‘I Love Our Voices When We Sing Off-Key’ by Timothy Boudreau

Chosen by Gaynor Jones
 
This gorgeous flash piece outlines a loving, long-term relationship. Although it begins with the romantic cliché of a couple’s shared breakfast it soon becomes clear that this is no post-one night stand meal, but a well practised routine, ‘nothing fancy, but that’s the arrangement.’ Through references to ‘corny love songs’, it needing to be warm before the couple venture out and the ‘salt pepper and pepper spare tire dude.’ we learn that this a couple whose relationship has lasted through the years. And if we were any doubt, the following paragraph describes their sex life in humorous detail, swiftly followed by a section on knee surgery. Then we return to the prose which, for me, treads the line between corny and loving in such a way that you no longer care about the corniness – ‘Feel our same light, for we have light between us, I swear we do.’ I like this story because it gives me hope, and it’s refreshing to read a piece that delves way past the immediacy and urgency of first love.

Published on spelkfiction, July 2019
 
Gaynor Jones is an award-winning short fiction writer and spoken word performer based in Oldham. She is the recipient of the 2018 Mairtín Crawford Short Story Award and holds the title of Northern Soul’s 2018 Northern Writer of the Year. You can read her full Personal Anthology here.

‘We All Know About Margo’ by Megan Pillow Davis

‘Margo’ is my go-to story for people who say they don’t read / don’t get / don’t like flash fiction (generally categorised as stories up to 1000 words). If ‘Cat Person’ by Kirsten Roupenian tapped into conversations about sexual consent and power in relationships, ‘Margo’ stripped those conversations right back to its beginnings. The title says it all, we did all know about a girl like Margot, someone we knew only by reputation, usually because of the way she looked as much as the actions she chose (or in this case did not choose) to take. I find it hard to read and recommend depictions of sexual assault in fiction but I make an exception for ‘Margo’. I urge you to read it, if nothing else on this list. 

first published by Smokelong Quarterly, September 2018 and available to read online here

‘Jutland’ by Lucie McKnight Hardy

This is a restrained story – we follow a woman biting her tongue as she copes with uprooting her life (along with her new baby and mute child) in order to support her husband’s artistry. But in the gothic tradition, what is repressed finds a way out, and we are invited into the woman’s internal thoughts – “the port is nothing like she’d expected”, “it starts to bawl again, a screech that causes her skin to prickle,” and the glorious brutal honesty of “He paints shit. He paints like shit. He is shit.” 
 
Tension continually builds throughout the story, both through the strained relationships and through a supernatural (or perhaps not) element. It has been said that short stories should leave us with more questions than answers, and in ‘Jutland’, McKnight Hardy leaves us in no doubt of this. The final piece of dialogue is a brutal, haunting, question repeated with a clarity and simplicity that belies the horror behind the words.

first published by NightJar Press, March 2019

‘If We Survive the Night’ by Charlie St George

It’s autumn, and all the dead girls are kneeling in the yard.

So begins the story of a group of horror movie ‘final girls’, trapped in a never-ending purgatory where they repeat their deaths again and again. Throughout the story the girls first try to survive, then turn on each other whilst a strange marble angel oversees the nightly carnage, forcing them to re-live their murders every night and repent their sins every day. A self-aware mix of postmodern commentary on slasher films, the limits of organised religion and a genuinely scary story in itself, ‘If We Survive the Night’ is like nothing I’ve read before or since.

first published by The Dark Magazine, March 2017 and available to read online here

‘The Sandwich Judge’ by Ben Slotky

This story consists of a rambling inner monologue about the merits of certain sandwiches – who gets to decide which is best, why is there so much lettuce in them, what is lettuce anyway? “You get mad at sandwiches because you think maybe that will make a difference even though it doesn’t, even thought it can’t.” And gradually, as we are told where the bickering couple are queuing, why they are focusing on sandwiches, we come to understand. For me ‘The Sandwich Judge’ is a really genuine portrait of someone falling apart – that urge to focus on the minute things that you can control, when utter tragedy comes into your life. 

first published by The Forge Literary Magazine, December 2018 and available to read online here

‘The Other Lady of the Night’ by Clare Fisher

I love Fisher’s collection because it is deceptively simple. A series of very short pieces on light and darkness that uses plain language to navigate contemporary issues and human relationships. It’s a brilliant collection, often funny and relatable but then the hard-hitting stories hit so much more. When I first read ‘The Other Lady of the Night’ I had to physically stop and put the book down to cry. Even after the hopelessness and brutality experienced by the Lady, the light still tries to get in: I fixed my eye on the light until it grew to fill me. I didn’t know what I’d find there, but hope sparked all over my body.

first published in How the Light Gets In, Influx Press, 2018

‘The Less Said’ by Jolene McIlwain

This is a deeply disturbing story that brings to mind Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino and Twin Peaks. A rural community clashes with a small group of outsiders – with good reason. The title of this piece sums up the attitudes perfectly – the characters are frequently unwilling or unable to speak about the horrors in their community. “More you stir the shit, more it stinks was what everyone said.” But who needs words, when you have actions? ‘The Less Said’ is a brilliantly told story of hurt and revenge, that weaves a whole community consciousness into just a few hundred words. 

