Welcome to the website of A Personal Anthology. This online project exists in the first instance as weekly TinyLetter, sent out on Friday afternoon. Each week a guest is invited to pick and introduce twelve of their favourite short stories and, where possible, link to them online. Since starting in 2017 the project has featured over 100 guest editors picking over 1,500 short stories written by over 800 authors. You can browse guest editors and featured authors in the sidebar, or just start reading below. Click here to sign up for the mailout. A Personal Anthology is curated by Jonathan Gibbs.
Summer in Anna Wood’s ‘Francine’ means festivals. It means pitching a tent and creating a base camp, going with the flow, drinking pints of cider and stretching out for a snooze on a shady patch of grass whenever the mood suits. A group of friends head to an unnamed festival for a long weekend of hedonism, and they throw themselves straight into the thick of it with henna tattoos and pitchers of cocktail, settling in for a weekend of music, dancing, and staying up all night. It’s idyllic, a playground for grownups. When a stranger pitches her tent on the fringes of their camp, it feels like an imposition, but keen to shed their ‘London snark’ and embrace the free-wheelin’ Glasto lifestyle, the group adapts to let the mysterious Francine into their circle. The brilliance of this story is that Francine doesn’t actually do anything: content to sit on a hay bale, she doesn’t seem to have any needs or desires of her own. Happy to accept cups of tea, flapjacks, joints and drinks, she takes from the group but gives them nothing but a bright smile in return, and this unnerving presence casts a shadow over the weekend. ‘Francine’ is the perfect summer short story, drenched in sunshine but simmering with tension.
Picked by Alice Slater. Alice is a writer from London. She’s co-host of literary podcast What Page Are You On? and writes about short stories for Mslexia. She edited the short story anthology Outsiders for 3 of Cups Press. You can read her individual Personal Anthology here.
First published in Outsiders, ed. Alice Slater, 3 of Cups Press, 2020
Each year, we rent a house at the edge of the sea and drive there in the first of summer – with the dog and cat, the children, and the cook – arriving at a strange place a little before dark.
So begins John Cheever’s ‘The Seaside Houses’ – with a first sentence that is possible to be read as a distillation of the story to follow: the up-with-the-larks! buoyancy of that “in the first of summer” doesn’t even make it to the end of sentence, but, instead, is brought back down to earth with the gloomy image of the family’s arrival “at a strange place a little before dark.”
But this melancholic foreshadowing is easily overlooked on an initial read. For, rather than continue along this downward trajectory, the narrator is keen to return to the optimism he had momentarily (and perhaps unconsciously) allowed to slip, declaring himself ready to enjoy “a month that promises to have no worries of any kind” and that “there is the sense that we are, as in our dreams we have always known ourselves to be, migrants and wanderers – travelers, at least, with a traveler’s acuteness of feeling …”
Naturally, such a quasi-mythical outlook on life has its hubristic consequences. And having boasted of possessing an “acuteness of feeling” the narrator is immediately struck by the idea that the owners of the house “seemed to have left that day, seemed in fact to have left a minute earlier. There were flowers in the vases, cigarette butts in the ashtrays, and a dirty glass on the table…” He claims that “[t]he stir, the discord of the Greenwood’s sudden departure still seemed to be in the air” and is disappointed that “in the twilight the place seemed drab, and I found it depressing. I turned on a lamp, but the bulb was dim and I thought that Mr Greenwood had been a parsimonious and mean man. Whatever he had been, I seemed to feel his presence with uncommon force.”
As the holiday continues the narrator’s mood worsens: he becomes short tempered and quarrels with his wife and children. He discovers empty bottles of whiskey hidden behind books and inside the piano; a stash of nudist magazines under the cushions of the settee; a piece of graffiti (“My father is rat”) scrawled on the baseboard in his son’s bedroom; and when a visiting neighbour drops hints that Mr Greenwood’s marriage was troubled and that his actual achievements had fallen far short of his aspirations, the narrator invents an excuse to flee back to New York for a couple of days – where he promptly gets drunk in a bar and spends the night with a “sloppy woman” from his office. And when he returns to the house the situation just continues to deteriorate further.
