‘Wooden Horse’ by John Grant

All of the stories here matter to me, but some of the authors are particularly important. I came across John Grant’s name in various ways: books on mythology in the school library, novelisations of the adventure gamebooks that I read as a teenager… As I read more of his work, though, I discovered what fantasy could do when it engaged with the nature of reality. I found that Grant was also a critic and reviewer (co-editor of the 1997 Encyclopedia of Fantasy) and his approach was key to my developing understanding of what I read. Ultimately these were my first steps on the journey to where I am now as a reader.

‘Wooden Horse’ is one of my favourite stories by Grant; I remember it fondly for the way it turns, and brings together disparate aspects of the author’s work. It’s narrated by a film critic who tells how he gained a love of the cinema while watching old war movies at a run-down theatre as a student. He loved them so much, he started to feel that the world of those movies was more real than the one he lived in… and, as I hope you’ll be intrigued to read the story, I should probably leave it there.

(Read and first published in The Third Alternative #32, Autumn 2002. Available in the collection Take No Prisoners (Willowgate Press, 2004), and to read online here)

‘Address Unknown’ by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor

I must acknowledge that I’m not terribly well read in older fiction, so I often end up plugging holes in my reading history at random. This was one of them: an epistolary tale I knew nothing about, but which I found very powerful. Max, a Jewish American gallery owner, and his friend and business partner Martin correspond after the latter has returned to his native Germany in 1932. At first, Martin is uncertain what the future under Hitler will bring, but his attitude soon hardens and he instructs Max to stop writing. We then see the friendship twist and strain, as Taylor brings together the personal and performative aspects of letter writing in a concise, taut dance.

(First published in Story magazine in 1938; read in the standalone Souvenir Press edition)

‘The Reality and the Record’ by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

Hassan Blasim is perhaps best known for winning the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with his collection The Iraqi Christ. I still have strong memories of The Madman of Freedom Square, Blasim’s first collection to appear in English; and of ‘The Reality and the Record’, the very first story of his that I read.

An introduction sets out that refugees arriving at reception centres have one story for the record (in order to gain asylum), and another for their private reality. Then we see this in action: an Iraqi refugee describes being kidnapped from his job as an ambulance driver and sold from group to group, placed in front of a camera and made to act as an Afghan fighter, a Spanish soldier, or whatever suits his captors. Role after role, story upon story… Blasim presents war as a maze of realities in which a person can so easily become lost.

(Read and first published in the collection The Madman of Freedom Square (Comma Press, 2009). Available to read online here)

‘The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’ by Leone Ross

Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press publishes uncanny, unsettling stories as individual chapbooks. They’re well worth checking out: I’ve been introduced to some wonderful writers through the Nightjar series, not least Leone Ross. In this particular tale, a woman sits at a table in a local restaurant and simply stays there. She is served meals, and washes in the restroom. Any member of staff who takes against her is promptly sacked. The maître d’ tells the story to one new recruit: the woman had fallen in love with the chef-proprietor; but he was already tied to his restaurant. And the restaurant would brook no rival for its owner’s affections.

Ross tells her story in the most delightfully measured prose, as carefully placed as the elements of a fine restaurant dish. That prose style creates its own world for the piece, so that everything within it seems quite logical and natural. By the end, I was reluctant to leave.

(First published as a Nightjar Press chapbook in 2015, which is how I read it. Available in the collection Come Let Us Sing Anyway (Peepal Tree Press, 2017), the anthology Best British Short Stories 2016 (Salt Publishing) and to read online here)

‘First Confession’ by Frank O’Connor

I first came across Frank O’Connor in an anthology of early 20th century short stories, then again in a miniature collection issued on the 50th anniversary of Penguin Modern Classics. I particularly enjoyed O’Connor’s voice and characterisation.

This story concerns seven-year-old Jackie, who is about to undergo first confession. He’s so afraid of the prospect that he feigned toothache to avoid going with his class – but is still instructed to go by himself on Saturday. His sister Nora accompanies him, goading him all the way there. But what Jackie finds in the confession box is something rather more pragmatic than he expected.