first published by New Orleans Review, May 2018. Available to read online here

‘A Tired Person Can Sleep Anywhere’ by Peter Jordan

I’m a huge fan of Jordan’s writing – he creates worlds and characters with such ease that you feel you’ve slipped inside their lives and are observing up close rather than reading about them. This story from his debut collection is a great example of that – I looked up from the book surprised to find myself at home and not, in fact, seated at the diner that the story’s action rotates around. Not much happens in terms of narrative action – people working end of season holiday jobs come and go. They flirt, they talk, they argue a little. There’s no escaping these lives, no escaping the choices they’ve made. Reminiscent of Cannery Row, this story and its characters just got under my skin and stayed there. 

First published in What Lies Beneath: A Selection of Short Stories from Kingston Writing School selected by Hilary Mantel and Bonnie Greer, 2015, Kingston University Press. Also in Calls to Distant Places, Kingston University Press, 2019 and available to read online here.

‘Art, For Fuck’s Sake’ by Leone Ross

Come Let Us Sing Anyway is one of my favourite collections and I could have chosen any of the stories from it, but I’ve decided not to shy away from erotica here. When any writer asks about sex scenes I direct them to Ross. This story in particular is sensual, sexy, powerful and beautifully written. “We have no co-ordination. It doesn’t matter. It’s okay. We’re purring. Cleaning whiskers.” I particularly love this description of orgasm – “I’m up the ladder. I am at the top of the fucking ladder, I am falling over the ladder.” The sex scene comes late in the story and it is graphically described, but it never feels voyeuristic. It’s triumphant, as we witness the woman who has been celibate for a year find a joyful sexual encounter on her own terms. 

first published in Brown Sugar 2: Great One Night Stands – A Collection of Erotic Black Fiction, Simon & Schuster, 2002Collected in Come Let Us Sing Anyway and Other Stories, Peepal Tree Press, 2017

‘Following’ by Irenosen Okojie

I was fortunate to attend a writing workshop run by Okojie a few years ago. A lovely, friendly, encouraging teacher. I was sort of relaxing into myself when she started to read an excerpt from ‘Following’ and I sat right up. How could I not? “I stared at the tiny slit in your miniature penis, growing it with my mouth.”
 
I still don’t know how to categorise this story, one where the protagonist taunts and tortures a tiny man she has plucked out of her garden after using a resurrection spell. It’s violent, it’s graphic, it’s not an easy read. But it’s enthralling. It’s a great example of pushing ourselves to dark places, of seeing how far you could go as a writer, and then taking it just a little bit further. 

First published in Speak Gigantular, Jacaranda, 2016

‘1-800-FAT-GIRL’ by Emily Geminder

I love coming-of-age stories, and if something weird is happening in them, all the better. This is a very short story, that begins with a gang of pre-pubescent girls making calls to an unknown entity from a phone box. “They were ten, flat-chested in bathing suits. Secrets smooth as sea glass.” The descriptions are spot on, we are right there with the giggling girls, playing pranks and laughing about nothing. Then, as they grow and drift, we veer into ever more surreal territory, and the language with it, until the girls are “fleshless, formless, their hearts flung open.” I love the swift transformations here, and how much this story achieves in so little space. 

first published in American Short Fiction, 2017, collected in Dead Girls and Other Stories, Dzanc Books 2017, and available to read online here

‘The Husband Stitch’ by Carmen Maria Machado

I almost didn’t include this. So much has been said about it already, but this is a personal anthology. In October 2014, when this was published, I was heavily pregnant with my first child. I saw the story being passed around and praised but I knew from the title that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. It was a good decision. When I did read it, maybe a year later I cried, I cringed, I drew breath. I remember swearing and thinking – this is what writing can do. None of this should work – the weaving in and out of stories and times, the interruptions directing or addressing the reader, the melding of fairy tale with realism. But it does. And it’s perfect. 

first published in Granta, October 2014, collected in Her Body and Other Stories, Graywolf Press2017, and available to read online here

‘Half Sick of Shadows’ by Kirsty Logan

Another collection where I truly could have chosen any story, but this one spoke to me the most. A couple arrive at Camelot theme park with their young daughter with the intention of leaving her there. The sense of dread as I read this was also joined by a sense of understanding and recognition. This story, then, is a painful read for me. It felt as if Logan had seen the darkest thoughts in my mind and plucked them out onto the page. It makes me think of every time I’ve dismissed my daughter when she wanted to play, every time I’ve just wanted to be left alone, every time I’ve thought I can’t cope with this anymore. “- Was she really that bad? Maybe if we’d tried harder with her. Everyone else manages it.”I’m not sure I’m supposed to relate to the cruel parents in this story but I do. In my darkest days, deep in post-natal depression, would I have left my own daughter in a magical abandoned theme park if someone had given me the option? The answer to that, as the title of the collection alludes to, is not something I would dare speak in daylight. 

first published in Things We Say in the Dark, Harvill Secker, 2019