There’s a technique used by short story writers which involves picking a few words or phrases at random and then conjuring up a narrative that somehow connects them. The idea is that the connections found by the subconscious will reveal some underlying truth that the writer hadn’t previously considered and will therefore lead to something new and interesting.
All of which is by way of saying that I’ve basically applied the same technique to this piece, in that there isn’t any conscious overarching theme. It’s just a collection of stories that I happen to like, and any connections that emerge will purely be a matter of luck. There are some old favourites in here plus one or two slightly obscure ones. I doubt that what I have to say will be particularly new but I hope some of it might be interesting.
I think the first time I ever realised that short stories were a thing that grown-ups wrote was when our English teacher read us a couple of Graham Greene stories: ‘The Destructors’ and ‘A Little Place Off the Edgware Road’. I was about 14 at the time and they made such an impact on me that I went out and bought a copy of the collection for myself and devoured it from cover to cover.
‘A Little Place Off the Edgware Road’, written in 1939, is the story of a troubled man who goes into a seedy cinema to shelter from the rain and gets into a strange and unsettling conversation with the occupant of the seat next to him. I think the first thing that appealed to me about the story was the gloriously macabre twist that comes at the end of it, causing the protagonist to re-evaluate everything he has learnt up to that point.
Twists are tricky things to handle in stories. It’s very tempting to lift the hat with a flourish to reveal the rabbit and raise your hands in anticipation of your readers’ applause at your clever trick. Green’s genius, however, is to follow the big reveal with these final few short sentences, pulling the camera back to view the developing chaos:
He began to scream, ‘I won’t go mad. I won’t go mad. I’m sane. I won’t go mad.’ Presently a little crowd began to collect, and soon a policeman came.
That ending haunts me to this day.
First published in 1939. Collected in Nineteen Stories, Heinemann 1947, Twenty-One Stories, Penguin, 1970, and The Complete Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 2005
I’m not sure how I first came across Borges, although it may have been the striking cover of the King Penguin edition of this book that drew me in. However, as soon as I started reading, I felt that if ever there was a collection that had been constructed with me in mind as the reader, this was it.
Borges is essentially two very different writers. First of all, he is a philosopher. Every story absolutely fizzes with original and unusual theories and ideas – more so even than any science fiction writer, with the possible exception of Stanislaw Lem, who we’ll come along to in a minute. On the other hand, he is a wonderfully lyrical writer, full of poetry and magical imagery. But the extraordinary thing is that the two aspects are somehow completely intertwined, so that only Borges the poet could present the ideas of Borges the theorist.
I could have picked almost any one out of this set, but I’ve gone for ‘Death and the Compass’, a detective story that goes off at something of a tangent. The central conceit was borrowed by Peter Greenaway in the somewhat Borgesian film The Draughtsman’s Contract, and also by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose, where he even went so far as naming one of his characters Jorge de Burgos. (For what it’s worth, I tried to pull the same trick off myself in my first Mathematical Mystery The Truth About Archie and Pye, but sadly no-one noticed, even though the first murder victim was called George Burgess. Well, there you go.)
First published in Sur in May 1942 and collected in Labyrinths, various editions
I’m not sure if this is a short story at all, although God knows what it is if it isn’t. Basically, A Perfect Vacuum is a collection of reviews of imaginary books. Some of them are intriguing, some of them are preposterous and some are quite clearly impossible. ‘Gigamesh’ is one of the impossible ones.
I first came across A Perfect Vacuum when it was packaged along with the novels Solaris and The Chain of Chance in a King Penguin edition back in the eighties. Obviously it was Solaris that I was mainly after and the utter madness of A Perfect Vacuum came as a complete and delightful surprise extra.
As with Borges, I could have picked any one of the ‘stories’ in A Perfect Vacuum, because they’re all equally entertaining and intellectually challenging in their own way. The novel ‘Gigamesh’ purports to be an attempt to out-Joyce Ulysses by describing the final thirty-six minutes in the life of the gangster ‘GI Joe’ Maesch in bizarre and allusive detail. In the course of it, the novel – plus copious notes that run to twice the length of the original text – supposedly explores all the various hidden meanings implied by the name.
