If I’d put this collection together a few years ago, I’d probably have included my favourite short stories or the ‘best’ I’d encountered, but such ideas seem increasingly redundant as you get older. The choices below are not necessarily the finest of each writer. They are, largely, not the kind of short story that is like a perfect self-contained little Fabergé egg, gold-plated and meticulously clockwork. Some of them are barely stories at all. They interest me because of their peculiarity or because they tell us something about a particular aspect of writing or they offer a path less trodden. I hope you find something worthwhile in them.
We begin with a mystery. In the autumn of 1849, having disappeared for a week, Edgar Allan Poe was discovered in a disturbed state at Ryan’s Tavern in Baltimore. He was wearing worn-out ill-fitting clothes that seemed to belong to someone else. He couldn’t account for his whereabouts or what had happened to him and raved incoherently, shouting out for someone called ‘Reynolds’. He was taken off to hospital but died shortly thereafter. The enigma of Poe’s last days and demise has never been solved.
It is believed that ‘The Light-House’ was the last thing Poe ever wrote. It is like a key to a lock that will never be found. Outside of the context of his last days, it would seem a minor work – incomplete and promising more than it delivers. Yet, given the nature of his end, there is something most intriguing and eerie about it. A chill wind blows through those diary entries.
My grandfather was a trawlerman. When I was a boy, I used to be desperate to hear his tales of the sea and, as fascinating as they were, they were always unromantic and even terrible at times because it was a place not of adventure for him but survival. He was risking his life to earn a living for his family while I was this bookish little kid with my head filled with voyages and strange creatures and mysterious islands. I still have that attraction alongside the knowledge that it is partly mythic. In a way ‘The Light-House’ embodies that. It’s an unresolved fragment of a dream or a nightmare, the kind of story you read at night, with rain lashing your window, and you realise how lucky you are not to be out there where the land ends.
First published in The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1909. Available to read here
As staggering as Ulysses is, for me, this is Joyce’s masterpiece. The reason I include Dubliners is that it seems to age as you do. Somehow it’s not the same book I read as a teenager. Each time I return to it, a different story will come to the fore, resonating with whatever I’ve been going through. I feel like, at different times, I have been some of these characters, which is not very edifying. It’s quite a haunting experience at times but I keep coming back because it’s as brutally honest and unforgiving as a mirror.
In recent years, I’ve been really blown away by Wendy Erskine’s short stories. She’s a very different writer to Joyce (her writing is hilarious for one thing) but they share a number of traits – she has an incredible ear for language and eye for revelatory details, what would be called epiphanies I guess in Joyce’s case, and an unsentimental quality, which I think is quite radical these days. I spend a lot of time reading writers like Borges and Calvino, getting lost in labyrinths and bestiaries or whatever, and sometimes it’s cleansing to return to a world, exposed with all its flaws, that is so vividly recognisable and inhabitable. Dubliners is over a hundred years old but it’s as relevant today or tomorrow as it was then. Sometimes there is a great kindness in looking in an unflinching way at how life is actually lived, and Dubliners does that from a multitude of angles. As with Erskine’s work, there is a very distinct vernacular but also an acute awareness of the frailties, contradictions and complexities of human beings that will always be prescient.
First published by Grant Richards, 1914. Available in multiple print editions, also to read online at Project Gutenberg here
There are some stories that feel almost like a wounding. Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’ was one for me, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s ‘Hell Screen’ is another. I can’t think of many stories that left me feeling as burned as ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’. It’s a complicated story but in one sense, it’s a warning about utilitarianism, the suffering borne by others and complicity therein. Growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, it took me a while to realise that great evil almost always emerges from and is enabled by a process of abstraction. Murder becomes just a statistic read out on the evening news like the football results; an act that aids the murderers and erases the victims and their families. It’s much more difficult for ideologues to justify the unjustifiable when the actualities of what they did is revealed. I have a chapter in my recent memoir Inventory (Chatto & Windus / FSG) that recounts a number of killings during the conflict not in abstracted terms but according to specifics. So instead of ‘a Catholic or Protestant was shot today’, we are told the reality of, say, “a family were sitting watching Coronation Street on the television with their dinners on their laps and a trembling teenage stranger walked into their house and shot the father in the face.” Though Le Guin’s speculative fiction is a different world to mine, she was immensely influential for me, especially with this story. She tells us, ‘Do not allow yourself to look away. This is the cost. Are you prepared for someone else to carry that? And if you are, what does that make you?’
