On a recent visit, my sister was looking for something to read and asked me to recommend some short stories. I was in my element, going through my bookshelves, finding treasures to share with her. The stories I recommended, and which she loved, are included in this personal anthology. So please consider yourself likewise sitting comfortably in my house, with a cup of tea or drink of your choice, while I pass you some favourite stories from my shelves.
My first Shirley Jackson story was ‘The Lottery’, with the added magic of hearing the author’s own audio recording of it (here). There are so many of her stories I could have included here but I’ve picked ‘The Summer People’.
Mr and Mrs Allison, “city people”, spend every winter looking forward to staying in their summer cottage, and every autumn they’re sorry to leave. This year, with nothing much to get back to New York for, they decide to stay on. The locals, on whom they depend for groceries and fuel, are not encouraging, and repeatedly remind the Allisons that Labor Day is when people leave. They’re going to give it a try though. “Never know till you try.” This story is a brilliant example of Jackson’s writing about small communities and outsiders, and her engineering of creeping dread.
First published in Charm, September 1950. Collected in Dark Tales, Penguin Classics, 2016
Towards the end of 2020, the writer Ronald De Feo sent me this story by Dino Buzzati, “sometimes called the Italian Kafka.” In ‘Seven Floors’, Giovanni Corte arrives at a sanatorium that specialises in the illness from which he is suffering. His case is “extremely slight” so he is given “a cheerful room on the seventh and uppermost floor”, where “only the very mildest cases were treated”. The worse a patient’s condition, the lower the floor on which they are accommodated, with the first floor reserved for “those for whom all hope had been abandoned.” When Corte is moved down to the sixth floor, it is for purely logistical reasons, and so on. It’s a beautifully crafted story, simultaneously uneasy and funny, with a powerful sense of gravity.
Originally published in La Lettura, March 1937. Published in English in Catastrophe and Other Stories, Calder and Boyars, 1965
I discovered this author via Chris Power’s Guardian series, A brief survey of the short story. In ‘House Taken Over’, Cortázar’s first published story, two siblings live peacefully together in an “old and spacious” house that “kept the memories” of their ancestors. The narrator seeks out new French literature, but “Nothing worthwhile had arrived in Argentina since 1939”; his sister knits shawls that are unlikely to be used, “Stacked amid a great smell of camphor.” The house has a back section into which they rarely go except to clean away the dust. One day, hearing noises, the narrator shuts and locks the connecting door and tells his sister, “They’ve taken over the back part.” The unspecified nature of this invading presence is fantastically eerie. The siblings continue to live in what they now think of as their part of the house, contentedly killing time, until one day they hear noises “on our side of the oak door”.
Originally published in Los Anales de Buenos Aires, December 1946. Published in English in End of the Game and Other Stories, Pantheon Books, 1967. Also collected in Bestiary: Selected Stories, Vintage, 2020
I saw Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now years before reading the short story on which it’s based, so the film was there like an undercoat as I read – I love them both anyway. John and Laura are holidaying in Venice in the wake of their daughter’s death, and John hopes to coax Laura out of “the numb despair that had seized her since the child died”. When they cross paths with twin sisters – “a couple of old girls” – who relay a psychic vision that the child, “poor little dead Christine”, is right there with them, Laura is “so happy I think I’m going to cry”, but John is troubled by the twins and their persistent presence.
The twins were standing there, the blind one still holding on to her sister’s arm, her sightless eyes fixed firmly upon him. He felt himself held, unable to move, and an impending sense of doom, of tragedy, came upon him.
Du Maurier’s story is intensely uncanny and increasingly sinister, with a brutal and haunting ending.
First published in Not After Midnight and Other Stories, Victor Gollancz, 1971. Also collected in Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2006
I was introduced to Aickman’s work in 2014, through a collaboration with the Curious Tales collective. It was the centenary of Aickman’s birth and Faber had reissued his ‘strange stories’ – I read two collections back to back, Cold Hand in Mine and Dark Entries, immersing myself in his world. In ‘The Hospice’, Lucas Maybury is driving home when he gets lost, ending up “somewhere at the back of beyond”. Hungry, injured and low on petrol, he stops at The Hospice for dinner and accommodation. What follows is an unnerving and anxiety-dreamlike experience, and a memorably unsettling final paragraph.
First published in Cold Hand in Mine: Eight Strange Stories, Victor Gollancz, 1975. Also collected in Cold Hand in Mine, Faber & Faber, 2014
In the introduction to Best British Short Stories 2022, Nicholas Royle says of The Stories of Raymond Carver, “Wherever I open the Carver and read an opening line, I want to read on”. ‘Whoever Was Using This Bed’ starts, “The call comes in the middle of the night, three in the morning, and it nearly scares us to death.” Disturbed by a strange phone call, Jack and his wife Iris stay up smoking and talking, “the kind of talk that could only take place at five in the morning.” They reveal their health concerns and discuss “a life-and-death thing” with a sense of intimacy and understanding and trust, which is brilliantly undercut by the chilling punchline.
