After perhaps five and a half decades of reading stories and three or more of publishing them, I’m still no closer to knowing how to choose my favourites, let alone the best. There’s part of me – not a part I much like if I’m being honest – which would have loved to be able to select a dozen perfect stories, each one building on the previous to show, cumulatively, what the form can do, while simultaneously offering a short history of its evolution. Well, not me; not today. After all, the people who want that can just go out and buy A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, a magical book which raises the art of close-reading to near-mystical levels of insight and pleasure. I decided the only way I could do this was to be honest. What follows are almost certainly not the best stories I’ve read. I wince at the omissions (no Saunders, Cheever, Moore, Munro). No, this is a list divided roughly into stories that have lived inside me for a long time and those which I’ve read more recently and can’t shake off.
Maybe people who know me well will see some kind of unifying taste emerge from my selection. I don’t. In fact, as I get older, I find I care less about the meaning of stories. Once I saw them as hieroglyphs encoding important human truths. Now, the less they ‘mean’ the better. I might be wrong about this, or maybe I’m just getting lazy, but what I increasingly like about stories – and I’m reading more of them now than I ever have – is that they exist at all: small, opaque distorting reflections of life. As Edmund Burke once said of poetry, they lend existence to nothing. Or, to adapt Wallace Stevens, the meaning of a story is another story. You have been warned.
This is perfect example of a not-so-great story laying siege to a young man’s mind. I first read it as a teenager in New Zealand, during a balmy Christmas holiday. I longed for the frigid joys of home and the prodigious, obliterating quality of snow. The narrator is leaving London in a huff, thinking his fiancée loves another (this also struck a chord) heading North to Liverpool and a life of exile in America. The account of leaving London in a stagecoach at five in the morning in the pitch dark and bitter cold and gradually disappearing into a blizzard is Dickens at his descriptive best. The hot glass of purl (no idea, sorry), being ‘built up with straw to the waist’ to keep warm, and the rhythmic thrum of the wheels of the coach and the horses hooves seeming to play the chorus to ‘Auld Lang Syne’, still haunt me, especially if I’m driving North. Then there is the arrival at the eponymous Holly Tree Inn and the slow realisation that they are likely to be snowed in for days with insufficient reading material. Dicken’s brilliant solution to this is to have the narrator entertain himself by reminiscing over inns he has visited (“That was a good Inn down in Wiltshire where I put up once, in the days of the hard Wiltshire ale, and before all beer was bitterness”) and the wild stories he’s heard therein (“Upon which one of the dark men wrung the parrot’s neck, and said he was fond of roasted parrots, and he meant to have this one for breakfast in the morning”). Being snowed in. Pub stories by the fire. Quaffing “julep, sling or cocktail”. My sense memory fires up every time I read it. There’s even a neat and happy ending.
First published in Household Words, Christmas Edition, 1855 and republished in Christmas Stories, Chapman & Hall, 1894 and available to read here
I’m not generally a lover of the show-off’s ending, but I love a good ghost story. ‘The Tower’ is better than good. For me, only Elizabeth Jane Howard’s eerie canal-based tale, ‘Three Miles Up’ comes close to matching its claustrophobic power. Laski was a fine novelist, a popular broadcaster and a scholar who specialised in ecstatic religious experience. All three feed into this story of a married woman, alone in her car for the first time, pulling off the road in Tuscany in order to climb an abandoned tower that has caught her attention in the guide book her husband “was always urging on her”. I first read the story as a child in an exemplary Puffin anthology called Authors’ Choice (published in 1973) where it was introduced by Alan Garner. His final comment tells you all you need to know: “As soon as Caroline reaches the tower, the author turns relentless, and the result is, simply, the most terrifying story I know.”
