"The Metamorphosis" is the touchstone we go to when we hear that favorite word of pedants, kafkaesque. It's pretty freaky: man becomes bug, terrifies his family, and then somehow, preposterously, keeps becoming more bug--until he dies from a rotten apple lodged in his carapace by his resentful father.
But what I never knew is that Kafka's other stories are so much stranger, so much more unsettling than "The Metamorphosis." That story, at least, can be summarized effectively; many of the stories in this collection (which I believe is complete) seem to be made up of nothing at all, but they are all kafkaesque in their horrible way. One of my favorites is the story of the Ondradek, whom I remember from Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings:
At first glance it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and indeed it does seem to have thread wound upon it; to be sure, they are only old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most varied sorts and colors. But it is not only a spool, for a small wooden crossbar sticks out of the middle of the star, and another small rod is joined to that at a right angle. By means of this latter rod on one side and one of the points of the star on the other, the whole thing can stand upright as if on two legs.
"He does no harm to anyone that one can see;" says the narrator of the seemingly immortal Ondradek, "but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful." I think one of Kafka's greatest traits is that he seems to have an unfettered imagination; many of us, I think, have creatures like the Ondradek peopling the corners of our nightmares, but would we be able to get them on the page without giving into the impulse to change them, filter them, make them somehow more recognizable? With that last line, as he always does, Kafka manages to turn the screw just a little tighter, to transform the merely repugnant into the cosmically frightening.
The other titular story is "A Penal Colony," narrated by a visitor to a prison island who is being given a demonstration of a machine that executes rulebreakers by inscribing their crime on their bodies with thousands of exsanguinating needles. This story, too, has that last turn that makes it even more awful than that description sounds--though I won't spoil it here. Worth mentioning, too, is the equally famous "A Hunger Artist," about a man who starves himself professionally dealing with the decline in demand for his art. But so many more of these stories are horrifying for reasons I just can't place--why is the father of "The Judgment" upbraiding his son so awfully; what is it all for? Kafka knows that real horror is not even in the unseen, as Anne Radcliffe believed, but in the un-understood, the incomprehensible and the inscrutable.