In my reading and writing of short fiction, I am probably most stimulated by the uncanny. Which is not to say that which is merely weird. A lot of art is weird, yet only some art is uncanny. What does it mean then, exactly, this word from the German unheimlich (unhomely, but not quite that either)? It’s notoriously hard to define, fleeting, fugitive. Freud, in his famous essay, ultimately resorted to describing it through a chain of examples, which reminds me of a hoary slogan to do with a genre of electronic music, appropriately named House, for the uncanny is bound with the domestic, but also notoriously hard to define: “House is a feeling”. The rapper Pusha T’s lyric “If you know, you know” also comes to mind. For the uncanny, although difficult to define, is unmistakeable in its effect.
The short story form is particularly suited to the uncanny, I think, because it is not an easy effect to sustain over a full book. In my own reading, only Kafka, in his novels, and Lewis Carroll (in Through the Looking Glass) manage to sustain the feeling at great length. It is more likely to happen in flashes, in window frames. And that is what short stories are. Flashes in window frames.
The stories in my personal anthology are loosely connected by uncanniness. In some of them, it runs right through. In others, it flickers here or there. I don’t think I’ve ever really felt a story that wasn’t at least a little bit troubling. I guess I find that – being troubled – is important.
The oddest thing to happen in my reading life occurred when I was thirteen. I remember it right down to the very evening. I was in my bedroom with Lord of the Rings, lost in it, evening air coming through the window open behind my head, as it was high summer. But suddenly I wasn’t quite lost in it. Something huge and narrowing happened to my imagination almost instantly. I could no longer get lost inside the book with the ease and joy I once did. I was on the outside looking in. The book became an artefact to observe, rather than a place to inhabit. It became shapes and shadows. Looking back now, I think I dissociated, pretty much permanently, and it took me years to get anywhere as close to that imaginative Eden.
However, there were momentary transportations back into that zone, whose unconditional welcome my imagination seemed to have permanently lost. These were provided by horror fiction, particularly work by two British writers, Clive Barker and my great obsession, my captain, Ramsey Campbell. Campbell’s short stories, set in strange oppressive suburban limbos, so accurately described that I felt his presence with me whenever I walked through liminal places like supermarket carparks at dusk, spoke to me like nothing else. I knew the alienation he got at. I still do. It is alienation in a minor key. A burbling weirdness out in the regions, away from all centres. The story I’ve selected, ‘The Other Side’, is vintage Campbell. A schoolteacher with a seething, alienated fear of the children he teaches, and a vision, through binoculars, of a clownish, capering figure, a mime, dancing in the ruins of a burned tenement on the other side of the river, where the children come from. The figure knows it is being watched, and the more it is watched, the more horrifyingly familiar it becomes.
First published in the World Fantasy Convention Programme, 1986. Collected in Waking Nightmares,1991, Tor Books and Alone with the Horrors, Arkham House, 1993
This story begins with the narrator describing his own violent death at the hands of his children. It is a marvellous, lurid, and almost beautiful scene, beautiful because of Hayden’s command of language, which is, by turns, precise and fluidly ambiguous. His is the language of a mind that loves poetry and contends with it daily. Allegory comes easy to Hayden, and ‘Leckerdam’ is a very representative story in that it contains many chambers of secret meaning to reward the repeat reader. In fact, the entire book that this story is taken from, Darker With The Lights On, is like a curiosity cabinet where every opened drawer contains an edible with a flavour all of its own. Some are less sweet than others. Some might even be poison.
First published in The Stinging Fly, June 2016. Collected in Darker with the Lights on, 2017, Little Island Press
This story, which uses language and imagery to become so much more than the sum of its plotted parts, defies synopsis, so let’s not even try. What I will say is that Thomas Ligotti’s imagination inhabits an extreme and terminal chamber of literary thought. When it comes to the human condition, he is not a capacious writer. You might even say he is one-note. But it is a true note sounded from the very edge of pessimism. In this story he uses language disruptively, defamiliarizing it. Through careful positioning, association, and repetition, the phrase ‘bungalow house’ becomes imbued with a dusty, entropic dread more cosmically threatening than Lovecraft’s roiling monsters. The glimmering dead vision that centres the story is sui generis, and I’ve been preoccupied with it for a long time.
