Introduction

It’s not immediately clear what unifies these stories. In terms of genre, style, theme, they are all over the map. It’s only my experience of them that is consistent, one of being completely engrossed, of finding in each work both profundity and entertainment (the latter not to be underrated, in my opinion, no matter how lofty your literary aims!) And as a writer, each story alerted me to the breadth of possibility in fiction. I think, too, these stories all contain an element of mystery that keeps them in the reader’s mind, always offering up more for excavation, never exhausted. The mystery of what lies buried deep inside us, for instance, or of what drives us to create, or of the eerie connections between seemingly disparate events, or of the darkness that surfaces, along with overwhelming love, when we become parents. Per the epigraph to Robert Aickman’s story collection, Cold Hand in Mine: “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.”

‘The Hospice’ by Robert Aickman

My first time reading Aickman, on another writer’s recommendation, I was baffled—left with an overwhelming sense of not getting it. I assumed the problem lay with me, since the author who sung his praises was one I admired, and on a repeated attempt I did feel I sort of started to “get it,” or at least get that Aickman’s “strange stories” lend themselves to many interpretations but do not slot perfectly into any one. Instead they build to an overwhelming mood of off-ness, of horrors seen only briefly out of the corner of one’s eye that nevertheless leave one forever altered. This story to me is the prime example of how to build overwhelming dread out of troubling glimpses, Lynchian well before Lynch was a thing. It’s one of the scariest I’ve ever read—and also very funny. Lucas Maybury is lost while driving home from a business meeting, gets out of his car to wander a desolate neighborhood, and is bitten by something that might be a cat or might not. It only gets worse from there. When he seeks sanctuary at an inn, the feeling of being trapped in a very bad dream mounts over the course of the night to an unbearable pitch. 

Collected in Cold Hand in Mine, Glooancz/Scribners, 1975; in a new edition from Faber, 2014

‘Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest’ by Sherman Alexie

I love stories about work. It’s how we spend so much of our lives, it seems there should be more fiction centering on it. Here, Marie looks back on her career as a motel maid, which Alexie’s prose—deceptively clean and unadorned itself—makes worthy of enshrinement. People like Marie usually pass beneath the notice of many of us. Not out of malice, but only because it’s so easy for us not to see the workers emptying wastebaskets, picking up dirty towels at the periphery of our vision. But Marie, of course, being a person, has as vivid an inner life as anyone, measured out not only in tidied hotel rooms but also in the comings and goings of co-workers, including one beloved friend who seems to abruptly vanish, in love affairs, in the damage her work does to her body, and in conversations with her priest in which she attempts to make sense of the human behavior she bears witness to in all its beautiful and hideous facets. “Father James,” she tells him, “God is mysterious, sure, but sometimes I feel like people are even more mysterious.”

First published in The New Yorker, 5 June, 2017, and available to read here

‘The Woman in the Rose-Colored Dress’ by Gina Berriault

I’d never heard of Gina Berriault until another writer I met at a residency recommended her to me. I think she’s one of those people who gets branded a “writer’s writer,” whatever that means—any lover of short stories should read her, whether they’re a writer or not. The sheer range of her collection, Women in Their Beds, is astounding. It seems there is no perspective she cannot enter truthfully. It’s difficult to select just one story from this book to highlight here, but The Woman in the Rose-Colored Dress particularly speaks to me for its narrator, a girl on the precipice of adolescence, and her unusual reaction to discovering a misdeed of her father’s. His violation of her family’s trust, and of what she has understood until now to be the rules governing the adult realm, does not send her, as one might expect, into despair or horror. Instead, she sees his secret as a kind of thrilling permission to embark on her own “untellable experiences.” She reflects that in revealing himself, “it was as if he gave me carte blanche to the world.” 

From Women in their Beds, Counterpoint, 1996. Available to read on Narrative

‘A Stone Woman’ by A.S. Byatt

Ines’ beloved mother dies, then she suffers a health emergency requiring surgery, which leaves her with a nasty wound and reconstructed navel. (This reminded me of the character in Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’ who also loses his navel in an operation, which the protagonist sees as a severance from birth, “a breach in the succession.”) This double separation from her mother seems to manifest in an even more dramatic physical transformation. Ines’ incision fills with stone, a “glossy hardness” that quickly spreads. She is becoming something other than human — a creature out of legend, she learns, with the help of an Icelandic stonecutter who recognizes what is happening to her. Ultimately she must leave behind the world of people, but this is, unexpectedly, a joyous development. A beautifully eerie look at the way grief can force a metamorphosis. 

