I love dens. When the world feels too much there’s great comfort in the idea of making a place to hide – a smaller world within the world. In the woods I’m pretty handy with fallen branches, and I make excellent indoor blanket and under-table dens, but sometimes when anxiety hits even imagining a den is beyond me and I have to exist in a bookless, wordless hole. I know I’m beginning the climb out when I can read again and start putting myself back together with words.
Short stories make perfect dens. Some of the stories below feature worlds within worlds, some seed the idea of a world within me when I read them, some are stories I get lost in, many are fictions about fiction. All are stories that when I read them create an imaginary space about me with walls that are still standing for me to return to long after I put the book down.
Happy den-building, everyone!
A young girl and her mother are staying in a big empty house in the country so the mother can work on her illustrations. Snow falls and falls outside until there is only an underwater light filtering through the blanketed windows. The girl tells us, “Then we began our underground life. We walked around in our nighties and did nothing. Mummy didn’t draw. We were bears with pine needles in our stomachs and anyone who dared come near our winter lair was torn to pieces. We were lavish with the wood, and threw log after log onto the fire until it roared.” When the scraping of shovels comes, we feel as angry as the girl at being torn from this subterranean life.
First published in Bildhuggarens dotter, 1968, a childhood memoir, which was translated as Sculptor’s Daughter in 1969. Collected in A Winter Book: Selected Stories by Tove Jansson, Sort Of Books 2006
“They invented a place” is my favourite opening sentence to a story. Constantine’s ill-fated couple create a shared imaginary space to visit alone when they can’t be together. Their shieling is high up a valley. Sparsely furnishing it, they take time to clearly imagine concrete details for every necessary thing, revelling in their shared invention. They keep a small library and have a rule that when one book is added another must be taken away. They leave each other notes and make small improvements. Their delight in imagining this place makes it so real that the discovery of the ruins of a shieling in the real world holds unspeakable sadness.
First published in The Liberal, issue 9 and available online to subscribers. Collected in The Shieling, Comma Press, 2009
This story isn’t just about a fictional book (which would be thrilling enough) but a fictional book on tape and the voice that detaches from it to haunt the narrator. It also involves a mysterious neighbour who may be called Z, an anxious friend with a typewriter, and the occasional disintegration of language. I love the narrator’s summation of novels and short texts and recognise in it the bloody mindedness that keeps bringing me back to short stories:
How nice it would have been if the voice hadn’t belonged to a novel. I couldn’t understand why it had picked something so boring to attach itself to. Perhaps the voice found it satisfying not to have to live in a short text. Most readers don’t like to read short texts because they have so little time. They would rather go for a walk in a long novel and not have to change. The short texts would go for a walk inside their bodies, which they would find exhausting.
Published in Where Europe Begins, New Directions 2007
The Library is the best TV show ever. I feel like I’ve been watching it for years, ever since I first came across this labyrinthine story within a story. The Library could appear on any channel at any time, with its rotating band of actors who take turns to play the characters. In The Free People’s World-Tree Library, librarians battle forbidden books and pirate magicians. There is an Angela Carter Memorial Park on the seventeenth floor and an enchanted underground sea on the third floor. We join a group of obsessive teenage fans who watch out for and dissect each new episode of a programme which has “no regular schedule, no credits, and sometimes not even dialogue. One episode of the library takes place inside the top drawer of a card catalogue, in pitch dark, and it’s all in Morse code with subtitles. Nothing else.” It doesn’t need anything else. It will always be the best TV show ever whether it exists or not.
First published in Magic for Beginners, Small Beer Press, 2005/Harper Perennial 2009. Also available in Pretty Monsters, Viking 2008/Canongate 2009. Available to read online here
Schulz’s prose is alive. There’s a winter storm at the heart of this story, and in the attics, the narrator tells us, darkness degenerates and ferments wildly. The young man and his family take shelter in their home as the wind builds labyrinthine spirals outside:
From that maze it shot out along galleries of rooms, raced amid claps of thunder through long corridors and then allowed all those imaginary structures to collapse, spreading out and rising into the formless atmosphere.
The storm rages outside and in the sanctuary of the kitchen, the maid pounds cinnamon in a mortar, a furious aunt shrinks until she disintegrates and his mother’s everyday conversation carries on.
