8 Surreal Short Story Collections to Listen to After Watching RoarPhoto: Courtesy of Apple TV+ Books Lists Audio Books
As prose forms go, the short story is a tricky beast. A good short story doesn’t just have to be short—it has to be tight, efficient, and surprising. It has to be clear-eyed about the point it wants to make, but clever enough to bury that point deep enough that the reader’s enjoyment of the story grows as a result of having to dig a bit to find it. It has to contain enough information that the world the writer is building feels complete, but not so much that the reader will be bereft when they’re inevitably kicked back out into the real one. Or, more challengingly still, into the next fictional world the short story writer wants to play around in, should the stories at hand be part of a bound collection.
In the world of publishing, that very thing—the short story collection—is an even trickier project. An easy (or at least obvious) on-ramp to traditional publishing for MFA wunderkinds, a short story collection can be much harder to sell to contemporary readers already short on non-screen time than a splashy debut novel—or, better yet, a splashy first-volume-in-a-genre-bending-trilogy, either of which have a far greater chance of landing the kind of major streaming adaptation that will eventually give readers a chance to stake the first fandom flag in whatever zeitgeisty moment might follow.
Joke’s on everyone, then, that one of the more interesting recent trends in the world of prestige streaming—what studios are calling the “anthology series”—is what amounts to a short story collection, but on screen. Think Prime Video’s Them, Hulu’s The Premise, HBO Max’s Love Life, and Netflix’s Love, Death . Or, most recently, Apple TV’s Roar—a “star-studded” anthology series that, in putting a straight-faced surrealist lens on how unhinged it can feel to be a woman in 2022 (and beyond), parallels one of the publishing world’s reigning short story trends so closely that I had a working list of more than a dozen “read-alike” collections going before I’d gotten even halfway through the series’ first trailer.
That said, as replete as the literary landscape currently is with reality-bending short story collections written by women that center how disorientingly ludicrous being a woman can so often be, I have whittled this particular list of recommended listens down to just eight—a parallel to the eight episodes that make up the first season of Roar.
To that end, the eight audio collections that follow (+ one bonus collection set to debut at the end of the month) represent some of the sharpest, most vital short story writing currently being executed by surrealist-leaning women writers, both in English and in translation. If one wanted to describe them as XYZ
meetsBlack Mirror (reductive though that comparison might be) one certainly could. But honestly, these collections are each so brazenly sharp and delightfully bizarre that there’s not really any expectation you could set to prepare yourself for the listening experience they have in store.
So, you know, enjoy!
Note: The following audiobooks, as always, are listed in order of total runtime.
The first of five new releases from between January and April of 2022 on this list (see the titles from Kim Fu, Kate Folk, Shirley Jackson and Janice Lynn Mather below for the rest), Gwen E. Kirby’s Shit Cassandra Saw is a rollicking wallop of a book.
Not concerned with incidentals like propriety or good manners or even broadly consistent runtimes—the stories that comprise Kirby’s collection run everywhere from 3 to 43 minutes long—Shit Cassandra Saw is, on the whole, unabashed in its exhaustion with not just the strictures, but also the deep, deep absurdity of the patriarchy.
This eye-rolling exhaustion is echoed plainly in the performances given by the audiobook’s whole slate of narrators, but peaks in quick bangers like “Boudicca, Mighty Queen of Britains, Contact Hitter and Utility Outfielder, AD 61” and “For a Good Time, Call.” The quickest listen on this list, Shit Cassandra Saw might also be the most classically “fun.” Pick it up now.
Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century by Kim Fu
Narrated by: Piper Goodeve, Sean Patrick Hopkins, Samara Naeymi, Gary Tiedemann, Jeena Yi
Run time: 6 hours 27 minutes
Audible | Libro.fm | OverDrive
Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, published in February of this year, rolls deeper into Black Mirror territory than some of the other collections on this list. Its opening story, “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867,” in which the reader is made privy to the readout of a customer service conversation between a nameless VR simulation operator and an unnamed woman grieving the recent loss of her mother, stands out as particularly indicative.
Playing with contradictions of every variety, Fu employs the short story form to dig into the intimacy that is at the heart of even our most technologically mediated experiences. Moreover, using its full cast of narrators more cleverly than many audio adaptations think to—the customer service readout in the story just mentioned is performed by two narrators in turn, for example—Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century finds a comfortable home in aural form.
If you want to know what you’re getting into with Where the Wild Ladies Are, Aoko Matsuda’s 2021 collection of what are ostensibly all ghost stories, here you go: In the collection’s opening story, a young woman who starts off repeating an ever-expanding mantra of positive self-talk while sitting in an esthetician’s chair ends up willing herself into a monster whose superpower is her wild, wooly hair.
