‘Royal Beatings’ by Alice Munro

There are so many things about Alice Munro that are worth celebrating, any given story of hers could fit into this entry – her gifts are always in evidence. A story like ‘Runaway’ is the sort of thing that threatens to become déclassé merely because it nails a thing so perfectly (in that case, use of an animal as locus of a sublime moment) that it becomes easy to imitate. Her later story ‘Dimension’ was the first of hers that I read. There was a specific character in that story – Maggie – who I so hoped would be a hero, and when she was revealed to be merely human, I knew Munro was going to be the living writer I most envied.

‘Royal Beatings’ has all the qualities of Munro’s writing that I love and could hold forth continually about. I chose it as a focus specifically because of the elements of ritual and meaning within it. Like the works of Márquez and Kono highlighted elsewhere on this list, there is a kind of ecosystem evident in the fiction that is darkly cast. In these stories, violence transforms the order of human relations rather than obliterating it, and the results are profoundly sad, strange, and compelling.

Rose, a girl in the past of the story and a woman in its present, lives with her stepmother Flo and her physically abusive father. The beatings that Rose’s father inflict upon her are so routine that they become essential to their relationship, accruing elements of performance, or litany. Violence becomes a means of affirmation and, obscurely, communication, while actual spoken language between them is denatured (“The person who spoke those words and the person who spoke to her as her father were not the same, though they seemed to occupy the same space.”) 

The action of the story is illustrated in a move from past tense to present, the sort of simple trick that I will always imitate and never master. The vagueness with which the scene is set – a Saturday arbitrarily chosen, the ages of the characters in a range, the circumstances uncertain – lends the lead-up to Rose’s first royal beating the frayed character of actual memory. Rose’s climactic outburst is a linguistic surge of life in large part defined by the anticipation of violence (the moment of the outburst is both “dangerous” and “delightful”, Flo’s rage is “predictable”). Relations of power are articulated bluntly, the complete knowledge of what is to happen as it happens (“She calls him in a warning, summoning voice, as if against her will preparing him for bad news.”) When the violence arrives it is suffused with dread frisson and terrible clarity. 

One of the things that Munro does so well is chart courses beyond the typical beats of plot – I can’t remember where I read it, but someone once observed that Munro, in her signature fluid approach to time in stories, will often set their beginnings after what we’d consider a point of narrative climax. Her stories aren’t anticlimactic but rather speak to a solidity of narrative outside the walled garden of Freytag’s Pyramid. Rather than the expected rising and falling actions, you get something like the rhythm of actual life, at turns gentle and turbulent, stubbornly refusing ease and simplicity. When the violence ends, as definite and singular as it seems, Munro intimates that it could be one of countless ritual scenes. “He has never managed really to injure her, though there are times, of course, when she prays that he will.”

A disquieting implication of the text is that certain thresholds of violence can be not only bearable, but digestible, mistakable as love. On the level of family it suggests truth in the axiom that the more dysfunctional a given system gets, the more resilient it becomes (“By stages, by arguing, they are being drawn back into themselves.”) The influence of southern gothic is evident, in the story’s matter-of-fact tone, and in ancillary characters like the polio-scarred Becky Tide, “a big-headed loud-voiced dwarf, with a mascot’s sexless swagger,” as grotesquely human a figure as anything dreamed by Flannery O’Connor or Harry Crews. The ghost of class and money, and their relationship to violence, hang unspoken. “…treachery,” as she writes, “is the other side of dailiness.”

I once attended a Carmen Maria Machado reading in which she opined on what she termed “mysterious vistas” in fiction. These were things in a story hinted at but not truly revealed to the reader – a cryptic message, a monument of unknown provenance, a locked door that never opens – which are particularly endemic to “world building” in genre fiction. When she defined this concept I immediately thought of a particular passage in ‘Royal Beatings’, wherein Rose, after her father has passed away, finds a trove of papers on which her violent father wrote both financial records and personal musings. One entry is excerpted:

Ate new potatoes 25th June. Record.
Dark Dary, 1880’s, nothing supernatural. Clouds of Ash from forest fires.
Aug 16, 1938. Giant thunderstorm in evng. Lightning str. Pres. Church, Turberry Twp. Will of God?
Scald strawberries to remove acid.
All things are alive. Spinoza

The journal entry, and the poetic asides overheard by Rose in her youth (“The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces”) turn the abusive father’s internal landscape into a mysterious vista of the story. It doesn’t make him sympathetic or complicate the violence he commits. His capacity for unexpected private thought does not make him rare. Neither does his capacity for violence make him especially monstrous. Rather it shows us the reel which ties Rose to her father, the palimpsest of a person she is refused access to.

