11 Short Stories That Will Give You A Crash Course In Magical Realism

by Charlotte Ahlin
Thais Ramos Varela/Stocksy

In some ways, magical realism is an easy genre to define: it incorporates fantastical elements into otherwise realistic fiction. That seems simple enough. But look a little closer, and you'll find that the genre of magical realism is far more elusive than that. I mean, what separates it from fantasy? There's no easy answer, but it's important to remember that the genre has it roots in political and social oppression and subversion, but over the years, evolved in many ways. Sometimes, it's easier just to read it than explain it. So if you're looking for strange and sweet stories of magic told through the lens of reality, check out these excellent tales that you can read right now.

The genre of magical realism as we know it today is generally associated with the great Latin American authors of the 20th century, including Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, and Isabel Allende. Their literary innovations have caught on, and over the past few decades there has been an explosion of realistic short stories touched with magic. Here you'll find classics tales of moon daughters and political corruption, as well as brand new stories of mysteriously locked books, creepy cell phones, and everything in between:

'The Autumn of the Patriarch' by Gabriel García Márquez

Márquez is a renowned master of magical realism, and "The Autumn of the Patriarch" is one of his most ambitious works of fiction. The short story (excerpted from the novel of the same name) follows a dying tyrant trapped within the prison of his own dictatorship. Walking the fine line between horrific tragedy and absurd comedy, Márquez described his own tale as a "poem on the solitude of power."

'Americca' by Aimee Bender

"Americca" begins with the appearance of an extra tube of toothpaste. Seems innocuous enough. But soon strange "gifts," doubles of ordinary household objects, start appearing all over the place, leaving one family to start questioning who (or what) is playing this bizarre game.

'Samsa in Love' by Haruki Murakami

If creepy, distressing magical realism is your jam, then chances are good you've already read Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, in which a man named Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach. In Haruki Murakami's "Samsa in Love," someone wakes up one morning to find that he has, in fact, transformed into Gregor Samsa.

'The Faery Handbag' by Kelly Link

Anyone who frequented thrift shops a lot as a kid probably knows the feeling of picked up a secondhand object and just knowing that it's cursed. Or blessed. Or filled with fairies. That is essentially the premise of "The Faery Handbag," an odd short story by the clever, ever magical Kelly Link.

'The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis' by Karen Russell

Larry Rubio and his friends (Mondo, Gus, and Juan Carlos), find a scarecrow lashed to a tree in Friendship Park, New Jersey. This is odd, as there is no corn field nearby, and no crops to protect. But Karen Russell's "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis" quickly goes from odd to terrifying as she explores the darker side of childhood bullying and the creepiness of straw-stuffed dolls.

'Hello, Moto' by Nnedi Okorafor

"Hello, Moto" is a horror story about wigs and phones. One woman makes wigs for herself and her two friends, hoping to make all three of them better. And, like all great magical realism stories, the elements of other-worldliness are used to make a point about politics, nationhood, female friendship, and what happens when "self-improvement" goes terribly awry.

'The Shawl' by Louise Erdrich

"The Shawl" follows an Anishinaabeg mother, who has just had a baby with a man who is not her husband. She is sent to live with this other man, but tragedy strikes their wagon and a small girl is killed. All that is left of her is a tattered shawl, a heartbreaking garment that has repercussions for generations after.

'The Seraph and the Zambesi' by Muriel Spark

In "The Seraph and the Zambesi," a six-winged angel appears to a group of European colonists in Zimbabwe on Christmas Eve. Naturally, the angry colonists threaten the angel with fire and police unless the angel agrees to leave their property immediately. First published in 1951, this is the story that launched the career of Muriel Spark, known for her weird, magical meta-fiction.

'If A Book Is Locked There’s Probably A Good Reason For That Don’t You Think' by Helen Oyeyemi

"If A Book Is Locked There’s Probably A Good Reason For That Don’t You Think" is, as the title suggests, about a locked book. Specifically, our protagonist arrives at the office for work, only to find a mysteriously locked diary. But of course, there is nothing more maddening than a tightly locked book (even if there is probably a good reason for it).

'The Journey of the Eyeball' by Katherine Vaz

If you're extremely squeamish about body parts, "The Journey of the Eyeball" may not be the story for you. But if the idea of an independent eyeball setting off on a quest to find its lady love strikes you as sad, hilarious, and creepy (in a fun way), then you'll love this "love story" between an unsuspecting women and a rogue optic nerve.

'The Daughters of the Moon' by Italo Calvino

The moon hangs decrepit and ugly over the city of New York. The people below hate looking up at something so old, so they come up with a perfect solution: build a crane to pluck the moon out of the sky, so that it might be discarded at last. "The Daughters of the Moon" is one of Italo Calvino's classic tales of lunar weirdness and the dangers of a society that can only appreciate the new.