Shot through with elements of both Japanese mythology and modern Japanese culture (and cultural norms), Matsuda’s stories, as translated by Polly Barton and narrated in full by Sarah Skaer, are wholly arresting. If you’ve been meaning to add a book in translation to your reading list this year, no better place to start than Where the Wild Ladies Are.
Kate Folk’s Out There, which was just published at the end of March, speaks to the current social media moment almost too well.
Leaning on the expectations for eleventh-hour twists set by some of the other collections on this very list, Folk often uses dread itself as her twist, ultimately setting the listener up for a little over seven hours of never quite knowing when to expect the worst (or weirdest) the social technology of her near-future world has to offer. For listeners who hate weighted anticipation (me), this is a real challenge! But for all of you out there who love that shit? With a cast of readers this loaded, have I got great news for you.
I have never missed an opportunity to hype the audio edition of Helen Oyeyemi’s linked 2016 collection, What is Not Yours is Not Yours, so I’m hardly going to break my streak now. Comprising nine interlocking stories whose points of intersection are often so subtle that you don’t realize they were there until you’re two stories deeper into the collection, What is Not Yours… holds the distinction of being the only audiobook I’ve ever reached the end of and then immediately started over from the beginning.
Narrated by Ann Marie Gideon, Piter Marek, Bahni Turpin in rotation, the stories run closer to fairy tales more often than not, and are likely to unlock bits of both your heart and imagination that you didn’t even know you’d hidden away. Also: They’re just plain weird! This, for my money, is an always-listen.
Brenda Peynado’s The Rock Eaters only came out in 2021, but listening to it, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s been around long enough to be a modern magical realist classic.
Drawing from her lived experience not just as a Dominican American writer and as a woman in the post-2016, post-Lean-In, mid-pandemic era, but also as a creative type with a legit Computer Science degree, The Rock Eaters comprises stories that straddle the chasm between realities that rarely feels real and, well, unrealities that too often do.
If you’re short on time, the collection’s title story, “The Rock Eaters,” is a particularly sharp example of this, but between Peynado skill with a pen and the audiobook’s cast of talented and engagingly varied voices, you know I’m going to demand that you let the entire book wash over you. Let it wash over you!
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
Narrated by: Grace Blewer, Kirby Heyborne, Tara Sands, Robbie Daymond, Rebecca Lowman, Cassandra Campbell, Ish Klein, Susan Duerden, Kristen Potter
Run time: 9 hours 57 minutes
Audible | Libro.fm | OverDrive
If Shirley Jackson (see below) is the 20th Century’s eerie short story queen, Kelly Link is her royally unsettling 21st century heir. Lush and sly and never not surprising, Link’s stories are little marbles of weirdness. Some have twists so rattling that your brain will work to scrub them from your memory the moment you finish reading them. Others, meanwhile, turn out to be so humane in their oddity that you’ll never be able to forget them.
In Get In Trouble, Link is at her finest—and with a cast of narrators as rich as she’s rounded up for the audio version, every listener is in for an aural whirlwind of a time. As magnificent as Link is as a short story writer, though, she’s excruciatingly slow to put new work out. So please: Savor Get in Trouble, whenever you get to it, and give yourself some space before you seek out Pretty Monsters or Magic for Beginners.
Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson
Narrated by: Kirsten Potter, Gary Bennett, Mark Deakins, Kimberly Farr, Linda Jones
Run time: 12 hours 54 minutes
Audible | Libro.fm | OverDrive
Shirley Jackson was writing short form surrealist domestic horror way before it became today’s trend, and her mastery of the form will remain beloved long after the zeitgeist moves on. But for now, please enjoy Let Me Tell You, a collection of mostly unpublished (and/or uncollected) stories, essays, and other writing that also happens to be just one of two new Jackson anthologies to be published by Penguin Random House this spring. (The other being Just An Ordinary Day.)
Narrated by a handful of audio vets, this collection is as much context as it is experience—the “making of” companion to something like Roar, if you will.
Described in its promotional copy as being “tinged with folklore and the surreal,” Janice Lynn Mather’s forthcoming collection, Uncertain Kin seems set to be an obvious fit for this list.
Taking as her subject the warmth and prickly complexity of girl- and womanhood in the Bahamas, Mather uses the linked-story method to draw the emotional interconnectedness of her characters tight. Narrator Catharine Archer, meanwhile, approaching the text as she does with a degree of clarity that feels initially almost too careful, breathes a helpful kind of space into that tightness, an effect that serves to highlight the distinction between the flat North American accent primarily used for the stories’ narration, and the warm, round Bahamian accents belonging to Mather’s characters when they speak. A lovely combination.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She
can be found @AlexisKG.