This is the title story of Mark Haddon’s 2016 collection, published by Vintage. It’s the one that has stayed with me since I read the book. It’s vivid with life (and death) and telling details. You can see it all happening as you read. As with any horrific event you witness, time seems to stretch and what you see etches itself on your retina, drills into your brain and replays itself over and over. It’s a story that’s definitely pertinent to the summer, and even to reading on the beach, but it may well make you cautious about stepping foot on a pier. And however warm the day, you will definitely shiver.
First published in The New Statesman in 2014 and available to read online here. Collected in The Pier Falls, Jonathan Cape, 2015 and The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, ed. Philip Hensher, Allen Lane, 2018. Selected by Cath Barton, whose prize-winning novella The Plankton Collector is published by New Welsh Rarebyte. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in September 2020, and her short story collection, The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Retreat West Books in early 2021. You can read her full Personal Anthology here.
Paul McVeigh’s novel The Good Son (2015) conveyed to me more of the atmosphere of the Troubles in Northern Ireland than any number of factual accounts. Its hero, young Mickey Donnelly, was introduced to readers some fifteen years earlier in this short story. Mickey’s voice and his feistiness are there, loud and clear, and McVeigh is already showing his ability to navigate the geography of both the Ardoyne and the human heart with great precision. Remarkably, he says this was his first attempt at prose, never mind a short story!
First published in the anthology New Century, New Writing, ed by P-P Hartnett, Millivres Press, 2000, and available to read online here. Chosen by Cath Barton: read Cath’s Personal Anthology here
As a student of French, way back, I was taught that Maupassant (together with Prosper Mérimée) was a master of the short story. He published about 300 of them. I don’t remember how many I actually read, but I’ve never forgotten the vivid central image in this one, of the fisherman whose arm is cut off to save the catch. It’s firmly in the nineteenth century French realist tradition that Maupassant learned from Flaubert (Madame Bovary etc), and that encompasses all those gritty urban stories by Zola. Maupassant’s first love was the sea rather than the city, but he made as strong a social comment about the inhumane priorities of the fishing bosses in a short story as Flaubert did about the bourgoisie and Zola the factory and mine-owners in their novels.
(First published in 1888. You can read it in English here)
I still have the red leather bound edition of The Jungle Book from which my father read to me and my brother when we were children. His reading to me kindled my love of stories, short and long. My memories are about comfort and excitement in equal measure. There was something so exotic about the names of Rikki-tikki-tavi the mongoose and Nag and Nagaina the cobras, killed by Rikki-tikki to protect his young master, Teddy. But we were cosy and cosseted by the fire; there were no snakes in the English Midlands. Reading the story now, so many years on, I’m struck by Kipling’s descriptive powers “… a noise as faint as that of a wasp walking on a window-pane – the dry scratch of a snake’s scales on brick-work.” And my heart weeps afresh for Chuchundra, the sad little musk-rat who “whimpers and cheeps all the night, trying to make up his mind to run into the middle of the room. But he never gets there.”
(From The Jungle Book, Macmillan,1894. You can read it, with the original illustrations by W. H. Drake, here)
This is the story I always quote if I want to give an example of a story with a sting in the tail. Somerset Maugham is an old-fashioned storyteller, spinning out the story of a self-important woman who flatters and then mercilessly takes advantage of a young writer living in Paris. Her recurring refrain that she never has more than one thing for luncheon couldn’t be further from the truth, as she feasts on out-of-season salmon, oysters and asparagus and drinks champagne. In a few pages Maugham creates two utterly believable characters, and draws deftly the arrogance of the woman and the vulnerability of the young narrator as he sees her eating and drinking her way through the money that was supposed to last him for the rest of the month. She goes off laughing, but it is he, eventually, who has the last laugh. It’s a gem.
(Originally published in Nash’s Magazine, London, in 1924 and available alongside with other of Maugham’s works in modern editions from Penguin)
Dylan Thomas developed this story from a piece called Memories of Christmas which he wrote for broadcast in 1945. I read it every Christmas, preferably out-loud and, if I get a chance, at least part of it to an audience, though of course I can never equal Thomas’ own delivery. The anecdotes are charming and the language and images incomparable. For example, while the boys are waiting to snowball cats in Mrs Prothero’s garden, a fire breaks out in her house and they run down the garden with snowballs in their arms – “and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining room, and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii.”
(First published in 1950, and now in the author’s Collected Stories by Orion Books. The author himself reads the story here)
I came across this story by chance and loved it for its vibrancy and dark comedy. I didn’t remember the name of the writer (sorry, Fran Landsman!), but I did vividly recall the picture of life and death in an old-fashioned hairdressing salon, with its “pink-domed Bakelite hair dryers” and a bored work-experience girl who “dreams of a future in the centre of Bath where she can ask clients if they’re going anywhere special, and they’ll say yes.” Finding it again I wasn’t surprised to read that Landsman is also an award-winning documentary film maker. And that she is interested in writing about the extraordinary qualities of ordinary people. That very much appeals to me.
