Publishers will tell you that most short story collections are doomed from the start. There’s a long-standing bias among readers that novels are a better value, or perhaps more serious, than short stories. As a consequence, short story collections often fall out of print and quickly become neglected – which is why, a few years ago, I decided to devote a year to reading and writing about nothing else on my Neglected Books website.
When I proposed a personal anthology that would just feature some of my favourite stories by neglected writers, I thought it would be easy. When I went through the 50-some posts about short story collections on my site, however, I soon had a list of at least as many stories.
So, I decided instead to focus on stories that are not only by neglected or little-known writers but also that push an envelope, often playing with boundaries between the act of reading and the act of writing or taking its subject to the extreme. They demonstrate what I consider one of the strengths of the short story form, which is that it is always open to experimentation and testing limits. They could be considered metafictions, even though most of them were written long before William Gass invented that term.
Coincidentally, this selection also adds a dozen new names to the list of authors collected the Total Personal Anthology.

‘On the Floor’ by Joan Jukes

This story is a marvel and a mystery. Joan Jukes was either a pseudonym or she never published anything other than this one story, which first appeared in Edward J. O’Brien’s short-lived magazine New Stories. It’s also, as far as I know, the first example of a short story narrated by a disabled character. In it, a young woman who’s unable to walk unaided, due to some unspecified degenerative disease, falls on the floor in her family’s dining room and is stuck there waiting for someone to come along and help her up. 
“On an occasion like this,” she tells the reader, “I have sometimes tried to sing out for help in an unmistakably jaunty tone of voice to let everyone know at once that I am happy and carefree, I haven’t lost an eye or broken a leg, but this attempt has never been successful, because through closed doors my gay halloo seems to pierce like a shriek of agony.” Despite her situation, the narrator’s voice is struck through with a mix of ironic acceptance and jaundiced scepticism of the capacity of the able people in her world to see past her limitations. You wish that Joan Jukes had had the chance to build a whole novel around this wonderful voice. It’s really a landmark work that ought to be in high school readers around the world.

First published in New Stories volume 1, number 6 (December-January 1934-5, included in The Best Short Stories 1935, edited by Edward J. O’Brien, which is available online on the Internet Archive here

‘The Nature of the Task’ by Howard Nemerov

Although Nemerov published four novels and two story collections, he’s best known as a poet, having twice served as Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress and won most of the major literary prizes for his poetry. Not many people seem to know his short stories, however, which is a shame because they have a wonderful way of playing with the reader’s mind. Nemerov definitely recognized the opportunity to experiment that the short story form offered him.
‘The Nature of the Task’ is a perfect example. A man is assigned the task of killing all the flies in a room. The room is simple and bare, just a cube with a linoleum floor and a window high on one wall. The fact that he sees no flies, he reassures himself, doesn’t mean they’re not there: perhaps they’re hidden in the pattern of the linoleum.
But he’s also been given no fly swatter, so perhaps it’s not literal flies he’s meant to kill. Perhaps it’s “the nasty black thoughts that  feed on the filth of the self, and whose buzzing has but this  one use, that it serves to keep the soul from sleeping in its foulness.” Or perhaps the purpose of assigning him the task of killing flies in a room where no flies existed was to have him do nothing at all. He begins to lose track of the difference between looking – for flies, for patterns in the linoleum, for barely perceptible differences in the walls—and thinking. 
It’s probably a good thing that ‘The Nature of the Task’ is just ten pages long: were Nemerov to have gone much further, he and the reader both might have gone insane. But as it is, the story’s a giddy dance along the edge of madness.

First published in The Virginia Quarterly ReviewVol. 42, No. 2, Spring 1966, included in Stories, Fables and Other Diversions, David R. Godine, 1971

‘Delta Q’ by Alvin Greenberg

I first read this story when I was researching my senior thesis on the experimental short story back in the late 1990s. It’s a great example of using the short story to take just one simple thing and stretch to test the limits of the subject (or the writer). 
“After a while I could no longer tolerate the taste of just-cooked food,” the story begins. “Only leftovers were bearable.” Soon, the narrator is shopping at ghetto shops, where he finds food far past its ‘Sell By’ date still sold: “a world of dented canned goods, stale sweet rolls, ground beef turning brown, shriveled ears of corn…” He prepares gourmet meals only to let them sit for days in his refrigerator, losing their taste, scent, look, trying to fix the moment at which the beef roast or chocolate mousse lose their identity entirely. “All I want is a moment now and then when I can say, This is I, this is reality, we are face to face and it is known what we are.”
Greenberg takes his title from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, in which Δq refers to the uncertainty or inexactness in the measurement of the position of a particle. The Uncertainty Principle postulates that there is a limit to the accuracy with which one can observe and describe the universe, and ‘Delta Q’ is an illustration of the futility of capturing reality with absolute precision, particularly through such a crude instrument as language. I love how Greenberg blends strong physical elements and elevated conceptual elements in this one piece.