First published in Cynthia Asquith’s Third Ghost Book, 1955, reprinted in Authors’ Choice, Hamish Hamilton, 1970, and available to read here
The accumulation of telling detail that I so loved in ‘The Holly Tree’ is put to rather different use here. This is from Jonathan Meades first collection, Filthy English (1984), published when he was Features Editor at Tatler and before he’d established his television persona combining deadpan delivery of astonishing articulacy, backed up by the minatory combination of sunglasses and a dark suit. His air of menace, the curiosity bordering on voyeurism and the startling precision of language are all present in this phantasmagoric story of the rural working class in the New Forest in the 1950s. The open scene of a chicken being killed by the feral child Wendy sets the scene. Her grotesque brothers set up a livestock rustling business. Her father “his flat cap dark with hair cream” collects pigswill or “scrape”. The family terrorise a delusional lower middle-class couple who take over the local shop. Somehow this squalid brew of incest, violence and hallucinogenic mushrooms is transformed by Meades’ language something approaching the sublime. I first read it as a student, and knew I’d found the writer who understood my England: the terrifying, dirty, intoxicating one beyond the reach of Ordnance Survey tourist maps and brown heritage signs. I’ve published Jonathan for over twenty years now. It all started here, with a dead chicken and room full of meat flies.
First published in Harpers & Queen, November 1982 and in the collection Filthy English, Jonathan Cape, 1984 and Fourth Estate, 2003
This is about as perfect as the classic American short story gets. Les, now in his forties, is looking back on an incident which happened when he was sixteen in Montana in 1961. His mother’s boyfriend, a self-declared Communist called Glen, returns after an unexplained absence and offers to take them to shoot snow geese. They go and the geese make an unforgettable display. They kill six. The gamble seems to have paid off, until a moment of misunderstanding between Glen and Aileen, Les’s mother, undoes it all and Glen departs. “A light can go out in the heart”. Later, Les and his mother have an honest conversation on the porch, something they never manage again. An adolescent rite of passage, limited ideas of masculinity, sublime natural beauty, the sudden ugliness of violence, the inescapabilty of insecurity and fear, the tentativeness of maternal love. All are present and correct. But the astringent clarity of Ford’s language and his ability to drop in the unexpected line to reverse the emotional polarity save the story from descending into a checklist of ‘Dirty Realist’ clichés. There’s none of the garrulous intimacy that make Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels his finest achievement (I was at Harvill when we published the Pulitzer-winning Independence Day), but the sound of Les’s first goose hitting the ground with “an awful sound, the sound a human would make, a thick, soft, hump noise” still haunts me.
First published in Antaeus, 1984 and in the collection Rock Springs, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987. Collected in The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone, Touchstone, 2007. You can read an extract online here
In the early seventies, at the height of the Troubles, an Irish musician and his family set off on holiday from their farmhouse home in Fermanagh in the North to the city of Galway in on the West Coast. On arrival, McFarland the fiddler goes out alone, plays some reels, gets drunk and comes home to relate a story he’s been told to his sleeping wife. Somehow, Healy manages to pack into this deceptively slight tale levels of richness and intensity that have reverberated in my mind since I first read it in the early 1990s. The sense of family anticipation as they pack the car “talking in a holiday voice”, the feral beauty of the landscape (“the thump of chestnuts on the soft floor of the night”), the menacing helicopters and checkpoints, McFarland obsessively reading Scott’s account of his final trip to Pole, his wife wanting to take a young man’s mop of hair and “squeeze his face between my thighs so he might scarcely breathe”. The language is layered and nuanced and needs to be read and re-read slowly for the magic to take hold. Few writers can move from modernist interior monologue to comic vernacular dialogue like Healy. You sense that he is already building out towards something bigger, and it’s possible to read ‘Banished Misfortune’ as a dry run for A Goat’s Song, his masterpiece which wasn’t published until almost two decades later in 1994. The best line is given to McFarland’s father, not a musician but a self-taught master builder, who had raised the farmhouse his son’s family now live in from the rocks and trees of the land itself: “In a foot of land there’s a square mile of learning.”
