Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery“
The residents of an insular New England village commit ritual murder in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” published in the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker. The author wrote the story after she moved to Bennington, Vermont and became a professor at the local college. Jackson’s family was the target of anti-Semitic harassment, and the experience made a profound impact on the author. “I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives,” she said of “The Lottery” after the publication shocked and upset readers. The New Yorker was hit with complaints and people even went so far as to cancel their subscriptions. Jackson received non-stop hate mail, and the book was banned in certain countries.
Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour“
A widow feels “monstrous joy” after hearing about the tragic death of her husband. Her life is finally her own. Kate Chopin’s 1894 tale was a rare, critical portrait of marriage and female submission. Several have concluded Chopin was forced to kill off her liberated protagonist in order to make the story fit for publication. Further controversy abounds amongst theories that Chopin’s character was modeled after her own mother, Eliza, and her story of independence after the death of her husband, Thomas.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper“
During the 19th century, female “hysteria” was an erroneous diagnosis male doctors used to brand “troubled” women. Many were forcibly committed and subject to radical surgeries and treatment. Enter Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” — about a woman’s descent into madness, confined to her bedroom by her physician husband. Gilman fought her own battles with depression and misdiagnosis, which led to her writing the story — a clear condemnation of female oppression that rattled audiences.
Kurt Vonnegut ‘s “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian“
There’s no question that Vonnegut was courting controversy with a title like this. The outspoken author’s collection of fictional interviews with deceased historical figures like Adolf Hitler, William Shakespeare, and Isaac Asimov is frequently funny, but his inclusion of Dr. Jack Kevorkian — the convicted physician-assisted suicide proponent — provoked ire from conservative groups. In the story, Kevorkian facilitates Vonnegut’s near-death experiences so he can talk to people in the afterlife. The book was published during the thick of the Kevorkian controversy, near the time 60 Minutes televised video depicting the euthanasia of an ill man.
Chuck Palahniuk’s “Guts“
In the first line of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Guts,” originally published in Playboy, the reader is instructed to hold their breath for the duration of the story about violent and disturbing incidents involving adolescent boys masturbating (inspired by true stories). During a book tour, the author read “Guts” to audiences — and sure enough, over 60 people fainted from holding their breath during various readings. In 2009, one school’s English teacher was suspended for giving his 11th-grade students a copy of the short story.
Any of the stories in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short story collection The Martian Chronicles was written when space travel was still largely a mystery and controversial theories were being touted regarding mysterious canals on Mars, believed to be built by an extraterrestrial civilization (later debunked). Bradbury’s stories centered on the colonization of Mars by humans fleeing Earth after an atomic war, and the conflict that breaks out between the Martians and humans. The author’s satirical approach angered groups, who criticized what they believed to be racist and sexist themes, even though the tales reflected American society’s real-life struggles.
Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker“
Washington Irving’s allegorical tale of morality was written when a story about a man falling under the spell of the devil’s charms could still devastate people.
Zhu Wen’s “I Love Dollars“
Director Zhu Wen’s short story collection, I Love Dollars — an outlandish, darkly comic view of contemporary Chinese society and the burden of commercialism in a post-Mao era — was condemned by critics who claimed it was written for pure shock value. Wen twisted the concept of the traditional Chinese filial bond with a short story, also titled “I Love Dollars,” in which his protagonist sets out to supply his father with prostitutes.
Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find“
In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor pushes the concept of right and wrong/good and evil to the extreme as her characters fight for survival and become enlightened — through death. People are still discussing the contradictory nature of O’Connor’s work and her controversial final chapter.
Any of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories
The eternal struggle between Lovecraft’s classist, racist, and sexist views and his inexhaustible imagination, clever framing, nihilistic intrigue, and compelling (albeit maddening) wordplay is aroused throughout the author’s canon.