A raven on a bust of Pallas. A giant cockroach. A gun on a wall. So many images from ‘classic’ short stories (of one literary tradition, anyway) loiter in the imagination. Visions which have escaped their original boundaries to become, well, iconic. Motifs. Craft short-hand for specific techniques or structures, or simply images so powerful they lodge in the mind’s eye long after the plot has resolved, the page turned, the book relegated to the dusty corner of the shelf.
A confession. With the classics, I don’t always get these shorthands, these shared symbols. Without the background of formal study of The Short Story, I still need time to explore the canon(s). But even in a few brief years of my writer-reader pootling around in the form, I realise I’ve already collected an array of images which linger: from those so-good-you-could-frame-it ‘shots’, to reframed realities, to just darn clever ways of writing the visual. So, for my anthology, I thought I’d let you see what I see…
Wura Blackson designs dresses specific to the pains of each client. “The sharper the pain, the more dramatic the fabric; the deeper the cuts, the louder the sleeves; the weightier the story, the more precise the tail.” Fashion as healing, beauty as distraction from sin. The Lagos élite queue “the length of two anacondas” for her creations. She has the adoration of the ruling classes, the loyalty of her clients (of all genders). Yet she will never, ever, repeat a design. This is a brand so tantalising the reader wants to elbow in the door, to visit this tired and dying Oracle before it’s too late.
And yet the image that floored me in this story is the little detail of where the clients go when Wura refuses their custom: she has Security escort them to “the crying room”. A place where those refused can lie on imported Italian sofas in the smoky dark, with noise-cancelling headphones so as not to hear each other weep. With this “crying room” Osunde makes space – on the page, and in the imagination – to map a site of exclusion from the fictional world she’s just created.
By building this room she strengthens the overall story, and grants a deeper kind of power to her protagonist (who, we find, remakes her world in many ways). There’s so much more to this story – Wura’s daughter, her impending death, doubt and duty… but those people weeping in the dark are always there. Osunde is a glorious storyteller, with so many pieces like this which witness rooms and realities and bodies and obsessions which so many refuse to see.
First published in Catapult, February 2021, and available to read here, and collected in Vagabonds!, Fourth Estate, 2022
Wife is holding cauliflower skull in her palms, cutting into it, and trying not to think about how it has lobes. Hemispheres. A stem.
Writers of flash fiction are expert users of space. Powerful images can make an impact, but arguably (“discuss”) you must still provide a story, some change in character or reader, so there’s a real balance needed of economy, structure, focus. The words you choose to build the image must do a lot of work, carry a lot of weight, and yet still feel seamless and original.
This is a story about a wife struggling to prep and cook cauliflower. It is also about loss, and death, and how we interpret the look and feel of the world around us. It’s about trying to see each other’s visions of the world, and how we bridge those gaps with our loved ones, even when it hurts. Holding on; holding each other. Picking up the knife.
First published in Jellyfish Review, 2022, available here
There is a heart there big enough for me to lie upon and sleep and not touch the rocks if I curled up with my knees tucked under my jaw.
I like socially observant writers: those with a sharp eye for absurdities, an ear for the fall of different kinds of silence, a feel for the heated cheeks of the unsaid. I like very clever writers too: people who can play with words, tease them and weave them into a seriphed wink. But to find someone who can blend those talents with such gentle compassion for the queer delicacies of the world…well, that’s a rare treat. Enter Eley Williams. Yet with such a wordsmith it’s important not to forget her exquisite imagery. Fighting pelicans in Hyde Park. Boiling birds for haute cuisine. Unfortunate walrus videos.
The beached whale of ‘Bulk’ lies stubborn in my mind. It sits heavy across the entirety of the story, the characters’ thoughts and actions and interactions clambering on and around it. It’s a physical space to anchor the gathering crowd’s fears and foibles. Its silhouette contains overlapping symbolism, and decaying certainties. It is also just too big a thing, an awkward affront, an interruption to the way things are (“do you think we can push it back?”).