A wonderful full reading of The Bungalow House is online here
In Theatro Grottesco, 2007, Mythos Books
Beckett’s handful of short stories are all masterpieces. ‘The End’ inhabits a universe like that of Malone Dies, which is to say it is futile and decrepit but also shot through with moments of flaring lyricism and colours that briefly bloom in grey. It is about a narrator discharged from an indeterminate institution of the psychiatric type, and his efforts to find his way through an uncanny psychogeographic landscape of rejection, exile, and nebulous memory. He’s forever looking for lodgings, forever moving from one place to the next, until he finds himself literally at sea. It is very sad, but there are some great jokes. There is a type of joke that Beckett excels at, where he builds an elaborate and often profound bait and destroys it with a brutal and obscene punchline, timed to perfection. I think the finest example of the form is in this story. It cracks me up. It goes as follows:.
The earth makes a sound as of sighs and the last drops fall from the emptied cloudless sky. A small boy, stretching out his hands and looking up at the blue sky, asked his mother how such a thing was possible. Fuck off, she said.
First published, in part, as ‘Suite’, in Temps Modernes, July 1946. First published in English in Merlin 3, 1954. Collected in Stories and Texts for Nothing, Grove Press, 1955. Currently available in various collections from Faber & Faber and Penguin, including as a £1 Penguin Modern, 2018
Chekhov writes about all life, but the two great forces pumping through his short stories are love and death. They often meet in the same story but there are stories that are primarily about one or the other. ‘Gusev’ is a death story. Its plot is ostensibly simple. A discharged soldier boards a ship, becomes sick, and dies. However, the texture Chekhov builds around this simple plot is symphonic. There are deep digressions on metaphor, the nature of boredom, the nature of play, human prejudice, and God knows what else. That’s all part and parcel of Chekhov, though. There is something else that makes ‘Gusev’ special to me. I guess Chekhov was in his late style when he wrote it and was pulling off different formal tricks in each story, the way Cezanne, say, does in every painting of his mature period. He pulls off this formal trick at the end, which stops me every time I read it. The character, whose mind the text inhabits, dies, but the text continues, as life does. The text pans out from the ship. We see the dead character, wrapped in cloth, slide overboard and drift slowly, weirdly, down through a mile of sea, as sharks and pilot fish nuzzle it. We then pan out further, and into the best ending of all the short stories I’ve read. We are left hovering somewhere between the sky and the sea, which are both huge, empty, persisting, and assuming “the sweet, joyous, passionate colours for which there are scarcely any names in the tongue of man.”
First published in the Christmas 1890 edition of the newspaper Novoye Vremya. First published in English in The Witch and Other Stories, translated by Constance Garnett, in 1918. Currently collected in Forty Stories, translated by Robert Payne, Penguin Random House, 1991 and About Love and Other Stories, translated by Rosamund Bartlett, Oxford World’s Classics, 2008. Read Garnett’s translation online here
Can something be two things at once? Can some piece of reality or, indeed, fiction exist simultaneously as two separate things? Flickering back and forth between one or the other, depending on the perceiving mind. Like Schrodinger’s cat, or quantum particles. It is a very psychedelic idea. Pond, the book that this story is taken from, is described alternately as a collection of short stories and a novel. That it is satisfactorily both, always, leads me to think that Bennett had both forms constantly, simultaneously, in mind when she constructed her book.
I am a poor reader of contemporary fiction*. So much so, that I don’t really know what is out there. But Pond made me sit up. It excited me and gave me ideas of my own. ‘The Big Day’ is my favourite of its stories. Like the others it is inhabited by this peculiar, absurdist female voice that exists in a strange landscape that manages to be unmoored yet filled with an abundance of detail. As with Beckett’s landscapes, it is hard to identify a real-life analogue despite its weird familiarity. It seems mostly formed by the language of a narrator gifted with a descriptive precision that recalls Marianne Moore coupled with a disruptive instinct to undermine that precision. If you’re into sentences, the final sentence of the story is one for the ages.
