Schönberg, after establishing the principles of serialism, was said to have remarked that there was still plenty of good music to be composed in the key of C Major – just not by him. In that spirit of respect I have drawn up a list of eight stories all of which, when I first read them, induced a twinge of envy, and for that reason lodged in my memory.

It’s no coincidence that they all in some way extend or distend the short story form.

‘The Future Husband’ by A.J. Ashworth

In a very strong collection, this story resonated long after reading it, and still does, mainly due to its ambiguity and precision of language. And its setting: the Egyptian room of a museum, where the narrator watches a man, a stranger, peering into the glass case of a mummified woman, and fantasizes about a future life with him. That life includes illness on her part, tending on his.

It’s not clear whether she is actually ill, or even morbid, or whether she is identifying with the mummy, a transference of emotion to the object of his attention, and this is what gives it its uncanny power as she continues to observe him unseen until he leaves, when she tries to find his traces on the glass. She remains until closing time, when the man returns for a bag he left behind, apologizes and smiles as the guard announces time. But has he returned or is she still fantasizing?

First published in Crannog 25, October 2010, and collected in Somewhere Else, or Even Here, Salt, 2011

‘Disorder’ by Nicholas Royle

I have long been interested in OuLiPian constraints, and used them myself, so was struck by Nicholas Royle’s contribution to the anthology We Were Strangers, which uses all and only the words of the lyrics to Joy Division’s first album Unknown Pleasures.

The technique has been used before, for example by Paul Griffiths, who used all and only the words of Ophelia to generate his novel let me tell you (Reality Street, 2008) but Royle uses a tighter constraint, allowing only repetition of words repeated in the lyrics. This disciplined cut-up technique produces a surreal logic, with a meaning and implied plot hovering just out of reach, and thus acquires the potency of dreams.

First published in We Were Strangers: Stories Inspired by Unknown Pleasures, Confingo Publishing, ed. Richard V. Hirst, and collected in Manchester Uncanny, Confingo Publishing, 2022)

‘Factory’ by Caroline Clark

I have to declare a personal interest in choosing a story from Sovetica, a project I had been acquainted with – and excited about – since its inception, and supplied an Afterword for its eventual publication. The project was for Caroline Clark to record the reminiscences of her Russian husband’s late-Soviet adolescence, in Russian, which she translated and lightly edited so they retained their spontaneity, their down-beat matter-of-factness, a determinedly non-literary nature.

‘Factory’ is one among a number that stand out for being very funny – the natural wry humour of life. It’s an account of the narrator starting a new job, for which he is supposed to bring a black work coat. He can’t, at the last minute, find one so borrows a white one from his mother, an engineer. He discovers that his white coat allows him to just wander round the factory, unchallenged as he chats instead of working; he’s been mistaken for a supervisor. That’s all – yet that all is so much.

Collected in SOVETICA, CB Editions, 2021

‘Two Degrees of Freedom’ by Simon Okotie

Simon Okotie is best known for his ‘Absolon’ novel trilogy, but his contribution to the admirable Nightjar series found me unprepared and left me deeply impressed, mainly by its reliance throughout on the mathematical terminology of geometry to describe a man’s exploration of the space of his entombment.

It’s Beckett’s All Strange Away restated in such abstract terms that it raises the level of claustrophobia beyond even Beckett’s imagining. Rereading it for this anthology impressed and terrified me even more than my first reading.

First published as Two Degrees of Freedom, Nightjar Press, 2021

‘Acknowledgements (For the story that you have just Finished Reading)’ by Simon Kinch

Another Simon, this one with a wonderfully Joycean surname. I was hooked immediately by the title and the ‘prosthetic’ technique of turning the acknowledgements into a narrative. It opens with conventional thanks to his parents for their financial support, although it transpires it was obtained by embezzlement, and ends in thanking the reader their support in purchasing the published story. In between lies a literary cock-and-bull/shaggy-dog story of disorientating complexity involving a literary agent who is probably a scammer, lost manuscripts, a visit to the agent’s office in which the narrator is confronted by stacks and cartons of manuscripts and another writer similarly in pursuit of the agent and/or his own manuscript, an ensuing altercation in which the narrator escapes with a box of manuscripts, and the revelation at the end that the said story – “the one you have just finished reading” was published under his name but written by some unknown other.

That hardly does it justice. I had hoped this story would be found in the online edition of Exacting Clam but sadly isn’t. I can only hope it might eventually be collected or anthologized for non-EC subscribers to read.

First published in Exacting Clam N°2, Autumn 2021

‘The Ground Is Considerably Distorted’ by Ruby Cowling

This is a story I particularly wanted to include, but which has now become very topical, even more than when it was written well before 2019 although set in 2020. In fact I wondered if I should leave it out, because it involves an earthquake – in Japan – and a damaged nuclear reactor, presumably as a result, coinciding with a conference in Zurich on increasing world dependency on nuclear energy, and a Westminster scandal over remarks about the effects of the earthquake by the wife of the Foreign Secretary.