First published in Best Irish Short Stories, edited by David Marcus, Elek Books, 1976 and collected in Banished Misfortune and Other Stories, Allison & Busby, 1982
This long story breaks all the rules. It is an episodic portrait of the Carringtons, a well-off family living in a smart apartment near the river on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Nothing much happens – breakfasts, school runs, dog walks, troubled dreams. The two young girls catch cold. A domestic maid leaves suddenly. The cook of a friend commits suicide by jumping into the river. That’s about it. There’s no plot and the narrative focus switches from character to character – each member of the family, their friends, a bag lady, the suicidal cook, their dog – even to a piano at one point (creative writing classes usually advise against this courting of narrative confusion). It is thirty-five pages long and it’s riveting. Of course, Maxwell knew what he was doing – he was fiction editor of the New Yorker for over thirty years: it was to his porch in Connecticut that the young Salinger drove to read aloud the first draft of what became The Catcher in the Rye. Few writers have a better feel for what Maxwell in his preface to his Collected Stories calls “the natural history of home”. He’s like a shape-shifting anthropologist, continually swapping hosts so he can show rather than tell the reader what’s happening. And this dipping inside other minds sometimes induces vertigo. When George Carrington stares at himself in the mirror one morning he realises his fatal flaw. “Nobody was ever as real to him as he was to himself. If people knew how little he cared whether they lived or died, they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him.” And then we’re off chasing the dog again. This story works because of its restlessness and the absolute control Maxwell has over his material. As the young William Faulkner once observed of Sherwood Anderson’s stories: “No sustained plot to bother you, nothing tedious; only the sharp episodic phases of people.”
First published in The New Yorker, Jul 1 1974, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in All the Days and Nights, Knopf, 1994, currently a Vintage Classic
“Sharp episodic phases of people” is a good description of this beautiful tale, the title story in ZZ Packer’s only collection to date, and which I came to through a 2018 episode of Backlisted in which Nikesh Shukla had chosen it as the main book. All eight stories are knockouts, but this one stayed with me because it manages the seamless movement from humour to pathos: one of the hardest literary transitions of all. Dina is a black A-student from Baltimore in her first year at Yale. A flip remark during an orientation game gains her a year’s worth of psychiatric counselling, she withdraws into her room, until Heidi, a white girl “dressed like an aspiring plumber” ends up sobbing at her door. Their friendship crackles with repartee and slowly deepens: they sleep together but don’t have sex. In the stories central set-piece, they strip and hose one another down in the dish room at the college dining hall they have just cleaned. Dina recognises her love for Heidi in that moment: “I sprayed her and sprayed her, and she turned over and over like a large, beautiful dolphin, lolling about in the sun”. This briefly promises to dissolve all the tensions of race, class, sexual orientation and body-consciousness that threaten them, but we know it can’t last. It isn’t until near the end of the story, when Heidi has come out as queer and Dina has let her down, that we see where Packer is taking us. Dina imagines them meeting again and consoles herself with the thought that: “In that future time… your words can always be rewound and erased, rewritten and revised.” Except they can’t, save in stories, of course. Which is why we write them and why we read them. I really hope ZZ Packer writes more.
First published in The New Yorker, June 11 2000, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Riverhead Books, 2003
This story is taken from Dance Move, the smoking hot second collection by Wendy Erskine. As in many of her stories, it begins with a beguilingly simple premise. Drew Lord Haig, a one-hit wonder from the eighties – now just Drew Haig running a successful IT company – is asked by a battalion based in Belfast if he’ll come and sing at their centenary celebration. Unexpectedly, one of his B-sides, a “nihilistic affair” called ‘Nostalgie de la Boue’ – meaning the attraction to what is depraved or degrading – had become the battalion’s anthem. He is flattered, and after a cursory search of the battalion’s history on Wikipedia agrees to perform. Often in Erskine’s stories, it is these small moments of vanity or sentimentality which become the cracks that let in the pain and so it is here. The past – particularly Belfast’s troubled past – has a way of infecting the present. The performance hits a magnificent crescendo with the whole hall – “which resembles a downbeat high school prom” – singing along. They know every word; Drew is genuinely moved by the passion in the room. It is only afterwards, still buzzing as he drinks at the bar, that he learns the true dimension of his mistake. Erskine is the least sentimental of writers and she refuses to spare Drew his discomfort. His pretentious song title becomes self-fulfilling; our sympathy is limited. No one is writing better stories than Wendy Erskine.