*I want to note here the work of the Northern Irish writer Wendy Erskine, in her collection Sweet Home, by Stinging Fly Press. It doesn’t quite fit the theme of this anthology, but it is remarkable. A British student of WG Sebald recently posted online some of the things Sebald instructed his students in a creative writing class in Anglia. One was to never lose sight of ‘place’ in your stories. Erskine’s stories introduce me to a world within a world, East Belfast. Her eye sees a lot, and is very aesthetic, but it doesn’t go so far as Christopher Isherwood’s detached ‘I am a camera’. It is more like Proust, who imbues everything with memory and feeling.
In Pond, Stinging Fly Press/Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015
I probably read more poetry than fiction these days but for the entirety of my twenties I read poetry very narrowly and sporadically. There were a small handful of poems, totems, that I’d return to in moments where I craved stillness of mind, contemplative space away from a gradually darkening cacophony of a social life centred on music and drenched in alcohol. Elizabeth Bishop was the poet I held in highest regard during that time. I knew ‘In the Waiting Room’ and parts of ‘The Moose’ well enough to recite. I had no conception of her as a prose writer back then. It was a thrill, therefore, to encounter this stunning story years later, when my life contained more prolonged periods of stillness. It’s about a man called Boomer who cleans a beach, keeping for himself any scrap of paper with writing on it (of which there seem to be millions, because the beach and Boomer’s house, are somewhat metaphysical, places of fable, a spinning, perhaps, from some other’s imagination). Boomer is drunk a lot of the time, especially when he is out collecting. The time he is not collecting, he spends reading the fragmented words of countless others, making his own patchwork sense from them. It’s the literary life cast in an ambiguous light because there is something confused and pathetic about Boomer. He’s a dwindled Don Quixote. The story, written in a beautiful elegiac tone, affects me on a very personal level. For some reason, it has made me cry.
First published in Life and Letters Today, Winter 1937. Collected in Prose, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011
This story is pure allegory, and universally applicable. The Masque of the Red Death is always occurring somewhere, because somewhere, always, there is an empire about to topple, dancing its final mad debauched dance in a vampiric centre, as turmoil and death crowds in from an exploited periphery. It’s happening now, out in the world. “Voluptuous” walled-in masquerades conducted by collective entities embodied by Poe’s dreadful Duke, whose “plans were bold and fiery”, whose “conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre”. But great walls, ditches and fences will not keep out the monstrous ghostly forces that such systems ultimately necessitate. And, as sure as sunset, one by one, the dancers will drop “in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel”. Poe’s allegory, however, will never die.
First published in Graham’s Magazine, 1842. Collected in Selected Tales, Oxford University Press, 2008, and available online here
I’ll defer to H.P. Lovecraft, archpriest of the peculiar, to grasp what it is that makes Algernon Blackwood, and particularly this story, so troubling. He writes “Of the quality of Mr. Blackwood’s genius there can be no dispute; for no one has even approached the skill, seriousness, and minute fidelity with which he records the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences.” The final part of that quote, “the strangeness in ordinary things and experiences” is as good and concise a definition of the unheimlich as I’ve read, and there is no doubt that The Willows, a slippery, psychologically kaleidoscopic story describing a voyage by raft, sails into territory that is pure unheimlich. The river Danube itself seems to come totemically alive. The trees that menace its banks take on an alien intelligence, and the narrator’s mind doubles. It is both inside the boat and outside it. The landscape that surrounds alternates dreadfully between two equally awful poles. It is alien, intelligent and malign or a projection of the narrator’s mind, a madness. I think of Edvard Munch’s paintings, where the expression of interior states in exterior landscape reaches a lurid and panicky peak. As Pusha T had it earlier, when you know you know.
