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’ 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
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
‘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
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
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
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
The night before our wedding day, my fiancée and I had a romantic meal. She held my hand. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Thank you so much for marrying me. You’re just so wonderful taking me on. Me and my three ugly children.’ I was horrified. It was the first I’d heard of these three ugly children, and I wanted to know more. She explained that she hadn’t told me about them in case they put me off her. ‘Come and meet your new daddy,’ she called, and they ran into the room. Their faces were covered in jam. They were horrible.
First published in Anthropology and a Hundred Other Stories, Fourth Estate, 2000)
Another story about horrible children.
I first read ‘Brownies’ circa 2004 and at the time thought it was an efficient piece of creative writing, literary, circumscribed, American. But when, at the behest of Nikesh Shukla, we did ZZ Packer’s collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere on Backlisted last year I found I couldn’t get this particular story out of my head, and still can’t. No one appears to have tampered with my copy of the book so it must be the same story I read then. Gosh.
We don’t just change as readers as we get older, we improve.
If you haven’t read ‘Brownies’, you need to read it; also if you have read it.
First published in Harper’s Magazine, November 1999 and in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Riverhead Books, 2003
This and the following selection are from my two favourite literary collections of short stories. Although it wasn’t published until 1968, Tigers Are Better-Looking is the missing link between Jean Rhys’s incredible novels of the 1930s and her return from the missing-presumed-dead with Wide Sargasso Sea. The stories were written piecemeal during the 1940s and 50s and no one wanted to publish them until WSS had become a huge success (Rhys: “It has come too late”). They are utterly magnificent, each one a languid study in fatalism and defeat. The worst has happened; well, so what? Let them call it jazz and let them play it wrong. That won’t make no difference to the song I heard.
First published in The London Magazine, 1962, and in Tigers Are Better-Looking, Andre Deutsch Ltd, 1968. Collected in The Collected Short Stories, W.W. Norton & Co, 1992, now Penguin Modern Classics. Also published as one of the Penguin 60s in 1995
‘The Fly-Paper’ was rejected by William Maxwell at the New Yorker and subsequently turned into an episode of Tales of the Unexpected; I didn’t know either of these things when I first read it.
Although all Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories are currently available as one huge tome, they are more easily enjoyed in the editions in which they were originally published: Hester Lilley (1954), The Blush (1958), A Dedicated Man (1965) and The Devastating Boys (1972). The latter is my favourite of the four because of the range of subject matter and because there isn’t a sentence in it, anywhere, that is anything other than flawless. Taylor was a genius of fancy prose but, unlike VN, she didn’t like to talk about it.
I read ‘The Fly-Paper’ aloud from beginning to end at a festival a few years ago and, steadily, it froze a room full of people into absolute shock, not because of the ‘unexpected’ denouement – it isn’t, particularly – but because of the horrible truth of what precedes it: the elegant apprehension of quotidian, human evil.
First published in The Devastating Boys, Chatto and Windus Ltd, 1972; Collected in Complete Short Stories, Virago Press, 2012
I was introduced to Kafka’s diaries around the same time I first read Pale Fire. I only discovered ‘A Country Doctor’ a couple of years ago, however, as the first story in Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories (1958, republished by NYRB in 2002). In his introduction Jarrell writes:
‘One of the things that make Kafka so marvellous a writer is his discovery of – or, rather, discovery by – a kind of narrative in which logical analysis and humour, the greatest enemies of narrative movement, have become themselves part of the movement. In narrative at its purest or most eventful we do not understand but are the narrative … in fiction, to understand everything is to get nowhere.’
In other words, a story can carry us to its conclusion but one of us will have to walk home again.
Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories is often astounding and the stories in it, alongside that introductory essay, challenged my preconceptions of what a short story is for and what it can be; nothing in that statement is an exaggeration. Get hold of a copy before it slips out of print again.
First published in A Country Doctor (Ein Landarzt), Kurt Wolff, 1919; translated by Edwin and Willa Muir, first published in The Metamorphosis, The Penal Colony, and Other Stories, Schocken Books, 1948. Now available in various translations, including online in Ian Johnston’s translation here)
I read all of Penelope Fitzgerald’s fiction for the first time last year. Her novel The Gate of Angels, set in a Cambridge college in 1912, contains a spectacular pastiche of an M.R. James-style chilling tale. Rather than close the narrative however, I have instead opted for ‘The Axe’, one of the first things Fitzgerald wrote. It has several elements in common with the other stories I have selected here – if you have read it, they will be obvious – but the twist on this occasion is there is no twist; no one is coming to help the narrator or the reader.
In narrative at its purest or most eventful we do not understand but are the narrative.’
This is an open ending. And so is this. They are, I think, the way to go.
First published in The Times Anthology of Ghost Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1975, and in The Means of Escape, Flamingo, 2000, now Fourth Estate, 2016