There is an uncanny, dreamlike quality to Cheever’s prose – infusing the narrative with a wonderful ambiguity – so that the reader can never be sure if the sadness of someone’s life can be such that, even in their absence, it is able contaminate places and other people (especially those people possessed of an aforementioned “acuteness of feeling”); or whether this claim of possessing such preternatural sensitivity is merely an excuse for a fatal flaw the claimant is unable to recognise within themselves (as the narrator was oblivious to that quiet note of melancholy in the opening sentence). Cheever, of course, never shows his hand. Merely allows his subtle alchemy to work upon the text until a sublime reckoning has been reached and, once again, the golden glow of high summer has been transformed into the sad and leaden drabness of “another seaside house, with another wife”.
Picked by W.B. Gooderham. W.B. is a freelance writer. He blogs at http://livesinlit.com and http://bookdedications.co.uk/
First published in The New Yorker, July 29, 1961, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Stories of John Cheever, Knopf, 1978
At the heart of Amy Bloom’s sun-drenched story ‘Love is Not a Pie’ is a memory of the narrator Ellen’s giddily perfect childhood summer, spent in a ramshackle cabin next to a lake, the place filled with her family and much-loved guests, Mr DeCuervo and his daughter Gisela.
Surrounded by pines, birches, mossy rocks, eating pancakes and peanut butter sandwiches, swimming, rowing, drinking orange crush, Ellen is drunk on her freedom. This is such a beautifully evoked slice of heaven. Even when the monsoon comes and the electricity packs up the holiday isn’t spoiled. Monopoly is pulled out. Ellen’s mother cuts oranges and starts her rainy day ritual of making sangria. The kids stomp about naked on the porch in the rain.
The adults here are in the background, free of rules, in their own summer utopia, fishing, drinking, playing poker, dancing to Billy Holiday, holding each other, Ellen’s mother and father and Mr DeCuervo even sharing a bed.
What I love about this story is that Ellen is remembering this holiday inside the grief of her mother’s funeral, where, as an adult, she realises clear as a bell that Mr DeCuervo was also her mother’s lover, and that her father knew and embraced it. As her mother states on her deathbed “love is not a pie” – there is plenty to go round.
This revelation doesn’t mean the story becomes clouded in darkness or confusion; it opens it out. Mr DeCuervo and Ellen’s father hold each other weeping at the wake, and, amongst this pathos, there is a celebration of love in all its complicated forms.
Amy Bloom, as well as being a writer, is a psychotherapist, and I think she hits on a truth here: that sometimes in the disconnect of grief there is a wisdom that allows you to accept something that otherwise would have been untenable. Or maybe it is unrealistic, but I’m here for it anyway. I grew up in my own complicated hippy family that I either remember with hazy nostalgia or hot shame. I know which I prefer. Amy Bloom chooses optimism and joy in this story and I’m grateful for that. Last thing – this whole collection is full of killer first lines and ‘Love Is Not A Pie’ is no exception. It begins:
In the middle of the eulogy of my mother’s boring and heart-breaking funeral, I began to think about calling off the wedding.
Chosen by Shelley Hastings. Shelley is a writer and dramaturg based in London. Her short stories have been published by Galley Beggar Press, Southword Magazine, The Common Breath and The Mechanics Institute Review. @peckhamshell
First Published in Room of One’s Own, 1990. Collected in Best American Short Stories, 1991, and Come to Me, HarperCollins, 1993
Kelly Link’s ‘The Summer People’ shares a title with a Shirley Jackson short story and is as unsettling and cautionary as its namesake. In true Kelly Link fashion, however, the story adds adolescent girls, a terrible pact, moonshine and fairies to Jackson’s cocktail of class critique and horror.
Fran, our teen protagonist, lives with her father, who sells moonshine and does odd jobs for visitors whose holiday houses dot their scenic town in the Appalachian foothills. The story opens with Fran desperately sick from flu, doped up on cough medication and abandoned by her father who’s gone in search of Jesus. Ophelia Merck, a rich girl at school, comes to the rescue. Fairy-tale pretty with her “silvery blond” hair and queer, Ophelia’s family are erstwhile summer visitors who have moved to the town permanently, possibly due to the Merck father’s involvement in a malpractice suit.