From one angle, this might seem the sort of WASPy remove that makes the canon of contemporary realist literature difficult for so many readers to enjoy – not for nothing that this was Munro’s first published story, out of 60 plus total, in the New Yorker. But rather than cruelty, I think Munro’s mode of compassion is akin to agape, the distant love of a God toward Her creation. It’s a quality that she shares, in my mind, with Toni Morrison. It might be that such things are impolitic in 2021, or maybe it only feels like this kind of writing is scarce, beyond the Ferrantes of the world. It’s all exquisite pain, like biting down on a loose tooth, or the vital itch of a wound beneath its bandage.

First published in The New Yorker, March 1977, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Who Do You Think You Are? a.k.a. The Beggar Maid, Alfred A. Knopf 1978, and in the Selected Stories, McLelland and Stewart, 1996

‘White Angel’ by Michael Cunningham

Before I’d ever heard of Alice Munro, I was familiar enough with “literary fiction” (what I otherwise refer to as “contemporary realism”) to think quite dismally of it; when the waiting rooms I was compelled to inhabit in my youth didn’t carry TIME or even Sports Illustrated, they typically had The New Yorker, probably because it wasn’t stolen as often (except by me). Once I’d burned through the comics and the movie reviews, I would browse the fiction. My sense of what short stories were, outside the Philip K. Dick and Stephen King I sought deliberately, came from this experience. 
I couldn’t get on their wavelength. All the cliches seemed to apply: They were all about upper middle-class professionals or academics, all dealing with alcoholism or impotence, in addition to the perennial quiet acrimony of marital conflict so deep that it felt like the characters were born into their resentful couplings. I was a kid, and I felt vaguely insulted that these were the things I was expected to find universal and compelling compared to, say, Paul Verhoeven movies.
I’d managed to avoid English comp and literature classes through high school (I was a consummate dirtbag), and it was only when I’d actually tried my hand at fiction that I came to appreciate the craft of it. Between that point and discovering Munro, craft – the dissection and analysis of the choices made by a writer – was the sole attraction bringing me to realism. If there’s inside baseball shoptalk to be had about anything, I love it.
‘White Angel’ was one of the first stories assigned to me as an analytic reader, and it got me on board with the program because, like the George Saunders stories I would later read, it builds to the unbearable, chilling intensity of a great suspense story. It follows the family of a young boy, Robert, in Cleveland. It’s the late 60s and Robert’s brother, Carlton, is a classic older brother figure – he is confident, cool, and plugged into the counterculture and psychedelics, which he shares with his kid brother (who he calls “Frisco”). Very much a black sheep boy, Carlton clashes with their frustrated mother. Naturally, Robert idolizes him, and comes to resent – in the way of young children – his brother’s girlfriend, who is deliberately unnamed.
We know, very early on, that Carlton is not long for this world – the story is told from Robert’s perspective, in retrospect, and he says openly that we’re seeing the last few months of Carlton’s life. Cunningham keeps that inevitability distant even so, until he brings it close. 
To me, Cunningham’s key choice is made immediately before the climactic, shocking scene. There is a shift in perspective, somewhat akin to Munro’s shift from past to present tense in “Royal Beatings” but subtler. The entirety of “White Angel” is told in present tense with speckles of future perfect (itself a tricky maneuver that Cunningham doesn’t hesitate to show off), but in the paragraph immediately preceding the climax of the story, he introduces a new uncertainty. “Carlton must have jumped the back fence. He must have wanted to be there, alone, in case they decided to take somebody with them.”
The word “must”, here, is the primer on the scene that follows it. The flow of the story is interrupted; Robert grasps for something that isn’t there, something he missed, and it clues the reader in that we are presently rushing toward crisis.
Then the crisis comes.
The most significant thing that I read short fiction for – and read past things that I don’t like or find unpleasant – is what Alexander Lumans calls “the sublime moment”, after Edmund Burke. It is the passage, often present in long-form fiction but endemic to short form, in which the story shifts into unexpected registers. Elements that can characterize such a shift include the slowing of time, the use of elevated language, a startling visual, and a quality of ecstasy, awe, or otherworldly terror in the moment itself. 
Carlton’s death, from the initial incident through the haunting final image, before time jumps forward again, is a perfect execution of sublimity in fiction on par with the Quint monologue in Jaws, a terrible memory trapped in amber.

First published as a short story in The New Yorker, July 1988, and available to subscribers to read here; then included as a chapter in A Home at The End of the World, Picador, 1998

‘Bloodchild’ by Octavia E. Butler

Part of the reason I love short fiction is the form’s natural consonance with science fiction and horror, the genres with which I grew up. The intersection between the two is my heartland. There are many (though too few) writers who work or have worked in that space – including a few names on this list – but on the page, no one has topped ‘Bloodchild’, and I say that with no exaggeration.

