In compiling my personal anthology, I picked twelve of my favourite short stories. I didn’t think too much about similar themes, just what grabs me. What shakes me up. Lots of my choices are Irish and I think that’s a wee bit to do with recently moving here – to Belfast – and a lot to do with the absolute brilliance of Irish writing across the island. Thereseems to be a couple of themes, around body and horror, as well as a distinct love of vernacular.
I was an avid short story reader in my teens and twenties. Drifted a bit in my thirties – life, work, kids, dysfunctional relationships etc. Lockdown 2020 got my short story radar working once more and I also started writing again, after a thirty-year hiatus. I hope you enjoy my choices!
Wendy Erskine is one of my favourite writers, so it’s nigh on impossible to choose just one of her stories. Her style is kinetic and quirky, and her stories are almost always set in Belfast, where I now live. She takes seemingly mundane placesand situations and creates an enticing world for you to walk into. You are there in the room with her characters, sitting beside them.
In ‘Gloria and Max’, a visiting academic who has recently arrived in Belfast gives a woman a lift to a “so-called Christianfilm festival… in some godforsaken spot”. The trip turns into a traumatic event, and long afterwards he vividly remembers “a stained pink anorak, her hand on his arm”. I first read this story in the Stinging Fly, an Irish literary magazine, and couldn’t stop thinking about it. There’s a bluntness, an immediacy to the writing, and always a memory.
First published in the Stinging Fly, and then in Dance Move, published by Pan Macmillan, 2022 and available to read online here
In ‘Mayday’, author and playwright Lucy Caldwell writes of the trauma of an illegal, pill-based abortion in Northern Ireland. The story is alive, crackling with tension, and Lucy Caldwell’s writing is underpinned by a sense of longing, of how things might have been different. Like Wendy Erskine, Lucy Caldwell was born and grew up in Belfast. Her writing holds a recurring theme of women being vigilant to threats, both the physical and the psychological. ‘But they have ways of finding these things out: and somewhere, etched onto the internet, is her name, her address, her PayPal account, what she did.’
Lucy Caldwell won the BBC Short Story Award last year, for ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’ from the same collection. I love the way she writes about women, their internal lives, their longings and dilemmas.
First published in The Glass Shore, ed. by Sinéad Gleeson, 2016 and then in Intimacies, published by Faber, 2021 and available to read online here
I first came across June Caldwell’s writing on Twitter, and she had me hooked immediately. Brutal, intense, passionate, with sharp yet messy characters and scenarios.
‘Natterbean’ is a crazy whirlwind of a story, taking us on an unhinged taxi journey through the dark underbelly of Dublin’s drug scene. June Caldwell is a master of language, writing in a familiar Dublin vernacular, tackling the seedinessand violence in her inimitable style. She excels at describing a macabre crew of messed up characters with her use ofcolourful language.
“Homey was a fat man on one leg with a squeegee of green hair you could wash a pile of dishes with.”
First published in Room Little Darker, published by New Island/Head of Zeus, 2018 and available to read online here
‘Acid’ is an extremely short story – just one paragraph peppered with Kelman’s trademark sharp observations. ‘Acid’ is one of the most visceral, visually shocking stories I’ve ever come across and I will boldly claim it is the best short story I’ve ever read. Kelman wields such a fierce power, sharpening his writers’ tools, in his bold, colloquial Glaswegian voice. The ending sees a man in a factory – “who was also the young man’s father” – dispose of his son in an utterly horrifying act of love. This is a brutal and exceptional story. if you’ve never read it, I strongly urge you to do so!
First published in Not Not While the Giro, Polygon, 1983, and available in Tales of Here and Then, thi wurd, 2020
I first encountered Carver’s short stories when I was a teenager, trawling the local library for things I hadn’t already read. At the time, I couldn’t work out if he liked people or not, but I was drawn to his style and his acute observations of relationships between men and women.
In ‘So Much Water…’ Claire, the narrator, is shocked to discover that her husband and his buddies have found the body ofa dead girl washed up on the shore upon arrival for their annual camping trip. Instead of reporting this to the police, the men carry on with their boys’ weekend, merrily fishing, eating, and drinking whisky. Reading it again, I share Claire’s horror and disbelief.
Carver writes with detached observation about the disillusionment of men in mid-century America, his emotionallydisengaged characters full of grimy, unapologetic bluntness. Marriage and domestic life – meal times, conversation, sex – are all portrayed with a scary kind of detachment, devoid of passion or feeling.