First published in The Antioch Review, Vol. 35, No. 1 Winter, 1977, included in Delta Q, University of Missouri Press, 1983

‘Can’t You Get Me Out of Here?’ by Julia Strachey

I tracked this story down after reading the remarkable Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey, which her lifelong friend Frances Partridge compiled from Strachey’s papers and her own recollections and diary after Strachey’s death in 1979. As a writer, Strachey was more often frustrated than accomplished, and her few short stories have never been collected.

There’s so much going on in this story it’s really a tour-de-force. It starts with a description of how Strachey (clearly the unnamed narrator) reads to her near-blind father from The Times. “Pass on!” he shouts whenever she hits a headline he’s not interested in. Then she recalls how a tree frog accidentally leapt into a large bowl of pasta while she was lunching once at an Italian hotel. “I am a tree frog myself,” she writes:

And I can confirm that it is indeed a brash curiosity about queer-looking-things-far-glimpsed that starts a tree frog’s nervous speckled legs to twitch. I know it all—the lunatic leap out from the scaffolding into space, the brief whiz through colored airs, then the landing down in the dark, among yielding, treacherous, slithering things. I know the seasick and obsessional floundering around tangled up in those writhing strings, the panic, and the desperation in the cries ‘Where am I?—Can’t you get me out of here?’

It ends with an account of how she and her husband once dropped off a friend’s dog at a kennels. Her description of the animal’s fear of the unknown is almost visceral and leads to a meditation on the responsibility of humans to care for other creatures that is more powerful as any animal rights tract.

First published in The New Yorker, included in Stories from the New Yorker, 1950-1960, Simon & Schuster, 1960

‘Worm’s-Eye View’ by John Sommerfield

This might not really qualify as a short story, though it’s the first in what’s called a collection of stories. It might better be called a reflection of Sommerfield’s experiences as an RAF enlisted mechanic in World War Two. 

It opens with the recollection of how he and his crewmates at a bomber base in the North would walk through a wood between their quarters and the airfield. 

Sometimes when we came under the shade of those trees and sniffed that elusive vegetable smell we were reminded of a different world, one having nothing to do with the way we lived now, nor belonging to the fantasies of civilian existence with which we tantalized ourselves.

As Sommerfield takes us from the cold and wet of England to the heat and monotony of an airfield in Egypt, he describes how essential these fantasies are to a soldier’s emotional survival—and yet, at the same time, understood to be fragile and unreliable:

Bemused by our own fantasies, warped by disillusionings, fooled and moralized at and lied to by authority, what chance had we of seeing and understanding what we were and what was happening to us?

He draws from the journal he kept throughout the war, noting how absurd were his attempts to assert any fact or opinion with confidence. “History, that scattered us about the world, hid its face from us.” In a quiet and unassuming way, ‘Worm’s-Eye View’ is a reflection on how fiction is both necessary and problematic for our existence.

Included in The Survivors, John Lehmann, 1947

‘The Perfectionist’ by Joseph Slotkin

Joseph Slotkin published numerous short stories in the 1950s and early 1960s, mostly in SF magazines, but his work has never been collected. ‘The Perfectionist’ takes America’s love of the car to the point of obsession and beyond. Car salesman always say that new cars lose value the minute they’re driven off the dealer’s lot, and in this story, Slotkin portrays a man fighting a fierce but doomed battle to deny that reality:

There ought to be something in the world that could be kept safe and inviolate….
… And maybe if he and this machine kept moving, nothing could harm them–they could move like planets in their orbits, like meteors—
… Even dust could not settle on them, if they moved fast enough, away, and if anyone or even anything got in the way, they would go faster….

It’s a wonderful illustration of William Carlos Williams’ line about the pure products of America going crazy, but also a chilling reminder of the futility of trying to stop time.

