While thinking about selecting stories for this anthology, blame memory, but I found myself biased in favour of what I’ve read most recently. A lot of these share an element of surprise, not in the form of a twist (although maybe), but in the road covered, the space, the time, the crossing from one thing to the next in a way that surprised me or delighted me, at least. Call me an old sentimental fool, I’m a sucker for looking back, marvelling at the distance covered.

Also, a lot of dark stuff on here. But not only. I’ve made sure a lot of those were readable online, so do have a gander.

‘The Quiet’ by Carys Davies

‘The Quiet’ opens Davies’ collection The Redemption of Gallen Pike. It’s one of those historical pieces that feels, in terms of time or place, not-quite defined, and I must say that’s right up my street. We get the point of view of Susan, a young woman recently settled in a pretty empty land with her husband, and hear of her troubles with their rough-looking neighbour, who lives six miles away. The story starts with his visit as Susan’s husband is away. It’s a dark story, full of menace, but also kindness. And wouldn’t you know, I’m also a sucker for kindness.

First published in The Stinging Fly, Spring 2012. Collected in The Redemption of Gallen Pike, Salt 2014. Read online at Lit Hub here

‘The Stars Below’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

Here I might just quote Le Guin’s own introduction to the story:

The popular notion of science fiction, I guess, is of a story that takes some possible or impossible technological gimmick-of-the-future – Soylent Green, the time machine, the submarine – and makes hay out of it. There certainly are science fiction stories which do just that, but to define science fiction by them is a bit like defining the United States as Kansas.

Writing “The Stars Below,” I thought I knew what I was doing. As in the early story “The Masters,” I was telling a story not about a gimmick or device or hypothesis, but about science itself – the idea of science. And about what happens to the idea of science when it meets utterly opposed and powerful ideas, embodied in government, as when seventeenth-century astronomy ran up against the Pope, or genetics in the 1930s ran up against Stalin. But all this was cast as a psychomyth, a story outside real time, past or future, in part to generalize it, and in part because I was also using science as a synonym for art. What happens to the creative mind when it is driven underground?

This is a story that sits at the borderland of historical and the mythological, and, clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

First published in Orbit 12, 1973. Collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Harper & Row, 1975, more recently Gollancz, 2015. Read online at Lightspeed here

‘No life’ by J. Robert Lennon

The story opens in a  park, with Edward and Alison sitting in their car, getting ready to join the meeting between prospective adopting parents and children. It starts there, but very soon the focus shifts from the children themselves to this couple and another. Harlan (a Texan judge –“a rich hick”) and Linda Breece happen to have spotted the same cute child, and soon it’s clear a competition has started. And when Edward and Alison are invited to dinner by their competitors, you can expect everything not to go smoothly. Lennon’s skill is in wrong-footing the reader. In his short stories, just like in his novels, he is at his best when crossing genres, moods.

First published in The New YorkerSeptember 4, 2000 issue. Collected in See You in Paradise, Graywolf Press/Serpent’s Tail, 2014

‘The Night Face Up’ by Julio Cortázar

(First a few words on publication: originally published in Spanish in 1956 in Final del Juego, and in English, as far as I can tell, in Blow Up and other stories (1967), a selection from different collections. I first read it in French in a collection called Les Armes Secrètes (1959, like the Spanish edition). My edition, a later one, collected under that name eleven stories instead of the original five. Show some respect, publishers!)

How do you express the unspeakable horror of a road accident? Of the trauma of hospital? Of being sacrificed to some blood-thirsty god, your heart torn out of you chest? Well, a careful writer might safely keep away, but Cortázar takes all of these face on and juggle them into a blur.

First published in English in Blow Up and Other Stories, Random House, 1967. Read online here

‘Three Indignities’ by Brian Evenson

This is pretty real-world horror for Evenson, who often strays into more supernatural territory. People who’ve been around hospitals a bit might get a familiar tingle. Evenson is a master of unease. Read his whole collection A Collapse of Horses to see how he can use the most innocuous thing, the slightest speck, to open the door a crack to terror.

First published in Unsaid. Collected in A Collapse of Horses, Coffee House Press, 2016. Read online at The Center for Fiction here

‘Oestrogen’ by Mike McCormack

McCormack has long, or until recently at least, been considered by many as a greatly underrated writer. His recent novel Solar Bones might have changed that, considering the coverage it got, but I wonder if it will lead to his stories being re-read over. I must say I haven’t read a novel of his yet (that Solar Bones says hi from my TBR pile), but I loved both his collections, Getting It In The Head (1996) and Forensic Songs (2012).

‘Oestrogen’, from his first collection, tells us of a young farmer who one day lands at his sister’s in Galway, intent on spending a couple of months there “to grow a pair of tits”. From this seemingly wacky premise McCormack touches interesting and difficult questions, such as mental health issues in rural Ireland (and beyond, really), and what it means to live both in a changing society and west Mayo. It is also, to me, a surprisingly touching story.

First published in Getting It In The Head, Jonathan Cape, 1996