First published in New Directions 3, Nelson Doubleday/SFBC, 1973, and collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Harper & Row, 1975. Also available in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters and The Compass Rose, Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2015
I read this story many years ago and the setting has always stayed with me. There’s a part of my mind where it is always raining heavily and those people are still huddling under the ruined gate. That’s partly down to Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic masterpiece of the same name, which is based on this and another of Akutagawa’s short stories ‘In A Bamboo Grove’. Returning to the original, I’m surprised by the economy of his writing. He conjures up that entire apocalyptic world in only a few words and yet it is incredibly atmospheric and enveloping (a quality that was there in the novels and short stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, which first got me into books as a mesmerised child). He was a truly astonishing writer, able to move from the exquisite to the horrifying seamlessly. And though his work seems like fables or even legends at times, there are raw truths underpinning them, namely the world is always ending for someone somewhere and secondly very few of us get to retain our innocence when things fall apart.
First published in Teikoku Bungaku, 1915. Currently collected in Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Tales, Penguin Classics, 2006
A great movie could be made of Bierce’s life – born in a log cabin, fought bravely for the Union Army in the American Civil War where he was badly wounded, became a notorious journalist who battled corruption and gained a reputation as a ruthless satirist (‘Bitter Bierce’ was his nickname), suffered family tragedy and ended his days with the words “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination” before disappearing over the border and into the chaos of the Mexican Revolution, never to be heard from again. Along the way, he managed to create one of the most innovative bodies of work. Yet he remains a curiously overlooked figure. Part of the problem is that the plot twists and turns that he pioneered, the end of ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ for example or the multiplicity of views in ‘The Moonlit Road’ (which inspired Akutagawa’s ‘In a Bamboo Grove’), are now so ubiquitous in books, films and games, that they seem like they’ve always been with us.
Over the past few years, I’ve been taking long walks around different neglected parts of London. Often I’ll take photographs, write notes and record the sounds of the places but other times, I’ll find myself trudging through endless suburban streets to get to somewhere remote. So I started listening, along the way to pass the time, to podcasts about books, particularly Sherds Podcast and the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, and I found myself being further and further drawn into what I guess is called Weird Fiction and a childhood fascination with creepy Victorian stories became reanimated in me. For a year or two, I immersed myself in M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, H.P. Lovecraft, The King in Yellow, The Turn of the Screw, The Yellow Wallpaper and so on. It’s a deep dark rabbit hole you can easily lose yourself in. There’s been a real revival of interest in these circles and their origins but even now Bierce is overlooked as a crucial forefather and a link between ancient myths, the dark side of the Romantics, orientalism and medievalism, and modernity. I suspect because of the things he saw growing up and especially while fighting in the Civil War, Bierce could not adequately settle in a world of sanitised lies and so he acts like a kind of psychopomp in his short fiction, taking us to places beyond the comforts of Reason.
First published in the San Francisco Newsletter, 1886, and collected in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, ELG Steele, 1891
If you haven’t read Berg, you should try it. Quin is often touted as an experimental writer, which speaks for the conservatism of much of publishing. Certainly, there is a startling quality to her work but it’s experimental in the way that life, and especially childhood, is experimental. I love the way she builds this story, assembles it piece by piece, like we are there, touching the things she describes. It’s such a physical experience. In a lot of writing, you can forget that the characters have bodies. Maybe we even do that with ourselves, as if we are avatars or just floating perspectives. At the same time, anxiety and uncertainty perpetuate the tale, so that all those solid things we have touched are not solid at all but are capable of shifting. I’m not sure how successful I was in Inventory, which is a book based on objects, but I wanted to examine that tension between the tangible and intangible that Quin does so well, and particularly the idea of entering a world already populated by others and trying/failing to make sense of it. I feel drawn to Quin, maybe because of overlaps in background (Catholic, working class etc), but she is always off in the distance.
First published in Nova, 1966. Collected in The Unmapped Country, And Other Stories, 2018. Available to read at Music and Literature, here
I kept finding myself falling into ruts with music and starting to become nostalgic so this year I’ve tried every morning to find something brand new to listen to. I’ve collected these in a long playlist for those who are interested. The process has restored not just my curiosity but a passion for music that was probably waning since I was a teenager. It’s quite a welcome surprise to still be able to be surprised.
