Introduction: Stories to hide in

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!

‘Snow’ by Tove Jansson, translated by Kingsley Hart

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 JanssonSort Of Books 2006

‘The Shieling’ by David Constantine

“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

‘A Guest’ by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky

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

‘Magic for Beginners’ by Kelly Link

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

‘The Gale’ by Bruno Schulz, translated by Celina Wieniewska

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) 

‘In Zero Gravity’ by Michelle Green

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