The story concerns Gan, a young Terran (aka human) living on “The Preserve”, under the governance of a vaguely insectoid alien race. The very first thing we know is that Gan’s mother does not share in the “sterile eggs” that the rest of the family loves. Thus the tension of the story is established immediately – Gan’s mother knows something that he (and we) don’t, and the conflict through the story maintains a triangular shape – Gan, his mother, and T’Gatoi, the powerful alien official whose favor Gan’s family ostensibly enjoys.

Captivity is all that Gan has ever known, and one of Butler’s great feats is the use of this naive perspective against the expectations of the reader. T’Gatoi, through Gan’s eyes, is thought of neutrally, even warmly. It’s implied that the sterile eggs the Terrans consume have a soporific, as well as regenerative, effect. And rather than being a brutish or inscrutable villain, T’Gatoi has recognizable reactions and attachments to Gan and his family, even as the unease around them and their motives never dissipate.

As readers will discover, humans – specifically male humans – are a treasured commodity. The climactic reveal is as viscerally disturbing as anything from Alien’s famous xenomorphic life cycle, but the source of the story’s lasting power is the sinister intimacy between Gan and T’Gatoi. Can it really be said to care for, or even love, Gan? And if so, what does that say?

The metaphor that seems easiest to arrive at in Bloodchild, given the details of the world parceled to the reader, is one of slavery, but Butler meant it specifically to be an allegory of childbirth and gender politics. While you could make an argument for both, it’s the big and broad aspects of the story that gesture toward colonialism and chattel slavery. 

The subtler elements, the ones that make Bloodchild a canonical work, speak to more radical critiques of gender than many if not most people would naturally assume— when considering coercion and ownership in a nominally civil state of affairs, it’s easier for them to imagine master and slave than man and woman. Perhaps it is simpler to call it an exploration of power dynamics generally.

First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 1984. Collected in Bloodchild and Other Stories, Seven Stories Press 1995, and numerous anthologies

‘Bloom’ by Janalyn Guo

When I first received Our Colony Beyond the City of Ruins, there was a strange gouge in it, an ovoid depression from the book’s front cover through the first twenty pages or so. While the cover material was somewhat frayed and discolored around it, the paper beneath was cleanly cut in a three-dimensional concave pattern, such that when you opened the book there was simply a smooth-bordered hole in the page, shrinking as you advanced through it. 
It could have been that the book had been damaged by an acid from some stage of the manufacturing process, but by the time I received it I had already read ‘Bloom’. In light of it the gouge seemed, to my eye, less a destructive mistake than some quiet natural process, the art manifesting in the physical shape of its object. My copy arrived having already sprouted.
The sort of fiction that Janalyn Guo writes could be classed as contemporary magical realism, of the kind that is finding so much critical cachet in recent years through many prominent writers of short fiction (George Saunders, Samanta Schweblin, etc.) But more than most, Guo’s work eschews glad-handing metaphor, occupying instead a realm of lysergic, faintly gnostic mystery.
‘Bloom’ finds its narrator recalling a season spent apprenticing to her aunt in Fushun, China as a corrective to a year of crisis and bad luck. Her aunt is a holistic therapist specializing in gua sha cupping therapy, through which the magic of the story appears. If you’ve never undergone a cupping session, it involves cups (naturally) pressed to the skin to create a seal, and the suction is used to perform a kind of massage treatment. By the end of it, you look as though you’ve just emerged from a very intense wrestling match with an octopus.
The story as it unfolds is a gentle meditation not for the faint of heart. When the aunt performs her cupping massages on the men in the village, they receive the typical benefits of soft tissue massage, but their pores surreally stretch, and over time the distended openings play host to plant life, bushes and trees and mushrooms.
It is a trypophobic nightmare, to be sure. Though no one precisely suffers, the descriptions are vivid enough to be horrific to sensitive readers. I think Guo anticipates and uses this bodily revulsion; the change in the men is not simply supernatural.
The narrator observes the ways in which the men relate to her aunt – they desire her romantically, but there is something else unstated, beyond lust. The process the men undergo seems a kind of emotional sublimation – in the text they remain cranky and provincial in the way they speak, but through the cupping, as the narrator says, “they are softened.” 
The body horror of the plant growth mirrors the coarseness of the men as presented – they are things we have to look past to see the subtle processes beneath them. The title is a homonym; there is the bloom of the fruiting bodies atop the bodies of the men and the bloom of solace and connection – implicit and repressed – that the cupping foments. And yet there is more to the mystery than that rhyming action. 
The narrator’s aunt develops a relationship with one Walt Suo, an older man who has grown a “milky fur” of edible mushrooms – the narrator and her aunt harvest his back for dinner – and in the story’s climax, they accompany him to a wilderness reserve where he quietly and fully transforms. The narrator experiences a similar journey with one of her clients. She and her aunt, in private reminiscence, enact their own ritual that proves to be the most enigmatic and emotionally resonant element of the story.
I wish I could find more strange stories in this vein – Guo’s work most resembles, outwardly, the stories of Karen Russell, though she has her own preoccupations and her own deft maneuvers. I am intensely jealous of their grace.

