Obviously attempting to select merely twelve short stories that affected me is an absurd and pointless exercise, but as a fan of list-making for no reason, here we go. I am a great believer in the power of the short story and what it can achieve as a form, and I constantly rail against the (mostly British) idea that the short story is something a writer cuts their teeth on before progressing to the proper literature of the novel. It’s much better to see the short story as being able to do things the novel cannot, and vice versa, rather than pit them in false opposition.
I believe the short form lends itself best to strange, weird or eerie fiction where mood and atmosphere are as important as character and plot. And as reality has become stranger or more unsettling than any fiction we can create, here are some of the weird stories I consider the best (and one that’s not really weird at all).
Joel Lane (1963-2013) is the single most underrated writer of fiction I can think of. I was at Fantasycon 2016, in Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast, where I picked up a collection of his and was immediately sold by the following bit of blurb: “Blurring the occult detective story with urban noir fiction, Where Furnaces Burn offers a glimpse of the myths and terrors buried within the industrial landscape.”
I devoured the book in big greedy gulps, amazed that such writing even existed – precisely the kind of writing I was hunting for and trying to write myself. Using the well-worn trope of the melancholy police officer as the access-point to all the strata of the society in which he lives, Where Furnaces Burn is a bleak and heady mix of the kind of brutal British crime writing of David Peace, Derek Raymond and Ben Myers’ crime novels, mixed with existential pessimism and prose stylings of horror writers like Thomas Ligotti. I always thrilled to Joel Lane’s use of a specific landscape – and one curiously underrepresented in fiction. Here we have expert evocations of a blighted Black Country, the derelict warehouses of Digbeth, mysterious trains rattling through a dark and rain-soaked Birmingham. Joel Lane creates a terrifying world of post-industrial machine worship, bizarre pagan ritual and ghosts comprised of plaster and rotten wallpaper that make the place nightmarish, frightening and weirdly compelling.
I could choose any of the stories in this collection, but I will choose ‘Black Country’ as it captures everything I love about Joel Lane’s writing.
Lane is well known amongst genre circles, and had had a couple of more mainstream novels published by Serpent’s Tail in the early 2000s (including the brilliant From Blue to Black), but seems largely unknown otherwise. This is a crying shame, and should change.
First published 2010 as a Nightjar Press chapbook. Collected in Where Furnaces Burn, PS Publishing, 2012
There are many Robert Aickman (1914-1981) stories that I could have chosen – famous contenders like ‘The Hospice’ and ‘The Swords’ are rightly celebrated and could easily be on this list. But it is the long short-story ‘The Stains’ that has stayed with my thoughts more than any other.
‘The Stains’ focuses on that most Aickman of characters, a sad and unremarkable middle-aged English civil servant, Stephen, whose wife Elizabeth has recently died. Bereft and unsure of what to do with himself, he takes a leave of absence from work to stay with his brother in “the north” who has published “two important books on lichens”. Stephen, perturbed by his brother’s wife, begins taking long walks on the moors; and one day he meets a young woman named Nell who is collecting mosses and lichens. She fascinates him, and he is intensely attracted to her. She becomes a kind of path toward liberation for him, representing a mysterious and ancient world that he craves in the face of creeping modernity. It is strongly implied she is an aspect from nature, a nymph of some sort. She, if she exists at all, is a relic from a deep past that Stephen romanticises, much like the lichens his brother studies. He fetishises her “aboriginal” nature.
Then he notices a strange lichen-like stain on her body. They move into together, the walls of the house they attempt to domesticize becoming covered in strange fungal and lichen growths. The stains spread to Stephen’s body, before nature comes to claim him utterly.
‘The Stains’ is the most intriguing, nuanced, and saddest of Aickman’s stories and its meaning can be endlessly deciphered and interpreted but never fully pinned down; as with all of his work, that is its great and enduring strength.
First published in New Terrors, ed. Ramsey Campbell, Pan Books, 1980; collected in The Unsettled Dust, Faber & Faber, 2014
There was a gentleman of independent means who, at about the age of fifty-six, conceived of a passionate hatred for his much-younger wife’s white Persian cat.
