This is the story I return to whenever I’m trying to write. An intensely spare yet entirely convincing tale of transformation, ‘Starver’ maintains the curious reserve of a folktale whilst relating deeply personal events. A teenager watches as her sister starves herself into the shape of an eel, the horror of ridging spines and webbing fingers juxtaposed against the dailiness of home and school. It’s a story which wears its grotesquerie lightly, hitting you with delicacy at unexpected moments: “Her face had changed too, her nose flattening out, nostrils thinning to lines.”
Fen is a collection built around liminality and the instability of bodies in the wild and ‘Starver’ exemplifies everything I love about Johnson’s writing. It is a story that slips and slides, eel-like, gently horrendous and deeply tender all at once.
Collected in Fen, Jonathan Cape, 2016
This is a story about doubles and the often unstable barriers between them. An actress has an affair with her stunt double, its highs and lows detailed via a collage of shooting script excerpts, which dissolve into prose and then clarify once again into script. May-Lan Tan is a master at messing with form and her strangely precise, deeply filmic and often uncomfortable phrasing falls neatly between the chairs of script and story. I love the way she allows the central conceit of doubles to mean everything and pretty much nothing simultaneously, playing up to the idea that we are all far less finitely separated from each other than we might like to think. Throughout ‘Candy Glass’, Tan presents desire as a dangerous, liminal zone, a bleeding place, too easily shattered.
Collected in Things To Make And Break, CB Editions, 2014. New edition from Sceptre, 2018
I think Nicole Flattery is one of the funniest writers working today – a lowkey and often macabre humour that sneaks in via her strangely affectless tone. In ‘Track’, a young Irish girl tolerates, and occasionally sabotages, her older comedian boyfriend, with whom she lives (or rather coexists) in a New York apartment. Essentially a story about an abusive relationship, ‘Track’ is unerringly precise and painful in its treatment of alienation – whether alienation from a relationship or from the wildly anonymizing experience of living in a city, crowded yet alone.
First published in The White Review, April 2017, and available to read online here. Collected in Show Them A Good Time, Bloomsbury, 2019
Simultaneously the most marvellously dramatic yet most coolly detached opener in short story history:
I write this under appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.
In fairness, almost any Lovecraft would do if you’re looking for that signature mix of the histrionic and the weirdly formal, but “Dagon”takes my top spot mostly thanks to its no-holds-barred horror sequences and the tantalising early elements it contains of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. A morphine-addicted man recounts a terrible past encounter on the open ocean, all the while preparing to fling himself from the window as “a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it” becomes more and more apparent. Lovecraft’s grotesque and squelching imagery is second to none and ‘Dagon’ is a perfect encapsulation of his inventive powers. A masterful invocation of the things that haunt us, “especially when the moon is gibbous and waning”.
First published in The Vagrant, November 1919. Widely collected, including in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales, Penguin Classics, 2002, and The Complete Fiction of HP Lovecraft, Chartwell Classics, 2016, and available to read online here
I suspect this is technically a novella and therefore a cheat, but Machen’s high-gothic and frankly often bonkers tale of mad scientists, femme fatales and late-Victorian brain surgery is far too much fun to leave off my list. Opening on a scene so overblown it could have been shot by Mel Brooks, a scientist operates on a young woman who is rendered insane after glimpsing a universe beyond the elemental world and things more or less progress from there. We leap forwards to Victorian London and from here find ourselves embroiled in a string of accidental and often inexplicable deaths, all of which seem somehow tied to a beautiful yet sinister woman named Helen and an apparent manifestation of the pagan god Pan.
The plot is overripe with all the usual anxieties of the fin-de-siècle and abounds with corrosive sexuality, semi-vampiric women and moral decay. It’s gossipy, spooky and includes a character who is, in all seriousness, writing a book titled Memoirs to Prove the Existence of the Devil. Machen was enormously admired by Lovecraft, who described him as a master of suspense, and the similarities between the two are evident. Enjoyable enough as a straight horror story, ‘The Great God Pan’ is almost more entertaining when viewed as a piece of high camp.
First published in partial form in The Whirlwind, 1894. Most recently collected in The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, 2018, and available to read online here
Doubles again, this time with an additional trick built in, dealing with not one double but two. Mikaella Clements is so, so funny, and I think she writes stories that you literally wouldn’t find anywhere else, written by anyone else. ‘Keeping Up…’ throws you in at pure horror, as a couple discovers their malevolent doubles have moved in across the road, before pulling the genre rug from under you and allowing the story to become an empathetic study of two relationships. Clements’ work is deeply rooted in queer sensibilities and dynamics and I think that here in particular, her skill is in normalising queer dynamics via horror or magical realism, creating a queer norm in a genre where, more usually, queer-coded monsters are shown as threats to a heterosexual norm. I love the dailiness in this story, the tender mundanity of being in a couple and loving someone, even if that someone happens to be a monster (even if you do too).