Published in The Tusculum Review, 2016. Collected in Our Colony Beyond the City of Ruins, Subito Press 2018

‘Cisisbeo’ by M. John Harrison

Speaking of strange stories… M. John Harrison is a writer I’ve just recently caught onto, and while he’s most famous (in some circles, infamous) for his restless, kaleidoscopic approaches to fantasy (in his Viriconiumstories) and science fiction (his more recent Light trilogy) honed over the last 50-something years, I’ve fallen in love with his novels and stories in which the uncanny and numinous encroach on a “realist” milieu. The Course of the Heart is one of my favorite novels and his most recent work, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, is in a similar vein.
Harrison is extremely cagey about his process and the intentions of his writing, but if he could be said to have a thesis, it’s best articulated in a blog post from 2007, in which he expresses a distrust in traditional notions of writing and the demands of fiction (not to mention the ideological underpinnings of those things). “My feeling,” he writes, “is that the reader performs most of the act of writing. A book spends a very short time being written into existence; it spends the rest of its life being read into existence.” A writer who expressly attempts to guide or intermediate the relationship between reader and text, therefore, stifles something about it. 
You might interpret this as an inquiry into how an author can write while knowing that he is dead, in the Barthesian sense, even as he writes. He intimates it as a kind of game: The writer “… present(s) a spread of more or less “possible” interpretations tied to the themes & meanings of the story.” The rest of the work of comprehension and interpretation is necessarily done by the reader.
It is, as you might imagine, a controversial way of writing. The work is purposefully enigmatic, carried by Harrison’s clear, psychologically incisive prose style and, in the case of his more overt genre work, a conceptual imagination that is practically assaultive in its depth and breadth.
‘Cicisbeo’ carries all the hallmarks of Harrison’s realist-adjacent fiction, which is to say that it exhibits his writerly preoccupations – romantic dysfunction, failures of will and communication, uncanny unreality borne from repression and emotional agitation. The story follows the narrator character as he navigates a tense relationship between his best friend Lizzie and her husband Tim. Lizzie is newly pregnant and Tim has retreated to live in their attic, decoupling from his family even as his daughter is born. 
As Sunyi Dean points out on the Elder Sign podcast, Cicisbeo is an Italian term with no simple English equivalent, referring essentially to a man kept by a woman, the gender-swap equivalent of a mistress. The protagonist of the story has an unfulfilled desire for Lizzie that is unmistakably tinged with resentment. Lizzie, for her part, implores him ceaselessly to parlay with Tim on her behalf, and the awkwardness between the protagonist and Tim seems haunted by shared recognition of the former’s desire.
Harrison’s characters hear in fragments peppered into summary – orphan lines of dialogue, free of context and ominous in their uncertain meaning, are often overheard in his stories. Characters tend to talk past one another even in direct interface, often seeming to speak in asides to themselves, referencing comprehensions or opinions that they don’t fully share with each other or the reader. But the broad strokes of motivation seep through even so – the narrator becomes, over the course of the story, a bruise-pressing voyeur, Lizzie is self-pitying and manipulative, and Tim is avoidant and dissociative. An unhealthy dynamic is evident. 
The story culminates in a brief, spectacular scene of surrealism, a weird and mysterious vista whose implications for the continuing lives of the characters – and even the past events of the story – are left open to interpretation. Something has happened, party to its own physics and its own logic, that may or may not be metaphor. A lot of weird fiction writers claim lineage from Kafka, but few can be judged as bold as the surrealist master. Harrison is one of them. 