These echoes of teen addiction and the opioid crisis take second place to the girls’ hallucinatory visits to a mysterious old house, set between apple trees, “one laden with fruit and the other bare and silver black”. This is the home of the sinister ‘summer people’ to whom Fran (and her mother before her) are bound. They give Fran, who can’t risk the emergency room, a cure for her flu in a tiny glass vial. In the past she’s been gifted other things – tiny, magical toys – but these particular ‘summer people’ are exacting taskmasters. Once in their thrall, it’s impossible to escape.
That is, until Ophelia steps into Fran’s life and offers her help. “I can tell you mean it,” Fran tells the naïve Ophelia and later, “Did you mean it when you said you wanted to help?” Fran gains her heart’s desire to escape town, but at a price. Much to reflect on in this pandemic, when disparities between the rich and poor, those who escape to summer homes and those who toil, have been made starkly apparent.
Chosen by Gita Ralleigh. Gita is a doctor and poet who teaches creative writing to science undergraduates. Her debut poetry collection ‘A Terrible Thing’ was published by Bad Betty Press in 2020.
First published in Tin House, Fall 2011. Collected in Get in Trouble, 2015, Random House/Canongate. Also available as a Kindle single from Canongate, 2015
When it’s hard to escape abroad is difficult, there’s pleasure be had in reading about the discomforts of holidaymaking. This story, written in 1929, centres on Dillie and Edward Aherne. They’re an affluent pair, two years married, who are travelling in the South of France. When Dillie’s “good brogues” in which her feet looked “a shade powerful” go missing at the hotel, frustration ensues. She has to totter over cobblestones “to inspect local architecture and other misadventures follow. Her husband Edward, a man with a roving eye and a love of liqueurs is little use.
The heat is a third protagonist. At one point Dillie comments, “The glare is so awful.” There is a correspondingly harsh exposure about Bowen’s writing. In just a dozen pages, we are shown the Ahernes’ insularity and ignorance, their deep unease with one another. The story wears the mask of comedy. After Dillie’s brogues are restored Edward asks, “Wasn’t it like a French farce – not the improper kind?” And the ending, in which “Mr and Mrs Aherne, free, frank on terms of perfect equality, clattered down the corridor, disturbing some dozen siestas,” adds to the drollery.
But, as so often with Bowen’s work, there’s a sense of disturbance. The sun may be bright, but it is the lack of warmth which underpins this story. I kept harking back to an earlier scene where the Ahernes enter the cathedral. “Lost to one another, they went silently into the pointed chilly darkness.”
Picked by Sibyl Ruth. Sibyl reads a lot of short stories and occasionally writes them. Her flash fiction ‘The Rose’ was published in Litro last autumn. You can read her individual Personal Anthology here.
From The Collected Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Penguin Books, 1983
It’s a beautiful day at the height of summer. Connie, fifteen years old, is all alone in the garden, her parents having left her home alone for the day. The “sky was perfectly blue and still”. So, what could go wrong? Everything, of course.
In this story by Joyce Carol Oates there are so many corners at which you’ll be surprised, nonetheless you’re waiting and you’re dreading, always about to have your worst fears realised. The tension is notched up and up and up. The young protagonist, Connie, so adeptly drawn in the seemingly aimless opening, finds herself on the brink of something terrible when a stranger calls.
This stranger is both monstrous and normal. His name is Arnold Friend, which even by itself is creepy. And what follows might well be the best dramatization of the male sexual aggressor: the brow-beating, the oily sweet-talk, the intimidation, the magic of his patter: the gross implausibility and plausibility both. The story is compelling because it is terrible. And it’s terrible because this is just what happens every day. That’s the beauty of this story: it’s the same old story made new.
The way menace is built up in the story, so gently, is itself quite scary. The reader’s experience – not knowing what’s happening, but at the same time knowing all too well – mirrors the young girl’s experience. Just as we are compelled, so too is she. Just as she is caught in the inevitable ways of this world, and the way people are, so too are we. It works as sweetly as a well-tuned Greek tragedy. But the catharsis is contaminated, tainted by our own complicity.
