I think the first time I ever realised that short stories were a thing that grown-ups wrote was when our English teacher read us a couple of Graham Greene stories: ‘The Destructors’ and ‘A Little Place Off the Edgware Road’. I was about 14 at the time and they made such an impact on me that I went out and bought a copy of the collection for myself and devoured it from cover to cover.
‘A Little Place Off the Edgware Road’, written in 1939, is the story of a troubled man who goes into a seedy cinema to shelter from the rain and gets into a strange and unsettling conversation with the occupant of the seat next to him. I think the first thing that appealed to me about the story was the gloriously macabre twist that comes at the end of it, causing the protagonist to re-evaluate everything he has learnt up to that point.
Twists are tricky things to handle in stories. It’s very tempting to lift the hat with a flourish to reveal the rabbit and raise your hands in anticipation of your readers’ applause at your clever trick. Green’s genius, however, is to follow the big reveal with these final few short sentences, pulling the camera back to view the developing chaos:
He began to scream, ‘I won’t go mad. I won’t go mad. I’m sane. I won’t go mad.’ Presently a little crowd began to collect, and soon a policeman came.
That ending haunts me to this day.
First published in 1939. Collected in Nineteen Stories, Heinemann 1947, Twenty-One Stories, Penguin, 1970, and The Complete Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 2005