Introduction

How to formulate a list like this?

Lists are silly. Lists are stupid. Lists change with the weather and time of day.

Lists are fun.

This isn’t a list of the twelve best stories of all time. (Or is it?)

This is a list of twelve stories which have stuck with me for one reason or another for a lot of years. Stories which chewed their way into my brain and squatted there. They still poo out little jolts of delight or terror or sorrow or satori when I least expect it 

I have made no effort to balance this list in any way, though I could have come up with more than twelve tales to talk about. In the end, they are simply twelve stories I really like – some of them I also find useful for teaching.

Lists are fun? You tell me.

‘“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman’ by Harlan Ellison

Ellison represents one of the two writers most important to my tragically not-misspent youth. (Kurt Vonnegut, who appears next, is the other.) There is no louder a ‘voice’ writer out there than Ellison, and I think the fact that I prize voice so highly is down to his influence. Ellison was also that now rarest of creatures: a self-declared short story writer. (He wrote a couple of unmemorable novels, and was a successful screenwriter for a while.) He was also as much a character as he was a writer of characters, and while he was probably loathed and loved in equal measure for his… exuberant personality, he wrote wonderful short stories. (Hearing him read his stories aloud was mesmerizing.) And in his often brilliant non-fiction – along with essays, he always wrote intros to the stories in his collections that were as interesting as the stories themselves – he presented his readers with a path to lots of other great writers in and out of genre. 

As with others on this list, I could have chosen several of his stories – ‘The Deathbird’, ‘Jefty is Five’, ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’, etc – but ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ is the one that means the most to me. It won all kinds of awards, has been reprinted a zillion times (that’s a true statistic), and is a glorious excursion into Ellison’s world of wit, wordplay and wonderment. It offers typically Ellisonian excess, is probably just a tad juvenile – and is very funny. 

First published in Galaxy Science Fiction, Dec 1965. Collected in Ellison’s Paingod and Other Delusions, Pyramid, 1965 and widely recollected and anthologised

‘Harrison Bergeron’ by Kurt Vonnegut

I think Vonnegut shaped my sensibility as a teenage reader more than anyone – yay, Kilgore Trout! – and while I don’t believe he wrote a lot of short fiction later in his career, ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is an early masterpiece that has only grown more timely with time. If you took Vonnegut’s name off it and said it was written last week, no one would doubt it – at least thematically. His vision of a world where everyone must be equal would no doubt delight critics of so-called PC culture, though I can’t imagine the author himself had a lot of time for the politics of that particular crowd. I think the measure of the story’s value is how often images from it dance – clad in solid lead ballet slippers – through my brain, as the world that we live proves ever more Bergeron-ish.

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Oct 1961, and collected in Welcome to the Monkey House, Delacourt, 1968 and the Collected Stories, Seven Stories Press, 2017

‘One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts’ by Shirley Jackson

Now there’s even a biopic about her (haven’t seen it), and I think Shirley Jackson is pretty widely recognised as a brilliant, major writer. But for a long time, it seemed like she was ‘The Lottery’ and that was about it. Of course, ‘The Lottery’ is a great, great story and deserves all the huzzahs it gets. I could have included that one here, too, and been stoned to death a happy man. But just to be interesting (“Too late!” you moan) may I offer for your consideration ‘One Ordinary Day…’.

It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s clever, it’s funny, it’s profound and just a little bit disturbing… all the things that Jackson was so good at stirring together. It’s only about the origin of good and evil in the world – kind of. Read ‘The Lottery’ if you’ve never done so, by all means (and drop a copy of The Haunting of Hill House into your shopping basket while you’re at it.) But sit back and enjoy the Jacksonian whimsy of ‘One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts’.

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 1955, and collected in Jackson’s (posthumous) Just an Ordinary Day, Bantam, 1996

‘Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance?’ by Howard Waldrop

Let me briefly slip into something clichéd and comfortable for you. Oooh: soft, silky, trope-y…that’s better. 

Howard Waldop is a National TreasureTM

You agree, right? I mean, who doesn’t love them some Howard?

Howard who? you ask. 

(Four of you are slapping your arthritic knees with laughter right now. ‘Cause Waldrop’s first, spectacular story collection was called Howard Who? and… never mind.)

Waldrop is no secret in genre circles, though (tragically) I’d bet cash money that his entire output hasn’t sold as many copies as George RR Martin’s lavishly illustrated, pop-up recipe book of dragon piss cocktails. That’s no reflection on Waldrop (or Martin, whose ‘Sandkings’ might have made this list on a different day), but rather on all of you who don’t own any of his books. Shame on you, you bastards.

Waldrop is probably best known for ‘The Ugly Chickens’ – I see you rolling your eyes at each other, so stop it now – a spectacular tale about the not-quite-extinct dodo that could have been named here. There’s his short novel, A Dozen Tough Jobs, which is awfully like the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou, but written about ten years earlier (no plagiarism is remotely suggested, my learned friends…). Waldrop specialises in kind-of-obscure alternate history tales underpinned by years – no kidding – of research. He has a voice and a sense of humour and a playfulness which is singular and delightful.