I think the following quote gives a flavour of Lem’s ‘review’:
To continue, Gigamesh is a GIGantic MESS; the hero is in a mess indeed, one hell of a mess, with a death sentence hanging over his head. The word also contains: GIG, a kind of rowboat (Maesch would drown his victims in a gig, after pouring cement on them); GIGgle (Maesch’s diabolical giggle is a reference – reference No 1 – to the musical leitmotif of the descent to hell in Klage Dr Fausti [more on this later]); GIGA, which is (a) in Italian, ‘fiddle’, again tying in with the musical substrates of the novel, and (b) a prefix signifying the magnitude of a billion (as in GIGAwatts), but here the magnitude of evil in a technological civilization. Geegh is Old Celtic for ‘avaunt’ or ‘scram’. From the Italian giga through the French gigue we arrive at geigen, a slang expression in German for copulation. A different partitioning of the name, in the form Gi-GAME-sh, foreshadows other aspects of the work: GAME is a game played, but also the quarry of a hunt (in Maesch’s case, we have a manhunt). This is not all. In his youth Maesch was a GIGolo; AME suggests the Old German Amme, a wet nurse; and MESH, in turn, is a net – for instance, the one in which Mars caught his goddess wife with her lover – and therefore a gin, a snare, a trap (under the scaffold), and, moreover, the engagement of gear teeth (e.g., ‘synchroMESH’).
If that kind of thing takes your fancy, I would thoroughly recommend A Perfect Vacuum. It’s genuinely unlike anything else I’ve encountered.
First published in English in A Perfect Vacuum, Secker and Warburg, 1979
I read this story when it was the opener in Nicholas Royle’s very first Best British Short Stories anthology and I was absolutely transfixed. Rose can be quite a tricky writer to get your head around sometimes, but this is one of his more approachable stories.
‘Flora’ is the story of the odd and frankly unhealthy obsession that develops when an older man invites a young female botany student to use his library and then his garden to work in. He begins to watch her, observing how she dresses and speculating on what might be going on with the young man who accompanies her from time to time. After a while, he digs out his old Zeiss birdwatching binoculars and if this were a McEwan story, you feel it might go down a rather unpleasant path. But then, just before the end, Rose pulls off the most elegant ninety-degree turn that takes the story in a completely different direction and you wonder who was really watching whom.
I believe Rose is still around, despite the title of his collection, but he doesn’t seem to be writing any more, which is a pity. I wish there were more David Rose stories around.
First published in The London Magazine, April/May 2010 and collected in Best British Short Stories 2011, Salt, 2012, and Posthumous Stories, Salt 2013
I first came across Alison Moore in another Nightjar chapbook, ‘When the Door Closed, It Was Dark’ and I’ve been a fan ever since. Having said that, for full disclosure, I should perhaps own up to the fact that the one time I was given a shortlist to judge anonymously that included one of her stories, I somehow managed to pass it over altogether in the year before she was shortlisted for the Booker. The moral is, don’t ask me to judge your competition.
‘Small Animals’ is the story of friends Heather and Marilyn going to visit a third woman, Kath, who lives in a house built into the rock with a sheer cliff edge up one side of the road and a sheer drop on the other. Heather is a child psychologist, and it turns out that Kath has a troubled child, Nina, who seems to have been behaving disruptively. Heather suspects that Kath has invited her there to assess Nina. However, what actually turns out is far more sinister and a hell of a lot weirder.
In the world of Alison Moore, everything would be fine were it not for that brooding sense of unease that pervades everything. The power of her writing, I think, comes from the fact that there is a lot of bad stuff going on, but it’s going on out of shot: to the side of the action or even after the action finishes. It’s left to the reader to fill in the gaps, if they dare.