(Published in The Bridport Prize 2008 anthology, available as an e-book here)
Thanks to the joint vision of the Scottish writers Kirsty Logan and Helen Sedgwick, Fractured West was born to join the twelve billion other literary magazines in the world in 2010 and its star shone brightly in the literary firmament for five beautiful issues. This story from Issue 1 is a perfect miniature and I have never forgotten the pistachio-green fridge. I was absolutely delighted to find that Juana Adcock had posted it on her website so that you can still read it, even though Fractured West is no more. It has an ineffable sadness.
(Published in Fractured West, Issue 1, 2010. You can read it here.)
‘Wires’ was the runner-up in the BBC Short Story Competition in 2011. In my opinion it should have won. Listening to it on the radio I was so struck by the opening image of the sugar beet heading straight for the narrator’s car windscreen. McGregor ratchets up the tension through the story as, apparently safe after the sugar beet does not cause her to crash, the narrator gradually realises the greater threat now facing her from her so-say helpers. And, woven through skilfully, all the thoughts that go through her head about what she should be doing and plans to do afterwards. I think a lot of the power of McGregor’s writing comes from its rhythm and cadences, and also connection with specific locations, which makes it zing off the page. There are links to some of the other stories from his collection on his website.
(In This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, Bloomsbury, 2012)
When I heard, only a year or so ago, that Saunders was a master of the short story, indeed acclaimed in the USA as the best, I immediately went out and bought Tenth of December. I found his bizarre stories were unlike any I’d read before. Semplica Girls are the ultimate status symbol – girls from third-world countries paid to ‘decorate’ the lawns of wealthy Americans. They are strung up on microlines that run through their brains and in their flowing white gowns are a kind of human washing line. Supposedly this does not hurt them. Of course things go wrong. Told in diary form, this story explodes the hollowness of the American dream, well and truly.
(First published in The New Yorker, 2012, and subsequently in his collection Tenth of December)
This story has stayed with me because it is all about possibility. As it says in its last line, “…stories can have any ending you like.” Tiger Palace is a re-imagining of the Beauty and the Beast fairy story. A beautiful but cruel empress lives in a palace in the middle of an impenetrable forest populated by man-eating tigers, waiting for the arrival of a man who will free her. But what if the traveller who arrives is not a man, but a woman, and what if they might both become beasts? What if…? In this, as in her other alternative fairytales, Logan explores different ways of living for all of us, whatever our gender or sexuality. Her stories are about cycles of life and second chances. Rich stories, to give us hope.
(First published in Diva and included in The Rental Heart, published by Salt, 2014)
I first came across this story in Parthian’s Rarebit: New Welsh Fiction, where it was for me one of the stand-out stories of the anthology. It is a beautifully constructed tale of the briefly intersecting lives of people at a music festival on the Isle of Wight. The passage across the water is significant in the story in more ways than one. In this as in other stories in her collection Ashfeldt examines the ways in which water and particularly the sea, and its power, has such a dramatic and often tragic impact on human life. But life goes on and sometimes people are, remarkably, re-energised by things they have to endure. I find Ashfeldt a compelling storyteller.
(In SaltWater, Liberties Press, 2014 and available to read on her website)
This strange and lovely story came my way through Galley Beggars’ now sadly defunct Singles Club, which they set up on a subscription basis, bringing readers a new short story in e-book form every month. What a brilliant thing that was! In this story a boy named Samuel, whose father has perhaps died, narrates a journey which he takes to London on a hot summer’s day with his mother. She does not tell him precisely where they are going or why. When they get there and meet the mysterious cruellne, her conversation with it calms Samuel’s mother in some ineffable way. And Samuel himself finds he can now let go of something. If I had to chose just one story out of my twelve it would be this one, though its grip on me is, like the cruellne itself, inexplicable.
(Published by Galley Beggar Press, 2014 and available to buy here)
I came across Joanna Walsh’s stories for the first time only a few months ago. They’re experimental, not ‘easy’ and on a first reading I found many of them sterile, lacking the emotion which I crave in a story. But what I discovered was that they went on to snag at my mind in a disquieting ways until undercurrents of emotion rose to the surface. In ‘Two’, the narrator has “two polished and uncomplaining companions”. One holds the other by the hand. Though clearly inanimate, they play a very important part in the narrator’s life, though not in a straightforward or comfortable way. In this as in another story I might have chosen from this collection, Travelling Light, love co-exists with anxiety. So it is in life. For me reading (and writing) stories is a way of making sense of a world which, let’s face it, is nigh-on incomprehensible these days to many of us.
(In Worlds from the Word’s End, published by And Other Stories, 2017)