Top short stories to read in quarantine

Scott Powell

This is a strange time we’re living in. I suppose that should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway because I have to say something. I’m writing a newspaper article after all, and if I say nothing, then all you’d have to read is an empty page, which isn’t very much fun. 

But, then again, given how easily our minds are excited by even the most basic and unimpressive stimuli these days, you might actually get quite a bit of enjoyment just staring at a blank page.

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I spent an hour just yesterday laughing hysterically at the right-hand wall in my bedroom. I don’t know why. And I don’t know if I really care to know. The vast psychological mechanisms that would compel a grown man to literally lose his breath and fall on the floor guffawing at a pillar of plain, unpapered drywall are, I would imagine, quite complex and would take up a lot of time and research to fully understand — time that I admittedly have, but which I would much rather use sitting idly by laughing at walls. 

All that to say that it should go without saying we are living in a strange time. And in the midst of such strange times, it can sometimes be difficult to keep one’s mind sharp and focused.

Yet it’s important that you do this, lest you end up devolving into the kind of neanderthal who spends their time sitting around laughing at blank walls in their bedroom. And one of the easiest, most efficient ways to keep one’s mind sharp is to read.

In the midst of such strange times, it can sometimes be difficult to keep one’s mind sharp and focused. Yet it’s important that you do this, lest you end up devolving into the kind of neanderthal who spends their time sitting around laughing at blank walls in their bedroom.”

So, if you’re looking for some good short stories to keep you alert and sane in this time of seclusion, here are four pieces to check out.

“The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka

I always used to look down on the character of Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s seminal 1915 novella. It seemed unbelievable to me that someone who had just woken up to find themselves unexpectedly turned into an enormous cockroach would spend the first couple minutes of their wakefulness ruminating over how they were going to get to work, rather than over the seemingly more urgent matter of their unexpected transformation into a giant cockroach.

However, since the outbreak of this pandemic, I’m beginning to empathize more and more with this story’s central protagonist — waking up every morning to a world caught in the grips of death and sickness and chaos and confusion, where nothing seems to make sense anymore, and the future of our whole species hangs in the balance yet I’m lying in bed for an hour thinking about a history paper I have to write, wondering whether I should try and knock it out before or after breakfast.

It’s this inability to accept the unexpected — this numbness to the ebb and flow of life — and the deep-seated terror that it instills in the psyche that Kafka captures so perfectly in “The Metamorphosis.”

Samsa has found himself in a completely ludicrous, overtly extraordinary situation, and yet his rigidly habitual nature makes him unable to contend with its extraordinariness so that he has no choice but to cope by falling back on his ordinary habits. If giant cockroaches aren’t your thing though, Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” or “In the Penal Colony” are also enjoyable reads to help pass the time.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It seems only natural that “The Yellow Wallpaper” should be included on this list, considering its main theme is the maddening effects social isolation has on the human psyche.

While the circumstances surrounding the quarantine in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story may have been slightly more nefarious (and sexist) than what we are experiencing today, the central plight of the protagonist nonetheless rings through to anyone spending a hefty amount of time by themselves.

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A woman is forbidden from leaving her home and thus develops an obsession with the only source of mystery and intrigue she can find around her — the strange pattern on her yellow wallpaper. What makes the story truly haunting though is the casual tone that its narrator keeps throughout. At no point does she speak as if she is about to snap, but instead maintains a calm, composed voice while describing her mental deterioration.

She doesn’t recognize her own insanity. Her psychological unraveling is invisible to her. It’s a brilliant and terrifying depiction of the kind of slow-moving loss of focus and clarity that comes from long hours (and days and weeks) of pervasive sameness.

“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe

Honestly, any Edgar Allan Poe story could be included on this list. “The Fall of the House of Usher” captures the sense of unending loneliness, despair and general apathy toward the uncertain (though certainly bleak) future that many people are wrestling with today. “The Cask of Amontillado” paints a terrifying picture of a sense of being trapped in a tight space with nowhere to escape to. “The Tell-Tale Heart” details the descent into madness that one man faces as a result of his fixation on his roommate’s flaws.

But no Poe story rings truer to our current time and situation than “The Masque of the Red Death.” Set in the midst of a fictional plague, the story details the strange and mysterious events that unfold at a party held by the pompous and apathetic Prince Prospero after an uninvited guest arrives — a guest with an enigmatic presence, sporting a ghoulish mask and carrying with it the virus that all the other party-goers have been living in deathly fear of.

It’s a story that touches on the kind of dread that is brought about by people’s aggressive means of preserving their carefree apathy in the midst of turmoil and is a perfect, though (in fitting with the other entries on this list) decidedly bleak, addition to your quarantine reading list. 

“The Pedestrian” by Ray Bradbury

Like “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” is a story with dystopian thematic undertones that themselves don’t particularly resonate with the very real dangers that we are currently seeking to quell with initiatives like shelter-in-place.

We aren’t being kept inside as the result of some devious effort being put forth by a hyper-technologized government regime. However, the surface-level narrative nonetheless bears a striking resemblance to the empty and void aura that the outside world has taken on since quarantine began.

Scotty Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.