A heady mix, and what’s so extraordinary about the story is the structure and the multiple stranding: the first-person narrative of a young female Japanese journalist now in London to cover the political scandal, told partly in her Twitter feeds – one her journalist account, the other her personal account; live television news feed from Westminster; the texted conversation between the Foreign Secretary and his wife, even within their home; a third-person narrative of the scandal from the wife’s point of view.

It could have been a gimmick, it could have gone horribly wrong – although Boiler House have done a brilliant job with the layout, which clarifies it considerably. In fact, it’s virtuosic writing of a very high standard, fully under control, riveting on every level – human, domestic, political. Rereading it has induced an even greater twinge of envy, and I had to include it despite the current bad timing.

First published in Lighthouse, collected in This Paradise, Boiler House Press, 2019

‘The Gatekeeper’ by David Wheldon

I have to again declare a personal interest in this choice, as I was introduced, first to Wheldon’s work then to Wheldon himself by the Irish writer Aiden O’Reilly. Wheldon was a genuine outsider; despite finding fame with a string of novels in the 1980s he stuck to his profession in medical research but continued to write, mostly poetry and short stories, in complete obscurity once the acclaim had died. O’Reilly had discovered the novels while living in London at the time. In the Internet age and back in Dublin, O’Reilly came across Wheldon’s website – used also for his medical writings – and made contact. He decided to help get Wheldon’s short fiction published and asked me to suggest some British magazines; Confingo was one of them. Tim Shearer, the editor, was as intrigued by Wheldon’s work as I was, published several stories in the magazine, then decided to publish a collection. Very sadly, David Wheldon died just as the book was going to print.

His stories are deeply strange in ways hard to describe. The settings are mostly English, but an almost mythical, timeless England which could be Victorian or post-war, but with contemporary details and Continental inflections – Dickens crossed with Kafka, perhaps. But the one that snags my memory differs in being set in China, and in a far deeper past.

The first, and longest, of three subtitled sections is narrated by a candidate arriving by sedan chair, after a six-day journey, to an Examination Station, being assigned his cell (a very monastic yet bureaucratic set-up) and informed of the arrangements for food and facilities while confined for the duration of the examinations.

Opening a cupboard, he hears a girl’s voice – she has discovered a loose brick in her corresponding cupboard against the party wall. This allows us to glean some scant details from their conversation and their own guesswork, but it only adds to the sense of our alienation, as do the hints of an impending apocalypse: both have had some infection in childhood which leaves scars but also gives immunity against smallpox, an epidemic of which has been prophesied. Is that why they were chosen as candidates? They, and we, don’t know.

After a single-paragraph middle section, a meditation on sleep, the final section, a longer single paragraph, offers the reflections of the ageing gatekeeper, himself once a childhood candidate who chose the position instead of whatever other career awaited him; he too protected against the smallpox to come; he too aware only of the essential mystery behind the lucidity of life.

Haunting, that deceptive lucidity.

Collected in The Guiltless Bystander, Confingo Publishing, 2022

‘Hell’ by Paul Kavanagh

Many years ago in a bookshop in Twickenham I was shown a small display of titles by a then-local press. Wanting to support them, I bought the only fiction title, a novel called The Killing of a Bank Manager by Paul Kavanagh, of whom I’d never heard. It proved a hair-raising read: relentlessly slapdash, inventively and wittily anti-stylish, the literary equivalent of Art Brut, Henry Darger in text, a cult novel in the making.

I found out more from the publisher’s website, wrote a review on it, and later wrote at their request an introduction to his second novel, Iceberg. I have followed his work as best I could in its sporadic publication in magazines – I even subscribed to Gorse initially for that reason. So I was delighted to come across ‘Hell’ in Exacting Clam.

‘Hell’ and Hell, however, is not so much a story, more a narrative spew, the fervid antithesis of Beckett’s glacial theses, an animated inferno out of Hieronymus Bosch. There is no way to describe it; I can only quote a few slivers and stand well back:

“I leave the house and there they are lingering apple dappled Eve & Adam blood drenched Heloise & Abelard tommygun peppered Clyde & Bonnie. Recto she lissom short sitting on the wall. Verso he hirsute and burly married to the wall… Dante whispering Virgil pointing. Should I wave. Do not provoke them. I provoke them. It’s going to be a lovely day he threatens. A hot day she condemns… Hell is other people somebody said Kafka Camus Beckett me. I continue. They continue. We continue… I admit it it’s true I… created them gave birth to them but how I did it is another tale all together and as you know or don’t know a tale is made up with a myriad of other tales.”

And now, with a narrative fuse blown, I can only sign off.

Published in Exacting Clam, N° 3, Winter 2021