A highlight among highlights from Joyce Carol Oates’ brilliant Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque
collection, ‘The White Cat’ is the story of Julius, a wealthy man in his late fifties who does not need to work, and his much younger wife; she spends a lot of her time with her circle of theatre friends in the city, leaving him alone to collect his rare antiques and ponder why he still feels unsatisfied, despite having accrued everything he considers necessary for a successful life. Adding to his woes is Miranda, the white Persian cat he bought for his wife, who seems to like everyone except Julius and will not let him stroke her or come anywhere near here. Julius is annoyed – didn’t he buy the cat, and bestow it to his wife as a gift? So why does the cat not show him any affection? He owns the cat, right?
So, Julius decides to kill Miranda, attempting to make it look like an accident. The cat doesn’t die, returning from the grave again and again, much to Julius’s distress…
‘The White Cat’ is one of those great stories that is absurdly funny, genuinely creepy, and one that can be interpreted in several different ways – is Julius simply transferring his feelings towards his wife onto the cat, or is there something genuinely wrong with the animal? Often lauded as a highlight of feminist horror short-fiction, this was the story that made me understand why Oates is considered such an important writer.
First published in A Matter of Crime, Harcourt Brace, 1987; collected in Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, Penguin/Plume, 1995
The first, and clear standout, story in Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection Her Body and Other Parties is a marvel, uncomfortably confrontational in its sexual politics and frank sexuality. Machado’s narrator tells a story of meeting the young man she knew she would marry, their marriage, the birth and raising of their son, and an inevitable betrayal by her husband whom she loves. She offers all herself to him all except the mystery of what lies beneath the green ribbon tied in a bow around her throat. Inevitably, the ribbon must be pulled.
It is a story in the strong tradition of Angela Carter, of believing, of storytelling, and who is believed and who is not – specifically, why the stories of women are not believed.
The title refers to the extra stitch – never officially documented – sometimes given to a woman after the area between her vagina and anus is either torn or cut during childbirth; the aim to make the vagina tighter than it was, to increase the husband’s pleasure during sex.
First published in Granta 129: Fate, 2014 and available there online, collected in Her Body and Other Parties, Graywolf Press/Serpent’s Tail, 2017
Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters is one of the very best collection of North American weird fiction I have read; like Raymond Carver if he embraced the weird fiction tradition running from H.P. Lovecraft to Laird Baron. ‘Wide Acre’ is essentially a story of PTSD, but one that also features a werewolf. Not as metaphor or allegory, but neither as a key part of the narrative. What is important the fallout from the horrific event; the attack that kills his friends and traumatizes the protagonist also ruins his life. The implication being that some events can never be got over.
First published in Visions Fading Fast,Vol. 1, 2012, collected in North American Lake Monsters, Small Beer Press, 2013
I am an avid birdwatcher and a member of the RSPB, and am fascinated by extinct species, so the great auk is a bird that has long held my attention. I even wrote a story about it myself, ‘Spearbird’, in my collection Hollow Shores. A flightless relative of the puffin, razorbill and guillemot, the great auk was hunted to extinction in the nineteenth century and remains a potent symbol of the destruction and wasteful exploitation we inflict on the world. Jessie Greengrass’s sombre story from the collection of the same name is a melancholy, methodical look at the decline of the bird from one of the men who hunted it. Until one year, it is no more. The island on which the birds nested, once covered in filth many feet deep, is now bare, “the colour of pewter and all the shit is washed clean by the rain”.
Collected in An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk According to One Who Saw It, John Murray, 2015
‘The Horse of Iron and How We Can Know It’ opens with what appears to be one of M John Harrison’s favourite images, that of a horse’s skull (“not a horse’s head: a skull, which looks nothing like a horse at all, but like an enormous curved shears, or a bone beak whose two halves meet only at the tip”), a disturbing recurring image in Viriconiumand a vital element of Light. The story of a man – the Ephebe – mapping out his life according to the Tarot, and of journeys taken on the horse of iron (i.e. the train) between places like Harrow and Kilburn High Road, or London St Pancras and Sheffield Central, its intoxicating blend of heady esoterica and the banality of British train travel continues to intrigue me; it’s a story I return to again and again, trying to fully decode it.