First published in Talk of the Town (Independent On Sunday), September 2003. Collected in You Should Come With Me Now, Comma Press 2017, and Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, Comma Press 2020. Text is reprinted on the Weird Fiction Review website here

‘Pastor Dowe at Tecaté’ by Paul Bowles

A perennial problematic fav, Paul Bowles possessed undeniable skill but his work often feels illicit and irresponsible. The man led a charmed life that was itself suspect, infamously spending much of his life in Tangier, Morocco. A gay, white American expatriate, he hosted cultural luminaries traveling abroad and smoked primo hash every day. 
My issue with Bowles’s fiction only really makes sense in the context of his infamy: he was someone who enjoyed a relatively luxurious lifestyle in an impoverished foreign country. But his fiction, including the story I’m recommending here (not to mention his most famous novel, The Sheltering Sky), consistently depicts colonized lands as dark, dangerous places where the health and safety of white people are predated upon. 
There’s an argument to be made that Bowles’s evident lack of sympathy for his white protagonists (typically conceited and hubristic) complicates this reading, but I don’t think the writing escapes a broader orientalist bent. Leaving aside questions of intent and the mores of his time, there is an ugliness to the writing that must be acknowledged. 
‘Pastor Dowe at Tecaté’ is my favorite Bowles story that directly relates to culture shock. Dowe is a missionary in the Mexican city who has long been conscious of the disconnect between his mission and how the people of the city receive him. He recognizes that they essentially humor him, not absorbing his sermons; in fact it becomes explicitly clear that the people gathered would not come if his phonograph were not used to play pop music after the services. 
Humiliated and ineffectual, Dowe lives knowing that folk religion is still practiced, and the narrative becomes increasingly strange and surreal as he engages with it. Asking after the local God Hachakyum, Dowe is corrected when he asks if that God made him. He is told that he was made by the other God. “Metzabok makes all the things that do not belong here.” 
Death hangs over the story – Dowe, we’re told, is a recent widower – and it culminates in something like a conversion experience in reverse. “A region like this seemed outside God’s jurisdiction,” he thinks. “Now it is done. I have passed into the other land.” He prays in a sacred cave, speaking aloud the local dialect, before realizing too late that it is the wrong sacred cave. 
But rather than despair at having prayed to the wrong God, Dowe feels stronger, and he seems to reach a greater understanding of the people, adapting biblical stories to local myth. It is only when Dowe is offered a child bride (seen multiple times, surreally, holding a baby alligator in swaddling clothes) that he is jarred once again into alienation. Like many Bowles protagonists, he flees, despite having nowhere to go.
A reductive take on Bowles is that he sort of bridges the gap between Poe and Kafka, writing strangers in strange lands under acute psychic distress. What most intrigues me about ‘Pastor Dowe at Tecaté’ is that conversion experience, though – the suggestion of spiritual belonging, even in the absence of social belonging, is not Bowles’s stock in trade. It cuts against his cynicism in an intriguing way.

First published in 1949. Collected in The Stories of Paul Bowles, HarperCollins, 2010

‘The Blood Drip’ by Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson represents a bridge (or perhaps a joint) between horror and Avant Garde fiction better than practically any other working writer. The influence of Poe in his work is naturally evident, but his command of formal elements of writing and their effects is brilliantly postmodern. Evenson’s typical mode is ominous confusion shot through with delicate strands of deadpan humor – as with M. John Harrison, Evenson’s weird horror derives from Kafka. But one can also see, in the details, the likeness of German-language experimental postwar writers like Arno Schmidt and Thomas Bernhard, whose dense and fractured prose reflected the cognitive dissonance of having lived alongside atrocity.
It’s hard to describe and harder to replicate the ways in which Evenson’s tendencies – clipped sentences, purposefully minimal description, interiority that never quite seems on the level – come together to create atmospheres of anxiety and dread. A gauzy, bad-dream quality pervades; it is as though, through the airtight perspective of the characters, everything beyond the immediate description of the world is cast in dim light. As in Paul Bowles’ work, there’s always a sense that the characters have been caught in a trap they can’t grasp. Sometimes the reader knows this before the characters do, sometimes the characters realize it, and it doesn’t matter.
‘The Blood Drip’ fundamentally is just a great, unnerving weird tale. It’s as close to a Lynch tribute in prose that you could ask for (and why wouldn’t you ask?) Notice the second sentence, in which Evenson employs a signature feint: The first sentence states a fact, the second sentence contradicts and complicates it. Already we are unmoored. In classic Evenson fashion, the context as given is so minimal they ought to sell it at Ikea: Nils and Karsten (Evenson almost always uses conspicuously Germanic names) had designs to steal something from a fortified town but were rebuffed by a hail of stones outside its walls. Karsten managed to escape, barely, but Nils was struck down. 
Karsten is overwhelmed with guilt, and goes back to retrieve Nils, who may or may not be dead, but is caught and injured by the stones thrown from the town. When he comes to, no one is on the ramparts and Nils’s body is gone. Injured but conscious, Karsten gets lost in the woods and makes camp to hold off the cold. He catches fire accidentally and passes out.
From there, the story pitches wholly into dream logic. The return of Nils (or something that looks like Nils) and the course of events following could be the product of a fevered and guilty mind… or it could be something else entirely.
Evenson’s frequent remit, by his own admission, concerns one fundamental question in horror fiction, articulated by Eugene Thacker in his writings on the philosophy of horror: “Is something wrong with me, or is something wrong with the world?” H.P. Lovecraft could describe (or rather, refrain from describing) mind-shattering experiences but Evenson’s surety of craft allows him to describe, in detail, what it’s like when reality becomes a hostile thing.

