The Short Story

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: April 03, 2016

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Submitted: April 03, 2016



The Short Story

by R J Dent



Traditionally, the short story is a fictional prose tale of non-specified length, although a story of more than 20,000 words is usually considered to be a novella, or short novel. The short story is generally too short to be published as a volume on its own, as in the case of the novel or the play. Dramatically, the short story usually concentrates on a single event involving only one or two characters. Here then, is a brief history of the beginnings of the short story as a recognized literary form.

The world's oldest extant short story is Chabuki Yun's Hop Ten Yato, usually translated as Green Tea. This 5000 word Chinese folk story is accurately described as having been written by Chabuki in 1100 BC. Green Tea concerns itself with the meetings which take place between a princess and a Genji. The steam of the green tea of the title is the medium by which the Genji visits the princess and informs her of other-worldly realms. The princess grows weary of her day-to-day existence and of her Earth-bound form and decides to leave them behind.


"There is still so much to be done. Things cannot continue as they are for much longer. This world of ours must change!" Princess Hitami paused, and then announced: "No! We must change!"

Shocked, Chien turned sharply from her flower-arranging and faced the princess. "Your Majesty," she cautioned, alarm evident on her face. "You must not say such things – not now, not while there is so much unrest in the country!"


Using the steam of the green tea as the doorway to other realms, the princess decides to abandon her earthly life and enter 'the world of spirits'. Originally regarded as 'a tale of instruction', the much-translated and anthologised Green Tea can also be read as Chabuki's damning indictment of the feudal system which was in place at the time of his writing it.

The second oldest surviving short story is Claxos and Doran, by Demitus. A number of references to this 7000 word Greek pastoral story, written about 600 BC are available to us from a variety of sources, most notably in Plinoctus's Prose Works and in Xenetrates's Fictions.

In characteristically muscular style, Xenetrates synopsises the story's plot, then reviews it favourably, and then mentions its reception by the public upon publication, claiming: 'Claxos and Doran is... a short story well-received by the populace, and will be in demand for long after initial circulation.' Five years later, Plinoctus (in typically inverted style) writes: 'Yes, and still they clamour for copies of Claxos and Doran... Those who do not read have those who do read it to them.'

The plot of Claxos and Doran is simple and familiar. It involves Doran, a young shepherd, who is forced to flee his home after accidentally striking the hunting helmet of Claxos, the political tyrant of the region, with a stone from a slingshot. Doran flees to Thrace, but Claxos discovers his identity and kills his family. Returning to his homeland years later, when Claxos is on his deathbed. Doran, who has made his fortune as a merchant, buys up all of Claxos's property, then exacts his revenge upon Claxos's family and friends by making them his servants and working them to death.

Critics have justifiably acknowledged Demitus's story as being a major influence on Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, their supposition being based on the fact that although there are no references to the story in any of the Brontes’ works or voluminous correspondence, a handwritten copy of Claxos and Doran was included in Branwell Bronte's library (a library to which the entire Bronte family had access).

The third contender is a collection of Indian short stories entitled Im Podbri (The Bridle Path), which dates back to about 500 BC. Although the collection is anonymous, scholars are unified in their belief that the collection's twenty five stories are by different authors and have been collected over a number of years by several anonymous editors, none of whom have been satisfactorily identified. The collection's enigmatic epigram: 'Trust not the writer, but the writing' has unfortunately generated more literary interest and critical commentary than the stories themselves.

Apart from a few enigmatic and surreal prose fragments by Igor Yevutno of the Ukraine, there are no other extant short stories until the 3rd Century AD, when Nomaji's Dydra el Kobani (usually translated as The Walnut Tree), is credited as being the next oldest surviving example of the short story. Nojami was a Persian poet and a considerable amount is known about him. We know for example that he was court poet to King Sullaman the Elegant. He won a school poetry competition when fifteen years old, only to renounce poetry at the age of thirty. From then on, he worked at refining his prose style until his major work, Dydra el Kobani was published and circulated. It was immediately hailed by critics as a masterpiece and it established Nomaji as the leading literary figure of his day. Part of the story's appeal (and success) was due to its devout religious content. Having said that, a recent translation – by controversial poet Adam Walton – has restored much of the story’s charged eroticism.

The next short story to have survived the passing of time is the anonymous medieval English tale, The Mint Moment, reputedly written by the Abbot of Chiltern Abbey. It is a fairly conventional morality tale of 1100 words, although it does have the distinction of being the first story ever written with multiple endings. It concerns Father Morgan, who finds a murdered monk in a bathtub and works out who killed him and why. The title is a pun and a clue. Several critics consider it to be the precursor to the detective story, and to certain examples of Gothic fiction. It has been claimed that the story was a major influence on Edgar Allen Poe, Lautréamont, Charles Maturin, and Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. Curiously, Umberto Eco, the author of Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose), has never mentioned The Mint Moment in any of his writings.

By the time of the Renaissance, the short story was mostly eschewed in favour of poetry and drama. National illiteracy contributed to this state of affairs, but one or two writers were still attempting to infuse the short story form with new ideas. One such writer was Sir Arthur Hallett, a theatre owner and money-lender who retired from public life at the age of forty and then devoted the rest of his life to writing hundreds of exquisite short stories, all of them exactly 2000 words long. His first collection, A Mere Fraction, is considered his best, although the stories are difficult to categorize into any specific genre.

