Fantasy has a thing for the epic. Fantasy novels are typically sweeping in scope and pretty darn thick at the spine, and readers can usually count on having to polish off three volumes or more to get the whole story. But while fantasy suits epics well, the genre has a whole lot more to offer besides the big-time series that get so much attention. Fantasy is a versatile genre, and it works just as well in short fiction—simply ask the superb writers and loyal readers of fantasy-focused literary magazines. Fantasy short stories don't always get the press that they deserve, but we're putting them in the spotlight today. Below, we're running down a list of some of the best works of short fantasy, and the compelling collections you can find them in.
Story: "The Dauntless," by Sam Hooker
A Midnight Clear
The short story collection A Midnight Clear is a horror-fantasy anthology with a twist. These are holiday stories, but they're not your typical "Gift of the Magi" fare: Each short story has its own dark and vividly imagined conceit. Sam Hooker's "The Dauntless" is particularly memorable, an unsettling marriage of Christmas and Cthulhu. It's a typical day for elf lawyer Snickerdoodle, until she's asked to defend the first-ever murderer to appear in Candy Court. Gumdrop used to be a happy elf, always on the Good List — but something went very wrong during a present delivery to a place called R’lyeh.
Although Hooker's contribution to the anthology is delightful, you can't go wrong with any of these tales of gods, monsters, and chilly weather. If The Nightmare Before Christmas is your type of fantasy, then this is your type of dark fantasy short story collection.
Story: "Delusion for a Dragon Slayer," by Harlan Ellison
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream
Harlan Ellison's work is some of the best in the speculative fiction genre, and this collection showcases his genre-bending talents. The surreal and seemingly disordered story “Delusion for a Dragon Slayer” mixes a bit of fantasy into the science fiction—and a little bit of dreams and delusions into reality. The rest of this collection leans more in the science fiction direction, but it’s still a very worthy choice for fans of fantasy stories.
Story: "Woeful Tales from Mahigul," by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin jumped effortlessly between fantasy and science fiction throughout her long career, and her speculative fiction collection Changing Planes shows her flair for both. The premise of this volume of related short stories is a shifting of universes ("changing planes" is a pun). Each story takes place in a different world, and Le Guin takes great interest in the various cultures she creates. "Woeful Tales of Mahigul" is a collection within a collection, as there are multiple distinct narratives within it. Political powers, religious spats, and a mysterious black dog identify this story as a fantasy tale, though Le Guin’s speculative fiction rarely cares much for the distinctions between science fiction and fantasy.
RELATED: 9 Essential Ursula K. Le Guin Books
Story: “You, Little Match Girl” by Joyce Carol Oates
Black Heart, Ivory Bones
Joyce Carol Oates is one of those literary giants who enjoys stepping in and out of genre fiction. Oates has penned an impressive number of short stories, and her short fiction is where she seems to feel most free to dive into genres. Like the other stories in the anthology Black Heart, Ivory Bones, "You, Little Match Girl" is a re-imagining of a fairy tale.
RELATED: 12 Enchanting Fairy Tales for Adults
Story: “The Truth Is a Cave in the Mountains” by Neil Gaiman
"The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains"
"The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains" can be found in Gaiman's anthology Trigger Warning, but fans of Gaiman and of experimental fiction should consider checking out the multimedia version linked below. This version includes illustrated art and an audio portion that features Gaiman reading his own story accompanied by a string quartet.
Story: "The Snow Train," by Ken Liu
Genius Loci: Tales of the Spirit of Place
Chinese-American writer Ken Liu is one of the most important people working in speculative fiction today. If you don't know him for his own fiction (though you should), then you may know him as the translator of Liu Cixin's Remembrance of Earth's Past series (which begins with the award-winning The Three-Body Problem). Ken Liu's "The Snow Train" is a strange and fantastic story set in snow-bound Boston.
Story: "The Jewbird," by Bernard Malamud
The Complete Stories
“The Jewbird” feels like a modern version of a fable or fairy tale. It's an allegorical story of antisemitism with a humanized bird in the lead role. Among the fans of this classic short story is horror-fantasy master Joe Hill, who cites the story as a major inspiration for him to explore genre fiction—something he had initially resisted (likely in part because of his famous father's prominence in genre fiction: Joe Hill is Stephen King's son).
Sotyr: "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings: A Story for Children," by Gabriel García Márquez
Leaf Storm and Other Stories
Fantasy sometimes struggles with its own reputation. What is fantasy, and what isn't? Fantasy is too often assumed to be just the stuff with dragons and elves; other forms of magic and imagination can get left out. Somehow, Márquez and his masterful magical realism ended up being considered something different from fantasy. But the surreal and fantastic stories Márquez wrote, which drew on folk tales and included plenty of magic, are absolutely a form of fantasy. This short story, in which a man is very reasonably mistaken for an angel, is a great example.
Story: "Unpopular Gals," by Margaret Atwood
Good Bones and Simple Murders
Fairy tales are among the oldest and best-loved works of fantasy still widely read today, so it's no surprise that fantasy masters enjoy toying with those classic tales. In "Unpopular Gals," literary titan Margaret Atwood imagines impassioned dialogues from some of the most maligned characters in fantasy fairy tales, including the iconic "ugly step-sister" who so badly wanted her own shot with Prince Charming.
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