I find ‘First Confession’ a vivid slice-of-life tale. I love the thread of humour running through it (especially the passage where Jackie is trying to find how to sit in the confession box), and even O’Connor’s secondary characters are sharp in the mind.

(First published in the collection Traveller’s Samples (1951). I read it in the Penguin ‘Mini Modern Classic’ collection The Cornet-Player Who Betrayed Ireland (2011). Available to read online here)


‘In the Wind’ by Jung Mi-kyung, translated from the Korean by Yu Young-nan

Sometimes a story just hits you out of the blue. I enjoyed the first two stories in My Son’s Girlfriend, but they didn’t prepare me for this… ‘In the Wind’ starts innocuously enough, with its narrator looking at the quivering bunch of cells in the Petri dish before her, and wondering if IVF is really what she wants. Then, somehow, the story got under my skin.

Admittedly, I am a sucker for patterning in stories, and there is plenty of that here. The clump of cells looks to the protagonist like a flower, and there are recurring images of petals, and fragile things blowing on the wind. Jung’s narrator also sees the cells as being somewhere between mere existence and ‘life’ proper; and she has similar uncertainties about other things – her own life, her relationships.

But that’s not enough to account for the visceral reaction I had to ‘In The Wind’. This is a story that burrowed down into me and wouldn’t be coaxed back out. I think it’s the ordinariness of the narrator’s voice that allowed her doubts to spread and fester, up to the final line: “I shuddered violently at the thought that nothing had changed.”

(Read and published in the collection My Son’s Girlfriend, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)

‘The Turing Test’ by Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett is one of a number of writers whom I first read in the pages of Interzone and The Third Alternative magazines; then read again in collections from the much-missed Elastic Press. Reading one of the books was like rediscovering its author, as I gained a deeper appreciation of their work as a whole.

For me, ‘The Turing Test’ is one of Beckett’s key stories. It concerns Jessica, a gallery owner who is sent a virtual PA that shakes her sense of self to the core. The titular test is used to assess whether an artificial intelligence can convince as human when interacting with a person. The spine of the story is Jessica’s unspoken fear that she might not pass the Turing test herself.

But it’s not just that. Every time I’ve read ‘The Turing Test’, I have found something new to appreciate. There are so many images of disconnection: Jessica lives in a ‘subscriber area’, safely tucked away from people who couldn’t afford security clearance – yet she’ll happily spend hours in the sinister virtual world of Night Street. Her gallery displays works containing human body parts, but she shows little concern for the feelings of those related to the deceased.

The collection The Turing Test won the Edge Hill Short Story Prize in 2009. It is still available now, and still a fine introduction to Chris Beckett’s work.

(Read and first published in Interzone #183, October 2002. Also available in the anthology A.I.s, Ace Books, 2004, and the collection The Turing Test, Elastic Press, 2008)

‘Countless Stones’ by Lucy Wood

When I started blogging, one of the things I wanted to do was look at what new authors around my age were writing. I found some absolute gems doing this, writers whose work I’d be following keenly. Lucy Wood was one of them, right from her debut collection.

The stories in Diving Belles draw on Cornish folklore in various ways, but ultimately Wood creates her own world. ‘Countless Stones’ begins with its protagonist, Rita, starting to petrify – and not for the first time. Vivid though Wood’s description of this process is, to Rita it’s just another inconvenience. She has to check whether there’s anything in the fridge that might spoil while she’s ‘away’; and her ex, Danny, will insist that she join him for a house viewing. Rita can no more move on from Danny than she can escape her transformation into a standing stone.

Quite a lot of fiction that tries to balance the fantastic against everyday reality can come across to me as gimmicky. On the other hand, a true sense of ‘magic’ lives within Lucy Wood’s work, which is why it continues to haunt me.

(Read and first published in the collection Diving Belles, Bloomsbury, 2012)

‘If It Keeps On Raining’ by Jon McGregor

This story was the first thing I read by Jon McGregor; I have loved his work ever since. I always used to think that the sense of otherworldliness that I loved in fiction was simply a by-product of reading SF and fantasy. When I felt that same sense of otherworldliness from McGregor’s (decidedly non-fantastic) work, I had to think again.