From Discovery #6, 1955

‘The Single Reader’ by Louis Auchincloss

Auchincloss was incredibly prolific, writing novels, short story collections, biographies, histories, and criticism, but when you come down to it, his preferred format, and the one he based much of his work on, was the character sketch. Powers of Attorney, which ‘The Single Reader’ comes from, is a collection of stories about the partners and associates of a New York City law firm. Auchincloss himself was a New York lawyer and dedicated the book to his partner Lawrence Morris.

Morris Madison, one of the partners in Tower, Tilney & Webb, begins to keep a diary after his wife leaves him. At first, it’s merely an outlet for his anger against his wife and his clients, but soon its focus shifts from his thoughts and emotions to his observations of the workings of the firm and the ways of New York society. Soon, it becomes the centre of his existence:

It not only demanded its daily addition; it demanded footnotes, appendices, even illustrations. Madison found that he spent as much time editing it as he did writing it, but the former task had the advantage of requiring a constant rereading of his work, a constant reabsorbing of his own glowing, crowded, changing picture of the city, now a Bruegel, now a Hogarth, now a quiet, still Vermeer.

By the time Madison is in his fifties, his shelves are lined with dozens of the red morocco-bound volumes of his diary. When he considers marrying an heiress to raise his position in the firm and society, however, he finds himself unable to choose between her reality and that of the world he’s created – or rather, recreated – in the diary. It’s effectively a Borgesian tale set in the wainscoted world of Wall Street.

Included in Powers of Attorney, Houghton Mifflin, 1963

‘The Minnesota Multiphastic Personality: A Diagnostic Test in Two Parts’ by A. B. Paulson

The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is a widely used examination tool for assessing personality and psychological profiles by asking for responses to 500-some statements such as, ‘I have often been called a strong personality’ or ‘I have seen things that others thought weren’t really there’. 

In this story, Paulson uses the MMPI as a structure into which he insinuates a character sketch. Companies used to give the MMPI to prospective employees as a way of screening out undesirables, and in this case, we realize that Paulson is telling us a story about a very unhappy man struggling with feelings of inadequacy and hatred of his boss:

  1. He said, “What are you doing here?”
  2. I didn’t know the right answer.
  3. He said, “I was testing you and I knew that you followed me here.”
  4. I thought I had been testing him.
  5. He and the lady had been drinking together.
  6. He said, “You are a man now.”
  7. I said, “I wish you were dead.”
  8. I have hidden a fugitive and protected him with half- truths.
  9. Sometimes I wish all this weren’t happening.

I don’t claim that this story ranks on a par with the best of Chekhov or Cheever, but I’d recommend any writer who’s serious about working in the short story form give it a read because it demonstrates what’s possible if you set aside the notion that, short stories have to be prose narratives like something by, well, Chekhov or Cheever.

First published in Triquarterly 29, 1974; included in Extreme Fiction: Fabulists and Formalists, selected and introduced by Robin Hemley and Michael Martone, Pearson Educational, 2004

‘Headline Harry’ by Evelyn Shuler

This is just a throw-away two-page one-joke story, but it’s also a play on how a medium can shape our perceptions. In this case, Harry is a headline writer for a newspaper who has fallen into the habit of turning every experience into a headline. ‘FIRST SNOW FLURRIES WHITEN CITY STREETS’, he thinks as he leaves his office one evening. When he observes a well-dressed young man flirting with a shop clerk, he plays with how to frame the story, rejecting ‘YOUNG HEIR WOOS CLERK AT 5 AND 10’ and trying to come up with something suggestive but not lurid, catchy but not hackneyed.
When he gets home, his wife keeps interrupting these reveries and he begins to imagine turning their marriage into a series of scandals. ‘NAGGING WIFE DEMANDS REPLY’ leads to thoughts of leaving, a fantasy of her taking a lover, and, finally, his jealous retribution. ‘HUSBAND IN FURY KILLS WIFE WITH HAMMER’, he thinks. Except that this headline wouldn’t work in what would inevitably be just a one-column story. HAMMER is too long. It has to be something short: AXE? Yes, ‘HUSBAND IN FURY KILLS WIFE WITH AXE’. Except he doesn’t own an axe, so he just has to hang in there. 