It’s a great short story because it defamiliarises so expertly, showing that the great short story has great utility; great literature does a job; the world is given back to us anew. And it’s more than disturbing when we re-realise that we live in a world like this.
Chosen by Peter Ahern. Peter Ahern is a teacher and reader. Blogs about short stories, long stories and reading at www.onehundredpages.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter at @ahernahern
First published in Epoch, Fall 1966. Collected in The Wheel of Love and Other Stories, Vanguard, 1970 and widely anthologised
For Anglophone readers, Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853) is surely among the least familiar German Romantic authors. Yet his story ‘Rune Mountain’ – somewhere between short story, fairy tale, supernatural horror, and allegory – is one of the most beguiling works of early Romantic fiction.
Tieck had been a key figure in the Romantic circle that emerged in the late 1790s in the university town of Jena, near Weimar. The Jena Romantics included some of the most famous figures of early nineteenth-century German philosophy and literature, such as the brothers August Wilhelm and Karl Friedrich Schlegel, F. W. J. Schelling, and Friedrich von Hardenberg (better known by his pen name Novalis). Tieck (along with his daughter Dorothea, the diplomat-cum-translator Wolf Graf Baudissin, and A. W. Schlegel) would later produce a German edition of Shakespeare that remains both popular and well-regarded as a literary classic in its own right. In 1802, just as Romanticism was becoming a significant force in German letters, he wrote ‘Rune Mountain,’ which appeared in print two years later.
We tend to associate Romanticism with autumnal storms and bleak winter nights. It is surprising, then, that ‘Rune Mountain’ begins in the bright heat of summer. The narrative opens somewhere in the summer months with a young hunter named Christian filled with melancholy and resting in an isolated valley. He contemplates the world around him and his estrangement from his home village. And yet when Christian is approached by a stranger, his first impulse is to flee. Instead, however, they end up walking together through the night and he tells the stranger of his early life, his frustrations with the mundane world of his childhood, and his departure for a new, more exciting life in the woods.
As they reach the stranger’s home, Christian is directed towards the enigmatic mountain of the title, a source of both dread and fascination. Christian sets out alone. The rest of the story is difficult to describe without giving too much away, but it is a delight of strange and unsettling fiction. Inexplicable apparitions, mysterious woods, ominous arrivals, and incurable obsessions abound. That the most important action takes place in summer – albeit several different summers – only adds to the story’s dreamlike terror.
Doubt and anxiety drive a story that is psychologically rich and deeply disconcerting. Exquisite descriptions of uncertainty and longing take on a peculiar salience in 2021. It is also remarkably moving. ‘Rune Mountain’ is, in my view, one of the finest examples of European short fiction. Perfectly suited for those long, melancholy summer days when the sun seems just a little too bright, and the trees just a little too alluring.
Picked by Morgan Golf-French. Morgan is a lecturer in eighteenth-century European history at the University of Oxford. He enjoys creepy stories and occasionally tweets from @zeno_thankyou.
First published in German as ‘Der Runenberg’, 1804. First published in English translated by Thomas Carlyle, in German Romance,1827. Also translated by Thomas R. Browning in German Literary Fairytales, 1997. Wortsman’s translation is in Tales of the German Imagination, Penguin Classics, 2012)
John Ryan (1925-1992) was a leading figure in mid-century literary Dublin as an artist, broadcaster, publisher, critic, editor, writer and – not least – publican. He was organiser of the first Bloomsday celebration, in 1954.
Two books by Ryan, both strongly recommended, are Remembering How We Stood (1975) and A Bash in the Tunnel: James Joyce and the Irish (1970). The former is a brilliant gossipy memoir of Bohemian Dublin in the 1950s, a time when Ryan seemed to know everyone, and everyone else as well.
A Bash in the Tunnel, edited by Ryan, is an anthology of Irish writers which includes eight pieces that had originally appeared in The Envoy, the literary magazine Ryan edited, to mark the tenth anniversary of Joyce’s death. Illustrious contributors included Samuel Beckett, Stanislaus Joyce, Patrick Kavanagh, Edna O’Brien, Aidan Higgins, Benedict Kiely and Brian O’Nolan (aka Brian Ó Nualláin aka Myles na gCopaleen and aka, most famously, Flann O’Brien), whose brilliant shaggy dog story gives the collection its title.