First published in the Irish Times, Feb 17, 2022 and collected in Dance Move, Picador, 2022
My last five choices are all stories I’ve read for the first time in the past year. Often new stories fade, but not these. Alice’s story was selected for the prestigious O Henry Award in 2021, an annual collection of the year’s twenty best stories published in the US and Canadian magazines. It is an unforgettably powerful account of a real event – the Cavan Orphanage fire of 1943 in which 35 children and one adult died. There’s a particular responsibility in imaginative reconstructions of historical events and Alice weaves a compelling narrative out of her research, much as she did in her historical novel, Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile, which Unbound published in 2019. It reconstructed the inner life of a servant in mid-19th century rural Gloucestershire in the form of an exquisitely written monologue. ‘From Far Around They Saw Us Burn’ uses a similar device – but to reveal much more would risk spoiling the story’s devastating cumulative impact. Suffice to say, the description of the progress of the fire scorches off the page: I think it’s destined to become a classic. It also prompted me to ask Alice if she had enough stories to make a collection – she did and that book – called From Far Around They Saw Us Burn – is currently funding on Unbound and scheduled for publication in Summer 2023.
First published in The Best Short Stories 2021: The O. Henry Prize Winners, edited by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie & Jenny Minton Quigley, Anchor Books, 2021 and available to read here
Another astonishing short story collection from Ireland; another writer finding an arrestingly original way to write about the way the past disfigures the present. This is the title story from Armstrong’s debut collection and it is divided into twenty-seven numbered paragraphs in which the second person narrator, kills, guts, cooks but fails to eat a mackerel. The precision of the descriptive language (“the black tube of intestine, the white swell of swim bladder”) is counterbalanced by the associative swell of unconnected thoughts (“Nothing you do tonight will make you retch, you try to convince yourself”). As the boat bobs on the sea waiting for a rendezvous, dread mounts. Despite our best intentions, our attempts to do things in the proper order, life has a way of undoing us. “Look your fish in the eye: they say the last thing a man sees is imprinted on his pupil. You check every catch this way for your own reflection, but there is only a dark hole of fright.” To say more would be unfair: just read it. This is a magnificent story. In the acknowledgements, Armstrong says she is a member of a writing group called ‘Chekhov or Fuck Off’. Love her.
First published in the collection How to Gut a Fish, Bloomsbury Publishing 2021
I only discovered this story last week when Tessa Hadley recommended it during our discussion of Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart on Backlisted. In her introduction to her own selection of Bowen’s stories, Hadley calls it “a brilliantly suggestive scrap of a story” and so it proves. I’d read and enjoyed other Bowen stories before our discussion, but this one packs a novel’s worth of emotional insight into a few short pages. Set in a small Irish town, the fifteen-year-old Barbie is sent by her uncle to return a magazine to his brother’s widow. The conversation that runs between the young girl and old woman reveals to Barbie that she has fallen in love with her uncle, while simultaneously destroying her innocent enjoyment of it. “My conversation with Miss Banderry did not end where I leave off recording it. But at that point memory is torn across, as might be an intolerable page.” When she next sees her uncle: “He was not a lord, only a landowner. Facing Moher, he was all carriage and colouring: he wore his life like he wore his coat”. The pain of the door to her childhood slamming behind her is still fresh in the narrator’s heart and mind: “Literature, once one knows it, drains away some of the shockingness out of life. But when I met her I was unread, my susceptibilities were virgin. I refuse to fill in her outline retrospectively: I show you only what I saw at the time. Not what she was, but what she did to me.” That’s what only the greatest stories do, and I’m delighted to have been introduced to this one.
First published in Botteghe Oscure, 1955 and in the collection A Day in the Dark and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1965 and available in Selected Stories, edited by Tessa Hadley, Vintage Classics 2021
I’ve become addicted to the work of the American writer and academic Percival Everett. He has a near-magical capacity for combining absurd humour and with trenchant political satire, and for reconciling clever literary experiment with the simple pleasures of character and plot. To attempt to summarise what happens in this unnerving story runs the risk of making it sound silly or pretentious. Let’s just say it’s set in 1962 in a small town in the American southwest and that it is divided into twenty sections, each set on 1 September. Our narrator is the only child of a black family; his best friend Errol is a Kiowa Indian. They watch coyotes, catch fish, discover a cave full of bats, try to track a mountain lion. At one point the narrator kisses Frannie Dawes, which causes some friction between the boys. Then the circus comes to town… I’m obsessed with this story. Everett has delivered a fable that builds through repetition so that by the end the resonances he creates are deafening. Our failing relationship with nature, the stain of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the sudden logic of violence, the fragility of family life. It’s about all these things and none of them. My kind of short story.
First published in Ploughshares, Spring 2003, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Damned If I Do, Graywolf Press 2004/Influx Press, 2021