First published in Redbook magazine, November 1934

‘The Ball’ by Virgilio Piñera, translated by Mark Schaefer

Virgilio Piñera’s name ought to be as familiar as that of García Márquez or Borges. His short stories, a sample of which are collected in Cold Tales (ably translated by Mark Schaefer), are all, in some way, variations on the theme of taking things to extremes, on the inevitable collision of the ideal with the real. 

In this story, a countess decides to recreate a lavish ball she’s read about in a historical account. But soon after mailing out the invitations, she realizes that she has at least seven different balls to consider: 

First: the ball as it was actually held one century ago.
Second: the ball as described by the chronicler of the day.
Third: the ball as the countess imagines it, based on the chronicler’s description.
Fourth: the ball as the countess imagines it, without the chronicler’s description.
Fifth: the ball as she imagines holding it.
Sixth: the ball as it is actually held.
Seventh: the ball as it is conceived based on the memory of the ball as it is actually held.

As she contemplates these different realities, her life becomes “a perpetual game of the solitaire of possibilities”. Her husband, the count, insists that a ball must be held. She protests that to do so would not only require choosing one of the seven balls as a starting point but inevitably lead the resulting ball to be seen as one or more of the others, causing a potentially infinite number of combinations. 

Included in Cold Tales, Eridanos Press, 1988

‘The Dilemma of Matty the Goat’ by Seumas O’Brien

After Matty the Goat’s first wife runs off and disappears, he marries again. Then his first wife returns and he faces a quandary: Stay and be guilty of bigamy? Leave and be guilty of desertion? The safest thing, he thinks, is to commit suicide. But it’s “too weighty a problem for a poor man like myself” to decide, and so he travels to Madrid to seek the advice of the King of Spain. 

“What in the name of all the cockroaches in Carrigmacross brought you here?” the King asks when Matty the Goat shows up on the palace doorstep in Madrid. The two men converse for many days, covering many subjects: “about old times and the price of potatoes, ladies’ hats, and fancy petticoats.” “Old talk like this,” ses the King, 

… leads nowhere, because no matter how much we may know about art, literature, and music, the very best of us can only be reasonable and sensible when we have nothing to upset us. A hungry man is always angry, and an angry man is never sensible. On the other hand, a man will make a lot of foolish promises and resolutions after a good dinner, and when he begins to get hungry again, he will think that he was a fool for having entertained such decent sentiments.

 Though the story takes Matty on through consultations with the Gaekwar of Persia, the Czar of Russia, and the King of Greece, it’s really just an excuse for a series of conversations that twist and turn and inevitably wrap back upon themselves like a Moebius strip. It’s as absurd and sublime as Waiting for Godot.

At the time it was published, The Whale and the Grasshopper was packaged like Auld Sod nostalgia, but I’d argue it’s the Ur-text for Beckett and Flann O’Brien. It’s a prime example of the gems you can find if you go digging into the forgotten books of the past.

Included in The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables, Little, Brown, 1916 and available on Project Gutenberg here

‘Reality as Port Huntlady’ by Laura Riding

People either love or hate Laura Riding’s fiction, and you probably only need to read ‘Reality as Port Huntlady’ to figure out which side you’re on. It opens innocently: “Dan the Dog came to the town of Port Huntlady with two friends, Baby and Slick.” OK, no problem there. And, in fact, Riding’s prose style is neither intricate nor adorned.

The problem is where Riding’s simple declarative statements lead us. “We are all aware,” she acknowledges, “that there is no such place as Port Huntlady. It may well be that there is a place to which Port Huntlady stands as a lie stands to the truth.” Indeed, as she relates the story of Port Huntlady and its odd inhabitants, she also reflects on the act of storytelling as a futile attempt to create something that matches reality, that storytelling is both limited and infinite in its possibilities: 

a story may go on indefinitely unless there is perfect understanding at the start of the limitations that keep a story from being anything but a story.

I once compared reading Riding to looking at a Magic Eye picture, where you can feel your visual perception of the image switching back and forth between what seems like noise and then, a moment later, becomes coherent. It’s both disorienting and, in a way, almost thrilling. I’m not sure she actually pulled off the reinvention of fiction she seems to have been attempting, though. If I had to choose among Moebius strip-like metafictions, I’d probably go with ‘Matty the Goat’ instead.

Included in Progress of Stories, Constable & Co., 1935