Introduction

The stories I’ve selected are ones that have left a deep impression at the time of reading and, in most cases, over several years. I have arranged them in chronological order based on the date of first publication. They cover the span of my life as a short story reader and are, in that sense, personal milestones on that journey. Of course, by the very nature of choosing only twelve stories, I omit many writers and short stories that I love: not only many established greats of the canon but also a host of brilliant contemporary writers whom I admire hugely.

‘First Love, Last Rites’ by Ian McEwan

I picked up a second-hand paperback copy of McEwan’s debut collection when I was a student. I didn’t know his work at the time and reading it felt like the most precious discovery. From the opening line: “From the beginning of summer until it seemed pointless, we lifted the thin mattress on to the heavy oak table and made love in front of the large open window.” the story has all the hallmarks of the spare, hallucinogenic style of McEwan’s early work. The story relays a long, languorous summer spent by two lovers in their late teens in a decaying room overlooking a quayside on the River Ouse. The young male narrator embarks on a hapless money-making scheme constructing eel traps. His girlfriend gets a job working in a factory across the river. The summer grows hot, the room airless and increasingly squalid. The torpid atmosphere stirred occasionally by visits from his girlfriend’s annoying little brother. The rest of the time is spent making careless, messy, indolent love, and, as their relationship stagnates, the narrator’s sexual fantasies mix with those about a creature and strange sounds in the wall.

Collected in First Love, Last Rites, Jonathan Cape 1975

‘Human Moments In World War III’ by Don DeLillo

First published in the mid-1980s when fear of nuclear holocaust was at the forefront of public consciousness, this story feels very relevant now, even though ironically, in the story itself, nuclear weapons have been banned, making war more prevalent: “The banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war.” The story is narrated by the commander of a two-man spacecraft orbiting the earth, gathering intelligence during the course of World War III. Much of it bears witness to what his rookie partner Vollmer experiences for the first time—human moments—and what he sees as he looks upon the earth from space. Through virtuosic language we too are able to envision afresh the beauty of the planet we inhabit and, in doing so, acutely sense the fleeting nature of our existence upon it. The final three paragraphs of this story are sublime, ending on a simply gorgeous refrain.

First published in Esquire, July 1983 and Granta, March 1984, where you can read it onlineCollected in The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, Picador 2011

‘The Prospect From The Silver Hill’ by Jim Crace

Jim Crace writes books that are difficult to categorise. Continent was initially published in 1986 as a novel in seven stories. This is the last story, portraying the lonely life of a company agent, suffering from “phrenetic insomnia”, assigned to a remote hill to test drill cores for precious metals and gemstones. “He sorted clays as milky as nutsap and eggstones as worn and weathered as saint’s beads into sample bags.” In such exquisite prose, Crace documents the protagonist’s slow descent into madness or perhaps, more sympathetically, to a higher plane of environmental awareness. To an imagined state of innocence, living as a hunter-gatherer with a family he’s never had. Treading lightly on an ancient landscape the civilised world, after silver is discovered, is bent on destroying for profit.

Collected in Continent, William Heinemann 1986, and available to read on the British Council Transcultural Writing website here – there is an accompanying self-commentary here

‘Lichen’ by Alice Munro

I adore Alice Munro, so a story by her was an absolute must. But which one when she has written so many superb stories over a long career dedicated to the form? After much deliberation, I came to a shortlist of three: ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’ and ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ from her debut collection, and this story from The Progress of Love. Like the other stories in the collection, it explores the mysterious, unpredictable, and multifaceted nature of love. Love is complicated, Munro amply illustrates, is often illogical and contrary, seldomly does it meet our expectations, and it stubbornly refuses to fit comfortably into our lives. Stella is visited by her serially unfaithful, conceited, and misogynistic husband David (whom she has been separated from for many years yet remains married to and still loves) and his current girlfriend (the delicate Catherine whom we find out David is also cheating on), at Stella’s old, family summer house on the shore of Lake Huron. Masterfully rendered through an ever-exacting eye, an acute ear for dialogue, and an abundance of compassion for her characters, as with many of Alice Munro’s stories, she is able to achieve in a few thousand words the complexity and density of a novel.