Reading Can Xue, I have a similar feeling. Initially, I was drawn to her because of her background; her parents were persecuted by the Communist party in China during the Cultural Revolution (a lot of my favourite writers come from societies that have suffered through conflict, division and tyranny, Han Kang for instance, and I’m interested in how those experiences resonate with and differ from the experiences of people I grew up with). It was only this year that I fully realised the extent of her brilliance (and the brilliance of other sharp imaginative writers like Lesley Nneka Arimah and Camilla Grudova). My father died of Covid-19 after a brutal six month battle with the illness on a ventilator in ICU. Spending the last few nights of his life with him, I found there was no rational way of recording what was happening given how surreal yet hyperreal it was. All logical attempts were completely inadequate. It was hallucinatory, and trying to frame it in any kind of structure, with any trite kind of lesson, would betray the depths of what he, and we, went through. Can Xue knows that there are realities below our reality, the world of health and sanity and safety, and reminds us that the ice might be thinner than we think.
First published in translation in Vertical Motion, Open Letter Books, 2011. Available to read at Belletristra, here
It is wise not to have heroes but there are certain writers, for all their human flaws, whose integrity seems heroic – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Nawal El Saadawi, Osip Mandelstam, Albert Camus, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Roberto Saviano, Nurmuhemmet Yasin, and so many of the current imprisoned dissident writers highlighted by PEN International who need our advocacy. Though he would have rejected piety, Primo Levi has such an immense moral presence, even the way he wrote had an ethical basis in clarity and honesty. I could pick any number of his short stories – ‘Rappoport’s Testament’ for its reflexivity, ‘Lorenzo’s Return’ for its melancholy, ‘Carbon’ for being such a perfect encapsulation of scientific wonder but ‘Small Causes’ is an incredibly powerful example of how the littlest things can eventually have the most monumental consequences.
First published in Vanity Fair, January 1986, and available to read here. Collected in Moments of Reprieve, 1986
From the noble to the ignoble. I’ve chosen this not for its intriguing title or for its moving ending (even for a Salinger agnostic like myself) but because in order to access this story, you have to travel to Princeton University Library where you can only read it supervised after checking in behind closed doors. There’s something that interests me in things we cannot easily have and the attraction of the forbidden or just being tantalised but also how it’s essentially an illusory feeling. Anyways, for those of you who still like vaguely illicit things, someone posted a link to it here that I couldn’t possibly recommend clicking on.
I’m cheating somewhat with this choice as it’s primarily nonfiction but it does contain a great deal of folklore and each island is written about in the form of an essayistic short story. I’ve returned to this collection over and over during these years of lockdowns, travel restrictions and uncannily empty streets in order to have some kind of astral projection out of London. They are intimate and expansive, reminiscent to a degree of Herman Melville’s short sketches ‘The Encantadas or the Enchanted Islands’, which are rarely mentioned now but also worth a visit.
First published by Mare Verlag, 2009
The Pillow Book is a fine example of literature as a form of time travel and clairvoyance. There is over one thousand years between its writing and now, and yet the way that it is written is as intimate and immediate as a whisper. It was created by a lady of the court and was never intended to be published. It contains elegiac passages on fireflies, cherry blossoms, blue horses and the passage of boats along rivers. What fascinates are the personal touches that render Sei Shōnagon so lifelike and her world so three dimensional – there are lists of things that depress her, things that make her heart beat faster or arouse thoughts of the past. She writes of dogs and cats in the palace, the clothes people wear, people who are a laughing stock, and others who have amazing memories. She speaks of shame, envy and awkwardness, storms and moonlit nights. She writes “I am the sort of person who approves of what others abhor and detests the things they like.” She writes in this particular fragment that she regrets the book was ever found and that “It is getting so dark that I can scarcely go on writing; and my brush is all worn out” as if she were finishing just now and not a millennia ago.
First published in the year 1002
It is very rare that you encounter a story that is both anchor and lighthouse but I find both in Holmes. I adore the Sherlock Holmes stories even though I am from a different world. As long as the enigmatic and the idiosyncratic exist, Holmes will be alive and relevant. It is a radical and very uncontemporary position to be uncertain but thank god writers venture into these places. Conan Doyle has a lot to teach us.
First published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, 1887