(First published in Sklepy Cynamonowe, 1934, translated as The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, Walker,1963, and subsequently by Penguin, 1977/Penguin Classics, 2008)
The narrator tells us:
There was a whole solar system planted across Zagreb, models of each planet, and nobody knew. An artist had installed them a few years back, like some kind of secret mission, a quiet communication with the famous bronze sun that all knew so well.
We join the narrator’s tram journey, and a story of waiting and longing unfurls with the passing streets as she moves towards the far reaches of the city, to where Pluto is hidden. The story becomes a quiet communication between a couple, the city where they met, a distant war zone and hope.
First published on the LitNav app. Collected in Jebel Marrra, Comma Press 2015
This story centres around a shabby Manchester bookshop and two characters who become obsessed with a place that may or may not exist. Once you’ve read about Egnaro it’s easy to believe you might come across a clue to its existence in a crossword in an old magazine at the dentist’s, or half-catch a mention of it in an otherwise dull interview on daytime TV. “It is in the conversations not your own (so I learnt from Lucas) that you first hear of Egnaro. Egnaro reveals itself in minutiae, in that great and very real part of our lives when we are doing nothing important.” If you read the story you’ll always be looking for it too.
First published in Winter’s Tales #27, 1981. Collected in The Ice Monkey, Gollancz, 1983, and Things That Never Happened, Gollancz 2003
It begins with the chink of a pumice stone against flesh in the bath, followed by the discovery of glassy dust in her underwear.
One day she found a cluster of greenish-white crystals sprouting in her armpit. These she tried to prise away and failed. They were attached deep within; they could be felt to be stirring stony roots under the skin surface, pulling the muscles. Jagged flakes of silica and nodes of basalt pushed her breasts upward and flourished under the fall of flesh making her clothes crackle and rustle.
The protagonist’s initial horror gives way to a curious delight, and as her thoughts slow to stone speed and she becomes less mobile, she longs to find a place to stand outside in the weather.
Collected in Little Black Book of Stories, Chatto & Windus 2003. Also available online here
The abandoned Bronx Zoo has been empty of animals since they were killed in the plagues, and now people have taken up residence in its many and varied enclosures. At first, there are squatters in the bear dens and young people splashing about in the otter pools, but soon newly feathered creatures and those with true or imaginary horns roam in tribes. This story takes us on a guided tour of some of the zoo’s new wonders, for example:
The Flatbush Entrance leads us into some of the most curious geological and libidinal areas of the park. Here the East River, always the scene of adventures and miracles, has forced a passage through the granite barrier of Greater Old Manhattan, creating a series of falls and revealing the grottoes of Grand Central Station.
Nothing in this zoo is what you’d expect, but it is teeming with life.
Collected in The Time Out Book of New York Stories, Penguin, 1997 and The Complete Butcher’s Tales, Dalkey Archive, 2000. Also available online here
Your bookself is a being who thrives on all the unread books that you pile up in corners, everything you’ve neglected, not got round to yet, or discarded. The narrator tells us, “It has been through the charity bag. It has scraped every word from torn and mouldering volumes streaked with tea and bacon fat at the bottom of the dustbin.” I have so many unread books. I keep buying more. This story makes me feel better about it. It also makes me think people’s bookselves should get together at parties and events and readings to talk about books and all our unbookselves could stay at home and read.
First published in Narrative, 2014.Collected in Worlds from the Word’s End, And Other Stories, 2017
Carrington’s narrator has had enough of attending “cocktail-drinking, prize-giving-and-taking, artistic demonstrations and other casually hazardous gatherings organized for the purpose of people wasting other people’s time”. After various misadventures with cosmic wool, and her retirement from social face-eating competition, she ends up a saint, living on a traffic island. This story is darkly comic and completely bonkers in ways that mean it somehow ends up making sense.
First published – in French – as Une Chemise de nuit de flanelle, Parisot, 1951, translated by Ives Bonnefoy, then in The Seventh Horse and Other Tales, Dutton, 1988 and The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, Dorothy Project, 2017
A migrant family’s Christmas tree melts in the attic of their new suburban home. An accident while salvaging it leads to the discovery of an impossible outdoor room, which they come to call the inner courtyard.
They visited at least twice a week for picnics, bringing everything they needed through the attic and down a permanently installed ladder. They felt no need to question the logic of it, and simply accepted its presence gratefully.
Tan’s beautifully illustrated story carries the suggestion that every house might have an inner courtyard if you can just manage to find it.
Published in Tales from Outer Suburbia, Templar 2009