First published in Granta, October 2014. Collected in A Collapse of Horses, Coffee House Press 2016. Available to read here

’The Redfield Girls’ by Laird Barron

The great majority of Laird Barron’s oeuvre sits solidly at the intersection of crime and horror fiction, following the great, dark lights of those realms; the simplest, most reductive pitch for his work might be “Dashiell Hammett protagonists get caught in Thomas Ligotti stories”. To wit, his greatest preoccupations might be ripe masculinity colliding with entropic voids. There may be no living writer who so delights in irony. 

Barron’s broader body of work, particularly his cultishly adored Old Leech stories, lean directly and unapologetically into lysergic, pitch-black cosmicism. ‘The Redfield Girls’ is a departure. Rather than a hard-drinking Pinkerton or mob enforcer, the perspective character of the novelette is Bernice, a member of the titular group of veteran schoolteachers who make the fateful decision to take a summer excursion at Lake Crescent, Washington. 
Despite bad history and bad dreams, Bernice travels to the lake with her teenage niece (whom she both loves and resents) in tow. Ghostly stories centered on the lake are told. And then the group comes across an old boat on the lakeshore.
Lake Crescent is a real place, infamously deep (just under 600 feet), into which more than one person has disappeared. Tying Bernice’s family history to the real history of the lake, Barron eases on his trademark throttle, but only just; the dread is as thick, only quieter and less feverish in complexion. And while it might push its cosmic presences to the margins, the oblivions they bring being less total, Bernice’s pride and her refusal to trust her better instincts in the face of them are still fulcrums of the story, just as they are in Barron’s stories of brutish men.
There are elements here – the late middle age of the characters (plus one youth), their telling of stories, lakes with bad histories, a certain inexplicable resonance between rural Washington and upstate New York – that make me want to tag the story as a tribute to Peter Straub’s magnum opus, Ghost Story, but it’s enough to say that in the gothic, ethereal timbre of its horror, it is simply a ghost story, Laird Barron style. There is just as much Shirley Jackson or Caitlin R. Kiernan woven into it as anything else. I appreciate the contemplative ending, splitting the difference between the dread of sinister places and the sadness of senseless loss. We might use the novelette as an affirmative grist for the merits of genre fiction, but I think Laird would find that tedious; there’s no more tired an argument in the literary world.

First published in Haunted Legends, Tor 2010. Collected in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, Night Shade 2013

‘One of These Days’ by Gabriel García Márquez

If there’s an orthodoxy to fiction workshopping, one of its central tenets holds that economy is crux of the short form. That is, for all the things that the form could do, a perfect story above all else does the absolute most it can with the absolute fewest words possible (the canard is typically that any given word in a story should be doing at least two things, if not more). I don’t believe that’s necessarily true (nobody loves a long sentence like I do), but there’s no denying that an immaculately tight story can be a singular thing. 
If you asked me to recommend a story of perfect economy I’d point you toward ‘One of These Days’. Márquez rinses so much (surprise, tension, beauty) out of its three scant pages that it’s practically obscene. The first paragraphs, seemingly placid and descriptive, are freighted with hints of dissonance and unease – the physical tics of the doctor, the buzzards he sees. Márquez denies the reader access to Aurelio Escovar’s internal thought and feeling, dealing only in surface thoughts, if that. In so doing he trains the reader to extract from small observations – a character’s carriage, the quality of their movement – a chapter’s worth of history. 
Once the danger arrives, the promise of violence becoming explicit, the register of the story does not change. This is pretty daring, as I think most writers would be tempted to switch gears and tighten focus once the stakes of a story were made clear. But the same spare remove is employed, and quietly doubling its workload, to boot: The ghostly scaffold of intimated history continues to build, but a plot is also brought to life through it. Characters act, react, and pull the reader in. Notice how elegantly the plot mirrors the formal constraints of the story. The world comes to life in what isn’t shown to the reader, the plot builds staggering tension in what the characters don’t say to one another.
Its most spellbinding aspect is, to me, the suggestion of complex ecosystems of human behavior. The power dynamics of the characters shift: The cruel mayor demands relief. The dentist makes a dubious claim promising great pain, which the mayor accepts, and he places himself at the mercy of the dentist, a professional without credentials. The dentist makes an open threat. The mayor, still in an (ostensible) place of weakness, does not react with the violence that we’ve been told defines his character. 
The mystery is intoxicating: Does the mayor really believe that he can’t be administered anesthetic? If not, why does he consent? Why does he put himself through this gauntlet? To prove something about his toughness? To demonstrate that he is not afraid even with his throat bared, as it were, to the dentist? Or is it a kind of ritual of penance, an acknowledgment and claim of the dentist’s grievance? It’s that last possibility which most intrigues me. There is the hint of something like ceremony in it, of unspoken agreement and transaction, and a deeper, private reckoning.