‘Do Ya, Do Ya’ isn’t alternate history, but it is very much about ghosts of the past. About things lost and found again, and it is just magical. Maybe it doesn’t feature sentient, robot Disney characters in a post-apocalyptic future (see Waldop’s ‘Heirs of the Perisphere’ for that) but it is awfully human and awfully wonderful.

Buy one of his fucking books, for the love of Mickey!

First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Aug 1988, and collected in Waldrop’s Night of the Cooters, Ursus Imprints and Mark V Ziesing, 1990

‘“Yore Skin’s Jes’s Soft ‘N Purty…” He Said’ by Chet Williamson

This one won’t be for everyone. 

Williamson is a solid genre guy. 

I can totally identify (with all respect to Chet, whom I don’t know personally). 

He’s the kind of reliable, decent – and that’s no insult – mid-list writer on whom the industry was once built but has dispensed with because, c’mon, who wants a writer who regularly turns out good words but doesn’t light up Instagram? Why publish someone who still actually – get him! – employs quotation marks to set out their dialogue? (God, what a miserable old fart I am.) 

‘Yore Skin’ was published in an entertaining small press anthology co-edited by Joe R Lansdale (see below) called Razored Saddles. The story is fucking brilliant. It belongs, I suppose, to that most eccentric of subgenres, the Weird Western; it is certainly horror, though it has no supernatural element. 

(By the meaningless by, I’ve been working on my own weird western novella for about fifteen years now. It guest stars Dashiell Hammett and Nathanael West. You’re excited, aren’t you? Maybe another fifteen years…) 

The Williamson story follows a man, an illustrator of frontier adventure tales, who goes in search of the romance of a true west about which he has only read. 

And ohlordymama does he find it. 

Williamson pulls not so much as a fluid ounce of punch in this sucker.  It is raw, brutal and leaves you feeling like you’ve been hit in the back of the head with an axe handle. Over and over.

I love it.

First published in Razored Saddles, edited by Joe R Lansdale & Pat LoBrutto, Dark Harvest, 1989

‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ by Herman Melville

Okay, I know this is an extremely boring choice and I realise that Melville uncharacteristically classes-up the list – hey, I ain’t a total slob – but… Jesus, do I hate Moby-Dick.

Yeah, yeah, great first line. And sure, Gregory Peck was pretty cool in the movie – Atticus Finch with a harpoon! But then there’s all that endless, endless, endless whale shit. Fuck me! I never finished it – so maybe I am a total slob – and I just don’t give a scrimshaw.

‘Bartleby’, though!

Bartleby.

Ah, Bartleby…

First published in Putnam’s Magazine, Nov/Dec 1853 and now widely available

‘The Power and the Passion’ by Pat Cadigan

I suppose that if there is an undercurrent to this little list – other than an obvious I-like-genre-stuff slant – it might be authors who have maybe been unfairly overlooked by the Cool Kids of Culture. Pat Cadigan fits the bill. Pat is hardly unknown in science fiction, but I don’t think she’s ever quite received the due she deserves for formulating some of the stuff that the Gibsons and Sterlings and Stephensons have been (rightly) celebrated for. She is also a versatile writer.

‘The Power and the Passion’ is a vampire story. With a twist. Like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup (♫‘Two great tastes in one candy bar…’♫), it brings together a pair of great monsters: vampires and serial killers. 

(Of course, Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein combined three great monsters way back in 1948. But I digress. And perhaps offer too many parenthetical asides.) 

Cadigan’s voice here – a first person, very disturbing, psychopathic killer with a secret up his sleeve – is rip-roaring fun. The tale is a thrill ride, yes, but she also has a serious point to make about who and what is monstrous in this world. Not always so easy to know, is it?

First published in Patterns, Ursus, 1989

‘The Hobby’ by Eric McCormack

It is an embarrassing indictment of my lack of literary curiosity that I don’t know more about Eric McCormack, because ‘The Hobby’ really is one my favourite stories. I know he’s Canadian, I just looked up his age, and I’m sure I read one of his novels – it didn’t dazzle me, I’m afraid – but beyond that he is a mystery. I found ‘The Hobby’ through ace editor Michele Slung, who put the story in Stranger, a neat anthology in which she generously included a tale of my own. I quote from Michele’s on-the-mark intro to ‘The Hobby’ therein: ‘Each time I read it, I discover something new; always when I finish it, I gasp.’The story can’t run to more than 2,000 words, but oh, how McCormack makes every one of those beautiful words count. On the surface, ‘The Hobby’ is a compact, Twilight Zone-ish effort, with the requisite twist, but the more you think about it, the more wondrous and disturbing it gets. It plays an intricate, clever game with point of view, rewarding the attentive reader with a money shot for which Rod Serling would have traded a year’s worth of Marlboros.

