Of course, it was almost impossible to limit the selection to just a dozen stories. So, my apologies to Anton, Bruno, Camilla, Carmen, Daisy, Edgar, Ernest, Franz, Italo, Julia, Monty, Nikolai, Ottessa, Thomas, Vladimir, and all the other brilliant writers that on any other day I might have included. But today, these are the ones. I’ve indulged my passion for what is often called the ‘weird’. Although isn’t all fiction, to some greater or lesser degree, inherently weird? To occupy a stranger’s imaginative world, perhaps even long years after they wrote down the story, to read their words on the page and to be led through a labyrinth of their creation, is a peculiar thing, is it not?
I am interested in stories that use place – and landscape and nature – almost as a character, certainly as more than mere setting or backdrop. To me, this feels true to life, for our surroundings influence our thoughts and moods, and our beliefs and emotions influence the ways in which we perceive and understand those surroundings. So-called ‘real life’ is integrated with the sites in which it takes place. So, I love the idea that a landscape can function in a story as an extension or projection of the character of the protagonist – an external state reflecting an internal state – as in the shattered landscapes of Eniwetok Island in Ballard’s superb ‘The Terminal Beach’ or the suburban dreamscape of Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’.
Furthermore, I like hallucinations and the inexplicable. I enjoy narratives that carry me away from the frets and stresses of work and family life and open my mind to new and unknown possibilities. I like metamorphosis and transformation. I don’t look to fiction for answers. I like Robert Smithson’s directive: ‘Establish enigmas, not explanations.’
I gazed across the waste of wild waters; I watched the whispering willows; I heard the ceaseless beating of the tireless wind; and, one and all, each in its own way, stirred in me this sensation of a strange distress.
This is Blackwood’s most famous story and because of that I felt conflicted about choosing it. But it is famous for a very good reason. Blackwood is a cracking storyteller and ‘The Willows’ is a brilliant piece of writing.
He carefully sets the scene before gradually ratcheting up the unease. The narrator and his friend, known only as the Swede, are making a canoe expedition down the Danube. One night, as they pass through a desolate and uninhabited region, they camp on an island in the middle of the river. Both island and the banks of the river are fringed with willows; in fact, there are only willows and water for as far as they can see.
Blackwood describes the landscape with extraordinary intensity and even seems to give agency to it. The sense that they have arrived in a place in which they are unwelcome grows. The river is flooding, the wind is rising, and several strange incidents unnerve them; the Swede thinks he sees a dead body tumbling in the rapids, and they spot “a man standing upright in a sort of flat-bottomed boat, steering with a long oar, and being carried down the opposite shore at a tremendous pace,” who, seeing them, seems to cross himself. The rushing waters are carving away chunks of the island on which they are camped and the willows appear to be drawing closer. And then things get very strange indeed.
“There are things about us, I’m sure, that make for disorder, disintegration, destruction, our destruction,” he said once, while the fire blazed between us. “We’ve strayed out of a safe line somewhere.”
Blackwood was a mystic and an adventurer. He climbed mountains, crossed deserts and did indeed go down the Danube in a canoe himself. He writes from experience and it is deeply felt, and all the more affecting for it. The ‘weird’ elements of the story are brilliantly integrated.
HP Lovecraft considered ‘The Willows’ to be the finest supernatural tale in English literature, perhaps because it articulates so well the feelings of insignificance before otherworldly cosmic powers that is such a trait of Lovecraft’s own fiction.
First published in The Listener and Other Stories, 1907. Collected in Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories, Penguin, 2002. Available online at Project Gutenberg
Like Blackwood, the Uruguayan writer Quiroga uses place as more than setting. His characteristic tales of “love, madness and death” (the title of a 1917 collection) take place in the densely forested province of Misiones in Argentina, or along the banks of the Rio Parana, which forms the border with Paraguay. His key theme is the fraught relationship (or lack of) between man and nature.