It’s about a Dublin man of O’Brien’s acquaintance who comes by a key to one of the Irish State Railway’s Pullman cars, and its well-stocked bar, and who occasionally takes advantage of the arrangement when it’s shunted onto a suburban siding at the weekend. If I choose this as a summer story it’s because I read it first in Dublin one August years ago and the light and heat of the day have stayed with me.
You can pick up a copy of A Bash in the Tunnel for less than the price of post and packing.
Chosen by David Collard. David is a writer and researcher based in London. His latest book is About a Girl (CB editions) and he is currently working on a group biography of writers associated with Ian Hamilton’s New Review in the 1970s. Since March 2020 he has been running Carthorse Orchestra, a weekly online cultural gathering. You can read David’s previous selections for A Personal Anthology here.
First published in The Envoy, 1951. Collected in A Bash in the Tunnel, Clifton Books, 1970
What is summer but a landscape? Turquoise pool accompanied by white lifeguard stand; busted concrete lot littered with spent Slurpees; rows of Girl Scout tents in maritime hammock; and add to them the sunny strangeness of E.M. Forster’s Italy, where May hovers on spring’s fading cusp. ‘The Story of a Panic’ captures a dreamlike fragment that for modern readers may call to mind Picnic at Hanging Rock, In the Tall Grass, or other weird tales composed of a handful of moments in a striking landscape.
A party of picnicking English tourists find themselves overtaken by abject horror, without obvious source and derived from a deceptively picturesque locale. One of their number, a boy called Eustace whom the narrator loathes for his seeming indolence and unmasculine tendencies, is left behind in the party’s scramble to flee.
Once retrieved, he relates a troubling story: that he happened upon the hoofprints of a goat and proceeded to roll around on them like a dog, and knew no more after that. One of the adults concludes that the Devil had been abroad that afternoon.
“Pan!” cried Mr. Sandbach, his mellow voice filling the valley as if it had been a great green church, “Pan is dead. That is why the woods do not shelter him.” And he began to tell the striking story of the mariners who were sailing near the coast at the time of the birth of Christ, and three times heard a loud voice saying: “The great God Pan is dead.”
“Yes. The great God Pan is dead,” said Leyland. And he abandoned himself to that mock misery in which artistic people are so fond of indulging. His cigar went out, and he had to ask me for a match.
“How very interesting,” said Rose. “I do wish I knew some ancient history.”
“It is not worth your notice,” said Mr. Sandbach. “Eh, Eustace?”
The archetypal summer is, for adults, often a collection of private childhood rituals. In contrast to the narrator’s confusion and disgust, the reader may find Eustace’s blossoming into “a real boy” charming, hopeful, the promise of freedom from society’s strictures and a return to primal ways of believing and being. After his experience in the Ravello chestnut grove, Eustace cannot be contained. He falls in with unsuitable local companions, recites spontaneous poetry to the stars and trees, and claims that if kept indoors, he’ll die.
The narrator’s cagey description of the adult Eustace’s “career” intimates an artist or performer, a medium of some type in the metaphoric and perhaps literal senses. The development of Eustace’s friendship with an older Italian fisher-boy is difficult to read outside the context of Forster’s own sexuality, not to mention the enduring cultural relationship of sex/uality to pagan religion and outsider art.
As seen in recent light-drenched horror films like Midsommar, the summer sun strips away artifice and reveals hidden truth. It’s unusual to encounter Forster as a horror writer in English classes, but ‘The Story of a Panic’ locates him among classic fantasists and cements his landscape obsession as a powerful tool of the queer speculative.
Picked by Diana Hurlburt. Diana is a librarian, writer, and Floridian in upstate New York. Her short work has most recently appeared in Sword & Kettle Press’s mini-chapbook series; Amethyst Review; and the Rhonda Parrish-edited anthologies Clockwork, Curses & Coal and Arcana. She’s often on Twitter @menshevixen talking horses, heavy metal, and cold brew.
