Introduction

These are mostly stories I first read years ago, though they have been part of me for so long, that I can hardly remember when. The short story has always been the most alchemic of mysteries to me. The blank page is never quite as scary as when I try and find the way into a story. A novel you can plot your directions, a poem you can chose your location, but a short story is almost directionless, but when done well, is like that moment of epiphany when you find yourself in a place you’ve never been but instantly recognise. These twelve stories have helped show me the way. 

‘Identity’ by Felipe Alfau

Locos is classed as a novel, but this certainly holds as a short story. Like Borges, Alfau is a teller of stories within stories, and here the narrator has promised to tell the story of Fulano, a man who wanted to achieve great things in his life but failed to do so through some fault of his personality that made him almost invisible to others. He decides to take his own life, and writes a note, leaving it in his jacket on the bridge. An escaped felon sees it and takes on his own identity. Some time later the writer bumps into Fulano and finds that not only is he still invisible, but the man who has taken his life story is now successful. 

What’s great about this story is that the writer is so present in it, that Fulano is a character and, as a God-like narrator, the writer can watch but he can’t intervene. All he can do is tell the story of his life. 

Alfau was a Barcelona-born writer who lived in America most of his life, who wrote in English, and worked as a translator. Despite Locos being published when in his thirties, it had been lost until Dalkey Archive discovered it, and published it. He died in 1999, aged 97. 

Published in Locos, 1936, republished by Dalkey Archive Press 1987, and online at The Barcelona Review

‘Hands’ by  Sherwood Anderson

Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of short stories about a small Ohio town. Each story is about a different character, but the nature of the town means that characters re-appear, and one connecting thread is the young reporter for the local paper, George Willard. In ‘Hands’, the second story in the book, he’s there on the periphery, making friends with the loner Wing Biddlebaum, who has lived in the town for twenty years, but has kept himself to himself. 

The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands. Their restless activity, like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird, had given him his name.

Wing used to be a school teacher in Pennsylvania called Adolph Myers. He was loving and beloved by the boys in his charge; a natural schoolmaster who could bring out the best in them. Then a boy in his charge began to have feelings for him, and dreamt about his schoolmaster, and then told his “dreams as facts.” Other boys were asked if their teacher had ever touched them. The innocent gestures, the consoling arms, became the evidence against him, and he was chased out of town, lucky to escape with his life. He’d moved in with an aunt, changed his name, and lived with her until she died. 

Anderson finds sympathy for this misunderstood man, who constantly flutters his hands like a bird. The whole book is something of a masterpiece, but ‘Hands’ is the story I’ve returned to over the years. In this short story you get the whole life of a man, compressed into a few images and character traits.

First published in Winesburg, Ohio, B.W Heubsch, 1919, and now available as a Penguin Classics. Available to read online here

‘The Destructors’ by Graham Greene

Like a lot of people I first came across this story when it was used in the film Donnie Darko. It’s a tale of nihilism, set in aftermath of World War II. A group of kids hatch a plan to vandalise one of the large houses that survived the war. Bit by bit they destroy it, and like the kids in Lord of the Flies or the teen gangs in Brighton Rock, their orgy of violence grows as they work together for their aim.  I think you can just read it as a great adventure story, a “high concept” done expertly, but of course, as the discussion in Donnie Darko shows, it’s also a story that can be seen as a morality tale of sorts. Clearly Greene is observing this new idea of the teenager and making something of it. We are only a couple of years away from the riots that would accompany Rock Around the Clock after all. 

First published in Picture Post, 1954, and collected in Twenty-one Stories, Heinemann, 1954, and Complete Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 2005, and available to read online here

‘A Real Doll’ by A.M. Homes

I first read ‘A Real Doll’ by A.M. Homes in the Barcelona Review, though it had been published a few years before. the start of a long-standing admiration for this unique American writer. In ‘A Real Doll’ a younger brother starts “dating” his sisters’ Barbie doll when she’s not around. What starts in all innocence becomes darker and darker. Homes manages to wring everything out of this scenario, but written in a lively, humorous voice. By channelling the sex doll fantasies that you find in Roxy Music’s ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’, and later, in TV programmes like Humans, what Homes does is go to heart of the matter – for this is “a real doll” the play on words with what a gangster might say about his girlfriend. It starts very funny – he’s taken her from Ken, who hasn’t exactly got the necessary equipment for a fulfilling relations – but by the end its almost a horror story.  

