Hertzsprung-Russell rating: M10-4.5

Available in: The Hashish Man And Other Stories

After a catastrophic manmade, uh, catastrophe, the boatman of the Styx takes the very last human being to Hades, wondering what the Hades he’s supposed to do with his life now that all mankind is dead. Of course, if Charon is looking for another job shuttling people across a dismal river to Hell, there’s an opening on the Manhattan-to-Newark ferry.  Zing! I’m going to sell that joke to The New Yorker. And if they reject it, I’ll change the names and sell it to their New Jersey competition, The Newarker. 

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: K10-3.5

Available in: Dagon And Other Macabre Tales

Cthulhu was Lovecraft’s bread and butter, but among his admirable repertoire of non-Cthulhu tales is this one. Read it: if you fail to pick up on its overarching themes of desperation, personal failure and the futile repetition of history, you’ll at least learn the location of the Pole Star, the preferred celestial body of firemen, strippers and Polish people.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: M10-4

Available in: Interfaces

The sole survivor of a once mighty empire returns to the glorious city of his birth to find it overrun with barbarians who’ve slaughtered the inhabitants. Hey, barbarians – would it kill you to not kill everyone for once? Sheesh! I loved this story, cuz it reminded me of when I was 35 and went back to my favourite university dive bar, only to discover it had been converted to a fabric store. Curiouser still, my favourite university fabric store is now a dive bar. So, zing.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: M104

Available in: Stories Of Your Life And Others

Among Ted Chiang’s small but brilliant body of work is this story, which describes the construction of the titular tower (you know that thing ain’t up to code) and what happens when its builders finally reach Heaven. Whether you’re a contractor looking for tips on how to work with bricks made of baked clay, or just a time-travelling, homesick Babylonian eager for news from back home, this story rocks. Read it, and everybody have fun tonight. Everybody Ted Chiang tonight.


Hertzsprung-Russell rating: B/A1

Available in: Best Short Stories Of H.G. Wells

Wells was the Pink Floyd of early scifi; prolific, visionary beyond his time and British. But this story isn’t one of his best. It’s a foray into fantasy (the ‘magic spell’ kind of fantasy, not the sexy nurse kind) that draws away from the hard scientific foundation of Wells’ more notable work. And when that happens, know what you get? You get Pulse.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: B10-3

Available in: 50 Great Short Stories

A surreal story in which a nameless narrator plods down a long, dusty road and struggles with life’s burdens. “Plods?’ you exclaim, your interest piqued, “Struggles? Long and dusty?  Sounds like a real page turner!” You’re a cynical jackass. Actually, this story is a highly allegorical tale about our journey through life and our search for truth and success (or, ‘truthcess’). As a rule, I consider everything in life allegorical. Everything is actually something else. This blog, for instance, is actually a sandwich.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: A10-4.5

Available in: Irish Folk Tales

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Two travelers on a lonely road encounter a demonic pig. Terrified, they run, but the bedeviled ham follows them until it vanishes mysteriously, leaving just a whiff of brimstone in the air. Delicious, delicious bacon-scented brimstone. Personally, I prefer my fictional pigs friendly, bipedal and wearing white gloves while gesturing invitingly for me to eat them. That’s also how I prefer my women.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: G10-3.5

Available in: 75 Short Masterpieces

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A rambling old grandmother in an equally rambling old house warns her grandkids to steer clear of the magical trunk in the attic – it’ll swallow them whole, she warns. They ignore her (as all elderly people everywhere should be ignored) and, sure enough, they vanish one by one as they climb inside. No big loss: if the magical trunk didn’t get them, the bewitched china cabinet or the enchanted credenza would have.

Hertzprung-Russell rating: A10-3.5

Available in: Eye Of The Heart – Short Stories From Latin America

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This is one of those why-things-are-the-way-they-are stories like ‘How The Leopard Got His Spots’ or ‘How The Puerto Rican Got His Horns’. In this one, the plants all decide they want to be the same size – straight up botanical socialism – and quickly learn that not everyone has what it takes to be a towering oak. Some of us have to settle for being something simpler, like a daisy or a Douglas fir. Of course, if you’re a chick named Daisy or a dude named Douglas Fir, that’s no problem.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: F105.5

Available in: Conan The Barbarian

In this story, the Sneerin’ Cimmerian (that rhyme is lame and I know it) joins a pirate crew and goes adventuring after some jewels or something. Or maybe it’s an idol. Or maybe it’s Billy Idol. Whatever. All Conan stories kinda blur together, but you gotta love ‘em. Otherwise you’ll get your whoreson head split to the collarbone with a great axe.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: G102

Available in: Strange News From Another Star

A naïve young lad from a peaceful, peaceable kingdom (read: ‘pussies’) journeys to the warring nation next door and witnesses, for the first time in his life, death, suffering and bloodshed. How much bloodshed? Well, they have an actual blood shed – a small wooden structure designed to hold all the blood that’s been shed until they figure out what to do with it. JK, of course. But this story does mess with your head a little bit. No wonder it prompted already-insane Spanish dramatist Jacinto Benavente y Martínez to exclaim when he read it in 1915: ‘You tryin’ to get crazy with us Hesse? Don’t you know I’m loco?” (Christ; that was long way to go for a really outdated Cypress Hill reference.)

