Initially I planned an anthology made exclusively of final stories from collections. A book of endings. But I quickly realised that many stories that work beautifully as the finale of a book don’t do so well in other contexts. A final story tends to take risks an opening story never would. Perhaps writers put their more challenging material at the end on the principle that – if the reader has got that far – then they’re probably enjoying themselves and ready to experiment. This is certainly true of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, the final story in Wells Tower’s debut collection. The eight stories that precede it earn the goodwill that allows him to finish with a tale of slacker-vikings pulling each other’s lungs out. I’ve put that story at the end of my list. My plan is to work up to it.

‘Merry Christmas from Hegel’ by Anne Carson

I discovered this in The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, which suggests it’s a prose poem, though when Anne Carson talks about it she calls it an essay – and yet it could just as easily be a short story. Whatever it is, it’s four hundred and five words of perfection, with Carson managing to handbrake turn from desolate to comic to profound and back again, sometimes within the same sentence. (This may also be the only story that successfully uses its title as a final line.) It’s not published online but I recommend listening to her read it (from 3.15 onwards.) When I hear the bookshop audience’s silence I wonder if I’m alone in finding the story, and her deadpan delivery, very funny.

First published in Float, Jonathan Cape, 2016. Anthologised in The Penguin Book of The Prose Poem,  2018. Listen to it here

‘Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby’ by Donald Barthelme

I remember buying Barthelme’s Sixty Stories and thinking it was a bit much. On their own, the stories might well have been wonders of surprise and invention but I couldn’t feel surprised for 480 pages. Novelty fatigue set in. The book was not helped by its joy-sapping introductory essay which placed Barthelme in the context of his time and instantly turned him into homework. Years later, I bought one of those miniature, slightly-gimmicky Penguin editions they sell by the tills in bookshops – and only then it clicked. Now I like to read him in short bursts as a palate cleanser, a little explosion of possibility. Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby is the title story in the tiny book and it’s the one I come back to most often, marvelling at its balance of funny and serious, heartfelt and heartless.

First published in The New Yorker, May, 1973, and available for subscribers to read here, then collected in Amateurs, 1976. Recently collected in a Penguin Mini Modern Classic, 2011

‘A Stick of Green Candy’ by Jane Bowles

Mary plays alone in a clay pit, preparing her regiment of imaginary soldiers for war. She is at that tipping point where her inner life is fracturing under pressure from an adult world she both despises and desires. This beautifully internal and restrained story was the final one in Bowles’ collection, Plain Pleasures. It was also final in another sense. She wrote this in 1949 – and carried on writing for another two decades – but never completed another piece of fiction.

First published in Vogue, 1957, then collected in Plain Pleasures, Peter Owen, 1966. Available to read here

‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka

I know, I know. I did try and choose a less famous Kafka story. I thought long and hard about including The Giant Mole, with its magnificent first line: “Those, and I am one of them, who find even an ordinary sized mole disgusting, would probably have died of disgust if they had seen the great mole that a few years back was observed in the neighbourhood of one of our villages, which achieved a certain transitory celebrity on account of the incident.” But in the end I realised that a large part of what I loved about the mole was that it reminded me of Gregor Samsa, the giant insect or beetle or cockroach (depending on translation), his legs spinning in his single bed.

First published in German, as ‘Die Verwandlung’, in Die Weißen Blätter, 1915. Widely translated

‘Emergency’ by Denis Johnson

Many writers, myself included, have gone through a Denis Johnson phase. It never ends well. His poetic but brutal images are dangerously alluring – how the rich of Beverly Hills wander around with ‘their heads shot off by money’ or how the narrator strips copper wiring from a house, the walls collapsing ‘with a noise like old men coughing’. It’s hard enough to imitate his language but impossible to replicate Johnson’s complex affection for his characters. I feel relieved to have finally abandoned hope of ever writing like him.

First published in The New Yorker, September 8, 1991 and available to read or listen to. Collected in Jesus’ Son, Picador, 1992, and widely anthologized

‘The Man on the Stairs’ by Miranda July

I love this story for how it captures the attraction of fear, the perverse freedom that comes with believing you are about to die. Awake in the middle of the night, the narrator listens to what may be a man on the stairs outside her bedroom and thinks: ‘He was putting more care in to hunting me than I had ever put into anything in my life.’ A perfect balance of inner and outer terrors.

First published in Fence magazine. Collected in No One Belongs Here More Than You, Canongate, 2007. Available to read here

‘The Colonel’ by Carolyn Forché

This story (or, again, prose poem) contains the simile that made me fall in love with similes. It felt like a magic trick that a tale about a genocidal dictator and his victims could contain, at its darkest moment, peach halves. I’ve been chasing the strangeness and surprise of that image ever since.

Originally appeared in Women’s International Resource Exchange. Collected in The Country Between Us, HarperCollins, 1981. Widely anthologised and available to read and listen to here

‘Prophets’ by Brandon Taylor

I’m sure I would still love this story – set on a creative writing course in Iowa – even if I hadn’t studied and taught creative writing. In his expertly controlled prose, Taylor exploits the tensions and performances of the staff, the students and the famous writer who has come to give a reading. Very funny and very ruthless.

Published in Joyland, March 2021. Online here

‘Helbling’s Story’ by Robert Walser

It’s one of the great challenges of fiction: how to be interesting about boredom? This story walks that line perfectly, capturing the texture of nothingness without succumbing to it. I also love Helbling’s insistence on his own mediocrity, an averageness that is so profound it becomes unique.

First collected in German in Werkausgabe, Verlag Helmut Kossodo, Geneva and Hamburg 1966. Published in English in Selected Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982

‘Dog Heaven’ by Stephanie Vaughn

Another final story, this one from the end of Vaughn’s first (and final) collection, Sweet Talk. I will never be a dog person but this at least helped me understand their appeal. It takes the bold (and usually disastrous) step of ventriloquising an animal but, in this case, pulls it off with ease. ‘My name is Duke! My name is Duke!’ the dog says. ‘Wake up! Wake up!’

First published in The New Yorker, January 1, 1989 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Sweet Talk, Other Press, 2012

‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned’ by Wells Tower

When I need to be reminded of the pleasures and possibilities of writing, I come back to these marauding North Sea psychopaths. The final paragraph rips my heart from my chest – viking-style – every time.

First published in Fence magazine. Collected in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Granta, 2009. Available to read here