First published in Spanish in 1962, in English in 1968. Collected in Collected Stories, Available to read here

‘Helbling’s Story’ by Robert Walser

If we want to push against received wisdom about short fiction being efficient above all things (and I think we should) then Robert Walser’s an ideal palate cleanser. If you’re looking for immaculately designed Swiss watch stories, Walser is not your man, Swiss though he was.

‘Helbling’s Story’ is typical of his work, (arguably) lacking almost completely supposedly fundamental elements of a story, like scene, like conflict, plot, or setting. It is instead an immense self-reflective monologue, the Helbling of the title examining his own existence which is, by his own account, exceedingly mundane and moderate. 

Had I come to it earlier in my life, I would have found it embarrassingly solipsistic or twee. That comes, I think, from its generosity. Helbling has remarkable clarity of insight into nearly everything about himself – his context, his behaviors – and he is endlessly gentle. Reflecting on reactionary tendencies, he says: “… yes, it almost seems that the childish defiance with which I justify myself before my fellow men is a sign of weak-mindedness. But, but: it suits marvelously my character, which always instructs me to act a little out of the ordinary, even if it is to my disadvantage.”

Walser’s effect is one of disarmament, existing as he does on the porous borderland between prose and prose poetry. It’s worth treasuring for many reasons, the least of which is that it suggests the pliancy of fiction in form and purpose. I can only imagine the shellacking Walser would receive were he subjected to any modern fiction workshop. I can also imagine him leaving, unprovoked, and heading for the nearest public park to reflect on the depths of lives beyond him.

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

‘Theater’ by Taeko Kono, translated by Lucy North

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Faulkner claimed that the only story worth telling is that of the human heart in conflict with itself. As someone who enjoys Walser I’m not sure if it holds, universally, but the admonition does get at a deep and rich seam of fiction to be mined. 

There is something utterly captivating about characters driven toward action whose consequences are all but certain to be regrettable. It is perhaps a function of living under capital, where deep expression is broadly proscribed, even punished, when it might take the place of production. Anything that isn’t work (or monetizing leisure, or producing and preparing children for future work) becomes charged and dangerous, deviant, and thus any character who acts toward a thing they want becomes, if not aspirational, then rebellious and picaresque. 

There is a substratum of coveting in fiction that I am always particularly drawn toward: The character whose desire is so great it defies their cognitive understanding and which demands some dissolution of the self. Characters who cannot articulate their desires, even to themselves, are extremely compelling to me. They speak to an absolutist notion of individuality, or perhaps modernity’s rot; some people are so desperate to articulate who they are and reject prescribed life that they become destructive.

Naturally, characters of this type can approach the monstrous, their stories expressing necessarily transgressive elements: Queerness, sadomasochism, anti-social ideology, fatal fascination, all the myriad and maladaptive responses to a repressive and disturbed world. 

Taeko Kono was one of the masters of this particular domain, the transgressive story. I was introduced to her by Gabe Habash, who touted Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories as an especially disturbing collection found in his deep and enviable reading life. 

By that time I had already read a few Yukio Mishima works, and Kawabata’s The House of the Sleeping Beauties. I was beginning to grow concerned that English translators, or perhaps the English literary establishment, might have shown undue preference for fiction depicting native Japanese life as especially repressed and responses to it as especially given to sexual deviance. Mishima, brilliant and soul-sick fascist that he was, seemed preeminent in the translated canon.

I was so glad to read Kono, who evinced similar preoccupations – transgressive impulses rooted in unnamable desperation – without Mishima’s regressive machismo. ‘Theater’, like many Kono stories, is about a woman unhappy with the life that was determined for her. Hideko is married to a bloodless mid-career professional man, who not only fails to make her happy but soon leaves her alone to work in Germany. It is a loveless, financially abusive marriage, and a public embarrassment to her. To feel joy, she attends opera performances, usually alone.

It’s there that she meets Haruko and her husband Oshima. She is tall and beautiful and seems to only wear threadbare clothing. He is short, prominently scoliotic, and wears only finery. He speaks sharply to Haruko in public, but with seeming warmth out of her earshot. Almost immediately, Hideko develops a “painfully sweet jealousy” toward both of them.

