The standard short story syllabus relies on a canon of realist short fiction; when I teach, I like to add a dash of the fantastic. Tzvetan Todorov, in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, defined the chief quality of the fantastic as ‘that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting a supernatural event.’ These in-between stories occupy a liminal space between literary and genre fiction, between belief and disbelief, borderlands which Michael Chabon elegantly makes the case for in his essay ‘Trickster In A Suit Of Lights’ (Maps And Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, McSweeney’s 2008). All these stories contain fantastical elements, some dreamlike, others straightforwardly speculative or deliberately metafictional.

‘Superfrog Saves Tokyo’ by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin

In ‘Superfrog Saves Tokyo’, Katagiri, assistant manager at the Tokyo Security Trust Bank, is summoned underground by a six-foot frog. Superfrog is in mortal combat with a giant worm, which threatens to cause an earthquake that will destroy Tokyo, and now requires the unwilling Katagiri’s assistance. This collection is centred on the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the story contains classic Murakami themes: katabasis (a journey to the underworld), urban loneliness, and the imagination as a battlefield where we experience victory and defeat. If you’re interested in translated fiction, do also watch the delightful documentary, Dreaming Murakami, in which Superfrog makes a cameo appearance.

First published in GQ in 2001, and available to read here; collected in after the quake, 2002, Harvill Press

‘The Underground Bird Sanctuary’ by Kuzhali Manickavel

This is a story about dying birds, fading love and the decline of idealism among young South Indians. Or, it’s a story about fading film posters, bus stands and toxic relationships. Manickavel is a true original, published in Granta and The White Review, and her dazzlingly imaginative stories are hard to describe. She has a characteristically surreal and absurdist take on subjects including (from her own back-cover blurb): ‘Indian culture; one Christmas story for children; no Indian culture whatsoever; men; poor people; voluntarily homeless youths; women; drugs; sex; Indian dads in cold foreign countries; vomit; boys; girl’s hostels; girls; future tense; the Tropicool Icy-Land Urban Indian Slum.’ and much more. 

First published in The Michigan QuarterlyReview, 2011 and available to read online here, and collected in Things We Found During The Autopsy, Blaft Publications, 2014

‘You Can Find Love Now’ by Ramona Ausubel

I adore stories which utilise existing forms and was delighted to read this wonderfully subversive piece. Ausubel takes the irresistible premise of a lovelorn Cyclops, filling in a dating agency profile, to emerge with a story both as hilarious and desperately tragic as any lover of Greek myth might hope for. 

First published by the New Yorker in 2014 and available for subscribers to read here. Collected in Awayland, Penguin Random House, 2018

‘Books and Roses’ by Helen Oyeyemi

Once upon a time in Catalonia, our heroine, Montserrat, is found as an infant in a chapel at the feet of a Black Madonna. Oyeyemi is an author whose work I love so much, I almost don’t want to share her. Her books are dizzying, enchanted sleigh-rides through fairytale and folklore that allude to and skilfully dissect the motifs they incorporate. ‘Books and Roses’, as well as the symbols of the title, involves keys, mirrors, secret gardens and the enigmatic architecture of Gaudí’s final residential building, the Casa Mila in Barcelona. 

Extracted in Granta and available to read here, and collected in the excellent What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Picador, 2016

‘Police Rat’ by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews

‘Police Rat’ is a Kafkaesque tale that has stayed with me, almost a decade after I first came across it. Bolaño’s Pepe the Cop is a regular police rat, dealing with a disturbing phenomenon he’s never before come across: a rat who kills other rats for pleasure.

Rats are capable of killing rats. The sentence echoed in my cranial cavity until I woke. I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. 

Pepe is also the nephew of the famous ‘Josephine the Singer’ of the Kafka story, which you can read here. The Bolaño story is, like Kafka’s original, a profound meditation on what makes us human, despite its setting in the underground sewers of rat world.