To balance a story in, on, and around such a beast should be tricky. Williams makes it look effortless.
First published in Attrib. and other stories, Influx Press, 2017
Even the title makes an awe-inspiring vision.
Everything about this piece is exquisite, a raw and raging kind of beauty. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it – okay, first person narration from the perspective of a ship, that’s clever – the author just keeps troubling our certainty of what that perspective should or could be. In one line we feel that tumble and flip: “my captain shares his rum with me and sometimes falls out of his bed so I can feel his skin”. Worlds turn. Hearts wring. And then in the full breadth of horizons and materials and uses and abuses, come sudden gaps and blank spaces: “I know that the color purple exists, though I have never seen it”. A story of love and loyalty. Poetry on the page.
Published in X-R-A-Y, 2021, and available to read here
A pattern is made up of many parts. ‘Factory by the Sea’ lives in my head as a perfect stand-alone short story, despite being an early chapter of a longer audio drama. A truck driver (voiced by Jasika Nicole) makes a delivery to a strange ugly factory on a beach. She enters, but only sees one worker at any one time: the same worker, only progressively older as she moves through the rooms. Revelations about the factory (“machine after machine, Alice. Imagine the scale of them. Picture it for me”) – and the true nature of the trucker’s delivery and thus, complicity – are alternated with her memories of her missing wife, and their own rituals: more human, more colourful, more crafted with love. This story is all iterative process, parts into parts, an unthinking making. All themes which Fink introduces for us early using form: repetition and the juxtaposition of grey mundanity and red warning.
There was a young man there. Very young – 18, at the most. Probably less. Probably less. The kid was wearing this gray factory jumpsuit with the company’s logo on it in red. The logo was a dog cringing in pain.
The factory becomes its own symbol of unavoidable destiny: a process of self-created endings, and a final image which clicks into place with a terrible oh. Question upon question of what parts make a whole life, and a life whole.
Episode 4 of Alice Isn’t Dead, Night Vale Presents, 2016. Available here, and transcript here
“Spies smile with fresh eggs held out in one hand, a pistol in the other.
Genre is created and sustained with careful choice of images: cues, views, intertextual nods. Yet the fiendishly talented Helen McClory toys with our constructed boundaries in this six paragraph story: her ‘hard-boiled’ detective narrator (“take a drink. It ain’t tea in that cup”) dropped into rural countryside to create an air-punchingly perfect ‘folk noir’.
“There was code here. It said always close the gate behind you. It said don’t trust anyone but yourself”.
McClory takes the symbols of stone and gates and fen and darkness and imbues them with a sly deviance, heavy with threat and guile. The final image focusses our threat into the danger of a liminal locale: “And nothing in this places flickers like a match struck”.
In Mayhem & Death, 404Ink, 2018
In 2020, in the tributes for her award as 37th SFWA Damon Knight Grand Master (it’s a big deal), writer Curtis C. Chen noted how powerful Hopkinson’s visions were for him: the reality of modern Toronto now completely replaced in his mind with her magical realist cityscape. One great example of how that’s done for me is this small but mighty piece, set on a cold winter’s morning. A kind of militarised municipal park workforce has the unfortunate job of going to wrestle down the city’s last panicked trees which are trying to fly away to freedom. The frustrated worker hanging on to the roots as one tree soars away – as if clutching to the rope of an escaping balloon – is just perfect.
Collected in Falling in Love with Hominids, Tachyon, 2015. Also collected in Skinfolk, Open Road, 2001. Originally published in Dark Planet Webzine, 2000
For a different idea of how incongruence – or overlap – plays out, have a read of the opening story of this excellent collection, and how it uses shape. The opening paragraphs suggest a strange place of myth: a ‘king of the hares’ finishing his coffee, moving through forest and meadow to an altar, upon which he places new offerings of feather and bones. Then the hares arrive and “[line] up in a half-circle”. It’s a fabulous little detail: in just a few words we have not only a suggestion of order imposed on an otherwise wild landscape, but the creation of a stage. What unfolds there is a curious and beautifully written (and translated) tale which moves further and further away from the tranquillity of the opening sentences.