With a speed and ease that seems almost calculated, Hideko visits them, and becomes enmeshed in their sadomasochistic psychodrama; their marriage seems to have begun, at least in part, to spite Haruko’s proud father. With Hideko at the dinner table at their first real meeting, rituals of escalating humiliation begin to be performed at Haruko’s expense, which Haruko seems to have enjoyed after the fact (it is observed that over time, she is the one who “directs the performances”). Rather than being alienated, Hideko becomes intoxicated. “She had never met a real man or woman before, she realized. Compared to them, anyone else was just a generic human being.”

The nature of the pleasures that the three derive from their dynamic are left somewhat vague (even when the violence is explicit, play though it is) but Haruko becomes a submissive housegirl as well as an explicit “third”, enamored with the other two. In Oshima’s cruelty and Haruko’s dramatic abjection, she finds connection that her own husband outright refused to provide. The story ends on a fittingly ambiguous note as one last thought is given to her old life.

Violence and desire in fiction always lead me to ruminate on a chapter from Linda Williams’s seminal critical text Hard Core, examining the dynamics of sadomasochism in its beholder. Or rather, its fluidity – Williams’s essential argument is that rather than adopting a strict binary, the viewer of S&M vicariously occupies both the dominant and submissive roles at the same time, and the resulting confusion is what gives the practice its charge.

One of the reasons this particular story is interesting to me in this particular context is that Hideko’s feelings are powerful, definite, and uncertain all at the same time. Kono engages Hideko’s masochism not merely as a tawdry, bodily urge but as a refraction of her mental and spiritual shame, as a woman who has failed to meet her own expectations, and those of her culture. 

Collected in Toddler Hunting and Other Stories, New Directions 1996

‘I Am Telling You Lies’ by Debra Di Blasi

I was in a bad state about five years ago, shortly before I really began this latest chapter of my reading and writing life. Reading was hard for me – it always has been, but was especially so then. It seemed a fraught prospect, curious as I was about contemporary literature (this was pre-Michael Cunningham, pre-Alice Munro) but aware that, if I wasn’t careful, I would end up reading something like Tao Lin or Sheila Heti, burning through and just regretting the whole endeavor. But summer comes around and your mind itches with hope for new things, new footpaths of language.
I had made a friend in New York – Miranda was her name. I would visit her out near Fordham and I was in perpetual awe at her taste in literature and stage plays. I would always try and track down what she was reading; even if I didn’t take to it, I knew that it was good for me. She had natural curiosity. She doesn’t have a Goodreads account, which is tragic, but then, the world doesn’t deserve her. She’s since dropped off the face of the earth. 
I was visiting family in Portland and found myself loitering at Powell’s, an old redwood of a bookstore. It was summer, and I wanted a book in my hands. So I texted my friend and asked for a recommendation, which I had never directly done before. She came back straight away with the name Debra Di Blasi. She had a chapbook called Drought from New Directions (which I would only recognize as a pretty big deal years later) but I went for her collection, Prayers of an Accidental Nature.
I took to it so easily, dropped straight in like a stone into a well. It reminded me of Anais Nin’s Little Birds, which I had briefly stolen from my parents as a teen. That is to say that Di Blasi’s stories are charged with longing and desire, though her work after this collection seems much more explicit.
‘I Am Telling You Lies’ is special to me for personal reasons – it is, as the title suggests, about a liar. The narrator of the story, Tamara, knows that she loves one; his ease with lies is the thing she loves most about him. Esteban, the liar, dazzles and fascinates her even when she’s onto him. I had spent two years of my own life in thrall to a woman I would only know as a fabulist after she had disappeared from it.
‘I Am Telling You Lies’ is, by and large, a character study rendered with the gentle, permissive cognizance that people only allow in those they truly know, and which is rare in fiction (of late I would say I’ve only read it in Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby). I was drawn to the story through its bemused admiration – and pity – for Esteban. Even as he was unskilled in his lying, compared to the liar of my life (Rae was the name she gave, but I don’t know if it’s really hers), the love given to him mirrored the love I’d given to her. 
Some power of the story comes from the growing contrast between Tamara and Esteban; she sees his need to be loved as desperate (and, as she says, “it is a woman’s instinct to protect and nurture babies, small animals, and desperate men”) but she sees the effect he has on her sister, Dierdre, who Tamara similarly pities and flatly disdains.
Thus Di Blasi makes Deirdre and Esteban the object of the readers’ sympathies. Esteban yearns for belonging to something that “… accepted him just as he was: without the lies he carried around like useful stones his knapsack-of-a-heart.” In my quieter moments I imagine the same thing of Rae. “Esteban knew… that love or even the possibility of love makes bad and ugly things not so bad, not so ugly.”

First published in Sou’wester, Southern Illinois University, 1995. Collected in Prayers of an Accidental Nature, Coffee House Press 1999