Introduction

While much has been written about the short story (though far less than about its show-off younger sibling, the novel) – and this fine series marks an excellent addition to that literature – what many have so far missed is a genuine guiding principle as to the form’s genius. I hope, reader, that you may find one in this list of humble recommendations, which, I trust, will go on to form the basis of a great canon.

‘The Signalman’ by Charles Dickens

Void of Dickens’s occasional lapses into sentimentality, this perfectly-structured piece is filled with other stories: the twisted nature of time, the uncanny effects of telegraphy, the hints of mental illness, the dissipation of a fixed narrative viewpoint, and spectrality and hauntology in all their forms run through it.

First published in All The Year Round, 1866. Read it online here

‘The Adventure of a Traveler’ by Italo Calvino, trans. William Weaver

Federico, who lives in the north of Italy, makes occasional long-distance train journeys to visit his lover Cinzia, who lives in Rome. He travels by night as it’s cheaper, and he is almost always guaranteed an entire compartment to himself. Each time, he undresses carefully and allows himself the pleasure of the enclosed space and precisely-allotted timespan to anticipate his arrival in Rome.  But this night, his solitude is interrupted.

First published in English in Difficult Loves, 1983

‘A Second Story’ by Georgi Gospodinov, trans. Alexis Levitin and Magdalena Levy

This story, for me, shows the value of the anecdote, a tittle-tattle tale overheard, misremembered or stolen, then worked into genius. The anecdote is one of the sources from which short stories derive their wonderful disreputableness. As we know, the greatest short stories have been written by women in faded print dresses drinking neat gin from chipped teacups, and by men possessing little more than a shabby overcoat and a hangover. They are the best of us. Gospodinov tells us about history, translation, love, and memory in a couple of pages. On a train.

First published in And Other Stories, Northwestern Universit Press, 2007

‘The Magic of the Train’ by Lydia Davis

The USA is a country which has largely turned its back on the train as a form of transport, which perhaps accounts for the paucity of the train story (the apotheosis, after all, of the short form) in the North American tradition. Davis (the most reassuringly European of American writers) knows about trains, and the strange effect they have on time. This story is an Einsteinian thought experiment, rendered comprehensible.

First published in Can’t And Won’t, 2014. Read it online here

‘The Lake Shore Limited’ by KJ Orr

Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the chronotope (a knot of time and space which provides a fundamental building block of narrative representation) is one that hasn’t been nearly enough studied with relation to the short story. This is quite possibly because, disappointingly, Bakhtin himself completely ignores the form, and moreover, never hypothesizes a chronotope of the train. Such a chronotope is perfect for the idea of a private meeting space, a place for the telling of stories and sharing of secrets (and the not-telling of what is really important) while whizzing through time and space. But Bakhtin’s omission is no great loss, as Orr, with her customary skill and deftness, illustrates the principle perfectly.

First published in Light Box, Daunt Books, 2016

‘Alight At The Next’ by Eley Williams

Although this story has already been cited in this parish by the good Naomi Frisby (and isn’t actually my personal favourite in Williams’s justly-lauded collection – ‘Smote’ is as close to perfection as it gets), ‘Alight at the Next’ shows how a train, even the most squalid packed Tube carriage, and a short story can together stop time and open time up.  (This story also contains Williams’s wondrous recognition that her ‘spirit animal is probably a buttered roll.’)

In Attrib. and Other Stories, Influx Press, 2017. Read it online here

‘Hauptbahnhof’ by Joanna Walsh

John Berger has written that ‘Of all nineteenth-century buildings, the mainline railway station was the one in which the ancient sense of destiny was most fully re-inserted . . . in a railway station the impersonal and the intimate coexist. Destinies are played out.’ (I think Walter Benjamin has something to say about stations, too, but I can’t find the reference now – why did Benjamin have to write so bloody much? – and anyhow I’m sure you probably know it better than I do.)  Here, Walsh plays with the entirely reasonable idea of taking up residence in a railway station.

In Worlds From The Word’s End, And Other Stories, 2017

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ by Jorge Luis Borges, trans. Donald A. Yates

So as we draw into the terminus, arriving at the end of our allotted dozen, the reader may feel comforted by the appearance of such a familiar story (like a landmark that welcomes us home, much as a glimpse of the Etihad often tells me I am nearly back in Manchester Piccadilly), or delighted by the possibility of something as yet unknown (the thrill of arriving in a city we will now discover!). Much has been written about (and many inspired by) this story, and while yes of courseit is all about labyrinths, endless recursion, the infinite, books fake or otherwise, fate, destiny, and time, what many have missed is that this story in fact entirely hinges upon a train: the one in which Yu Tsun narrowly misses Captain Richard Madden on his way to his fateful encounter with Sinologist Stephen Albert. As Ricardo Piglia has noted in his Theses on the Short Story, ‘a short story always tells two stories’ and the ‘visible story hides a secret tale, narrated in an elliptical and fragmentary manner.’  The train, buried in the midst of this abyme, is surely the ‘secret truth’ and key to both the garden of forking paths, and ‘The Garden of Forking Paths.’  And, as I hope I have demonstrated by now, the short story as a whole.

First published in English in Fictions, 1962. Read it online here