First published in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Knopf, 1981
I first came across Denis Johnson in my late teens, still living in Scotland and hanging out with artists though I was going to work in a psychiatric hospital every day. I loved American literature and I still love Jesus’ Son. I must have read it dozens of times.It’s a collection of 11 perfect, inter-related short stories. And it is brutally honest and painfully beautiful, set in a down-and-out world of drugs and drink. Johnson sculpts his shambolic characters with heart-breaking honesty. But there’s always an underlying compassion, even if covered up by layers of trauma and dissociation. This story is told from the perspective of a seemingly homeless, clairvoyant, unnamed narrator who appears to have hitchhiked with several people involved in a devastating accident. Our narrator appears to have predicted the event.
“I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it glowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.”
This devastating piece is surely a masterclass in short story writing.
First published in Jesus’ Son, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992, and available to read online here
I’m sure I first heard about Janice Galloway via James Kelman. I went along to an event where she was reading from her first novel The Trick is To Keep Breathing at the Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine in 1991 or thereabouts. I regularly call her the queen, as she is without a doubt up there with my absolute favourites. Her writing is visceral, unnerving, and fierce. (She’s also from Ayrshire!)
‘Plastering the Cracks’ is a tense, noir-esque piece, where a young woman employs some builders but, later, eavesdropping through the wall, becomes worried about their intentions. Janice Galloway writes with a looming sense of danger and her landscape is filled with brutal men, often drunks, and women living in fear of their actions. I love her use of dialect and the directness of her dialogue – no speech marks, immersing you into her words and her world.
First published in Blood, Secker and Warburg/Random House, 1991
I’m sure I first heard about Agnes Owens via my English teacher, in fifth year at Prestwick Academy. Scottish literature owes so much to Agnes Owens, yet she remains painfully so under-acknowledged. Her writing is bold, brutal, and darkly funny.
Agnes Owens describes a beach is full of threats and dangers. A young girl wants to go to the lighthouse, but her younger brother does not. She warns him that a monster might get him if he doesn’t comply. His understanding of “monster” is bizarre, and we worry about threats coming from everywhere and anywhere. A dark story beautifully told.
First published in People Like That, Bloomsbury, 1996
Kevin Barry is the writer everyone wants to write like. I came across his work during lockdown and couldn’t get enough. The dialect, the darkness, the lyricism. He’s a literary trickster extraordinaire. You read one Barry and you want to read them all. Then all over again.
‘Extremadura (Until Night Falls)’ has at its centre a typical Barry character, a man who has landed in Spain, fleeing his Irish family ties, escaping his life. As often is the case, there’s a dog, a girl, and a melancholy heart. But familiar characters aside, there’s nothing ordinary about Kevin Barry’s dark Spanish tale. It pounds with the heartbeat of the west of Ireland.
First published in That Old Country Music, Canongate 2020
Lauren Foley’s writing is experimental, at times diary-like, scientific and explicit. There are no sexual euphemisms to be found here. It’s pure.
‘Polluted Sex’ is a story about an Irish girl, her English lover and her friend (who is also her lover). Raw in detail and language, it is fearless in depicting women, their sexuality and their bodies, in deeply realistic way.
Órla, the protagonist, is waiting for her period to start:
‘There’s a certain kind of sanctity surrounding your menstrual flow, a hangover of old ilk connecting you to the tides and their transgenerational fears of moons and banshees.’
First published in Polluted Sex, Influx Press, 2020. You can read it here
Louise Kennedy is the writer everyone wants to write like. I read her short stories first then devoured her novel, Trespasses, when it was published last year. Another Irish writer, Louise Kennedy came to writing late but absolutely flew once she started. She writes about love, marriage, sex, death and everything in between with dark wit and acute observations.
One of the most haunting stories in her debut collection is ‘In Silhouette’. Over a lifetime viewed in pieces, a sister hoards clippings and images relating to a soldier whom her late brother had helped abduct and kill. It stays with you.
First published in The End of the Road is a Cul-de-Sac, Bloomsbury 2020
Neglected for decades, interest in Belgian author Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s work has seen a resurgence and I’m delighted that A Nail, A Rose was reprinted in translation in 2019. I came across this collection in the original French, via something I read years ago by Simone de Beauvoir, and tried to translate it very badly. Written in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation of France, and admired by the Existentialists and the Surrealists alike, these stories are unforgettable tales of ordinary women who burn with desire, suffer with loss, and live rich fantasy lives.
‘Louise’ is the first and possibly my favourite story in this astonishing collection. It focuses on the travails, rich inner world and fantasies of a woman who works as a maid in the day and at night wanders the streets, imagining her lover, dressed in a coat borrowed from her wealthy employer. It’s a story – and a collection – to treasure.
First published in English in The Atlantic, April 1954, and available to read here. Also available in A Nail, A Rose, Pushkin Collection, 2019