All stories are short amid the vast, reachless, spumy extents of time and space. Even the great bulking ones, such as Sherba Xenoren’s ten million-word novel, The Glass Continent, is as but a millisecond tone burst to a deaf dog. But some are really short. Barely there at all. Almost of no significance whatsoever. These we call ‘short stories’.
In the republic of letters a work’s being good, or, in a way, even more disappointingly, ‘very good’, is no compelling recommendation. These dozen short stories that I have, through careful deliberation, chosen to engage your interest, are probably even better than that.
‘Bob’ is, as is now widely known, the pseudonym of Osaka-based writer Sogo Hiroshi. Sogo had spent the late 1960s living in Batley, Yorkshire, travelling all over the north of England to see shows by comics, renowned and obscure, at theatres and variety clubs. He would sit on his own, as close to the stage as he could, and transcribe every detail of the act—words, gestures, pauses—in a comedic notation of his own devising. (The original notebook is now on display in Osaka Prefectural Museum of Kamigata Comedy and Performing Arts.) On his return to Japan, Sogo painstakingly constructed twelve tales of ‘wet’ horror using lines extracted from hundreds of performances and translated into Japanese. The translation into English presented enormous difficulties but ultimately I was able to successfully convey the original’s unique, and uneasy, combination of the brutal and hilarious. I put this down to having spent my childhood in Limerick.
A seedy boarding house in west London is destroyed in a devastating night raid during the Blitz, revealing Egyptian remains that exert a strange influence over the fates of the mysteriously unharmed residents. Bosanquet was part of a louche trio, known as the Bayswater Bastards, along with the ill fated Roger ‘Tiny’ Feate and Peter Buttersley who, as history records, went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury. The story vividly evokes the era, long before my time sadly, when one’s romantic partners might be vaporised or pummelled into nothingness by enormous quantities of skyfallen high explosives, saving one the trouble of ridding oneself of them by means less convenient.
Better known now for her tawdry, and disgustingly popular novel, Lovely, Lovely, Lovely, about three American sisters and their ‘delightful’ summer in Paris, Macheton’s debut short story collection Kill All the Shitheads was the work of an edgier, better writer. In this story, Manhattan is coming to the end of its era of decay, and the protagonist, named only as ‘S’, is standing outside a basement dive bar on the Lower East Side. S. narrates the tale of her journey into abjection commencing with her expulsion from Vassar for strangling a swift in the President’s office, through the traditional experiments with adulterated stimulants and the usual residency as a bassist in a punk rock band. It certainly made me think twice about giving up the cor anglais and leaving home, although I did, naturally, as I’ve never suffered from a fear of syringes, handsy men or migrating birds.
Fective was the leading—arguably the only—figure in the Irish transgressive literature movement of the 1980s. Each of Fective’s many stories was the same in its essentials. A middle aged Garda officer is lured to a suburban Dublin house with a promise of a free fry up, and the possibility of something else hot and savoury, whereupon he is trapped in an airing cupboard with the immersion on, never to escape. After Fective’s death, a total of thirty-seven mummified bodies were recovered from the loft of her house in Coolock Village. Jacinta was a lovely girl all the same.
As much an essay on insignificance as a story about an incredibly small, but fragrant and dapper, Frenchman’s turbulent, ecstatic affair with a gorgeous Irishwoman, who’s much too good for him—the mysterious ‘Babette’. The ending, where ‘Babette’ throws Étienne’s priceless collection of King Oliver 78s out of a sixth floor window onto the Place de la Comédie in Montpellier is delicious. One can almost hear the sound of cracking shellac.
This is a classic, warm-hearted Jewish-American story of a family getting by, in the strait and harrowed days of 1930s Brooklyn, by planning a heist on a chicken factory. The feel-good sensation wasn’t dampened for me in the slightest by the final scene in which their Bubbe drowns in the bathtub. As mine did.
Set in 1950s Harrogate, and based on Ben Jonson’s Sejanus: His Fall, Barrett’s story is a tragedy of succession. Barry Choice is the pater familias of Choice’s Sausages, purveyors for three generations of the North’s best bangers. Barry’s son, Harry, is a sleazy loafer with a fondness for the company of leather-clad toughs. Pig flesh is a mystery to Harry and it’s clear that he’s unfit to assume his father’s chunky mantle. Keith is the pretender to the pork throne, chosen by Barry for his preternatural talent with traditional, yet thrillingly innovative, seasoning. Barry chooses Keith to head the Yorkshire contingent to defend the firm’s Gold Medal at the Internationale Fleischer-Fachausstellung in Frankfurt. The night before their departure, Barry learns of Keith’s plan to half the cayenne pepper in their prizewinning recipe to ensure a woefully under-spiced sausage, thus putting the Choice’s dread antagonists, the Ilkley Contingent, ever the Silver medallists, in line for victory. Keith’s loyalty has been acquired for the, admittedly appetising, allurement of a brand new Austin Westminster. The finale, involving a ruckus with cleaver wielding butchers and chain swinging, flick knife jabbing motorcycle boys, is simply thrilling. The 1968 musical production at the Richmond Theatre was marred by a regrettable succession of property failures, leading to the greatest loss of life on stage in the history of the English theatre. I was certainly sad to see the end of my flourishing career as a Prop Master, but the six months I spent at HMP Holloway were some of the happiest of my life.