First published in The New Yorker, July 1985 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Progress Of Love, Douglas Gibson, 1986/Chatto & Windus, 1987; also in Selected Stories, McClelland Stewart, 1996

‘On The Rainy River’ by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried is both true and entirely fictional. After being conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War, ‘On The Rainy River’ tells the imagined story of the twenty-one-year-old O’Brien fleeing to the Canadian border and staying at a dilapidated lodge for six days where he agonises over whether or not he should avoid the draft by crossing the Rainy River which separates Minnesota from Canada. His host is the owner of the lodge, an old man named Elroy Berdahl, who while understanding the narrator’s predicament remains steadfastly silent on the matter, making no attempt to sway his decision either way. O’Brien writes about Elroy and the narrator’s dilemma: “…, the man understood that words were insufficient. The problem had gone beyond discussion.” I won’t go as far as to reveal what he finally decides to do—though you might guess—but what I will say is that O’Brien’s account of the inner turmoil experienced by the narrator as he finally arrives at his decision is among the most authentic and gut-wrenching writing I have ever read. Indeed, I would count The Things They Carried as not only the best war literature I’ve encountered, but also place it high among the finest works of literature created by any author.

First published in Playboy, January 1990Collected in The Things They Carried, Collins 1990

‘Terrific Mother’ by Lorrie Moore

Everybody who knows thirty-five-year-old artist Adrienne tells her that she “would make a terrific mother.” But at the beginning of the story, there is a fatal accident. While holding her friend’s baby at a picnic, Adrienne loses her balance, drops the child, and the child dies of a head injury. Adrienne is left traumatised. She drifts into marriage with Martin, an academic, whom she accompanies to a villa in northern Italy which doubles as their honeymoon. The villa, full of scholars that are experts in their various fields, is an emotionally sterile environment, perfectly mirroring it seems Adrienne’s state of mind, who for most of the story only appears to emotionally engage with thoughts of the dead baby: “Adrienne felt a light weight on the inside of her arm vanish and return, vanish and return, like the history of something, like the story of all things.” And later when she goes to a masseuse to help her relax, she hears lullaby music: “She was to become an infant again. Perhaps she would become the Spearson boy. He had been a beautiful baby.” The story, though, treads lightly when dealing with the aftermath of tragedy, the startingly accomplished writing shot through with black humour and acerbic wit that makes it all the more powerful.

First published in The Paris Review, Issue 124, Fall 1992, and available to subscribers to read hereCollected in Birds Of America, Faber, 1998 and Collected Stories, Faber 2008; also a Faber Single, 2019

‘Walk The Blue Fields’ by Claire Keegan

Beneath the still surface of Claire Keegan’s stories there is often a darker or surprising or shocking element. This story is no exception. While I nearly went with the story, ‘The Ginger Rogers Sermon’, from her debut collection, Antarctica, which shares similar qualities, I instead settled on the titular story of her second collection. It is difficult to describe what happens without giving too much of the story away. Only to say that, told in clear, vivid, and unaffected prose, it is an achingly beautiful and melancholy story that lingers long in the memory and the heart. A story about love and faith, disappointment and regret, and as it draws to a close, the hope of restoration and peace.

Collected in  Walk The Blue Fields, Faber, 2007

‘The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden’ by Denis Johnson

Lovers of flash fiction might admire the way this story is structured, made up of a series of “vignettes” Denis Johnson explains modestly in the contributors’ notes in The Best American Short Stories 2015 that “came together in a sort of arrangement.” There are ten interconnected parts to the story, told by the same contemplative narrator, Bill Whitman, who works in TV advertising, each about two pages long, and each a gem of a story in itself. It is, I believe, the work of a master at the height of his powers. There are so many great lines I could quote, but for me this from the fourth section titled “Farewell” seems to get to the heart of the matter when the narrator asks: “I wonder if like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you,…” This story is indeed mysterious and profound, sometimes very funny, and each time I read it I find something new and surprising that I hadn’t somehow noticed before. The ending, though, always makes me gasp and leaves me feeling hollowed out. A work of a genius in my view.