Hertzsprung-Russell Rating: M10-4

Available in: The Day It Rained Forever

Things you can’t argue with: a shark attack, gravity, the Mafia and the fact that Ray Bradbury is perhaps the greatest writer of the 20th century in any genre. ‘The Dragon’ is a remarkable fusion of fantasy and time travel, simply constructed and beautifully presented. And if you argue, I’ll send a Mafioso shark to your house to push you down.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: B10-2

Available in: Azazel

This story is part of a series of ‘comedic’ (the great thing about the printed word is that you don’t have to use air quotes: you can use real ones!) fantasies Asimov wrote about a demonic imp named Azazel who grants humans their hearts’ desires, only to leave them disappointed with the results. The moral? Impin’ ain’t easy.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: K0.1

Available in: Orsinian Tales

An arrogant travelling priest tries in vain to convert a barbaric mountain tribe to Christianity. But the village chieftain, having none of it, slits the priest’s throat (God, while omnipresent, is nowhere to be found at the time of the priest’s gurgling death). A nice little gem of a story that reminds us that, while many of us make sacrifices for our careers, a few of us actually become them.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: A10-2.5

Available in: Sword And Sorceress III

A wandering African female warrior meets a shape-shifting succubus in the jungle and is lured into a life of captive lesbian sexuality that makes said jungle even hotter and stankier than it is. ‘Marwe’s Forest’ is part of an anthology of ‘female fantasy’ that purportedly celebrates strong female characters penned by strong female writers, but it’s written by a guy and is naught but boner-inducing jack-fodder. You get the feeling it started off as something serious and sincere, but kept coming back from a cigar-chomping editor with ‘NEEDS MORE TITS’ scrawled in the margins. And tits it got.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: G103

Available in: The Shout And Other Stories

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A young couple meets a hermit who possesses a magical shout (and I don’t mean the stain remover); a bellow so big and bold it drives people insane.  I’m going to shout it from the rooftops – this story is great! Another thing I’m going to shout from the rooftops is for someone to bring me a ladder because the one I used to get up here fell over and now I’m trapped. Also, the roof is dirty and my pants need some ShoutTM. And that time I did mean the stain remover.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: A10-2

Available in: Timeless Stories For Today And Tomorrow

The story of a pig possessed by a demon and two brave young priests who strive to save the impious porker’s soul from piggy Hell (which smells delicious, by the way). Demons started inhabiting pigs in Biblical times (Matthew 8:30 – 37) because they knew the Jews wouldn’t touch them, but just once I’d like to see Jesus call their bluff. Son Of God be all, like, “Fuck it! Cook ‘em up! Get thee inside me, Satan! And round up some possessed chickens and some evil toast, while you’re at it; we’re one demon away from an all-day breakfast! I’ll say Grace, too: ‘Dear Me – I thank Me for this food I am about to receive.’” Wow. What a fertile bit.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: F106.5+

Available in: Everything’s Eventual

An in-between-Gunslinger-novels story starring King’s resident pistol-packin’ poppa, Roland Deschain. In it, the roving, revolving cowboy finds himself laid up sick in an abandoned town and cared for by a hoard of vampire nurses. Now, if you wound up on this page as the result of a misdirected search for the R-rated 1987 Ivan Reitman teen sex comedy Vampire Nurses, I have two bits of advice. Firstly, read this collection of stories, specifically ‘Room 1408’, which is truly horrifying in the Lovecraftian tradition. Secondly, stop using Bing.

Hertzsrpung-Russell rating: A10-3.5

Available in: The Best Of Saki

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A small English town is shocked to discover one of the local boys is actually a werewolf. Conversely, a small English wolfpack is shocked to discover one of the local cubs is a wolfwere. Anyone could be a feral wolf in disguise; I’d start by rounding up Will Ferrell and Dick Wolf. Even if they’re bona fide humans you’ve still got the beginnings of the most hilarious sex crime police procedural ever committed to film.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: A/F1

Available in: Heroic Fantasy

You probably recognize the cover of this anthology from the popular website Comely Maidens With Douchebags, but the real treats are the stories inside. In ‘The Age Of The Warrior’ an old knight goes on one last quest to prove there’s still some tilt in his lance, and in the process raises some poignant…um….points….about what it means to get old. In this case, it means he is brutally slain.