‘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)