First published in The New Yorker, February 2014, and available to subscribers to read hereCollected in The Best American Short Stories, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015, and The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden, Random House 2018

‘In Winter The Sky’ by Jon McGregor

In this story of love and remorse spanning out through time, Joanna and George, who are young lovers at the beginning of the story, are haunted by choices made after a tragic accident, their opportunities and plans thwarted as a consequence. There is a hypnotic quality to the writing which the experimental structure only seems to enhance—fragments of poetry or poetic meditations about time, memory, and the history of the land interpolated with the prose. Half-deletions/strikethroughs, never full redactions, suggest absences; things partly hidden and uncovered, mistakes that refuse to be forgotten. Also, it feels to me, the structure creates a sensation of space paralleling the huge sky dominating the rural Norfolk landscape where the story is set. Indeed, the setting and the changeable mood of the sky—as signposted by the title—feel at least as much, if not more, a presence in the story as the two main characters.

First published in Granta, January 2012, and available to read here; collected in This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, Bloomsbury 2012

‘Shine/Variance’ by Stephen Walsh

This story was shortlisted for The White Review short story prize and in my opinion should have won. The story concerns a father taking his son to buy a Christmas tree while his thoughts are consumed by quarterly sales targets. Narrated in a kind of mechanical office shorthand littered with sales figures that amplifies the father’s state of mind and the pressure he is under, as the story unfolds everything becomes increasingly quantified, categorised, and ranked. The variance measured against expected outcomes or societal expectations. Referring to his own children, the father states: “Of course love but if can be objective for a moment would give them maybe 5 average on looks.” Does the plan to buy “The Tree” go smoothly? Well, as you might expect, not quite. In fact it becomes an ordeal in turn nightmarish, hilarious, but ultimately intensely moving.

First published in The White Review, April 2019, and available to read here. Collected in Shine/Variance, Chatto & Windus 2021

‘All Silky and Wonderful’ by Ben Pester

The train on which the narrator is commuting enters a tunnel, prompting him to wonder: “Had we entered a new kind of space? Were we still physical things?” These questions seem to capture the essence of this surreal, unsettling, and oddly moving story. A story that, like several others in Ben Pester’s excellent debut collection, hooks into the subconscious and burrows deep. The narrator rereads a message on his phone about the death of an old school friend. After dozing off, he wakes to find himself in an empty carriage. Everyone else has moved into the adjoining carriage but when he tries to do the same, the guard won’t let him through. The other passengers turn against him, appearing frightened, even disgusted by him: “Their faces were subtly altered, as though they were now confronted with an unpleasant cleaning task – say, a dead and half-rotted pigeon, discovered behind a voided fireplace.” I won’t describe what happens next because that would take away the fun of reading a story in which the narrative direction is impossible to anticipate. Yes, it is an extremely funny and bizarre story, but moreover it speaks to the reader on a deeply human level. Neglected or half-noticed places, dark, hidden away, negative spaces—tunnels, lofts, crawl spaces—, the mundane details of the everyday, become alive with feeling and meaning. After reading, we too feel transformed, our perspective shifted to perceive the world in a new, “silky and wonderful” way.

First published in Granta, June 2019, and available to read here. Collected in Am I In The Right Place, Boiler House Press 2020

‘Cell’ by Wendy Erskine

Wendy Erskine’s two volumes of stories are both equally brilliant. I was tempted to include the superb ‘Inakeen’ from her debut collection Sweet Home, but finally chose the longest story from her second collection, Dance Move. ‘Cell’ tells the story of an impressionable and naïve young Belfast woman, Caro, who after graduating from UCL, comes under the controlling influence of a radical and cultish, left-wing group. Her circumstances appear to be close to modern slavery as she is isolated from the outside world, conditioned into accepting her subservient role as general dogsbody to domineering Bridget and Luis. The only other resident left in the house—others have long gone and established new lives, and original group leader Bill was killed in a road traffic accident—is the older and infirm Maurice, a principled and diffident intellectual, who was once Bill’s partner and is now too weak to leave his bedroom. Aside from the richness and vitality of the characters and the narrative—Wendy Erskine’s stories are full to bursting with life in all its various shades—what impresses most about this story is the deft handling of time. How it sways back and forth between the present and the past so effortlessly. What transpires is shocking and appalling and heart-rending, made more so by the ingenious way the intricate narrative is revealed, gradually and naturally, to the reader.

Collected in Dance Move, The Stinging Fly Press 2022, Picador 2022