Introduction

There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be…

I’ve always thought John Lennon was being profoundly fatalistic when he sang that line 52 years ago, and I’ve always been fascinated by songs, poems and stories about fate and free will. 

Maybe it stems from reading the ‘Appointment in Samarra’ fable at Junior School. You know the one: a wealthy merchant visits the marketplace in Baghdad; he spots Death apparently beckoning him and flees to Samarra on his fastest horse. Later that night, Death calls at his house in Samarra and explains he had not beckoned the merchant, merely expressed astonishment at seeing him in Baghdad: ‘For I knew tonight we had an appointment in Samarra.’

Here are my twelve favourite stories about fate, free will and predestination. Several are mystery tours to destinations which, when ultimately revealed, prove shocking and yet inevitable. Some concern people crushed by a sense of impending doom; others celebrate characters who struggle to escape a tragic and apparently inevitable destiny. 

I hope you’re fated to read and enjoy them.

‘Beggars Would Ride’ by Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge pursued an obsessive quest for concise and musical language. She was celebrated for her alchemical distillation of a dozen typed pages onto a single sheet, and for her relentless process of reading aloud until her words sounded properly ‘tuned’. Bainbridge’s fiction relies on wit, precision and intricate detail to explore a wide range of human experience, and she was one of those writers who took greater risks with form and style in her short fiction than in her novels. This is reflected in ‘Beggars Would Ride’, a sharply observed social satire framed by incidents, 300 years apart, involving an artefact imbued with supernatural power. A pair of vain, middle-aged, middle-class, financial service managers suddenly discover they have mysteriously transcended their customary mediocrity on the tennis court and become seduced by their new-found prowess. It turns out that unearned power brings unexpected risks. Terse, unsettling and funny: the story’s shadowy vitality is counterpointed by pithy observations of everyday urban existence.

First published in Winter’s Tales #26, edited by Alan Maclean, 1980. Collected in Mum and Mrs Armitage, Flamingo, 1987

‘Death and the Compass’ by Jorge Luis Borges

A tale of murder, scholarship and the flawed nature of inductive reasoning, ‘Death and the Compass’ takes liberties with the conventions of detective fiction and, I would argue, provides one of the earliest examples of a story based on a semiotic quest for meaning. Borges exposed readers to the idea that the extensive and obsessive collation of sinister information might reflect a quest for meaning and pattern in a world that seems absurd, random and arbitrarily cruel. The idea has been rendered familiar by some great novels –White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, The Crying of Lot 49Illuminatus! and Foucault’s Pendulum– but Borges tackled the theme first and in a more concentrated form. The narrative follows the efforts of celebrated detective Lönnrot to solve a series of murders involving cryptic messages, Kabbalistic philosophy, the geometry of the built environment, the detective’s nemesis Red Scharlach and the tetragrammaton – the sacred four-letter name of God. As Lönnrot solves the case, the lines between hunter and hunted are blurred and distinguishing between actions of will and destiny becomes increasingly tricky. A ludic tale with philosophical twists, it’s as entertaining as it is erudite.

First published in Sur in May 1942 and collected in Labyrinths, various editions. Also available online here

‘Don’t Look Now’ by Daphne Du Maurier

For most people the phrase ‘don’t look now’ evokes a Nicolas Roeg movie. The story that inspired the cinematic masterpiece is very different in terms of detail, tone and structure, but packs a similar emotional punch and offers its own set of puzzles, ambiguities and weird set pieces. A carefully crafted tale of self-deception, misperception, sex and mystery, it’s also a compelling portrait of overwhelming loss and a relationship under pressure. The central characters, John and Laura, are adroitly realised: it’s easy to sympathise with Laura’s desperation and John’s impatience, as well as their shared grief, wit and sarcasm. The other key character is the city in which the story is set – Venice. The city’s canals, bridges and cramped, labyrinthine streets are key to the way events are foreshadowed and tension is ratcheted. The story couldn’t possibly be set in any other city. Du Maurier’s ability to create fear and wonder from conventional interactions in familiar places is key to this story’s well-deserved reputation as a classic of the modern gothic.

First collected in Not after Midnight, Victor Gollancz, 1971. Currently available as the title story in collections from Penguin Modern Classics and Pocket Classics, Virago Modern Classics and NYRB Classics

‘A Quiet Game of Chess’ by Maurice Richardson

‘A Quiet Game of Chess’ pushes the notion of determinism to its limit: to disclose how would be to spoil the story. What I can reveal is that Maurice Richardson is a dazzling comic writer – the equal of Richmal Crompton, PG Wodehouse and Stacy Aumonier – and this story is typical of the series featuring Engelbrecht, a surrealist wrestler who fights clocks rather than people, and risks losing time rather than a purse. Terse and inventive, these Chronicles of the Surrealist Sportman’s Club are a hybrid of The Pickwick Papers and Calvino’s Cosmicomics. The club’s membership plays surrealist golf, using the whole planet for a single hole; surrealist rugby, in which Earth takes on Mars for the Interplanetary Challenge Cup; and, in this case, surrealist chess in a game involving human kings, queens, bishops and knights; real machicolated castles; and newly introduced pieces such as the tank, fighter plane and atomic bomb. The game is played across several cosmic dimensions and the Surrealist Sportman’s Club is crammed with cheats who want to win at any cost. What could possibly go wrong?

First published in Lilliput in January 1948 and collected in The Exploits of Engelbrecht, various editions

‘Escape from Spiderhead’ by George Saunders

On the surface this is a dystopian short story about the corporate abuse of science. Convicts with relatives able to raise the necessary funds can transfer from prison onto a drug testing project. Jeff, the narrator, takes advantage of the scheme and dons a MobiPakTM, which enables researchers to chemically modify his moods, passions, sexual arousal, feelings of attachment and verbal eloquence. As the experiment takes an even more alarming turn, Jeff realises his survival depends on escaping from the drug regime. A lesser writer might have produced a mere socio-political satire from this material: those elements are present, but George Saunders also peels away the comfortable delusion that we control their own behaviour. The story also highlights the plasticity of our beliefs, attachments and personalities. ‘Escape from Spiderhead’ is by turns a fascinating thriller and a deeply unsettling contemplation of human psychology.

First published in The New Yorker in December 2010 and collected in Tenth of December, Bloomsbury, 2013

‘Marionettes’ by Claire Dean

‘Marionettes’ does for Prague what ‘Don’t Look Now’ does for Venice. For Claire Dean it’s both a living city and a territory of the imagination: her knack for terse but memorable portrayal of landscape and built environment makes a massive contribution to the story’s mounting sense of unease and dislocation. The unnamed protagonist and her partner, Karl, return to the city after a gap of seven years, revisiting key landmarks and reminiscing about the previous holiday. She discovers an unstaffed marionette shop and, on a visit without Karl, finds a pair of marionettes that resemble the pair of them. When Karl doesn’t believe her, she attempts to find the shop once more but its location seems to be curiously provisional. It can only be found when she isn’t looking for it. The narrative is peppered with hints, overt and symbolic, that the woman has become stifled by her relationship and the final segment is an alarming, dreamlike recapitulation of this theme.

First published as a Nightjar Press chapbook, 2011 and collected in The Museum of Shadows and Reflections, Unsettling Wonder, 2016