‘At Sea’ by Guy de Maupassant

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)

‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’ by Rudyard Kipling

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)

‘The Luncheon’ by W. Somerset Maugham

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)

‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ by Dylan Thomas

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)

‘Curl Up and Dye’ by Fran Landsman

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)

‘Ernesto’ by Juana Adcock

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’ by Jon McGregor

‘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)