ve saved you…”


‘The Fullness Of Life’ by Edith Wharton

Wharton, Edith 1893

The Fullness Of Life by Edith Wharton, 1893

The magic trick:

Using perfectly chosen details in order to breathe life into a clichéd plot

It is jarring at first to find an Edith Wharton story set in an imaginary afterworld. Her writing – ghosts and spirits aside – usually is so tied to very realistic societal situations. Anyway, the whole plot is fairly predictable. The biggest surprise is that Wharton does, in fact, stick to a conservative, the-grass-isn’t-always-greener ending.

But this is not to say that the story is a waste of your time. Not at all. The plot may be clichéd, but Wharton, as she does throughout her entire catalogue, has a penchant for the kind of precise, real-life details that elevate the story above the ranks of mere maudlin fluff.

Consider three ways our protagonist explains why she felt her marriage never encompassed the fullness of life:

  1. She complains that her husband only ever read railway novels and sporting advertisements.
  2. She uses the devastatingly limited phrase, “I was fond of him,” to characterize her affections for her husband.
  3. She draws out a neat, complex (and more-than-a-little-sexual) metaphor of a woman’s nature being like a great house full of rooms, many of which her husband never visited.

Wharton has sewn up a lifetime of dissatisfied comfort in but a few paragraphs. With details that precise it makes no difference that the story’s plot is lacking in surprises or big-picture revelations. It is the minor details that resonate in a major way long after the story’s plot is forgotten. And that’s quite a trick on Wharton’s part.

The selection:

“You have hit upon the exact word; I was fond of him, yes, just as I was fond of my grandmother, and the house that I was born in, and my old nurse. Oh, I was fond of him, and we were counted a very happy couple. But I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawingroom, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”