Published in Catapult, February 2019, and available to read online here
Carmen Maria Machado is the big deal she is for a reason and I could have chosen almost any story from Her Body and Other Parties to illustrate this. ‘A Horror Story’ isn’t included in the collection, but I picked it because of the amount it manages to do in a tremendously small number of words. A couple move into a house and find themselves haunted, though the possible reasons why seem to be ripped from the plots of a hundred horror movies: It turned out there had been a graveyard for criminals on the property where our home now stood. Also, a woman had been strangled by her lover in our bedroom just after the house was built. Also, a man had hanged himself in the attic during the Great Depression. Also, a teenage girl had been kidnapped and held in the basement for a year in the seventies before the kidnapper, who had never bothered offering a ransom, sent pieces of her body to her family in sets of Russian nesting dolls and then burned what remained of her on the front lawn.Taking the haunted house trope and turning it into an exploration of queer relationships, guilt and trust, the story manages to be deeply affecting and eerie whilst always keeping its tongue planted firmly in its cheek.
Published in Granta, October 2015, and available to read online here
The first time their mother disappeared, they were in a supermarket.
You Can’t Go Home Again, the collection from which this story comes, is a delicate blend of the mundane and the mythic, charting the adult lives of a group of school friends who experienced a disturbing incident as teenagers. Throughout the collection, unease bleeds and tangles its way through often unremarkable circumstances and in ‘Socks’, I think this feeling is at its most heightened. Creating a world of stark daylight and creeping darkness, the story deals with parents and children, suggested ghosts and djinns, always counterbalanced by a grounding realism. Hasin is good at lists – at the cumulative power of objects, supermarket items, possessions, clothes, and the eerie aspects they can take on when shown in the wrong light.
Collected in You Can’t Go Home Again, Penguin India, 2018
Taking a quick detour into classic children’s comedy, in which no-one is stalked by a grisly double but a schoolboy does nearly drive his teacher insane. I think including this story might be cheating, since I listened to the audiotapes – read by Martin Jarvis – so much as a child that I’m not entirely convinced I’ve ever actually read it. A story in which William Brown gets involved in a production of Hamlet, ‘William Holds The Stage’ contains probably the finest takedown in English Literature of Shakespeare-truthers, and it’s my favourite for this reason:
“How could that other man Ham…”
“I said Bacon.”
“Well, it’s nearly the same,” said William. “Well, how could this man Bacon write them if Shakespeare wrote them?”
“Ah, but you see I don’t believe that Shakespeare did write them,” said Mr Welbecker mysteriously.
“Well, why’s he got his name printed on all the books then?” said William. “An’ if this other man Eggs…”
“I said Bacon,” snapped Mr Welbecker again. “I want first to tell you the story of the play of which you are all going to act a scene,” he said. “There was a man called Hamlet…”
“You just said he was called Bacon,” said William.
“I did not say he was called Bacon,” snapped Mr Welbecker.
“Yes, ‘scuse me, you did,” said William politely.
“Listen!This man was called Hamlet and his uncle had killed his father because he wanted to marry his mother.”
“What did he want to marry his mother for?” said William. “I’ve never heard of anyone wanting to marry their mother.”
“It was Hamlet’s mother he wanted to marry.”
“Oh, that man that you think wrote the plays.”
Collected in William The Pirate, George Newnes, 1932
A woman takes a morning off from her husband and new baby to go swimming at a lido and runs into an ex-boyfriend, freshly returned from his travels. This obviously works on its own, but might also be a reference to the last third of Jane Eyre, if looked at with the right eyes. I read this story first in a collection of shorts inspired by Jane Eyre and only later came across it in Hall’s collection Madame Zero. On reading it a second time, I was aware of the strange additional layer of context that I might never have assumed otherwise – the ex-boyfriend could be a St John Rivers proxy or could simply be an ex-boyfriend. In a way, this confusion is emblematic of Hall’s strength as a writer; you can take her writing almost any way you want to and its power, at its core, remains the same.
‘Luxury Hour’, regardless of context, is a story about swimming, about the freedom and fierce joy of it and the way the violence of outdoor swimming can briefly throw you out of your life. Wiry and tender, like almost all of Hall’s writing, it captures the ache of dissatisfaction and the panic of choice, made all the sharper by watching this woman go from the cold clarity of the pool straight back to the wooly uncertainty of her life.
Collected in Reader, I Married Him, The Borough Press, 2016, and Madame Zero, Faber & Faber, 2017
A kraken falls in love with a pirate ship, which causes some inconvenience to the passengers and crew.
Collected in The Sea Beast Takes A Lover, Head of Zeus, 2018
This is really a placeholder for the platonic ideal of the Jeeves story, because I can’t realistically be expected to choose. Wodehouse is fun to read and even more fun to read aloud, ideally to your partner whilst doing the voices. I advise starting with this one – Bertie Wooster has to babysit an Aberdeen terrier, provide lunch for an American theatre impresario and avoid upsetting his Aunt Agatha, all in the space of one day. Any number of funny voices are required.
First published in The Strand Magazine, 1929 as “Jeeves and the Dog McIntosh”. Collected in Very Good, Jeeves,Herbert Jenkins, 1930. Currently findable in The World of Jeeves, Arrow, 2008