First published in The New Yorker, October 13, 2003, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Little Black Book of Stories, Vintage, 2005) 

‘The Five-Forty-Eight’ by John Cheever

The title refers to the commuter train from a gray and grimy New York to the sanctuary of the Westchester suburbs where the main character, Blake, resides (and torments his wife and son, we learn.) On this journey Blake will meet vengeance in the form of the pistol-wielding Miss Dent, an emotionally unstable former secretary of his who he has slept with and discarded. The narration sticks with Blake and reserves judgment, which serves to make his point of view all the more poisonous. The story ends with his face in the dirt, but it’s more than an easy tale of comeuppance, of justice served. Even as Blake seems to stand on the precipice of death, there are moments of strange transcendence, as when Miss Dent forces him off the train and onto the platform, and the surrounding commuters are oblivious to his plight, enmeshed in their own lives: 

A few people got off from each of the other coaches; he recognized most of them, but none of them offered to give him a ride. They walked separately or in pairs—purposefully out of the rain to the shelter of the platform, where the car horns called to them. It was time to go home, time for a drink, time for love, time for supper, and he could see the lights on the hill—lights by which children were being bathed, meat cooked, dishes washed—shining in the rain. One by one, the cars picked up the heads of families, until there were only four left. Two of the stranded passengers drove off in the only taxi the village had. “I’m sorry, darling,” a woman said tenderly to her husband when she drove up a few minutes later. “All our clocks are slow.” The last man looked at his watch, looked at the rain, and then walked off into it, and Blake saw him go as if they had some reason to say goodbye—not as we say goodbye to friends after a party but as we say goodbye when we are faced with an inexorable and unwanted parting of the spirit and the heart. The man’s footsteps sounded as he crossed the parking lot to the sidewalk, and then they were lost. In the station, a telephone began to ring. The ringing was loud, plaintive, evenly spaced, and unanswered. Someone wanted to know about the next train to Albany, but Mr. Flannagan, the stationmaster, had gone home an hour ago. He had turned on all his lights before he went away. They burned in the empty waiting room. They burned, tin-shaded, at intervals up and down the platform, and with the peculiar sadness of dim and purposeless light.

First published in The New Yorker, April 10, 1954, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Stories of John Cheever, Vintage, 2000

‘Song for the Unraveling of the World’ by Brian Evenson

As a reader, I tear through Evenson’s stories with relish, finding enjoyment in being repeatedly unnerved—how will he get under my skin this time? And as a writer, I find his work offers valuable craft lessons, challenging, for instance, the notion that for fiction to be successful it must include a protagonist who undergoes some sort of change. In an interview with BOMB magazine, Evenson said, “It so rarely happens that people actually change in a meaningful way. I’ve always been a little skeptical of character development, but then what do you do with fiction? My sense is that maybe it’s about conveying mental states and changing the reader.” His characters may not evolve, but their situations often do, and for the worse; they dwell in realities whose troubling instability does seem to infect the reader, too, by the end. In this story, a missing daughter’s voice seems to emanate from the walls of a house. Her parents, no longer together, have radically different ideas about what’s behind her disappearance. The story gives us access only to the father’s interiority; according to him, he woke up that morning to find her gone. But as he searches for her, hearing her eerie singing but unable to pinpoint its source, we enter “Tell-Tale Heart” territory, and his account of events becomes suspect. Is he a frantic, devoted father or a monster? Why not both? 

First published in Bourbon Penn #15, 2018 and collected in Song for the Unraveling of the World, Coffee House, 2019

‘Snowmen’ by Steven Millhauser

Many of Millhauser’s stories have this fascinating quality of accretion. Often, some sort of aesthetic endeavor is established, and then over the course of the tale becomes increasingly, impossibly intricate. Here, children awake to a snow day, and set out together to shape the snow into sculptures, but this is not playtime—this is serious business. As they explore their changed neighborhood, the group encounters snowmen so detailed that the narrator wonders whether “bands of feverish children, tormented by white dreams, had worked secretly through the night” to create them. He and his companions, too, become fevered in their attempts to match the works of snow art. This project extends into a second day, and the act of imagination takes a turn toward mania. Beholding their creations fills the narrator with “a sharp, troubled joy.” But like snow, this is not meant to last, and like art-making, the act of finishing a work only satisfies for so long before the compulsion to make one’s mark rises again. 

