Three of my favourite short stories

The Company of Wolves, by Angela Carter

I love adaptations, especially of fairy tales, folk tales, and myths. Adaptations offer endless possibilities for the creation of new worlds and meanings, but within the familiarity of old tales.

This particular short story adapts the Little Red Riding Hood oral folk tale, but subverts its original message (the original message having been a warning to women about being seduced by men). Carter does this by creating a Gothic fantasy version of the story, where the beautiful lyrical descriptions are also full of horror: the wolves are ‘forest assassins… like shadows … like wraiths’, the local children ‘grave-eyed’, and when Little Red Riding Hood enters the forest we are told ‘The forest closed upon her like a pair of jaws.’

Some fairy tale tropes remain, such as the ambiguous wild location; and some of the original symbolism is retained, such as the danger of the colour red. But beyond these similarities, the big bad wolf is now represented as a pitiful werewolf, and Little Red Riding Hood is the cunning seductress who uses her sexuality to take control of the situation and her life.

As the wolf is drawn to the depths of the woods, I am drawn to this type of dark atmospheric setting in literature. But more than just enjoying the language and place, reading this story has also helped develop my sense of the female protagonist who resists, and the theme of defiance.

From ‘The Bloody Chamber’, by Angela Carter.

The Possibility of Evil, by Shirley Jackson

Jackson excels at writing small town characters and hidden horrors. The opening of this story depicts a peaceful place where everyone knows everyone else, and they go about their business with dull regularity. At first glance, this could be interpreted as a safe setting, although suffocating; however, it soon becomes clear that an atmosphere of fear and suspicion hangs over the town.

The elderly protagonist sees herself as a local authority, owning to her family’s significant town history. In particular, the Strangeworths have contributed to the aesthetics of the town through the beautiful roses that grow in front of the family home; flowers that are the envy of all. But the deceptively sweet and innocent protagonist, just like her fragrant roses, has hidden thorns. The unexpected character, and the twist in the tale, are Jackson hallmarks, and I love them.

On the surface, this is a nasty little tale of evil, as foreshadowed by the title, but beneath the surface we see how one person’s behaviour can impact the whole of society. The story is rich in symbolism, and invites multiple interpretations; the roses, for example, were planted and tended by Miss Strangeworth’s grandmother and mother before her, so as she follows in their footsteps in cultivating the flowers, the reader may wonder if she follows in their footsteps in other respects too. This is the kind of story that stays in the reader’s head, leaving them pondering the possibilities, and wondering what might happen to the characters as they continue to exist long after the story ends.

From ‘Dark Tales’, by Shirley Jackson.

The Apple Tree, by Daphne du Maurier

I love how du Maurier creates characters that feel real the instant a story begins, even when she doesn’t name them. It’s in the way she uses little details, such as ‘It was a fine clear morning in early spring, and he was shaving by the open window’; the setting is established, the man’s routines, the sensory experience that the reader can feel along with him (the shaving cream on his face, the cool breeze touching his skin).

An eerie and unsettling atmosphere is created through the motif of the tree in the garden, unnoticed before the opening of the story, and all of a sudden leaning close to the house and bearing a strong resemblance to the protagonist’s deceased wife; the reader may wonder if this is loneliness, or guilt, playing with the man’s mind.

The use of close third person shows the story from the old man’s perspective, and this seems to be supported by the wife’s actions and dialogue. However, as the story progresses, details are slowly revealed and it becomes clear the reader should not trust this point of view.

The story then develops into a ghost story, with the old man punished for his previous actions, culminating in a terrible and well-deserved revenge. It’s the psychological elements that set this apart from some more traditional ghost stories, and make the old man’s downfall so enjoyable to read.

From ‘The Birds and Other Stories’, by Daphne du Maurier.

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