A super audiobook of this story (which is no longer in copyright) is available here.
First published in The Listener and Other Stories, 1907. Collected in Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories, Penguin, 2002
I sometimes think ‘A Country Doctor’ is my favourite piece of short fiction. I will never get to the bottom of it. Walter Benjamin had it that every line in Kafka is allegory. Which is to say that every phrase, every image, withstands thousands of readings. And the closer I look at this story, the more its meanings split, double, triple, squirm in the mind like cells in mitosis. It begins with the stunning sentence (one I’ll admit I cribbed for a story of my own) “I was in great perplexity”, and goes on from there, rattling forward with the force of a cold and gnawing nightmare, filled with frustration, sickness, riddles, and hellish visions. There is a groom who bites a servant girl on the face. There is a worm-filled fatal wound that is simultaneously a precious flower. Indeed, many things described are other, often opposite things. The doctor becomes a patient. In a moment charged with mystic import, he is ritually stripped and laid down beside the florid wound of the boy whose life he fails to save. Meanwhile the villagers sing, “Only a doctor, only a doctor”. The story is flanked by two metaphysical creatures, two horses named “Brother” and “Sister” who teleport the doctor through time and space from one act of the story to the other. In both, he is rendered impotent by time. He is present at just the wrong moment. Those two horses grow in my mind the more I read this story that I will never figure out. Inscrutable dark creatures of great power, they are terrifyingly free of the binds of reality, of space, of time.
First published as ‘Der Landarzt’ in Der Landartz, 1919. First published in English in In the Penal Colony, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, Schocken, 1948. Now collected widely, including in The Complete Short Stories, Vintage, 1999
Everybody knows Nicholas Roeg’s film, but Du Maurier’s story has a creepy flavour all of its own. The unheimlichdoes not announce itself gradually, but rather leaps into view, like an adjustment of light. Everything changes, defamiliarizes just enough for the familiar to maintain a presence. Surely it is this doubling, between the familiar and the unfamiliar, that makes twins a potent and recurrent symbol in uncanny fiction. I say that, chuckling, as an identical twin myself. It’s elderly twins that discombobulate us at the very start of Du Maurier’s tale. The blind psychic and her sister are first introduced in speech, in a playful conversation between the central characters, John and Laura, a couple who are temporarily (from John’s perspective at least) escaping the grief of a young daughter’s death. As soon as the twins are introduced, a sickly change of light is cast over the story. Du Maurier maintains it to the end, that unsettling vision of the future, the three women standing like sentries in a vaporetto boat.
First published in Not After Midnight, Gollancz, 1971. Now available in Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2006
I believe that Tao Lin is sometimes misread and held up as an example of that which he interrogates in his fiction. What is true of the zeitgeisty US author who preceded him and to whom Lin is sometimes compared – Brett Easton Ellis – is not true of Lin. Both seem to be considered by some as arch ironists, operating in a zone outside of political conviction. But Lin sees the inside and outside of a mode that Ellis operates entirely within. Lin, I think is deeply moral, deeply political. For example, he seems to have spent the last five or six years quietly, and sincerely, plotting a way to escape the frightening merry-go-round of hyper capitalism. His next novel will be called Leave Society.
This story, collected in the most recent Granta book of US short stories, describes a couple, Garret and Kristy, living in an allegorical version of the United States. They are well intentioned. They are would-be activists. They go to anti-war meetings. They are vaguely aware that something is deeply wrong in the world that time has forced them to inhabit, and that they are not getting the full picture. Both react to it in different ways but it is clear from Lin’s narrative, that the author knows something is not right in the west. From the get-go there is miasmic talk of terrorists, but terrorists never appear. They grow as fictive spectres in the text. The ideas around them become increasingly paranoid. Are they burrowing under houses? Do they live inside walls? Reading it, I recollect Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’, and I think, well, it’s good that Lin is out there, somehow getting this vibe down on paper, holding a mirror up to his time.
Collected in New American Stories, Granta, 2015. Available to read online on Lin’s website here