First published in Grand Street, Winter 1984, and collected in In the Penny Arcade, Dalkey Archive Press, 1986

‘Mongolia’ by David Mitchell

Perhaps cheating – this is a chapter from Mitchell’s debut novel, Ghostwritten, but it works as a standalone story, I think, as do all the chapters in this book, each of which takes place in a different setting, with meaningful links between them. I’m drawn to fiction that deploys fantastical elements to explore big questions – what is the self, e.g., and are we capable of true transformation – and this piece does that and is also just a great adventure story. Its narrator, a “non-corporeal entity” that can transmigrate from one host to another, read their thoughts, learn their language, and sometimes manipulate their behavior, allows Mitchell access to a range of minds, from that of a Danish backpacker to a Mongolian KGB agent to a fetus about to be born. The entity relishes its powers but longs to understand its origins. Was it once human? Could it be human again? Would it even want to trade its freedom and immortality to be embodied as a living person? These questions are resolved movingly by the end. 

from Ghostwritten, Hodder & Stoughton, 1999

‘UFO in Kushiro’ by Haruki Murakami

A writing lesson I’ve taken from Murakami is that of withholding—not playing coy, but allowing certain mysteries in a story to remain so. I read this in a class taught by Samantha Hunt called “Surrounding the Ghost,” in which we explored the use of seemingly unrelated events to write the unwriteable. ‘UFO in Kushiro’ contains a literal mystery box, one that protagonist Komura is asked by a colleague to hand-deliver to a woman in a town in Hokkaido. At the same time as he carries this package, whose contents we never discover, Komura tries to come to terms with a larger mystery. In the wake of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, his wife abruptly left him. In her goodbye note, she wrote, “you have nothing inside you that you can give me. You are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air.” 
 
The recipient of the package, a young woman, tells Komura a story about a UFO sighting and another wife who left her husband following this inexplicable event. “I wonder if things like that aren’t connected somehow,” she muses. But the deepest mystery of this story, to me, is not the box, the missing wife (that Murakami standby), or the UFO. It’s the fleeting moment, toward the end, when Komura suddenly finds himself “on the verge of committing an act of incredible violence.” That act is not realized —but what was the passing impulse? Where did it come from inside him, that supposedly empty place? 

First published in The New Yorker, March 19, 2001, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in After the Quake, Vintage, 2003

‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ by Katherine Anne Porter
 
I’ve never agreed with the idea that it’s tedious to hear about other people’s dreams. What could be more interesting than a view into someone’s unconscious? Much of this story, from Porter’s three-part meditation on mortality, comes from the fever dreams of Miranda, a theater critic for a newspaper who nearly dies of Spanish influenza. There’s nothing dull about the way Porter takes us deep into Miranda’s psyche as it brushes up against oblivion. And it’s no wonder Miranda is tempted to remain there, motionless and truly at peace, when the world outside churns with the chaos and grief of dual crises: a world war and a plague. 

From Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Harcourt Brace, 1939

‘Orange World’ by Karen Russell

Becoming a mother forces you into confrontation with parts of yourself you’d rather leave buried—childhood wounds, feelings of ineptitude, intrusive worries about worst-case scenarios. In Operating Instructions, a diary of the first year of her son’s life, Anne Lamott recalls praying, “Please, just let him outlive me.” Karen Russell dives into that dark territory here, in which Rae, a new mother, makes a deal with a demon living in the sewer across from her house. After she finishes nursing her own baby, she’ll lie in the gutter and breastfeed the devil in exchange for a guarantee of her son’s safety: 

It lays its triangular head on her collarbone, using its thin-fingered paws to squeeze milk from her left breast into its hairy snout. Its tail curls around her waist. Unlike her son, the devil has dozens of irregular teeth, fanged and broken, in three rows; some lie flat against the gums, like bright arrowheads in green mud. Its lips make a cold collar around her nipple.

This nightmarish vision of breastfeeding is all the more unsettling for the way it also contains a whisper of tenderness—that tail curling familiarly around her like an embrace. Having recently become a mother—my seven-week-old son is napping as I write this—Russell’s story now seems to me decidedly un-fantastical in how it portrays birth and mothering as an undoing of all the old rules. Rae’s love for her son “scares her with its annihilating force. It’s loosening the corset strings of her history, the incarcerated fat of ‘personality.’” 

First published in The New Yorker, May 28, 2018, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Orange World, Knopf, 2019

‘Ashes of Love’ by Joan Silber

I first read this, from Silber’s book of linked stories, Ideas of Heaven, as a young student of hers at Sarah Lawrence College. Narrated by a former world traveler reflecting on decades of life, the story brims with the kind of wisdom and perspective that can only come from experience. At 22, I knew such prose, powered by hindsight, was way out of reach for me. It made me yearn to survive the kinds of both joys and losses captured here, and to achieve the capacity to write about them with grace Silber does. The narrator recalls his romance with Peggy, a charismatic, difficult woman, who continually upends the equanimity he is seeking. This is one of those short stories that somehow manages to contain a lifetime without feeling crowded. We follow the main characters’ adventures, their peaks and valleys, and the coming of age of the son they share. Amid all the memories the narrator sifts through here, the mystery of what draws people together and wrenches them apart remains. 

From Ideas of Heaven, Norton, 2005