On first acquaintance one might take Quiroga for a pessimist or even a nihilist; there is something implacable in his outlook. But the truth is that Quiroga is a realist. He doesn’t sentimentalise nature, even in his children’s tales of talking animals. Life is hard out there in the wilderness, where every insect, reptile and animal will kill you if given half a chance. There is little happiness to be found, it seems, in the jungle. Or rather, once found, it is often quickly snatched away. Man is brutalised by this environment. In ‘The Orange Distillers’ (1923), Dr. Else, deranged by excessive consumption raw orange bitters, mistakes his daughter for a giant rat and kills her. In other stories, Quiroga simply depicts a protagonist who has experienced a terrible piece of luck – a snake bite (‘Drifting’, 1912), an infection (‘The Wilderness’, 1923), or in ‘The Dead Man’, a bizarre accident– and whose death is inevitable. Coming to terms with this fact constitutes the tale.
In ‘The Dead Man’, in prose of great economy and precision, we find a nameless man who has slipped and fallen on his machete. He lies in the grass, knowing that he dying, and listens to the sounds of the landscape; someone passing by on a nearby road, the nervous movement of his horse, his wife and children bringing him lunch. He sees the red roof of his house through the banana trees. He can barely understand what has happened to him. And that is all.
First published in Spanish as ‘El hombre muerto’ in La Nación, June 1920, and then in the collection Los desterrados, 1926. Published in English in The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories, University of Texas Press, 1976. Available online here
As for many, my first encounter with Borges – in my case with the incredible collection Labyrinths – changed everything. He cracks open the very idea of what a story might be and reading for him for the first time is a dizzying experience of extraordinary possibility. But the truth is that some of Borges’s best stories are not really ‘stories’ as such. There is little narrative; they are instead philosophical exercises, paradoxical vignettes, speculations, puzzles, prose poems. But of course, all those things are ‘stories’ too, or at least they are now that Borges has shown us so.
‘The Aleph’ contains one of Borges’s most dazzling metaphysical inventions. It is a curious tale of lost love and the narrator’s (Borges, himself) uneasy relationship with the poet Carlos Argentino. It is not until the story is almost done that we have the first mention of the Aleph itself; which Borges calls “the ineffable center of my tale.” The passage in which he finally gazes upon it, “a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness”, and sees everything that has passed, everywhere and in all times, is justly renowned, and is not unlike the experience of encountering Borges’s work for the first time; after, nothing can be the same again.
First published in the Argentine journal Sur in 1945. First published in English in The Aleph and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1971. Currently available in The Aleph, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000 and Collected Fictions, Viking, 1998
This is one of the strangest stories I have ever read, and I am haunted by it. It has possibly the greatest opening paragraph ever:
There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.
With subtle shifts of perspective – from first to third person – Cortazar delineates a scenario in which reality is gently turned inside out. It won’t harm the reading of the story to say that we end with the narrator in the aquarium, an axolotl, paradoxically watching himself peering through the glass at the axolotls. This might be an account of over-identification or madness, or it might be a story about something much stranger, a kind of transference or metamorphosis. We will never know. We have only questions and possibilities. The effect is deeply unsettling.
First published in Spanish in Litereria, 1952 and collected in Final del Juego. First published in English in End of the Game, Pantheon, 1967 and collected in Blow Up and Other Stories, Pantheon, 1985
At night, as he lay asleep on the floor of the ruined bunker, Traven heard the waves breaking along the shore of the lagoon, like the sounds of giant aircraft warming up at the ends of their runways.
The key moment in Ballard’s fragmented evocation of a man’s anguished exploration of an abandoned atomic test site, vainly searching for his dead wife and child, is when a scientist he comes across tells him: “This island is a state of mind.” Ballard’s modus operandi is right there. He uses the blasted landscape of Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands – concrete bunkers, submarine pens and blast pans filled with deformed test dummies – to convey the shattered mentality of mankind in the post-nuclear age (the ‘Pre-Third’ as it is called in the story). Ballard is often criticized for the weakness of his plots and characterisation but here it doesn’t matter. Traven may be a cypher but Ballard locates him in an unforgettable landscape, haunted and dreamlike, and in his dilemma makes a compelling diagnosis of the human condition in the aftermath of the bomb.
