Introduction

I have selected a dozen stories which, cumulatively, describe the progress of my relationship to short fiction over four decades; my enjoyment of each piece owes something to the enjoyment of its predecessor; and having arranged them in this way, I conclude that the last story ‘The Axe’ contains elements of all the other stories here while also suggesting a way forward.

‘The Mezzotint’ by M.R. James

‘The Mezzotint’ was read to me on Friday November 21st 1980 when it was screened on BBC1 as part of a series called Spine Chillers; the performer was the actor Michael Bryant and the series was produced by the same team that made Jackanory. The literary and the uncanny were both well represented on TV in the 1970s and early 1980s, occasionally overlapping in strands like this one, the BBC Ghost Story for Christmas  adaptations of ‘A Warning to the Curious’, ‘The Signalman’ and so on, and portmanteau series such as Dead of Night and Tales of the Unexpected.

It was years before I read ‘The Mezzotint’ for myself because I had no idea who had written it or who M.R. James was; it remains my favourite of his stories.

First published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Edward Arnold, 1904; Collected in Collected Ghost Stories, Edward Arnold, 1931 and widely available, including in Ghost Stories  by M.R. James, Penguin English Library, 2018, and online here

‘The Great Circling Poets of Arium’ by Douglas Adams

There is an obvious correspondence between Monty James spinning a plausible yarn in his rooms at King’s and the anecdotal digressions of ‘the Book’ in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Cambridge graduate Douglas Adams, especially as voiced by Peter Jones in the original radio series.

The tale of the Great Circling Poets of Arium is presented as part of the mysterious history of the planet of Golgafrincham and Adams does various characteristic things with it – it is a parody of medieval bardic song, it has its own internal logic and structure, and as a narrative, it is a Russian doll: the legend is related by Adams in the voice of ‘the Book’ reporting the words of some travellers who are recounting an ancient story sung to them by the Great Circling Poets of Arium.

More to the point, it smuggles a magnificent joke past any reader who is not paying careful attention, a joke which has delighted me for forty years and which I shall now spoil:

The first part of each song would tell how there once went forth from the City of Vassillian a party of five sage princes with four horses. The princes, who are of course brave, noble and wise, travel widely in distant lands, fight giant ogres, pursue exotic philosophies, take tea with weird gods and rescue beautiful monsters from ravening princesses before finally announcing that they have achieved enlightenment and that their wanderings are therefore accomplished.

The second, and much longer, part of each song would then tell of all their bickerings about which one of them is going to have to walk back.

First broadcast in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘Fit the Sixth’, BBC Radio 4, April 12th 1978 and published in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Pan Books Ltd, 1980

‘Time Enough at Last’ by Rod Serling

Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment, Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself…

If you add together the elements I liked in the previous two choices – the humour, the horror, the bookishness, the authorial control, the anthology setting and the twist at the end – and add a burgeoning adolescent sense of cosmic injustice, this is what you get.

It’s not fair.

First broadcast as an episode of The Twilight Zone, CBS TV, November 20th 1959, adapted from the short story ‘Time Enough at Last’ by Lynn Venable, If magazine, January 1953. Available online here

A Shocking Accident’ by Graham Greene

This story is about a boy whose father is killed when a pig falls on top of him and who then spends the rest of his life trying to tell people about the tragedy without making them laugh.

I probably first read this when I was a teenager, around the time my father died.

There is probably no short story in existence I have thought about more often than this one.

First published in May We Borrow Your Husband?, The Bodley Head, 1967; Collected in Collected Stories, The Bodley Head, 1973 and now Penguin Classics, 2000

‘So Long Dad’ by Randy Newman

The everyday awfulness of human beings is becoming a theme in these stories now; no writer has given voice to awful human beings more dependably than Randy Newman.

In ‘So Long Dad’, a son returns home to visit his father and we get to hear about it via the son’s small talk. (“What’s new? Do you still work at the drugstore? Is that true? Still polishing the same floor?”) It soon transpires that the son is getting married and so this will be the last time he calls in to see “dear old Dad”.

Come and see us, Poppa, when you can.
There’ll always be a place for my old man.
Just drop by when it’s convenient to
Be sure and call before you do.

As devastating as Cheever, plus you can whistle it.

As to whether it is legitimate to include songs and TV programmes in this personal anthology, I once wrote an entire book about The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society LP, which is one of my favourite albums AND one of my favourite collections of short stories. Take it up with the New Yorker.

First recorded by Randy Newman on his debut LP Randy Newman, Reprise, June 1968; preferred version recorded by Harry Nilsson with Newman accompanying on piano, Nilsson Sings Newman LP, RCA Victor, February 1970

‘The Vane Sisters’ by Vladimir Nabokov

This story of Nabokov’s, with its infamous acrostic in the final paragraph, the device that according to the author ‘can only be tried once in a thousand years of fiction’, was rejected by the New Yorker.

I first read, and was bamboozled by, ‘The Vane Sisters’ shortly after I first read, and was bamboozled by, Pale Fire. But whereas I still love Pale Fire, I don’t know if I much like this story any more. Nabokov’s conspicuous intellectual presence in ‘The Vane Sisters’ strikes me as just the sort of thing that would have delighted me when I was 22 but now I can see is possibly a dead end, even a trap. Nevertheless in this context I hope you can see the correspondences: the humour, the supernatural twist and the author insolently needling the lazy reader.

First published in The Hudson Review, 1958, and in Nabokov’s Quartet, Phaedra, 1966; Collected in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, now Penguin Modern Classics, 2001