First published in The Safety of Objects, Daedalus Press, 1990, and available to read online in the Barcelona Review

‘How’s the Night Life on Cissalda?’ by Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison is mostly known for his SF, but by the late seventies was writing a wide range of speculative fiction. ‘How’s the Night Life on Cissalda?’ is a ribald tale of an astronaut who goes into space and comes into contact with an alien lifeform – but it’s more than contact – its sexual contact, and constant, as the creature has many penises and vaginas. Returning to earth, NASA is unable to pull them apart, and the creature, sends out a message to his species who all come down to earth and start shagging every human being. Its fair to say the story gets even more outrageous as it continues, with the whole of the human race being fucked by these disgusting aliens with an insatiable lust.

First published in Chrysalis, Zebra Books, 1977, reprinted in Shatterday, 1980

‘Career Move’ by Martin Amis

In ‘Career Move’, Amis shows both restraint and empathy, perhaps characteristics not usually associated with his writing. Prefiguring the literary jealousy that informs The Information, in ‘Career Move’ we have two writers, one who is rich, successful and highly praised, the other scrabbling away submitting to little magazines hoping to get the attention of his peers. One is a poet, one is a screenwriter. The catch (and the “career move”) is that the screenwriter is the one submitting to magazines, whilst it is the poet who is pitching ideas for his next “poem” to his agent. 

Of course Amis’s father was both a novelist and a poet, so this is a world within which Amis grew up in, despite his own subsequent success. Here we have a quieter, more humane Amis – wondering what if the only success you ever get was the occasional magazine acceptance? 

First published in the New Yorker, 1992, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Heavy Water and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1998. Available to read online in the New York Times here

‘To Do’ by Jennifer Egan

On the odd occasion I’ve given writing workshops, ‘To Do’ by Jennifer Egan has been one of my favourite stories to respond to. Even someone who has never written a creative word will have written a list at some point. It is as you might expect in the form of a “to do” list.

Egan’s list starts relatively benignly:

1. Mow lawn
2. Get rid of that fucking hose
3. Wash windows

though the expletive highlights the writer of the list is somewhat exasperated. By “9. Buy Wig” we are paying more attention. The whole story is a joy of small details, and the list writer’s motives become darker. And what a writer can do, of course, is cheat, for at the end we learn that this is a list that isn’t written down – that can’t be written down. 

First published in The Guardian, Summer Fiction Special, 2011 and available to read here

‘Nudibranch’ by Irenosen Okojie

I had to include at least one story that had been selected for Best British Short Stories edited by Nicholas Royle. I’ve been reading the series since it had started, and over ten years or so it’s mapped the British short story scene wonderfully, and introduced me to lots of brilliant writers.

It was so great to be included in the 2020 alongside great stories by Luke Brown, Sarah Schofield and David Rose, but I wanted to include the Okojie because it’s so different from many of the other stories on my list. 

Told in the form of a myth it’s a story of transformation, of love, of sexual power, of desire. It’s intensely poetic, yet has details that ground it, even as it gets more and more dreamlike. The Goddess Kiru appears on a beach, and shape-shifts throughout the story, becoming the dream woman that each man she meets would want to meet. The story starts with the description of the “Nudibranch” – “soft-bodied, marine gastropod molluscs which shed their shell after their larvae stage… noted for their often extraordinary colours and striking forms.” 

Published in Nudibranch, Dialogue Books, 2019, and selected for Best British Short Stories 2020, Salt

‘The Embassy of Cambodia’ by Zadie Smith

The Embassy of Cambodia appears incongruously in a Willesden street, and its inhabitants wonder how it ended up there, aware of that country’s tragic history, and finding the appearance of an embassy in a North London suburb surprising. This is the story of Fatou, a Ghanaian woman, who acts as a live-in maid, and – since she has no access to either her passport or a salary – wonders whether she is a slave. On balance, she thinks not, mainly because on the morning when she is free, she goes and swims in the local health club using the guest pass of her “employers” which they’ve forgotten they even have. 