Minimalism was perfected in this one word story from 1978 but minimalists, somehow, could not resist going on and on, writing more and more, while also going on and on about how everyone else shouldn’t go on and on. One winter in 1993, when I was in Chicago playing a bit part in some dreadfully butch play at The Glass Bead Theater, I recognised A. at Ann Sather’s Swedish Diner. He was having the pancake tower with lingonberries, ice cream, whipped cream and strawberries, with sides of bacon, chicken basil sausage links, sliced avocado, two biscuits with gravy, hash browns, corned beef hash, tenderloin steak, and a plate of their world famous cinnamon rolls. We talked for hours and he told me that, even though he loved the food, the main reason he came to the restaurant was the bottomless coffee served by a woman who looked like his mom. I tried to convince him to change his name to ‘.’ but he just laughed and asked for a refill.
It’s 1976 and Dick Phiri is bassist in Zambian acid rock band Durty Frogg about to fly to Paris to play the biggest gig of his career, when he gets word that his mother is seriously ill. During the ten-hour bus journey up the Tuta Road to Samfya, Dick reflects on his childhood, on the joy and madness of the Zamrock scene, and on national, and personal, liberation, its consequences and limitations. Dick arrives at his hometown in time to see the sunrise over Lake Bangweulu. I hate epiphanies, in fiction and in life, but the story ends simply and beautifully with Dick alone watching sky and water merge into one. I fetched up as a waitress and bouncer at an Irish pub in Lusaka the year after the Richmond incident and would serve Brian bottled stout between solo sets where he would entertain the late night crowd with stories and renditions of Black Sabbath’s Supernaut, Amanaz’s Khala, My Friend and, of course, The Parting Glass. It was refreshingly easy to keep the audience appreciative with only the very occasional use of a machete or a small sidearm: an innovation I imported from bingo nights in Batley.
William Balfour fashions a Venetian three-masted barque entirely from toast and sets sail into the skies over Dundee arriving at the land of Fifonia, whose inhabitants are similar to Scots, but whose vital fluid is not blood but, rather, marmalade. Ridpath died by his own hand in Dundee Lunatic Asylum in 1821. Unusually, the hand was wielded by an insane Quaker, Oscar Quint, who had bitten it off while in want of a nutritious breakfast, denied to him by the regime, which was remarkably progressive by today’s standards. You would not believe how difficult it is to bite off someone’s hand.
Polyov, a retired roué, failed poet and, as it happens, capable jazz pianist, is making ends meet as a cleaner of discretion at boutique museums around Moscow. He enjoys the Bulgakov Museum because he gets paid his full day rate for cleaning its three small rooms, which, even when exercising his customary diligence and respectful care, takes him no more than two hours. One evening, behind the radiator next to Bulgakov’s desk, Polyov notices a faint golden luminescence. Grasping his feather duster, he gets to his knees to investigate further and discovers, spreading outward from the corner pipe, a large spongiform growth. There is a haze before him. His eyes begin to sting. Polyov reckons that he will need a knife to prise the thing off. He snorts in the effort of rising to his feet. The room expands hugely, all his many aches and pains vanish from his body, his anguishes and confusions from his mind. Polyov hears…he becomes aware…of a permeating melody of impossible beauty, a delicate but persistent, strangely rhythmic, perfume of roses is everywhere. Using his army knife, he carefully removes the growth from the wall and places it in a spare, clean, handkerchief. Replete with an unaccustomed altruism, Polyov runs down the stairs and into the street where he catches a cab to the Rublyovskaya Water Treatment Station. Evading the, not insubstantial security, Polyov arrives at the central inflow reservoir into which he crumbles a small piece of the golden sponge… I keep my, alas dwindling, supply in a lacquered box I acquired in the Ocean Breeze Bed & Breakfast in Tramore in 1978 around the time of its total destruction in a fire with the loss of six lives.
Due to rampant dissolution, Hamish fails his first year exams in archaeology at Glasgow University but, in exaction for holding in reserve an ill-judged confidence by his Professor, Andrea, is still allowed to join the undergraduate group at the Danish island of Kikse for the excavation of a Viking grave. At a campfire drinking session, Hamish betrays the secret, destroying his nascent relationship with the beautiful Jens Peter and, incidentally, liberating Andrea into a new life. What is original and enjoyable about this work is that Hamish is very much the worse for having told his story. The passage of time through his mouth has nauseated him, the fixing of inchoate memory into inherited categories of sense, has bound him in long, choking strings of words, immured him in everything and nothing. The end of a good story does permanent violence to silence, and to so much else. So, you—you know who you are—keep your yap shut and there’ll be no trouble.