This early history would not be complete without mentioning the 1717 amorous tale, The Hot Pestle, anonymously written, but attributed (then and since) to a significant member of the Royal family. The reason for this is due to the story being concerned with the adventures of a young man named Georgie, a wealthy rake who spends his time 'tupping' various house wenches. Georgie's sexual activities are humorously recounted in a style both light and immediate.


Yea, so Georgie did run apant into the chamber, his girthed pestle apointing at the wench's honeyed opening. Give't up! cryed he. Yessir, the wench replied, abending to accommodate his prodigious turgidity. And it was then Georgie and shee gave theyrselves over to the abandons of the flesh.


The Hot Pestle ends with Georgie settling down with a Duchess, who bears him twelve children and ignores his ‘tupping’ of the housemaids, which continues after their wedding.

This brief history has almost reached a point where others have charted the legions of short stories (and writers) that proliferated during the Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian eras. The short story, as a literary form, continues to be written (although in a somewhat diluted form) in this century. Before reaching that particularly well-charted point, it is perhaps significant to mention one other notable short story. The story in question is John Random's Circle of Shadows.

Published in 1799, Circle of Shadows is surprisingly modern in tone and has been described as ‘a scathing political satire’ and has inspired a number of creative responses in various artistic fields. A very successful musical has been written and performed world-wide. A film based on the story and adapted for the screen by controversial Dutch director Luke Gantz, was recently begun, then shelved for the usual reasons.

The following extract gives an example of the story’s sense of impending doom:


The amphitheatre was deserted now, and the bruised afternoon shadows were thickening at the base of the walls. Out in the centre, the statues stood tall and defiant, thrusting their age-old heads into the burning sky.

Stephen could feel their power. It awed him. Unnerved him too.

He sat down on a cold stone seat and tried to relax. There was something strange – something unfathomably eerie – about that central group of statues. They looked just like ordinary people. There were no grotesques or paragons of beauty amongst them; they were obviously statues of former citizens of the city.

They seemed ordinary enough, but they were definitely grouped together in a conspiratorial huddle – and they were definitely looking in his direction.

As he thought this, Stephen noticed the shadow of each statue.


Perhaps a plot summary will also help to elucidate some of Circle of Shadows' merits.

Stephen Brooks has stolen a story from his friend, Simon Dorn, and has become a best-selling novelist because of it. Years later, when he and his girlfriend, Alison, are in an amphitheatre in Rome, he notices that the shadows of a group of statues are all pointing from the centre of the amphitheatre – to where he’s standing. He moves out of the circle of shadows, but the shadows of other statues start to move towards him. Finally, Stephen confesses his crime aloud. Alison, who knew Dorn, deserts him. Brooks falls to his knees and screams accusingly at the statues. The story ends with the disturbing line: ‘The shadows darken.’

Circle of Shadows is the last story in this rather general survey of a potentially very powerful literary form. After it, the ‘story’ of the short story is perhaps a little too well told.






Hop Ten Yato (Green Tea) by Chabuki Yun. Trans. J-J Roussell. London: Everdon Press, 1978


Jenkins, D.L. Tales of Instruction. London & New York. University Press, 2001


Demitus. Claxos and Doran. The World’s Oldest Short Stories: An Anthology. Ed. Michael Preston. London: Fictional Publishers Ltd, 1999


Plinoctus. Prose Works. Ed. And Trans.  A.Y. Durrant. London & New York: University Press, 2000


Xenetrates. Fictions. Trans. D. Stone. Ed. P. Persson. London: Thackery Press, 1954


Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1999


Davies, Roger. The Personal Libraries of the Bronte Family. Haworth: Taxus Press, 1973


Im Podbri (The Bridle Path). Ed. & Trans. W. Briers et al. London & New York: University Press, 1984


Janice Tuttle (Ed). The Genesis of Im Pobri: Critical Essays. London: Scholars Inc, 2001


John August. The Epigram as a Literary Form. London & Boston: Willow Press, 1986


Igor Yevutno. Prose Fragments. London & New York: Kelly Books, 1974


Nomaji. Dydra el Kobani (The Walnut Tree). The World’s Oldest Short Stories: An Anthology. Ed. Michael Preston. London: Fictional Publishers Ltd, 1999.


Ellis, Peter. Nomaji: The Persian Courtier Poet.  Basildon: Flatiron Books, Ltd, 2002


Anon. The Mint Moment. (reputedly written by Abbot of Chiltern Abbey) Cambridge, Arnott Publishing, 2003


Martin Jennings (Ed). Detective Story Precursors: Critical Essays. Oxford & London: Manderville Publishers Ltd, 1998


Moffat, Richard. Gothic Sources: A Study in Scarlet and Black. Bexhill: Arrowhead, 1987


Eco, Umberto. Il noma della rosa (The Name of the Rose.) Trans. William Weaver. Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri-Bompiani, Sonzogno, Etas S.p.A. 1980 (Italy); Picador - in association with Secker & Warburg


Sir Arthur Hallett. A Mere Fraction. Huntingdon: Lancaster Press, 1954


Anon. The Hot Pestle, in Apocryphal Shakespeares. Ed. Paul Dunnant. London & Sidney: Harvest, 2000


Gerald A. Thane. Georgie Did It: Authorship of The Hot Pestle. New York: University Press, 2000


Random, John. Circle of Shadows. Brighton: Holdsworth Publishing, 1994



The Short Story

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