I gotta go find out more about this wonderful writer. One of these days…

First published in Inspecting the Vaults, Viking Canada, 1987, and collected in Stranger: Dark Tales of Eerie Encounters, edited by Michele Slung, Harper Perennial, 2002

‘Mr Fiddlehead’ by Jonathan Carroll

Carroll is high on the list of the planet’s underappreciated gems. He is another serious voice writer, as demonstrated in such finely sculpted novels as Bones of the Moon and Outside the Dog Museum. He is also a quirky bastard – that voice, enchanting as it is, won’t soothe every savage breast. He is sometimes guilty of the critical accusation of walking a shaggy terrier down his mean narrative streets. But, oh that prose!

Nothing shaggy about ‘Mr Fiddlehead’. It is a delightful (and dark) play on a familiar theme: an invisible childhood friend comes to life. Like all of Carroll’s work, it glitters with honed observations of people and places.

And fountain pens – a minor obsession of my own – figure in the story. So what could be bad?

First published in Omni, Feb 1989, and collected in Carrol’s The Panic Hand, HarperCollins, 1995

‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ by Ursula K LeGuin

Another too obvious choice?

Maybe. But it’s still a good one. 

I shouldn’t like this at all. It doesn’t do any of the things that I want a story to do: no characters, as such; no dialogue; no plot, in any normal sense of the word. Kinda preachy.

But what a lesson it declaims!

LeGuin knows exactly what she is doing here, and the place she takes us, the question she makes us confront – would you walk away from Omelas? – is profound and central to our claim to humanity. It is a question that seems more vital than ever.

What is your final answer?

First published in New Dimensions 3, edited by Robert Silverberg, Doubleday, 1973. It has been collected more times than there are Donald Trump lies

‘The Mist’ by Stephen King

I know this isn’t the end of the list as you are reading it, but this is the last slot I have to fill and I struggled to decide which story to name. I was tempted to throw in a Chandler novella because I love Chandler the bestest, but none of those are really a patch on the novels they were cannibalised to create. I thought about a Roger Zelazny piece because really people should still be reading Roger Zelazny. For a nanosecond I toyed with Robert E Howard as a nod to the ghost of my adolescence –and to be really perverse to Jonathan – but let’s face it, he was a fairly shitty writer and his minor significance lies outside of his actual talent as a writer.

Then there is the King.

I love Stephen King. I don’t love everything he has published – god, I stopped trying to even keep up years ago. (‘No mas, no mas,’ to quote Roberto Duran.) But beyond the brand and the astonishing commercial success and the mostly awful adaptations stands a brilliantly entertaining – and frankly brilliant – writer. Not every book, lord knows, but enough of them.

At his best King is more readable than anyone. The ShiningThe Dead Zone, Misery… spectacular stuff. And there are rib-tickling (or rib-cracking) short stories, especially the early, pulpy stuff collected in Night Shift.

I’m cheating by choosing ‘The Mist’, I know. Really it is a short novel, though it originally appeared in a short story anthology: Kirby McCauley’s legendary Dark Forces. But it contains everything that makes King so much fun to read. The storyline is stripped down to Lifeboat circumstances: a bunch of people who don’t all get along, trapped in a tight space with limited hope of survival. It is gussied up with an unexplained fantasy backdrop/MacGuffin, but it works because of one thing: characterization. 

King just does it so well, so easily. Even when you don’t believe every word of his dialogue – and King can get a little hokey – you believe in and care about his characters to the last page. That’s the first rule of writing, I know, but few succeed in doing it as well as Mr King does.

I remain, now and forever, his humble subject.

First published in Dark Forces, edited by Kirby McCauley, Viking, 1980. It was collected in King’s own Skeleton Crew, Putnam, 1985, and later republished as a stand-alone volume, Signet, 2007

‘Night They Missed the Horror Show’ by Joe R Lansdale

I’ve saved the best for last.

But, but…

‘Raymond Carver,’ you whimper. 

‘Flannery O’Connor,’ you protest. 

‘Hemingway!’ You shoot yourself in the fucking head, you bloody idiot.

Screw them. This is the real deal. Lansdale – whose name has become more familiar recently thanks to some film and TV adaptations of his work – was criminally ignored for a long time. He has written a series of scathingly funny crime novels – The ‘Hap and Leonard’ books – and is a fierce writer of short stories in several genres. None fiercer than ‘Night They Missed the Horror Show’, which Lansdale his own self subtitled ‘a story that doesn’t flinch’. 

‘Night’ epitomises what horror fiction can do. It is bleak, savage and slices your eye like Bunuel’s razor. It grabs you like Isadora Duncan’s scarf and doesn’t let go through the bleakest of endings. None of the characters are likeable. Everything in it is awful. It liberally employs the n-word (in an entirely necessary way). And you won’t be able to lift your gaze from the page until it’s done. 

This is horror without the supernatural. The monsters here are of this world, and they are more dangerous now than the period in which the story is set or when Lansdale wrote it. 

It is unforgettable. It shows what short stories can do.

I wish I had written anything half as powerful.

First published in Silver Scream, edited by David J Schow, Dark Harvest, 1988, and collected in Lansdale’s By Bizarre Hands, Mark V Ziesing, 1989