First published in 2012 as a Nightjar Press chapbook and included in The Pre-War House and Other Stories, Salt 2013
OK, let’s lighten the mood a little, with a story that has possibly the greatest opening of all time.
We only call him the Exploding Boy now, of course; retrospectively. For most of last year he was known as Ticking Boy, which wasn’t nearly so dramatic and led mainly to teasing by us, I’m ashamed to say.
Honestly, find me a better one.
I first came across Nick Parker at a flash fiction event in Bristol, where he proceeded to blow the rest of us off the stage. Despite having written more than my fair share of flash, I still have my doubts as to whether it’s a form that promotes quality. Sometimes it’s a bit too easy to toss off something that sounds profound but doesn’t add up to much in the end.
That said, it doesn’t half lend itself to comedy. It can be a bit of a challenge to come up with something funny that stretches to anything over a thousand words, but in a shorter piece, you can get in, crack the gag, and get out again before it has time to go off. It’s the Fast Show approach to fiction, and ‘The Exploding Boy’ is an excellent example of this. It’s a page long – a small page at that – but the story still manages to be very funny as well as a perfect allegory about how gloriously callous kids can be.
First published on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, August 2004, and available to read here. Collected in The Exploding Boy and Other Tiny Tales, spigmitebooks 2011
So having trashed flash fiction with my comments on ‘The Exploding Boy’, I’m going to include another one. Not only that, but – God help me – it’s a dementia story too. Now everyone who’s ever judged a competition or read submissions for a magazine knows that the three favourite subjects of every single tyro short story writer are the three Ds: Death, Disease and Dementia. There’s a simple reason for this: it’s too easy to use them as a short cut to emotion.
So if it’s a dementia story, it had better be a bloody good one.
Fortunately, ‘Forty-Eight’ dogs is a bloody good one. It’s a deceptively simple story of a woman who is obsessed that her back yard is full of stray dogs, and how her husband gently tries to convince her she’s wrong. But right at the end, in the third paragraph, we get a glimpse of something else:
When he came back with the tea, her husband sighed to see her softer now. He added milk and spooned in sugar and as he leant towards her with her cup, from the corner of his eye he caught the garden, shifting slightly. And in that one blink he saw it. A tail, wagging.
First published in Metazen and collected in My Mother Was an Upright Piano, Tangent Books, 2012
What, more flash fiction? Not quite. I’m being a bit perverse here. I could have chosen almost any story from Gaffney’s Sawn-Off Tales collection, because every one is a gem, especially the barber story, ‘Last to Know’. Also, I think it was the first time I’d ever come across flash in the flesh, so to speak, setting aside the single, paleolithic example in that Graham Greene collection (‘Proof Positive’ is a thousand words long at most).
‘Gossamer’ is actually a full-length story and I like the way it allows Gaffney to stretch out a bit. It’s the story of beta male Damien, a legal consultant, who puts on a disguise to work a second shift in the evening as ‘Kev’, a cleaner at the same firm, in order to spy on his colleague Emma, who he secretly fancies. Inevitably, ‘Kev’ finds out some uncomfortable truths about what Emma really thinks of Damien and he is forced to re-examine his life. So far, this isn’t a particularly original concept, although it’s very nicely handled, but what elevates it into a higher plane is the ending, where we enter pure Gaffney territory and find that Damien may not be the only one who’s leading a double life.
Here’s ‘Kev’ cleaning Damien’s desk:
It was strange to see his desk from a new perspective. It looked dirtier than he’d expected. Why has he left it so untidy? Case files all over, some gaping open, innards disgorged, revealing confidential case information for anyone to read. How was he expected to clean a desk in this state? How thoughtless the daytime Damien was.
First published by East of the Web, included in Aroma Bingo, Salt 2007
Adam Marek’s stories are very approachable, but there’s also an odd quality to them that makes you not entirely sure what you’ve just read. ‘Defending the Pencil Factory’, a one-off chapbook, is a good example of his work. The situation is that a small group of martial artists are holed up in a pencil factory. They are under constant attack by an army of monsters, but it turns out that they have accidentally discovered that the monsters’ only weak point is their skulls, which can be pierced by something sharp – say, a pencil.
