A recent trend in my life, born out of expanding my media consumption (to hopefully end up as some sort of “well-rounded” human being) has been to read stories different from the long novels I grew up with. 300 pages of adventure! …Again? Especially in fiction and fantasy, the structure gets repetitive. For lengthy novels, one generally has set expectations in terms of writing style and format: a protagonist, a setting, a journey, a villain, a struggle, a beginning, and an ending. Resolution. Imagine my surprise when my literary wandering introduced me to a book style that completely rewrote what I knew about written storytelling: the fiction anthology.
Generally, anthology books contain many short stories in a single publication. They feature many different characters and settings, a common thread might be the author who wrote them over time (The Jules Verne Anthology), or common themes and genres (Ghost Stories of the Maritimes or Malaysian-adjacent fantasy in Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad).
By virtue of their length, short stories are highly adaptable. Compared to a novel of 80,000 words, a short story of two to six thousand has no space for a character’s lengthy backstory or every rule of a fantasy universe’s worldbuilding. In fact, fitting all that information would be impossible. Knowing that, with so little space, what elements make a good story?
It is in answering this question that fiction anthologies shine. There are no limits to what these stories can do. Liberated to be wildly speculative, immersive (because rarely in life do we have all the answers either), often character-driven, varied, surprising, and often poignant, they are efficient, too—especially for the busy academic reader. Short stories serve as a great way to explore different authors and writing styles without committing to hundreds of pages.
In short story collections there is something for everyone. While the Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin is a daunting beast of epic fantasy, his curated collection Rogues features 21 stories by different authors, all featuring morally grey characters. From the very first story, as an undisclosed package exchanges hands over a dozen times (with accompanying perspective shifts) in Joe Abercrombie’s Tough Times all Over, the reader is in for a wild ride.
Neil Gaiman, one of Rogues’ contributors, has assembled similar collections. I greatly enjoyed his anthology Unnatural Creatures as a summer read. Each unique (and occasionally unnerving) monster, creature, or thing, dreamt to life by 16 different authors, entranced and engaged me throughout. As Gaiman writes in his introduction, “I knew how to visit the creatures who would never be sighted in the zoos or the museums or the woods. They were waiting for me in books and stories, after all, hiding inside the twenty-six characters and a handful of punctuation marks.”
As mentioned above, the ten stories in Zen Cho’s speculative fiction anthology Spirits Abroad explore identity and spirituality through Malaysian fantasy. As funny and bizarre as some of these stories are, they pull on the heartstrings. Folklore, history, modernity, queerness, and the inexplicable mysteries of being alive are here as everyday and essential as family. How do you manage vampiric aunties and boy troubles? How far would you go for academic success? Would you pay a spirit’s price in flesh? Say your boarding school has been overtaken by fairies. Time to scrounge up your student army to survive.
For readers hesitant to commit to works such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, collections of his lesser-known short works such as in A Tolkien Miscellany might prove useful. Stories of dragons terrorizing towns, magical gifts in cakes, an essay by Tolkien on the meaning of fantasy, poems from the universe of middle-earth, and the author’s translations of well-known medieval poetry are included. This range in just one publication speaks to what I love about the anthology structure so much.
Whatever you read, there is a short story collection out there for you. Fantasy, horror, romance, adventure, poetry — and so much more. Why not give them a try?