Justin Taylor’s Favorite Novellas

The Mist, by Stephen King
The first story in his collection Skeleton Crew. It’s a wonderful piece of B-movie fun, and a sort of Lovecraft homage besides.

Milk, by Darcey Steinke
A nursing mother experiences what might be a vision or presence of the divine. It’s dark, compelling, and erotic. Highly recommended.

The Ash Gray Proclamation, by Dennis Cooper
Gay cannibal psychic Al-Qaeda operatives invade a small Arkansas town. What’s not to love? I should give a plug here—this story was first collected in an anthology I edited, The Apocalypse Reader, but it’s now coming out in Dennis’s next collection, Ugly Man (Summer 2009).

At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft
Lovecraft’s only book-length work of real merit, and how! It’s a sort of guerrilla sequel to Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Lovecraft would have insisted his book was a novel also, but it clocks at just about 100 pages, and honestly, when it comes to novel vs. novella, a lot of times it’s less about the length than the feel of something. You’ve got to know it when you see it.

Brian Evenson
Hmm, that’s a name without a title. Well here’s the thing. Brian’s a great writer, and one I admire hugely, but I haven’t read either of the self-described novellas of his that I know of: The Brotherhood of Mutilation and Dark Property. HOWEVER. I heard him read from his novel, The Open Curtain once, and during the Q&A he said that he wrote each of the parts (there are 3) as if it were its own novella—so I’m going to go ahead and include him as a Friend of the Novella.

Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille
This is really a novel, albeit a short one, but yesterday when Kendra asked me if I thought she should include it on her list I said yeah, she might as well, and so if she gets to name-check old GB then I want to also. This shit is triple X of the first water. Incest! Death! Murder-sex! Yes, please!

Bounty, by George Saunders
I think Saunders would tell you this is a story, not a novella, but I’m not 100% sure. It’s the last—and longest—story in his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. (Saunders is also the author of a novella I haven’t had the chance to read, The Brief and Frightening Rein of Phil.)

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
I think Conrad is one of my favorite writers, or would be if I made more time to read him. I took a Modernism class in college where we read Lord Jim, and Nostromo. I’ve read a few more on my own: The Secret Agent, and a handful of stories, including Heart of Darkness. He’s just mindblowing. A great story-teller, a fantastic stylist—and English was his THIRD language. Did you know Heart of Darkness was written as a sort of breather while he was trying to figure out how to finish up Lord Jim? The two stories have all these weird correspondences, and of course also share a narrator.

Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, by Herman Melville
I think this is a short story, not a novel, but Melville House published it in their “Art of the Novella” series, and I guess if anyone would know, it’s them. Anyway, it’s one of the great pieces of American literature, period.

OTHER by WHOEVER – I’m going to leave the tenth spot open, because there’s too much I might not be thinking about at not-quite-ten-AM on a Thursday. For example, why so few women on this list? Do they just not write novellas? I can think of a few—
Amy Hempel’s Tumble Home, The Stupefaction and It Was Like My Trying To Have a Tender-Hearted Nature by Diane Williams, but I’d want to go re-read these books before trying to really talk about them. And If Saunders’s story is a novella, then Mary Gaitskill’s Heaven might be one too. It’s long, it’s the last story in one of her books (I forget which) and I’ve always suspected it of being a secret re-write of To the Lighthouse. But I don’t feel like having that fight right this second. So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m sort of out of novellas. I was going to throw in another Stephen King one, maybe The Breathing Method or Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, which are both from his collection Different Seasons. Also, I wonder why my list is so weighted toward horror and/or eros? (I didn’t even get around to talking about John Hawkes.) Part of it is that I dig those things, but a non-novella list (a stories list or a novels list) wouldn’t be nearly so skewed. I think maybe it has to do with the how novellas themselves function: basically, they use the extra space to develop character/detail/plot/etc in a way beyond what’s possible in a short story, but they don’t quite go for the golden ring of a novel’s Big Picture or Major Themes (not that novellas don’t have these things—oh you know what I mean!), so what you often end up getting is a sort of super-charged short story: something immersive and compelling and powerful, but still a self-contained experience that is theoretically—even ideally—get-through-able in one sitting. I think both horror and eros thrive in that sort of environment. It helps keep the spell from being broken.

Justin Taylor is the editor of short story anthology The Apocalypse Reader, and the tribute book Come Back, Donald Barthelme (McSweeney’s). His writing has been published in The Believer, Bookslut, NPR Online, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, The Boston Review, Time Out New York, Paste, and numerous other publications. Find him HERE.

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