If you want to find some of the really exciting short fiction being written right now, the best place to look for it is right here on the internet. I follow a few of my favorite writers on Facebook, and they often announce online publication of short fiction there—free reading, it’s a good thing.
Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Coraline, etc.) recently published a very short piece in The Guardian, “Down to a Sunless Sea” that is a study in creating atmosphere at just under 1200 words:
The Thames is a filthy beast: it winds through London like a snake, or a sea serpent. All the rivers flow into it, the Fleet and the Tyburn and the Neckinger, carrying all the filth and scum and waste, the bodies of cats and dogs and the bones of sheep and pigs down into the brown water of the Thames, which carries them east into the estuary and from there into the North Sea and oblivion.
The unnamed narrator of the piece encounters a woman on a sodden London day walking the docks, as she does every day. No one knows how long she’s done this because “nobody cares”. They take refuge together under an awning, and she says “My son wanted to be a sailor’, then tells her story, and his, to her unwilling listener.
It’s a story of dreams, and horror, conveyed in lyrical, brutal prose. The juxtaposition is captivating—it lures the reader in, lulls you into this sense that yeah, you’re going to hear a sad story, then smacks you over the head with the grotesque conclusion to the sailor son’s story. In fewer than 1200 words, you meet three people: the narrator, the mother, and the son, and you know them as if Gaiman had been writing chapters about them.
Or do you? Why should we believe this narrator, after all? And the mother: did her story really happen, or has she invented it in the face of a tragedy?
“Like Ghost Cat and a Dragon’s Dog”, by Dave Freer, is part of Baen Books’ free short story collection from 2012. There are 11 other pieces at that site (I do wish Baen’s webpage were easier to navigate, but that link does all the hard work for you), including two by Wen Spencer (one set in her Elfhome universe). The Freer story is set in his Dragon’s Ring universe, and features Fionn and Dileas on a brief adventure, where Dileas, who’s narrating here, gives good reasons why dogs chase cats, only to have the tables turned on him.
Like most of Freer’s work, this is gently humorous, high fantasy adventure. It’s a short, easy read, perfect for a bedtime snack. No need to even be familiar with the Dragon Ring universe, even. Dileas gives you all the details you need.
If you’re up for something classic, though, Flavorwire offers links to ten stories by fiction masters, including Flannery O’Connor’s chilling “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. There are also links to stories by Kafka, Bradbury, Nabokov, LeGuin, and Munro. All of them are worth checking out.
There’s plenty of good quality short fiction available for free online if you’re will to search for it. We hope to do a few of these online fiction reviews a year–I want to read more short stories myself. I’ve neglected the form for far too long, myself, and I’m trying to change that. Refreshing my memory of Flannery O’Connor and Franz Kafka was a good start.