Suddenly our situation changed. We were no longer in a pencil factory, but in a weapons store.
The only problem is that the gang only have one pencil sharpener and it takes 32 turns to make it sharp enough to kill. So when the next wave arrives, will they be ready or will they finally be overrun?
I have absolutely no idea whether this is a martial arts story or if it’s a story about metaphorical monsters being slain with writing implements, or even – given that there is a long sequence at the end describing the controversial finale of a martial arts film that their leader is particular fond of – if it’s a story about how we tell stories. I don’t think it actually matters, because it’s massively entertaining either way.
Published as a Guillemot Press chapbook 2018
This is a magnificent story about good and evil in the old West. Patience Haig, a Quaker, spends her time sitting with the occupants of Piper City jailhouse while they await the hangman, including the revolting Galen Pike, who has killed and eaten his four companions on a failed gold-digging expedition. We observe the relationship that grows up between Haig and Pike through their own eyes and also those of Knapp, the jailer, who has a considerably less nuanced view of humanity than Haig.
The portrait that Davies draws of Haig, who tries to see the good in everyone – even Pike – is touching and utterly believable, especially in Knapp’s description of her at the hanging:
It was hard not to tell, Knapp said later to his wife, what effect this short speech of Pike had on Patience Haig, but when the burlap bag came smartly down on Pike’s black eyes and repulsive ravenous features and the floor opened beneath his feet, he was certain Miss Haig struggled with her famous composure; that behind the rough snap of the cloth and the clatter of the scaffold’s wooden machinery, he heard a small high cry escape from her plain upright figure.
When we find out at the end about the unexpected consequence of Pike’s crime, it’s hard not to cheer out loud.
From The Redemption of Galen Pike, Salt 2014
Well, my subconscious was definitely at work when it pinged this story into my head straight after the last one, but I’ll leave it to you to find out how.
This is one of the most disturbing and thought-provoking stories I’ve ever read and it concerns the eponymous Dermot, an unprepossessing individual with special powers that enable him to predict where crimes are being planned, thus providing the local police with a near one hundred per cent clean-up rate. The problem is that Dermot has unusual needs that have to be fulfilled in order for him to perform. Unusual is perhaps too small a word to describe them: utterly horrific would perhaps be a better description.
We see all this through the eyes of Abbie, the rookie cop who is acting as Dermot’s minder for the first time. We see how the rest of the force regard the whole Dermot thing with disgust and how her boss tries to convince her that it’s a rite of passage and will give her a fast track to promotion. And we are left to contemplate how much she will be damaged in the process, and how much everyone is damaged by the trade that’s been made and whether it really is for the better good.
First published in Black Static 24, and collected in reprinted in Best Horror of the Year #4, Night Shade, 2013 and Best British Fantasy 2013, Salt
The sheer literal weight of the Wolf Hall trilogy can sometimes obscure the fact that Hilary Mantel was equally at home writing punchy, short fiction such as this story. What a loss her recent death was.
‘Winter Break’ is a brisk story of a childless couple visiting an unnamed country – probably Greece, given the name of the hotel they eventually arrive at. On the way there in a taxi, they bicker and moan about each other in the way that long-term couples do, and I just want to pick out one fantastic phrase here that says so much about their relationship:
She could feel Phil’s opinions banking up behind his teeth: now that won’t do the gearbox any good, will it?
Then something very bad happens and being in a foreign country, they either don’t understand what has happened, or they do and choose to ignore it. Either way, they leave everything to their driver to deal with and as a result they are now complicit, with the final image revealing the true horror of what they have been involved in.
First published in the Guardian Review in 2010 and available to read here. Collected in Best British Short Stories 2011, Salt, 2012 and The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Fourth Estate 2014