‘The North London Book of the Dead’ by Will Self

This was a very important and formative story for me in my middle teenage years, and I came to it via an episode of The South Bank Show that was dedicated to Self and his writing. The conceit of the story – that when someone dies they just go to live, undead, in another part of London – was the first time that I’d encountered nominally realist fiction that deliberately bent the boundaries of reality – not magical realism, but a kind of grubby and recognisably British weirdness. It was one of those moments where you say ‘I didn’t know you could do that!’ and your world shifts slightly in what seems possible. After that, the short fiction I’d been writing started to change, and in many ways this laid the early groundwork for the kind of writing I’m doing now. If I’d been older, I might have encountered Angela Carter or J.G. Ballard or Alasdair Gray first, but it was this story that opened up that tradition for me, and through that door there was Borges, Lispector and all that other glorious crew.

First published in The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Bloomsbury, 1991

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