Introduction

There were so many ways to go with this anthology, but I decided to go with, ‘stories that mean something to me.’ It’s the only way I really know to talk about reading, when it comes down to it, and it’s what feels true.

Ultimately reading is a selfish act, even when we read to know other people’s minds. We want to know more, and feel more, we want to look at something and go, ‘Oh I understand!’ or ‘Oh! this person understands me!’ or we want to learn a new thing, or a new thought, or a new way of looking at the world. We want to laugh with recognition or horror, or sit at the kitchen table, trembling with the everythingness of everything.

We want to connect.

At least, I do. And as this is My Personal Anthology, I’m going with that. Reading is a glinting collage of a thousand double-sided mirrors. Or something.

‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens

My first thought upon being asked to do this was, ‘Well, it has to be A Christmas Carol,’ and then I felt embarrassed for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on. THEN I looked it up and realised for the first time at the grand age of 41, that it’s (obviously) a novella not a shorty story. But, it would be wrong not to put it in here, because to me it had always been a short story.

It’s everything a piece of short fiction should be, when you’re eight, under your duvet, shivering with the pure brilliance of it, earnestly nodding at its meaning. I feel the same about it now though, and love it, without measure.  I love it so much, and reread it every year at Christmas, and can’t imagine life without it.

Also, whenever I stand near an open window at night I think of this: The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they wentSo, thanks for that, Dickens.

First published by Chapman & Hall on 19 December 1843, and now available from so many places, including online, you’d find it in seconds

‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ by Edgar Allan Poe

For a short while in my teens everything was rich and swirling and sinister in my reading and writing. We had to write Gothic fiction for A Level, and I wrote a story called ‘The Bride’, about a newly married couple who find a house full of strange paintings and cello music. The husband gets entranced by a figure in a painting and walks about the house look for him, forgetting his wife. By the end, she has disappeared and is now in one of the paintings, on a bed of nails. My teacher wrote, ‘I love the ambiguity of the man’s sexuality and his ultimate ambivalence for his wife.’ It was pretty much a copy of this story, when I think of it, but I was proud of myself as though it was all my own doing.

ANYWAY, I blame this Poe story (and The Picture of Dorian Gray) which I still dream about now, for all that. It’s so visual, and full of the strange spyglass of sulphuric detail that Poe’s fiction is full of, somehow exterior and interior. It’s the kind of story you read in the dark, even if you’re reading it on a park bench in the sunshine. I could say lots about it, about Poe, about writing that thrills, or disturbs, or about short stories that do that. But I won’t. We’ve all been there.

It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression.
 Exactly.
First published in 1839. My copy from The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, Penguin Classics; Rev Ed edition 2003

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

My first thought is anyone who’s ever read this story would surely put it in their personal anthology. I know things are subjective, but I can’t see how anyone wouldn’t.

There was a room in my grandparents’ bungalow that I’d sleep in, there was rose patterned wallpaper, white and pink and green and ugly. There were faces in it, and the room was cold, like a pantry. I’d lie in the dark, touching the tassels of the bedside lamp, trying not to look at all the faces in the petals, missing my mum, thinking of the faces staring at me. When I read this story, I remembered all this, and more.

I remember the first time I read it, too, holding my breath and not really being aware of my physicality from beginning to end, and yet being totally aware of it too – the claustrophobic way there were not enough pages and not enough words and yet exactly the right amount of everything. This story is words as secrets, as saviour, as desperation, as confession. I was seventeen when I first read it and I wanted to talk about it all the time. it is perfection, and I go back to it again and again.

It has everything. Powerlessness, condescension to the point of imprisonment, gaslighting, disapproval, and the bright-faced utter rebellion of it. The tone, so light, so bright, at first, then the hurtling towards despair and ESCAPE, in its own way, in the only way possible. So much said, in so few words.

There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.
 It’s terrifying, and brilliant, and everyone should read it.
First published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine. My current version is the Vintage Classics, 2015

‘The Snow Child’ by Angela Carter

When I was very young – probably too young – my Mum used to read me Grimms’ Fairytales as a treat, and I was transfixed by them, utterly repulsed and delighted. All the things I hadn’t really felt again from stories until I read Angela Carter. Her work is a gift, on repeat, and I’ll never tire of it. It’s not surprising that the story I’ve chosen is a retelling of the Grimms’ of the same name, and that its significant detail change that makes Carter’s last in the memory. The man calls The Snow Child into being, instead of the woman.