First published in The New Yorker, April 1986, and available online for subscribers here. Collected in Where I’m Calling From, Harvill Press, 1995
Shoba and Shukumar are notified that the electricity in their quiet tree-lined street will be cut off for five evenings, so that a line can be fixed. Having suffered a tragedy that has pulled them apart, the power cut draws them together again: “Something happened when the house was dark. They were able to talk to each other again.” They play a “game”: they sit in the dark, exchanging confessions. I love the details in this story – Shukumar being borne away to a conference in a “cavernous” cab; Shoba correcting typographical errors with an “arsenal of coloured pencils”, “behind her barricade of files”; Shukumar’s dissertation on agrarian revolts in India – their precision anticipating the awful injury inflicted on the final night.
First published in The New Yorker, April 1998, and available online for subscribers here. Collected in Interpreter of Maladies, Flamingo, 1999
In 2010, James Lasdun very kindly provided a fantastic cover quote for my first Nightjar Press story, and I read his new collection, It’s Beginning to Hurt. I still remember the impact of the two-page title story, but the one I’m including here is ‘Cranley Meadows’. Lev Rosenberg, a fifty-four-year-old physicist, has lost his college job and has been looking for work: “What will I do? Keep looking, I suppose.” He still frequents the college observatory. On “a chilly, glittering October night… Lev inched the telescope across the heavens”. He wants to show Saturn to his wife Bryony, who was once his student but whose interest in astronomy has waned. “You seem as if you have something you want to tell me,” he says. It’s a devastating story but it’s the gentle tone, Lev’s kindness and understanding, that makes it really heartbreaking.
First published in The Times Literary Supplement, 1999. Collected in It’s Beginning to Hurt, Jonathan Cape, 2009
I kept seeing love for Ogawa’s collection, Revenge, and now I know why. The opening story takes place on “a beautiful Sunday”, in a neat, clean, vanilla-scented bakery. A woman sits waiting to order two strawberry shortcakes for her six-year-old son’s birthday, as she does every year. In the tidy kitchen, a girl is crying, but the woman “could hear nothing, not a word, not a sound.” With a powerful sense of stillness and silence and inaction, this story is haunted by the tragedy, the truly terrible thing, at its heart. The stories in the collection are linked, each one touching on and enriching another to make a potent and spellbinding whole.
Originally published in Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai, 1998. Published in English in Zoetrope: All Story, Winter 2011/2012. Collected in Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, Picador, 2013
Ana and Eric are moving to Jutland with their two young children. Eric intends to concentrate on his art, while Ana is struggling to revive her writing: “Baby brain, they’d called it.” The story is threaded with perfect, pointed details: the tiny village “with nothing but a narrow road and a low stone wall to keep the sea at bay”; the “cold, lucid light” which they have come for (or which, tripping in over the North Sea, is coming for them); the church Ana “knows that she will visit”. The story begins with the grace of birds, the hollow bones that allow them to fly. “It also makes their bones more fragile and susceptible to damage. You can’t have it all, she thinks.” The contrasting heaviness in the final image is truly nightmarish.
First published as a chapbook, Nightjar Press, spring 2019. Collected in Dead Relatives, Dead Ink, 2021
Caldwell said of this story, “I wanted to write about the distance between where we come from and where we end up; between who we think we are and who we turn out to be. Between what we dream, and what we do”. The narrator, travelling home from her cousin’s funeral, taking a night flight with her toddler, has an existential crisis at “thirty-however many thousand feet… hurtling onwards at hundreds of miles an hour”. The man sitting next to her is kind and helpful and they bond.
“You think of the books that you and your cousin loved, the ones with multiple pathways through, and dozens of endings. You’d read them lying on your stomachs, heads pressed together, holding various pages, options, open. You’d always be careful, trying to make it through, and she’d choose the most reckless routes possible, just to see what might happen.”
I saved the link to this BBC National Short Story Award winner, and next to it I’ve written, “stunning; exactly the sort of story I wish I could write”.
Having started with Shirley Jackson, I’ll finish with a choice from an anthology of Jackson-inspired stories, edited by Ellen Datlow. In ‘Special Meal’, Amy and her family are having dinner and awaiting visitors, men who will test her to see if she knows maths. “How many of us were there? I don’t want to say.” Knowing maths is not allowed: people can be turned in and taken away for knowing numbers, for understanding counting and amounts. Time is a grey area; there is anxious consideration of what is allowed: “Is it okay to know what late means?” “He was older than Dad. Is that math?” I love this story’s sense of pleasure, and its poignancy. Amy is eating her favourite dinner: “It was like a birthday dinner but of course I couldn’t be sure when my birthday was.” She has a favourite place, between the kitchen and the living room, “where a wall might’ve been, but wasn’t.” And Amy loves maths.
First published in When Things Get Dark: Stories Inspired by Shirley Jackson, Titan Books, 2021