10 of the Best Short Stories by Charles Dickens

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Charles Dickens (1812-70) is best-known for his fifteen novels and for shorter books like A Christmas Carol. However, Dickens’s was a restless talent, and during his publishing career that spanned more than thirty-five years, he also wrote countless articles, essays, and short stories.

Although Dickens’s short stories are less famous than novels like Oliver Twist or Great Expectations, the self-proclaimed ‘Sparkler of Albion’ excelled, too, in the short-story form.

Below are ten of Dickens’s greatest works of short fiction, all of which can be read online. The best book of Dickens stories, which we strongly recommend, is Selected Short Fiction (Penguin English Library).

1. ‘The Signal-Man’.

Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine, I showed him how that this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight, and how that figures, originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye, were known to have often troubled patients, some of whom had become conscious of the nature of their affliction, and had even proved it by experiments upon themselves …

This 1866 story may not be Dickens’s most famous supernatural work – that mantle has to go to A Christmas Carol – but it is probably his most unsettling. A railway signalman has a series of apparitions which predict fatalities on the railway line.

Dickens himself had been involved in a railway accident the year before writing the story (the Staplehurst crash of 1865), and the accident certainly left him shaken for some time afterwards.

2. ‘Hunted Down’.

As he talked and talked—but really not too much, for the rest of us seemed to force it upon him—I became quite angry with myself.  I took his face to pieces in my mind, like a watch, and examined it in detail.  I could not say much against any of his features separately; I could say even less against them when they were put together.  ‘Then is it not monstrous,’ I asked myself, ‘that because a man happens to part his hair straight up the middle of his head, I should permit myself to suspect, and even to detest him?’

Dickens was reportedly paid £1,000 for this short story from 1859, a detective story about a man who hunts down a poisoner and fraudster. But can we trust the detective-narrator who is our only source of information about the events and characters described?

3. ‘The Ghost in Master B.’s Room’.

It was not long before I remarked that I never by any hazard had a dream of Master B., or of anything belonging to him. But, the instant I awoke from sleep, at whatever hour of the night, my thoughts took him up, and roamed away, trying to attach his initial letter to something that would fit it and keep it quiet …

Another Dickens story from 1859, this tale of haunting formed part of a suite of stories titled The Haunted House, which Dickens curated and which featured contributions from a number of other leading Victorian writers, including Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins. Dickens’s own contribution to this series, ‘The Ghost in Master B.’s Room’, is a confusing and melancholy tale about childhood memories.

4. ‘The Boarding House’.

As the ice was now broken, and the new inmates more at home, every member of the company felt more at ease. Tibbs himself most certainly did, because he went to sleep immediately after dinner …

One of the ‘Tales’ collected in Dickens’s very earliest collection, Sketches by Boz (Penguin Classics), ‘The Boarding House’ was one of his very first published works of fiction. The boarding house of the story’s title is situated on Great Coram Street in Bloomsbury, London, where Mrs Tibbs, the landlady, encourages her guests to flirt with each other.

5. ‘The Black Veil’.

It was a singularly tall woman, dressed in deep mourning, and standing so close to the door that her face almost touched the glass. The upper part of her figure was carefully muffled in a black shawl, as if for the purpose of concealment; and her face was shrouded by a thick black veil …

Another early story later republished in Sketches by Boz (Penguin Classics), this 1836 tale focuses on a young doctor who meets a woman wearing a black veil one night. Dickens piques our interest with an odd request: the woman is desperate for the doctor to provide her loved one with urgent aid – but not until tomorrow. What is the situation that is at once so urgent and yet requiring a delay until the next day?

6. ‘To Be Read at Dusk’.

The mountain in the sunset had stopped the five couriers in a conversation. It is a sublime sight, likely to stop conversation. The mountain being now out of the sunset, they resumed …

One of Dickens’s most intriguing and demanding ghost stories, ‘To Be Read at Dusk’ begins with a group of couriers at an Alpine lodge sharing their various experiences of ‘ghosts’ – until someone eavesdropping on their conversation chimes in …

7. ‘The Wreck of the Golden Mary’.

The light shone up so high that I could see the huge Iceberg upon which we had struck, cloven at the top and down the middle, exactly like Penrith Church in my dream.  At the same moment I could see the watch last relieved, crowding up and down on deck; I could see Mrs. Atherfield and Miss Coleshaw thrown about on the top of the companion as they struggled to bring the child up from below …

This story is about the crew and passengers on board the ship the Golden Mary as it heads for California. However, in a plotline which anticipates the sinking of the Titanic, the ship is struck by an iceberg and everyone on board must scramble for the life-boats …

8. ‘The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton’.

Gabriel paused, in some alarm, in the act of raising the wicker bottle to his lips, and looked round. The bottom of the oldest grave about him was not more still and quiet than the churchyard in the pale moonlight. The cold hoar frost glistened on the tombstones, and sparkled like rows of gems, among the stone carvings of the old church …

The tale, one of the inset stories to feature in Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-37), shares many of the narrative features which would turn up a few years later in A Christmas Carol: the misanthropic villain, the Christmas Eve setting, the presence of the supernatural (goblins/ghosts), the use of visions which the main character is forced to witness, the focus on poverty and family, and, most importantly, the reforming of the villain into a better person at the close of the story.

It is hard to see it as anything other than the dress rehearsal for the more celebrated story Dickens would go on to write a few years later.

9. ‘The Trial for Murder’.

The figure, having beckoned, drew back, and closed the door. With no longer pause than was made by my crossing the bedroom, I opened the dressing-room door, and looked in. I had a lighted candle already in my hand. I felt no inward expectation of seeing the figure in the dressing-room, and I did not see it there …

A short story from 1866, originally published under the title ‘To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt’. The ghost of a murder victim appears to the foreman of the jury at the trial for his murder, to ensure that his murderer is found guilty.

10. ‘A Child’s Dream of a Star’.

There was once a child, and he strolled about a good deal, and thought of a number of things. He had a sister, who was a child too, and his constant companion. These two used to wonder all day long. They wondered at the beauty of the flowers; they wondered at the height and blueness of the sky; they wondered at the depth of the bright water; they wondered at the goodness and the power of God, who made the lovely world …

We’ll end this pick of Dickens’s best short stories with a very late – and very short – tale about a brother and sister, published posthumously in Boston in 1871.

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