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The Playboy book of short stories … not what you think

February 14, 2009 by Mathew Ferguson

Not what you think ...

Not what you think ...

The title is suggestive, yes? You’re probably thinking hot girls and sex stories that start “I always thought being a postman was boring until the day I delivered a package to University student dorm …”

Yeah, no.

Back when the old Hef with his absurdly young girlfriends was young Hugh Hefner and he was launching Playboy (first issue 1953) he wanted to create a publication that “would reflect a masculine (though not hairy-chested) zest for all of life” and would be “urban and urbane (not jaded or blasé), sophisticated (not effete), candidly frisky (not sniggering or risqué).”

Good fiction was apparently part of this sophisticated magazine.

You know what I think? Good fiction was part of the sophisticated magazine but it had nothing to do with appealing to a certain “urbane man” or anything like that. Hef knew that he couldn’t get away with a whole magazine of naked girls and so he had to put something next to them. It was a ruse, a trick to confuse his critics.

I can imagine it:

“He’s got naked girls in the magazines!”

“Yes, but he prints literature from the greatest writers of our time next to them. It’s art not porn.”

“Do we protest it or not? Argh – morality fighting with free-thinking art appreciating part of brain. Zzzzap. (brain short circuit).”

PlayboybunnyI don’t care if it was a trick because Playboy really did print the short fiction of some of the greatest writers of our time. Recognise any of these names?

Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Richard Matheson (I am Legend), Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), John Updike (Rabbit), Jack Kerouac (On the Road), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song), Joseph Heller (Catch 22).

The Playboy Book of Short Stories contains more authors than I’ve listed here. Alice K. Turner (the editor) selected one story from each year Playboy had been published and in the course of doing so has created the best collection of short stories I’ve ever read.

Selected brilliance

The trouble with talking about short stories, as I’ve written before, is that they are so short that talking about them is sometimes telling them. I won’t tell them here, I promise.

Richard Matheson: A Flourish of Strumpets

Published in 1956, this story blew my mind. How could someone back in 1956 think like this? The story is hot … very hot and wickedly funny. It is short and fast and if you think people back in the 1950s were conservative just forget it.

Some descriptions:

The second one came that night; a black-root blonde, slit-skirted and sweatered to within an inch of her breathing life.


The next night it was a perky brunette with a blouse front slashed to forever.


It was a raven-haired, limp-lidded vamp that night. On her outfit spangles moved and glittered at strategic points.


That night it was a redhead sheathed in a green knit dress that hugged all that was voluminous and there was much of that.

kim_kardashian_playboyGabriel Garcia Marques: The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World

Along with The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (not in this collection), The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World is one of the best short stories ever written. That it was originally written in Spanish and reads perfectly in English is a marvel in itself. This story made me want to learn Spanish simply so I could read the original version. If you do nothing else with your life, I urge you to hunt down this story – on the web, in the real world, read it standing up in a bookshop, wherever you can. Every line of it is a miracle. FIND IT AND READ IT NOW.

Vladimir Nabokov: The Dashing Fellow

A married man seduces a married woman – how dark and devious and shocking can it possibly be? Way dark. Way devious. Way way way shocking. No woman should ever read this story for they will never trust a man again. No man should read it because he will instantly feel bad and regretful for every sneaky thing he has ever done (and all men have done sneaky things, guaranteed). To read this story is to be filled with the desire to apologise for every male who has ever lived. It is a stunning piece of work, a jewel of perfection.

609 pages, no waiting

In any collection of short stories you’ll love some, like some and skip over or outright hate some. There are stories in this collection that I had a hard time reading but it wasn’t because the stories themselves were bad. The structure of writing, how stories are told, the phrasings and so on change over time and I am reader living in 2009 – some fifty years after a few of these stories were written. The mental fit I need to digest these stories can take a little adjustment. It’s like attempting to read Pride and Prejudice after reading a book written this year – it’s a bit of a jolt.

playboy1How I got The Playboy Book of Short Stories: Salvation Army store in Camberwell, Melbourne. I cannot believe someone gave this away because it is an amazing collection. I’ve looked around for it online but it is out of print and you can only pick it up on eBay or in other second-hand places. I suspect changing the title (removing that Playboy) would have kept this book in print (as in, I was embarrassed to be seen reading it and often hid the cover).

(Oh yeah, for those who were actually looking for Playboy stuff … enjoy the totally non-book related images.)

Happy reading,


i may be grey and featureless but i’ve got this glowing heart

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  1. Roy Waler says:

    “LOST AT C”

  2. John Fuller says:

    Does this collection include Stan Dryer’s 1970 masterpiece, “Muskrat Fun for Everyone”?

  3. Terry Shumway says:

    Am trying to locate the Playboy magazine that has the short story The Chronicle of the 656th in it. I think it was the october 1966 issue. I was in Iceland on my first deployment and saw this short story. Lost a lot in Hurricane Andrew 1992. Thank you for any help.

  4. steve price says:

    I read a story, years ago, in playboy about a chemist who discovered a formula that killed anything or anyone yellow in color. It was called The M—–? Solution. Would like to find it but can not remember the name. Can anyone help?


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