Published in Tarot Tales, ed.Rachel Pollack & Caitlin Matthews, Legend, 1989; collected in Things That Never Happen, Gollancz, 2004
Nina Allan, one of my favourite contemporary novelists, is also a brilliant writer of short fiction. The recently published ‘Four Abstracts’ is a follow-up of sorts to the novella A Thread of Truth, focusing on the life of a reclusive artist suffering from an illness that may or may not have turned her into a spider. Her friend, the narrator, is archiving her work and preparing to present it to the public – the ‘Four Abstracts’ of the title become the framing device with which to explore the life of this solitary woman.
Like M John Harrison, Nina Allan is a master of a kind of banal British weird fiction that I find completely compelling. ‘Four Abstracts’ is a very human and downbeat story set in rural West Devon, full of references to the Arachne myth and other stories of women becoming spiders, like the Japanese Jorōgumo, but essentially a story of the hurts and difficulties life can throw at a person.
First published in New Fears, ed. Mark Morris, Titan Books, 2017
It was quite arresting, this way he had of making a tree look almost like a being – alive. It approached the uncanny.
Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), the crease-faced and twinkly-eyed exemplar of a form that came to be known as weird fiction, has a large and varied output, ranging from the transcendent to the hokey. ‘The Man Whom the Trees Loved’ is one of his best, from a collection tellingly sub-titled ‘A Volume of Nature Stories’. Blackwood peddled his own brand of nature mysticism that could often be quite silly, but when channelled the right way gave us powerful work such as this, and iconic tales like ‘The Willows’ and ‘The Wendigo’.
The story articulates the latent feeling most people have that trees and woods are inherently frightening. A male artist begins to ‘listen’ to the trees in the woods beyond his house, much to the consternation of his wife, and, though we never fully know what happens to him, is somehow ‘taken’ by it. This is presented as both terrifying and somehow appealing; reflecting the feelings many people have towards the woods. We like them but we wouldn’t want to be lost in them forever.
First published in Pan’s Garden, Macmillan & Co. 1912
Possibly a controversial choice, considering recent events (and the fact another writer on this list publicly decries Diaz), but I’d feel dishonest for not putting this story on my list. When I read it at the time of publication, it blew me away. A very successful use of the second-person, chronicling the “half-life of love” of Diaz’s recurring protagonist, the story tracks the months and years in the aftermath of a relationship that could have been “the one” had the “you” of the story not been such an inveterate philanderer and all-round shit. It’s quite depressing to be honest, but with a strange energy to it. I doubt you’re supposed to sympathise with the character, and the use of the second-person made reading the story very uncomfortable. I assume that is the point.
First published in The New Yorker, July 2012; collected in This Is How You Lose Her, Faber & Faber 2012
Livia Llewellyn’s writing is a nightmarish wander through lust, violence and treacle-thick darkness. I love it. I am constantly impressed by the sheer dark originality of her writing, and the power of the densely-crafted prose.
‘The Last, Clean, Bright Summer’ uses the classic format of a young girl’s journal (reminiscent of Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’ and Robert Aickman’s ‘Pages from a Young Girl’s Diary’ – except this girl is a Beyoncé fan in the 21st Century) to reveal its mounting horrors. And these really are horrors; it’s rare I can say a short story genuinely surprised me. This did, and now it’s lodged in my brain like a particularly unwholesome parasite.
First published in Primeval – A Journal of the Uncanny, #2, ed. Geoff Hyatt, 2014; collected in Furnace, Word Horde, 2016
I had never heard of Claire Dean until I picked up this chapbook from Nicholas Royle’s ever-reliable Night Jar Press; I am so glad I did because this is one of the best contemporary weird short stories I’ve encountered. ‘The Unwish’ creeps up on you like all good writing of this type should; it is the story of two sisters, one happily settled and pregnant, the other waiting expectantly on the texts of a new boyfriend, who gather at a house in the countryside for a family event. But flashes of a past perhaps buried begin to show themselves. Wasn’t there a third sister?
First published by Nightjar Press, 2017