He creates his perfect women, with his actual flesh and bones wife right there next to him.

Angela Carter does so many things so well, but for me, it’s the physicality of the women in her stories that grab me. They inhabit their bodies from the inside out and I found that startling and overwhelming when I was sixteen, that they could appear fully formed and bloody, not just peered at with clean or structured desire.

AND YET, this story shows women as that exactly, clean and structured, a man’s-eye view, conjured and controlled by the Count, to his tastes. The way it’s done, though, doesn’t collude with him, it smashes him to bits, and laughs at him, but is always aware of how dangerous it is, the laughing. It may be short, but this story manages to pick apart, build, laugh and destroy so many things at once. The Count’s sexuality is ridiculous and terrifying. The women he desires are dead or a scatter of objects, a series of two-dismensional photographs framed by his eyes. It, like everything Carter wrote, is spectacular.

(There’s something about the black fox furs jumping from the Countess’ shoulders onto the girl’s that has stuck with me, since that day in 1993 when I first read it, and, as an aside I’m still, all these years later, longing for a pair of high, black, shining boots with scarlet heels, and spurs. When I have a pair of these, I will know I’ve made it.)

From The Bloody Chamber, first published in 1979 by Gollancz. Now Vintage Classics.

‘Medusa’s Ankles’ by AS Byatt

What happened in an eight-month period in 1997-1998 was both my parents died. I was twenty. I had dropped out of University twice and didn’t know what I was doing. I kept running away from jobs in my lunch hour. A book shop in Camden. Past Times in Covent Garden. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

My friend gave me A.S. Byatt’s Possession the Christmas that sat neatly between their deaths, and it changed everything.

I sat, reading it, over that Christmas holiday. I was reading the same writers, or writers mentioned by those writers, and then I read that book, that one book, and I read every single writer she referenced in the half a year after. Goethe, Coleridge, EVERYTHING. I was hungry for all of it, and it opened up the world for me. Because of that book, in the summer of 1999 I applied to do a Literature degree at the University of Essex, and never looked back. It would have never happened without A.S. Byatt because I didn’t realise reading could be a thing you studied to that level, because I’d been taught that things you enjoy were too easy to study. Study should be suffering. Well. No.

That says nothing about this story, in this collection, which I bought immediately after I’d finished Possession. A woman in a hairdresser’s chair, thinking about her age, and being invisible, and how she first went into that hairdresser’s purely because of the Matisse she saw through the window, and all the things the hairdresser says, as she sits, and he talks, and they sometimes look at each other in the mirror.

I love this story. I love all of A.S. Byatt’s work, and all her books of short stories especially, are like gleaming treasures, brightly wrapped, beautifully formatted, carried about, on and off, in various handbags over decades as a reminder of something that I still can’t quite articulate.

This story has the line: She came to trust him with her disintegration.

It’s worth it for that alone.

From The Matisse Stories, Vintage, 1994

‘On the Gull’s Road’ by Willa Cather

I think the best thing about the spark decision I made, when asked over the phone by someone at the University of Essex during clearing in the summer of 1998 ‘Would you like to do English and European Literature or English and United States Literature?’, to answer ‘United States’, was Willa Cather. The fact I made that decision because Plath and Poe and Sweet Valley High and Jackie Collins jumped into my head when I was asked the question, is by-the-by.

I’m not sure I’d have discovered Willa Cather so soon (or ever?) if I hadn’t. My Ántonia is one of my favourite books, and I love it wildly and loyally, and this story is its worthy companion in my heart.  She writes with spaces and rhythm and, somehow, a soaring plainness, if there can be such a thing. Vast and clear without every being fussy, but also, detail of the like you can’t imagine not having known before you read it. She also is a champion when it comes to unrequited love.

Though when we are young we seldom think much about it, there is now and again a golden day when we feel a sudden, arrogant pride in our youth; in the lightness of our feet and the strength of our arms, in the warm fluid that courses so surely within us; when we are conscious of something powerful and mercurial in our breasts, which comes up wave after wave and leaves us irresponsible and free.
 I just, absolutely and unapologetically to my bones, love stuff like that.
First published in McClure’s in December 1908. You can read it here