Smith is a novelist who nonetheless often thrives in the shorter form – and, to my mind, is best when writing about her North London stomping-ground. It’s a beautifully humane story of our globalised cities – seen from the ground up, the optimistic Fatou, but also suitably damning of the elites that the Fatou’s serve. 

Published in The New Yorker, February 2013, and available to subscribers to read here. Republished as a standalone volume by Hamish Hamilton, 2013

‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’ by Delmore Schwartz

I only knew Delmore Schwartz from the mention on the Velvet Underground’s ‘European Son’, a tribute from his student Lou Reed. 

I like stories that try and tell a whole life within a few pages, and this seems a good example. The narrator is in a movie theatre, but the film playing is the one that we are all a part of: that of our own life. He is watching as his mother and father meet, on the day that his father will ask his mother to marry him. In his “dream” cinema he constantly interrupts the film with interpolations, as he wishes he could stop or change the narrative. His father, 29, is becoming successful, and now needs a wife, his mother, younger, is a frail woman, wanting to escape her family into marriage. They are, as the narrator knows, particularly ill-suited. In the “film” their day out at Coney Island is in some ways a disaster, yet both achieve their aim. 

It feels such a layered story, but also detailed in its telling of time and place, the formal inventiveness of the dream cinema acting as a counterpoint to the realistic descriptions of this crucial day for the characters, early in the century. 

The post-script to this is that Schwartz was the brilliant young man who was finished by thirty, became an alcoholic and never wrote the great work he had promised. Yet this story, at the very start of his career, still startles. 

First published in The Partisan Review, 1937. Collected in In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, New Directions, 1938

‘The Winter Father’ by Andre Dubus

I don’t think anyone writes better about men and masculinity than Andre Dubus: not Carver, not Updike, not Ford. Like Carver his characters live at a specific place and time, an America recovering from Vietnam (many of them are Veterans), and struggling with their personal lives. In The Winter Father, a local radio DJ is separating from his wife, and in doing so begins to discover his children properly for the first time. He’s not a bad man, that’s the thing, but the separation is a sign of how he and his wife have fallen out of love, if they ever were given they married young. He takes his children on a Wednesday evening and on weekend days, and takes them to the places where other divorced men are with their kids, the cinema, the fast food joint; sledging on the hills in winter, then on the beach in summer. What separates Dubus from other writers is that every line seems to resonate with detail, he unpicks the minutiae of lives, and from it builds up a complete picture. The father meets a woman and immediately realises he is trying to recreate a happy family.

Divorced kids go to the beach more than married ones… because married people do chores and errands on weekends.

First published in The Sewanee Review. Collected in Finding a Girl in America, David R. Godine, 1980, and The Winter Father: Collected Short Stories and Novellas, David R. Godine, 2018

‘The Company of Wolves’ by Angela Carter

Angela Carter’s most famous book, The Bloody Chamber, is godmother to an entire genre, with its re-imagining of fairy tales through a feminist perspective. I sometimes wonder, as yet another young writer comes out with a book of inverted fantasy stories, whether they have been directly influenced by Carter, or whether the genre she created is so established that they don’t even realise. 

I first read this at university, not so long after it had been published, and it had already spawned the excellent film of the same name as this story. That the story of the film is a mere 11 pages long gives you a sense of the richness of Carter’s vision. In the revision of Little Red Riding Hood, the young girl who meets the charming hunter in the wood on the way to see her grandmother, is no ingenue, and no way is she going to be a wolf’s dinner. The phrase “some men are hairy on the inside” remains resonant. The story itself is a strange beast, part a history of wolf lore, part the Red Riding Hood tale. It continues to astonish. 

First published in Bananas, 1977. Collected in The Bloody Chamber, Gollancz, 1979, and in Burning Your Boats: Collected Stories, Vintage, 1996