Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Best Short Stories of Jack London

Twenty-one five-star favorites
Jack London
I have been a fan of Jack London’s writing for over 25 years. During that time I have actively sought out his works and made an attempt to collect as many of his books in hardcover and paperback form as possible, but it wasn’t until the advent of the e-book that I was truly able to access all of his works, even the most obscure. Since getting my Kindle three years ago, I have read (or reread), rated, and reviewed London’s complete works. Though he wrote a few famous novels, most notably The Call of the WildWhite Fang, and The Sea-Wolf, London is primarily renowned as a master of the short story. There are 197 works of short fiction in the Jack London canon. Of these 197, only 21 merited my 5-star rating of ultimate excellence. I have listed them below, arranged in chronological order of initial publication. Of course, there were many other stories to which I gave a 4- or 4.5-star rating, and perhaps on a different day, in a different mood, they could just as easily achieved that top rating, but these are the stories that I consider to be his absolute best.

If you consider yourself a fan of Jack London, and you haven’t read all of these, seek them out and find them. If you are new to Jack London, and would like to sample some of his short stories, I would suggest starting with the collections The Faith of Men or Moon-Face.

A Thousand Deaths
Originally published May 1899 in The Black Cat
One of the Uncollected Stories
A sailor is rescued from drowning by a mystery man with a resuscitation machine, only to find that the mad scientist intends to use him as a guinea pig for his experiments. Great sci-fi pulp fiction.

An Odyssey of the North
Originally published January 1900 in The Atlantic Monthly
Reprinted in the collection The Son of the Wolf
A mysterious Indian shows up at the Malamute Kid’s cabin and tells the epic tale of how he traveled the world in search of his bride and the white man who stole her from him.

The Law of Life
Originally published March 1900 in McClure’s
Reprinted in the collection Children of the Frost
As an Indian tribe packs up their camp to move to their winter hunting grounds, one feeble elder is left behind to die. He meditates on life and death but harbors no fear or bitterness, for such is the law of life.

Grit of Women
Originally published August 1900 in McClure’s
Reprinted in the collection The God of His Fathers
Indian guide Sitka Charley tells the story of his wife Passuk, with whom he made a harrowing 700 mile journey across the Yukon Territory during a time of famine.

A Relic of the Pliocene
Originally published January 12, 1901 in Collier’s Magazine
Reprinted in the collection The Faith of Men
Thomas Stevens—legendary hunter, drifter, and teller of tall tales—relates his adventure of hunting a woolly mammoth.

The Minions of Midas
Originally published May 1901 in Pearson’s
Reprinted in the collection Moon-Face
A wealthy streetcar magnate is contacted by a secret society of proletariats who demand that he pay them twenty million dollars or they will start committing random murders.

Originally published as “Diable, a Dog” June 1902 in Cosmopolitan
Reprinted in the collection The Faith of Men
Fate brings together a brutal dog and a brutal master. The two make each other’s lives a living hell, biding their time until the inevitable fatal showdown. One of London’s harshest and grittiest tales.

The Story of Jees Uck
Originally published September 1902 in The Smart Set
Reprinted in the collection The Faith of Men
A romance develops between Neil Bonner, a trading post operator, and Jees Uck, an Indian woman of mixed ancestry. A touching tale of love and loyalty, it is London’s most realistic portrayal of a native/white romance.

The One Thousand Dozen
Originally published March 1903 in National Magazine
Reprinted in the collection The Faith of Men
A man tries to make a small fortune by transporting eggs from San Francisco to Dawson, but the journey is hard and the precious cargo constantly in peril.

The Shadow and the Flash
Originally published June 1903 in The Bookman
Reprinted in the collection Moon-Face
Two rival scientists race to discover the secret of invisibility. A great sci-fi story, even if the science is a little sketchy.

All Gold Cañon
[a.k.a. All Gold Canyon]
Originally published November 1905 in The Century Magazine
Reprinted in the collection Moon-Face
A prospector discovers an idyllic canyon and begins a methodical search for gold. Beautiful nature writing combined with riveting suspense.

The Apostate
Originally published September 1906 in Women’s Home Companion
Reprinted in the collection When God Laughs
A young man, having been a wage slave at factory labor for most of his life, one day decides to stop working.

To Build a Fire (2nd version)
Originally published August 1908 in The Century Magazine
Reprinted in the collection Lost Face
The classic story of a man, alone but for his dog, who trudges along the Yukon Trail in a lethal cold of 75 degrees below zero, trying to make it to his friends’ camp before he freezes to death.

Originally published December 1908 in Red Magazine [London, England]
Reprinted in the collection Revolution and Other Essays
A sci-fi thriller about a seemingly omnipotent mystery man who demands that society reorganize itself in a rational manner.

Lost Face
Originally published December 13, 1908 in New York Herald
Reprinted in the collection Lost Face
A former Polish freedom fighter faces torture and death at the hands of an Alaskan Indian tribe. While he desperately tries to find a way out of his predicament, he recalls the epic story of his journey across Asia and his escape from the mines of Siberia.

The Chinago
Originally published June 26, 1909 in Illustrated London News
Reprinted in the collection When God Laughs
A Chinese laborer in Tahiti is tried under French law for a murder he did not commit. A vivid and moving tale of colonial abuse.

The Sheriff of Kona
Originally published August 1909 in American Magazine
Reprinted in the collection The House of Pride
The Sheriff of Kona, whose job it is to apprehend lepers and send them to the colony of Molokai, starts to show signs of having the disease himself.

A Piece of Steak
Originally published November 20, 1909 in Saturday Evening Post
Reprinted in the collection When God Laughs
An aging fighter in Australia, poor and underfed, must win a bout against a young up-and-comer in order to feed his family. A beautifully written depiction of the art and strategy of boxing.

Koolau the Leper
Originally published December 1909 in Pacific Monthly
Reprinted in the collection The House of Pride
In the secluded Kalalau Valley on the island of Kauai, Koolau leads a band of lepers in rebellion against the police and army that have come to capture his people and confine them to the leper colony of Molokai.

Originally published July 29, 1911 in The Nation
Reprinted in the collection The Night-Born
A cavalry scout in an unnamed war rides through the countryside, ever vigilant, for death may strike anywhere, anytime. Very short but very effective.

The Mexican
Originally published August 19, 1911 in Saturday Evening Post
Reprinted in the collection The Night-Born
A mysterious youth joins a group of Mexican revolutionaries in Los Angeles. His zeal for the cause is so intense it even frightens his own comrades. To raise money for guns, he must win a prize fight.

For the record, London’s 5-star novels are The Call of the WildThe Iron HeelMartin Eden, and Before Adam. The first three are masterpieces of American literature, while the fourth is simply a fun piece of sci-fi pulp fiction. As for his nonfictionJohn Barleycorn and The Road are two excellent memoirs.


  1. I just downloaded the wonderful Delphi Classics collection of Jack London and I was looking for some tips about what short stories to read. Most appreciated!

  2. I loved White Fang when I read it. In fact, it is one of my favorite books.
    But for me The Call of the Wild, while a bit philosophical, was written rather simplitically. I am holding out hope for his other stories though.

    Unrelated: Awesome blog.

  3. Great work on this site. You have motivated me to read through Moon-Face and the Faith of Men. And you've given me a lot of ideas for other things to check out.


  4. like the website title, and all the short stories are great

  5. I've been slowly working my way through my collection "Great Short Works of Jack London"; just read the fifth of the eight pieces. I wondered if the three remaining (all short stories) are really among his better ones- according to you they all are (An Odyssey of the North, Batard and The Law of Life). Thanks for the input.