First published in New Worlds, March 1964, and collected in The Terminal Beach, Gollancz 1964. Also in The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard: Volume 1, Fourth Estate, 2014
In the rear-view mirror appeared Tezcatlipoca – demiurge of the ‘smoking mirror.’ ‘All those guidebooks are of no use,’ said Tezcatlipoca. ‘You must travel at random, like the first Mayans; you risk getting lost in the thickets, but that is the only way to make art.’
Is this an essay, a travelogue, an artwork or a story? Does the distinction even matter?
Robert Smithson is known as one of the most important American artists of the post-war period, a pioneer of Minimalism, Conceptual and Land Art. But he was also a brilliant critic, theorist and writer. Smithson’s best writing is hallucinatory, speculative and obsessive. ‘Incidents of Mirror-Travel in The Yucatan’ describes a journey during which the artist stops to make a series of artworks by placing mirrors in the landscape so that reality is reflected, fractured, and time is distorted or erased. Originally published in Artforum, the text was illustrated with Smithson’s photographs of these ’mirror displacements.’ Narrative progress is frustrated by digression after digression, as multiple reference points pile up and collapse in upon one another. Along the way, Smithson muses on the camera as a “portable tomb”, the properties of enantiomorphs, and space as “the remains, or corpse, of time”, amongst many other things. It is disorientating and intoxicating.
Smithson had books by both Borges and Ballard in his library. As an aside, for the artist Tacita Dean’s fascinating insight into the relationship between Ballard and Smithson, see here.
First published in Artforum, Sept 1969, and available to read here. Collected in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, University of California Press, 1996
“Are you sure you’ve heard nothing about Egnaro?” he said. “The thing is,” he continued, before I could say anything, “that I’ve just about convinced myself a place like that exists.”
Confession: I’ve only read two of Harrison’s short stories, and none of his novels. It’s an oversight I intend to correct immediately. I’m currently working my way through Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s vast and extraordinary compendium, The Weird (over 1,000 pages of ‘strange and dark stories’ from 1908 to 2020, highly recommended) and came across the puzzle that is ‘Egnaro’ just three weeks ago. The best stories get under the skin. Three weeks. And now I can’t get it out of my head, which is a curious reflection of the central theme of the story. In which the narrator records an associate’s obsession with an idea, a notion which has possessed him but which he finds impossible to verify. Set in a run-down city centre with dingy Chinese restaurants, queasy custard puddings and struggling second hand-bookshops, nothing fantastical takes place. And yet there is the sense that some hidden power is at work and by the end everything has shifted. Let me say this, ‘Egnaro’ is insidious. At the finale, the narrator has himself become obsessed. And now I am too.
First published in Winter’s Tales #27, 1981. Collected in The Ice Monkey, Gollancz, 1983, and Things That Never Happened, Gollancz 2003
In the space of an hour, more or less, he had covered a distance that made his return impossible.
Published in the same year as Ballard’s ‘The Terminal Beach’, ‘The Swimmer’ is a very different kind of story, although we might say that both are dreams about sorts of endings. Cheever’s premise is in many ways as strange as Ballard’s, but instead of roaming through a post-nuclear wasteland, his protagonist Neddy Merrill leaves a boozy Sunday afternoon party in well-heeled suburbia to “swim home” by connecting all the pools in the gardens of various friends and acquaintances; “that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.”
Beginning vigorously, joyfully, in the golden glow of midsummer, amongst flowering apple trees, Ned’s dreamlike journey quickly becomes freighted with an “unseasonable melancholy”. As he progresses, he is snubbed and his integrity is questioned and the weather seems to cycle through the seasons: leaves lie upon the ground, the air begins to chill, and one of the last pools he swims has a “wintry gleam”. His strength is fading too. At the beginning of the story, we learn that he has an “inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools.” Yet, at the end, in his own neighbours’ garden, “for the first time in his life, he did not dive but went down the steps into the icy water and swam a hobbled sidestroke that he might have learned as a child.” What has happened? Ned, or time itself, has become unmoored. Finally, he arrives at his house to find it locked up and empty. There is a kind of perfection to the way Cheever achieves all this. His glistening prose seems absolutely effortless.