First published in The Celestial Omnibus, Sedgwick & Jackson, 1911. Collected in The Collected Tales of E.M. Forster, 1947; it may be read online here
Forget ‘magical realism’, a term he neither invented nor embraced, Gabby does gothic best (or if you insist, ‘magical realism noir’). Granted, the evidence here is a single story, but it’s a killer, literally. If you’ve read any Márquez, you recognize that the title is highly ironic. Any happiness in the story, as the narrator says “became hellish for us,” two brothers, nine and seven, and eventually worse for the titular and Teutonic nanny hired to instill virtues of old fashioned European order and civilization in their heretofore paradisiacal summer of unfettered freedom on a tiny island off the coast of Sicily while their parents are off on a five-week tour of the Aegean Sea.
Miss Forbes arrives looking like a cross-dressing Wehrmacht veteran, and immediately imposes a strict regimen of timed activities consisting primarily of lessons in etiquette, piety, and obedience. Obedience above all, against which the boys, resentful but totally cowed at first, eventually plan to rebel. So there’s your conflict: a child’s need for autonomy and play vs. autocratic adult authority. A common theme, but Marquez elevates the stakes when the boys, infuriated by their discovery that Miss Forbes holds herself to a far lower standard of decorum and rectitude at night, plan to kill her by spiking her brandy with poison.
The plan goes awry until one afternoon when the boys return home from a swim to discover a crowd of police, ambulance medics and curious neighbors. Inside, Miss Forbes lay on the floor of her room, her naked body riddled with 27 fatal knife wounds, inflicted with “the fury of a love that found no peace, and that Miss Forbes had received with the same passion … the inexorable price of her summer of happiness.”
Who did it? The local fisherman whose beauty Miss Forbes found beyond imagining? No clues or possible suspects mentioned. It’s not that kind of story. A moral, at least? Not that I can tell. The most we can say is that any notion of a summer sentimental education for the boys has been permanently corrupted by witnessing this bloody image of adult loneliness and love. Not exactly beach-reading material, unless your taste runs to the mystifying and disturbing. Listening to that 60s pop ode to summer love, ‘See You in September’ by The Happenings, might cheer you up. I doubt it.
Picked by Tom McGohey. Tom taught Composition and directed The Writing Center at Wake Forest University for 20 years. He has published essays in Fourth Genre, Sport Literate, and Thread. Two of his essays have been cited as “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays.
First published in Playboy, January 1986, under title of ‘The Happy Summer of Miss Forbes’. Collected in Strange Pilgrims, Knopf, 1993
I hesitated in picking ‘Man from the South’ which I have enjoyed reading to classes over the years. First published in the American magazine, Collier’s in 1948, the story displays certain early twentieth century values which might stick in the throat of the modern reader. The man of the title is exoticized – almost animalised – with his “very small uneven teeth” and the fact that the only black character in the story is the “colored maid” portrays a time in literature quite different from our own. Roald Dahl himself was known to hold controversial opinions and it is perhaps for this last fact that I went ahead with my choice. Is it possible to read – and still enjoy – the work of those with whom we strongly disagree?
‘Man from the South’ is a snapshot of a hot Summer afternoon in Jamaica where a deal between strangers gains momentum, building to a single horrifying moment. Dahl turns the trope of ‘a stranger comes to town’ on its head by setting the scene in a place where none of the characters are ‘home.’ And the ‘stranger’ is perhaps all the more peculiar, to balance out the temporariness of place.
What I love about this author’s writing is his ability to entertain. There’s something so satisfying in the set-up of the scene. Is it the straightforward language? The almost invisible, Gatsby-esque narrator who – like the reader – sees everything yet never interferes? It can’t be the other characters who, I think, appear somewhat cartoonish and flat.
My money’s on the plot mechanics which – like the best thrillers – capture and twist, leading the reader, inevitably, towards a visceral ending. ‘Man from the South’ reminds me of listening to a great storyteller spin a yarn with a surprising punchline – it achieves catharsis. A physicality in our response.
