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

‘Eastmouth’ by Alison Moore

Alison Moore’s stories inhabit a corner of the UK akin to Shirley Jackson‘s and Kit Reed’s own backyard, with their quiet horrors building up until you choke on them, silently, afraid to make a fuss. Eastmouth in particular looks into the mundane horror of meeting your partner’s parents, and the particular pull one’s hometown can have.

First published in The Spectral Book of Horror Stories, Spectral Press, 2014. Included in Best British Short Stories 2015, Salt, 2015

‘Schwarzschild Radius’ by Connie Willis

Willis here gives us, in Le Guin’s words, a story about “the idea of science,” more than about science itself. It takes places in the German trenches on the Russian front during the First World War, and follows a handful of characters who try to survive by fixing a wireless, because that’s the only thing standing between them and the front. Muller stays sane by making up theories. Schwarzschild is corresponding with Einstein (who introduces the general theory of relativity the same year), but he’s not in good shape:

We are all of us – Muller, and the recuit who is trying to put together Eisner’s motocycle, and perhaps even the doctor with his steady bedside voice – afraid of the front. But our fear is not complete, because unspoken in it is our belief that the front is something separate from us, something we can keep away from by keeping the wireless or the motorcycle fixed, something we can survive by flattening our faces into the frozen earth, something we can escape altogether by being invalidated out.

But the front is not separate. It is inside Schwarzschild, and the symptoms I have been sending out, suppurative bullae and excoriated lesions, are not what is wrong with him at all. The lesions on his skin are only the barbed wire and shell holes and connecting trenches of a front that is somewhere farther in.

First Published in The Universe, Bantam Books, 1987. Collected in Impossible Things, Bantam Spectra Books, 1994. Read online here

‘Green Boots’ Cave’ by Jim Hinks

I read this story, thanks to some dark serendipity, not long after reading a good few pieces about climbing Everest, and more specifically the gruesome fact that there are a lot of dead people out there, that are staying there, up where shit becomes tough and if you’re up there dying is not a remote possibility for you either. I was (morbidly, maybe) fascinated by the fact that people who chose to climb Everest in effect accepted not only that they might die, but that people they loved might die, and that they might have to leave them behind up there in the 29,000-foot blizzard to die. By the fact, and this isn’t potential but certain, that they will have to find their way by the de facto signposts of abandoned bodies, recognisable and talked about by the colours of their coats, their boots.

As a writer I was starting to try to work out how could one possibly approach such a subject, such horror, when I came across Hinks’ story. And I had this most welcome sensation: that of finding someone else has written about what you wanted to write, and so well that you don’t have to try yourself; shouldn’t, really. Hinks up to his Cortázar tricks. Go read it now, it’s pretty short.

First published in Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, Volume 4 Issue 1. Included in Best British Short Stories 2015, Salt, 2015. Read online here – you’ll have to download the story

‘Cowboy Pile’ by Andy Mozina

Talking about surprise, there is a lot to be said for picking up a book at random. I used to live in Cork, Ireland, which still hosts an International Short Story Festival, and used to have the Frank O’Connor Award, the biggest award for a collection (which Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike won, by the way – it’s all connected!). So charity shops there often had a good few collections on their shelves, from the copies sent to the judging panel, I assume.

Anyway, I picked Andy Mozina’s book without knowing the first thing about it, and it was good. ‘Cowboy Pile’, the first story in the book, a five-page funny piece, starts like this:

Out on the ranges, out West, you get cowboy piles. Mounds of human cowboys. A cowboy lies on the ground (for no reason, it seems), and then someone lies across him, and then a third guy piles on. Then one after another. Sometimes you’ll see a pile from the Interstate. If the wind’s right and your window is down and your engine’s running gently, you might hear six guns fired into the air or the barely audible hooting and yowling of a  convocation of cowboys. If you’re lucky, ahead of you on the highway you’ll see a pickup with a pair of men wearing ten-gallon hats. Follow those gents. Exit.

First published in Beloit Fiction Journal. Collected in The Women Were Leaving The Men, Wayne State University Press, 2007. Read online here

‘Honeymoon’ by Maureen McHugh

McHugh’s stories fit very well within the Small Beer Press list, a two-folk team (the incredible Kelly Link, whose stories you have obviously already read avidly, and her husband Gavin J. Grant) one of the most consistently good publishers I can think of. These stories of disasters small and big, personal and/or world-wide, navigate genres picking tools from the literary and speculative according to their needs.

‘Honeymoon’ is one of the least speculative stories of this collection. It starts with a marriage failing from the start – as in the very night of the wedding – and the disappointed bride moving on to do drug trials. It’s a weird story that doesn’t go where you might expect it to, one of those that travels quite a long track and kind of circles back nicely, that make you look in the rear-view mirror to ponder the road taken.

First published in After The Apocalypse, Small Beer Press, 2011