Published in The Insufferable Gaucho, New Directions, 2010

‘The Daughters of the Moon’ by Italo Calvino, translated by Martin McLaughlin

In ‘The Daughters of the Moon’ the space race and American consumerism collide with the concept of an ageing and decrepit moon, leaving its orbit and crashing to Earth – New York’s East River, to be precise, witnessed by the goddess Diana and her acolytes. Calvino, who began writing as a neorealist, is better known for his later fabulist and metafictional works. These emerged when, instead of producing the novels he felt were expected of him, he began writing the kind of book he loved to read, one that felt as if it was ‘by an unknown writer, from another age and country, discovered in an attic.’ 

First published in the New Yorker in 2009, and available for subscribers to read here, then collected in The Complete Cosmicomics, Penguin Modern Classics, 2009

‘The Clinic’ by Uschi Gatward

It’s always a delight to discover a new talent and prize -winning short story writer Uschi Gatward’s first collection contains twelve delicately paced, coolly sinister concoctions. Her liminal territory occupies the gap between mundane present and dystopian future, with a dash of folk horror thrown in; every story feeling spookily prescient for these times. ‘The Clinic’ begins with a familiar scene and characters: doctor, parents and a clever baby but soon spirals into unnerving and desperate flight, from surveillance into the unknown.

Published in English Magic, Galley Beggar Press, 2021. You can read the story here

‘Magic For Beginners’ by Kelly Link

I love Link’s longer short stories, which allow her unique storyworlds to develop. These worlds veer from our own at a tangent, guided by a singular dream-logic, and are perplexing and fascinating as our own dreams. In the title story, Jeremy, along with his high school cohort, is fannishly obsessed with a TV show called The Library, which appears at irregular intervals on formerly defunct TV channels. Jeremy’s parents are separating and he’s having a terrible time when Fox, a character in The Library who may or may not have been killed off, crosses from the show into his everyday existence. ‘Magic For Beginners’ is as metafictional as television can be and entirely as addictive. 

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2005 and available to read here. Subsequently collected in Link’s collection Magic for Beginners, Small Beer Press, 2005

‘The Watery Realm’ by Yūko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt

Tsushima, an acclaimed Japanese writer was the daughter of famous author Osamu Dazai and ‘The Watery Realm’ deals with the subject of her father’s suicide. The story moves between the protagonist, her son’s wish for an aquarium toy, which reminds her of the ‘Dragon Castle’ of Japanese myth, and her elderly mother’s viewpoint. The mother recalls her husband’s death, refracted through her fear of Suijin, Shinto spirit of the watery realm, who finally claimed him. Delicate and heartbreaking like all Tsushima’s work, only a fraction of which has been translated into English.

Published in Of Dogs and Walls, a £2 Penguin Modern, 2018

‘Sultana’s Dream’ by Begum Rokeya

‘Sultana’s Dream’ is a fascinating early feminist utopia, written in English by the Bangladeshi activist and writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain. In her fictional ‘Ladyland’ not only are men confined within the zenana (women’s quarters) but war, disease and famine are conditions of the past. ‘Ladyland’ is also an eco-utopia, a garden city complete with solar power, cloud condensers and hydrogen-powered flying cars. 

Originally published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, 1905. You can read the text, accompanied by wonderful linocut illustrations from US artist Chitra Ganesh here

‘What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky’ by Lesley Nneka Arimah

In ‘What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky’, Nneka Arimah takes a future dystopian world ravaged by climate change as given. Africa is now the destination of refugees from a drowned Europe, to this she adds her concept of the Formula, a discovery allowing mathematicians to unburden humans of grief and potentially free them from the forces of gravity. That is, until a man falls from the sky and our broken protagonist, talented mathematician Nneoma, becomes aware of the limits of human invention and intervention, as well as her own complicity.

Published in What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Tinder Press, 2018

‘Kelso Deconstructed’ by Zadie Smith

Smith’s outstanding story, from her only short story collection, takes the 1959 racist murder of Antiguan carpenter Kelso Cochrane in London’s Notting Hill as trigger for a metafictional foray into narrative’s inadequacies. We are witnesses to the final day of Kelso Cochrane’s life and follow him through an imagined 1950’s London, where the voices of luminaries such as Toni Morrison and Paul Gilroy ring out in metafictional proclamations from tube station announcements and Speaker’s Corner. These voices warn Kelso and his girlfriend, as well as the reader, that innocence when entering a fictional account of such tragedy, is no longer possible.

Published in Grand Union, Penguin, 2019