Collected in A Perfect Cemetery’, Charco Press, 2021, and first published in Spanish in Un cementerio perfecto, Eterna Cadencia, 2016
And he’d never asked what a girl from Martinique with a degree in forensics was doing moonlighting as a Grace Jones impersonator, the translated versions of themselves staring at each other silently from the opposite sides of a revolving door.
What happens when the people who look at you see someone else? The lookalike is a fascinating thing to explore in a short form. If the reference point is well-known to the reader (this is Grace Jones for goodness’ sake) you can rely on ready recognition, and scoot along with your own original character; their foundations already laid in reference to their doppelganger. We know that they will move around your virtual world and interact with others within that particular filter. Expectations can be built on…or subverted.
Nudibranch is a stunning collection in so many ways. For me it will always be haunted by this image of Sidra/Grace as ‘translations’ of each other behind this spinning door, watching the violence of past and present flash over and over between them.
In Nudibranch, Dialogue Books, 2019
I like experimenting with using light in my fiction in different ways. To scour and bleach. To reveal. To distract. To warn. This story is from Comma Press’s excellent A City in Short Fiction series, and it has a lot of fun with this simple question of illumination.
A man sleeps next to his wife. He wakes in the night to feel someone else’s gaze upon him. He looks out through the open bedroom door to see – in the light from the kitchen – a strange man lounging around on their sofa. In moment by moment second-person prose, this one strange sight causes fear, shock, indignation, and eventually world-shattering confusion. For the protagonist, this “pompous” stranger dressed in a formal white suit, is a more terrifying vision than if he’d been “dressed in dark, tight-fitting clothing and a balaclava, holding a torch in one hand…” This story has no dialogue, minimal interaction between characters (there’s a sleepy wave at one point) and yet manages to challenge a lot of our assumptions about light and dark, glare and shadow, and what we’re truly afraid of losing.
Collected in The Book of Tehran, Comma Press, 2019, originally published in Fish Eyelid by Cheshmeh, 2016
Did you see that?
Fiancées Ben and Sophie go on a trip to Montana shortly after the death of Sophie’s brother, Alexei. There is tension: uncertainty around Sophie’s behaviour, Ben’s ongoing envy of the strength of the siblings’ relationship. And something has been promised on the trip that Ben cannot bring himself to believe. This disbelieving of the reality before you is interesting. In this story, images are misinterpreted or misremembered from the start. Before he dies, Alexei (a journalist) curtly corrects Ben on his mistaken identification of a painting: “You’ve gotten the women confused, because you think they have something to do with you”. Ben’s ‘possession’ of Sophie begins to disintegrate as he faces symbols of loss and irrationality which he can no longer pretend not to see, not least of which is the reanimated corpse of a black bear. There’s also a phone-line to the afterlife (though you have to make reservations) and a life-changing bell. ‘Bear’ is a smart and surreal slow-burn gem, with fantastic dialogue, dry wit, and unexpected turns.
Published in Guernica Mag, 2021 available here
There was a viral tweet a while back about how people visualise things (or don’t). There was the command of ‘imagine an apple’ followed by a sliding scale from shiny red apple at ‘category 1’, fading in colour and clarity through to a blank ‘category 5’ for those who don’t ‘see’ anything in their head that way (aphantasia). It led to some interesting chats about how different writers (and readers) see the images written on a page. For my part it was a head-scratcher. My apple was not only bright and clear but spinning: stop-motion chomps being bitten out of it to the core, then back again, bullet-time pivots, relocations of apple on tree/in bowl/on grass/in hand. The same when creating story structure and scene and time: zooming in, out, around, trying different permutations like a sort of textual Transformer in a tizz.
But it’s okay. I can always re-read this story from the great Ali Smith, with all its “no”, “wait”, “hang on” refocusing and re-establishing of its gaze, and I’ll feel very at home indeed.
In The Whole Story and other stories, Penguin 2003