‘If It Keeps On Raining’ depicts a man who spends his time watching the fishermen on the other side of the river and the boats that go past. He also works on his raft and treehouse, preparation for the flood that he believes is coming. Only gradually does it become apparent that this man was a police officer at Hillsborough, who subsequently left the force because of the psychological scars he still bears.

It’s the layers of language that make a McGregor story for me. In this case, the character experiences the present through the shadow of the past: debris “gets swept along like small children in a crowd, like what happens in a football match if there are too many people in not enough space and something happens to make everyone rush…”

Whenever I write about Jon McGregor’s work, I always feel like quoting it at length. That’s the kind of writer he is.

(Read and first published in the BBC National Short Story Award 2010 anthology, Comma Press. Available in the collection This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, Bloomsbury, 2012)

‘Sahana, or Shamim’ by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha. 

It feels as though there’s been a blossoming of small presses in the UK during the last 5-10 years: Peirene, And Other Stories, Galley Beggar, Fitzcarraldo… Of course there have been small presses long before that, and this just happens to have been the time when I was paying most attention. But it has been such a pleasure to follow these publishers and expand my reading world.

This story comes from another recently established small publisher: Deborah Smith’s Tilted Axis Press. Panty was Tilted Axis’ first book, an intense novel of sexuality and blurred identity. It was a strong opening statement for a publisher; this story also stayed long in my mind.

Paramesh set Sahana a rule for their relationship: she could not eat anything non-vegetarian in the house, and most especially she was to eat no fish anywhere. She was willing to make the sacrifice and managed for two years… But she liked fish too much. As the story begins, we see her bringing fish home, cooking and eating it in secret, and doing her best to eliminate the odour – all the while frightened that Paramesh might find out. However, eating fish again leads Sahana to push against other boundaries in her life.

The shifting focus on its protagonist’s psychology is what really makes Bandyopadhyay’s story work for me. It’s a character study of considerable power.

(Read and published in a volume with the novel Panty (Tilted Axis Press, 2016). Available to read online here)

‘The Men Running Past’ by Franz Kafka

For a long time, I didn’t read Kafka’s work, perhaps – I don’t know – because I felt it would be too old for me, or that since everyone else will (of course) already have read it, there was no point in my reading it. All silly non-arguments, because once I started to read Kafka (and other ‘classic’ authors), I found that, as long as I read openly, the years and outside interpretations melt away. There’s just me, engaging with the work, here and now.

I started with some of Kafka’s short fiction (I haven’t even got to Metamorphosis yet). ‘The Men Running Past’piece is only three paragraphs long, but still dizzying to me in how it reveals the uncertainty beneath a seemingly ordinary moment. In the first paragraph, the narrator is out walking one night and sees a man running in the opposite direction, being chased by another, but chooses not to intervene. The second paragraph is a mesmerising swirl of possibility, as the narrator imagines – sometimes quite fancifully – who these men might be. The third paragraph closes off these possibilities in short order (“have we not had a lot of wine to drink?”). There will be no resolution here; a story has been averted.

First published in the collection Betrachtung (Contemplation, 1913). Available widely, including online here. I read Michael Hofmann’s translation in the Penguin Modern Classics collection Metamorphosis and Other Stories, 2007)

‘Flying in the Face of God’ by Nina Allan

I began this anthology with a writer who was (and remains) particularly important to me; I’m ending with another. I had heard great things about Nina Allan’s fiction from the corner of the SF/fantasy community that I followed. After I read ‘Flying in the Face of God’, I understood why.

In the story, we meet Rachel Alvin, who is about to undergo a process that will alter her physiology such that she will be able to travel through space – but it will also transform her psychologically. Rachel’s close friend Anita Schleif is making a film about her – but it seems to be at least as much an attempt to hold on to Rachel as it is an actual piece of documentary-making. Furthermore, Anita’s grandmother is suffering from dementia, so essentially Anita is seeing the two most important people in her life disappear, albeit in different ways. Allan is concerned with exploring how her characters respond to the prospect and reality of profound personal change.

I’ve continued to follow Allan’s work, both fiction and reviews, and again hers has become a key voice in shaping how I think about fiction.

(Read and first published in Interzone #227, Mar-Apr 2010. Available in the collection Microcosmos, NewCon Press, 2013)