Picked by Josephine Rose. Josephine is a teacher and writer whose published work includes poetry and travel journalism. You can read more at www.muscattales.com and find her online @jrosephine
First published in Collier’s Magazine, 1948. Collected in Someone Like You, Knopf, 1953, and Complete Stories Vol 1, Penguin, 2013
Most of Doris Lessing’s writings are autobiographical in nature. Her short stories are infused with the heat, sun and arid beauty of rural Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where she and her brother grew up. As a young child Lessing had dreamed of having a sister instead of a brother.
‘Traitors’ is the story of two intrepid young girls who go exploring in their neighbourhood. Written in the first person, Lessing’s writing style is lyrical, almost poetic, as she describes the animals they encounter — cattle, wild guinea fowl, pigeons and lonely looking dogs. Lessing sets the scene when the girls first set out on their adventure:
One morning, at sunrise, when the trees were pink and gold and the grass-stems were running bright with drops of dew, we walked, heads down, eyes half-closed against the sun, past thorn and gulley and thick clumps of cactus where wild animals might lurk.
We are never told the names of the two girls. They breakfast on wild plums and pawpaw gained by throwing stones at the tree. One day, believing themselves lost, they suddenly find themselves near the boundary with the neighbouring farm. They have not met the Thompson family and are chased away by the black servant. A few days later the girls hear that Mr. and Mrs. Thompson are coming to visit their parents and feel guilty for having strayed near their farm when their parents would probably have told them not to, and to be wary of people they didn’t know.
Lessing portrays Mrs. Thompson as “a large, blonde, brilliantly-coloured lady with a voice like that of a go-away bird.” The girls’ father clearly takes a dislike to her. The Thompsons had heard that the house they now live in had been rebuilt after a fire, caused by a fallen oil lamp, had burned it down. Mrs. Thompson wants to know if this is true or merely a local legend. The girls’ father takes the Thompsons to the spot where it happened. He shows them the ashes and scarred grass which is still visible. The girls confess that they used to come here to play. Later, sitting on the veranda in the gloaming of the summer evening their mother tells the girls never to go there again.
My two little girls out there in the bush by themselves is unthinkable. Danger is everywhere,” she says.
Picked by Carola Huttmann. Passionate about art, literature and writing, Carola draws much of her creative inspiration from the richness of landscape, stories, history and traditions of the Orkney Islands which have been her home since 1995. Find her at Twitter: @CarolaHuttmann / https://carolahuttmann.blogspot.com
First published in African Stories, Michael Joseph, 1964, later Flamingo Modern Classics, 2003
Our narrator, Sick Puppy – a sociopathic Young Republican with a penchant for sadistic burning –attends a jazz concert with a group of nihilistic punks with names like Grope, Tit and Gimlet. Terrible events ensue. Thanks to Foster Wallace’s virtuoso distortion of the English language, the narration resembles a writing exercise by an unhinged child in an ESL class. It is hilarious. It is also deeply unsettling: you get the feeling that anything (the most awful things) could happen; and beneath the layers of chaos and hilarity, there is a kind of stark moral terror. Sick Puppy is somebody with only shards of a personality – and beneath those shards, a roaring, violent nothingness. Good stuff.
Collected in Girl with Curious Hair, W.W. Norton & Co, 1989
I’m fascinated by the notion of the “story behind the story” in fiction – the great and terrible truth being revealed piece by piece as the surface narrative unfolds. ‘Signs and Symbols’ feels like a near-perfect example of this. The surface narrative concerns an aged couple who attempt to visit their mentally ill son, but cannot, because he has tried to kill himself (again). They are Jews who have lived through the first half of the Twentieth Century; and it is this terrible story that we as readers are directed through, again and again – the true signified of all the signs. My favourite interpretation is that the son is not truly mad. In the context of the persecution to which the family has been exposed, the “referential mania” that plagues him is not a pathology but in fact a logical reaction to the world in which they live. In the context of genocide, it is reasonable to corelate the “invisible giants” persecuting the son and the same monstrous forces that have thrown the family across Europe and around the world.
First published – as ‘Symbols and Signs’ – in The New Yorker, May 15, 1948, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Nabokov’s Dozen, Doubleday, 1958 and Collected Short Stories, Knopf, 1995. Also in the Penguin 70 Cloud Castle Lake, 2005