First published in The New Yorker, 1964, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, Harper & Row, 1964, and The Stories of John Cheever, Alfred A. Knopf, 1978
Now a great howling rose up all around them, near, very near, as close as the kitchen garden, the howling of a multitude of wolves; she knew the worst wolves are hairy on the inside and she shivered, in spite of the scarlet shawl she pulled more closely round herself as if it could protect her although it was as red as the blood she must spill.
This was the first Angela Carter I read. Of course, it blew my mind; not just her audacious reimagining of a seemingly innocent fairy story but the sensuousness of the language, the juicy tactility, the earthiness of the prose, all guts and gristle. It is wonderfully subversive and playful – for in Carter play is deadly serious –and of course the ending does not lead where one expects it to.
I bought The Bloody Chamber but I think I went straight to ‘The Company of Wolves’ because I loved Neil Jordan’s film of it. It may not the greatest of her stories, but it is the one I’ve gone back to the most times.
First published in Bananas, 1977. Collected in The Bloody Chamber, Gollancz, 1979, and in Burning Your Boats: Collected Stories, Vintage, 1996
Nerve and instinct. Her thousand feral programmes. Should she not flee into the borders, kicking away the manmade world?
Like Angela Carter, Hall is a great prose stylist. Unlike Carter, who sometimes seems intoxicated by her own linguistic fireworks, Hall is all about control. She is chasing a different kind of literary kick. While Carter deals in mythic transformations, ‘Mrs Fox’ is something almost anti-mythic. It is weirdly mundane, extraordinarily prosaic in its careful and delicate descriptions and scrupulous account of events. It’s as if this kind of thing happens all the time: the metamorphosis of a woman into a feral creature. Hall commits completely to this fantastic notion, leaving no room for doubt. Reading this, one feels that reality is being stretched, being asked to contain more than it should be capable of. It is an astonishing achievement.
Winner of the BBC National Short Story Prize, 2013. First published in 2014 by Faber as a Kindle single, and collected in Madame Zero, Faber, 2017. Available to read online on the Toast magazine website)
“Something’s wrong,” thought Karsten, “but the worst part of it is that I don’t know for certain what or how much.”
Two great stories in eerie dialogue with each other. And while it may be a bit of a cheat to include two-for-one, once one has read them it is hard to think of them as separate entities.
Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses is a superb example of how to construct a story collection. It’s like an echo chamber, full of strange returns. ‘Black Bark’ and ‘The Blood Drip’ bookend it and bring things full circle. While Evenson is nominally a ‘horror’ writer (and can get pretty gruesome; see, for example, his extraordinary novel about a mutilation cult, Last Days) he plays with genre in fascinating ways. ‘Black Bark’ is nominally a Western. The setting for ‘The Blood Drip’ might be medieval or post-apocalyptic. But it’s the deadpan absurdity and the creeping sense of dread that characterises his best work that I find so compelling. His prose is like Raymond Chandler crossed with Samuel Beckett.
Evenson’s defining quality is, I think, a sense of profound doubt. One strategy he uses again and again to great effect is to have a character assert a particular notion as fact and to then immediately question that very fact. This persistent undermining of certainty means that we find ourselves adrift, questioning everything, seeking resolution (which because Evenson is also the master of the open-ended ending, we never get). Dark and brilliant.
‘Black Bark’ was first published in Caketrain. ‘The Blood Drip’ was first published in Granta, and is available to read here. Both are collected in A Collapse of Horses, Coffee House Press, 2016
Impatient to inspect the features up close, I shone a halogen lamp onto his face and stepped back. Just as I was beginning to re-admire all the features, Friedrich came running up and redirected the lamp towards the ceiling. Never do that, he said.
Is there anything weirder than waxworks?
Another recent discovery (her 2019 novel, Sea Monsters, is superb) Chloe Aridjis’s writing is wry, dreamlike, surreal and darkly comic. In this oddly moving story the protagonist drifts through a city, drinks in a mysterious bar filled with ‘monsters’, and acquires a waxwork of the dread somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. She christens him ‘Pompeii’, lives with him for a while (observing his peculiar compulsion to tidy her apartment), and then donates him to a waxwork museum. And then tragedy strikes.
First published in Dialogue with a Somnambulist: Stories, Essays & A Portrait Gallery, House Sparrow Press, 2021