Introduction

Twelve you say—how can that be? Such a small amount of water and the pool is so big. To narrow it down first I had to remember, and then I had to read and re-read. Such exquisite pleasure. Such exquisite pain.

A good short story is like an arthouse film or a poem; you jump straight into the action and step off lightly at the end. Nothing is resolved. There is no neat summing up or resolution. The reader is made to work—imagining what came before and what could happen next. The stories that interest me usually focus in some way on the complexities of human interaction—the ways in which we misunderstand, mislead and are cruel to one another.  I like stories that are rooted in everyday life—but explore the dark undercurrents.

These twelve are stories that stayed with me long after reading them. Stories I have found myself thinking about in the supermarket queue or in bed at night. They are stories that trouble me or disturb me, stories that have changed me in some way.

‘The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death’ by Shawn Vestal

My son sometimes eats four meals in a row. The same thing, four times in a row. He walks up to the counter and yells, “Thanksgiving dinner!”

The protagonist exists in an absurd kind of afterlife where everyone remains the age they were when they died and there is nothing to do but relive key moments of your life and eat—one can eat any meal as long as it is something you ate in your lifetime. The result is both comic and strangely profound as the narrator comes to realize that even those happy moments in life are never as untroubled as they may first appear.
From Godforsaken Idaho, Little A, 2013

‘Fox 8’ by George Saunders

One day, walking neer one of your Yuman houses, smelling all the interest with snout, I herd, from inside, the most amazing sound. Turns out, what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice, making werds.

I love George Saunders. No, I REALLY love George Saunders. A friend saved me this story from her weekend Guardian.  She saved it because it was about foxes and was slightly bemused by my whoops of glee when I saw who the author was.

This is a deceptively simple yet tragic tale of foxes and their difficult relationship with the human-dominated world. But the magic of Saunders is such that his stories work on many levels. This brilliant and engaging story is written in the form of a letter from a fox to a human, and is an allegory not only for our tricky and destructive relationship with the natural world, but also of immigrants and immigration—as seen through an animal’s eyes. Genius.

Published in The Guardian, 21st October, 2017. Read it online here

‘singing my sister down’ by Margo Lannagan

A friend recommended Lannagan’s collection Black Juice after she had read it at another friend’s house. “Read it,” she said, “you won’t have read anything quite like it.” Yeah, right, I thought…

‘singing my sister down’ is a dark documentation of a family’s last day with their daughter as she is sucked down into a tar pit as punishment for killing her husband. It is narrated by the girl’s youngest brother and is by turns touching, disturbing, funny and haunting.

Through our singing, I thought I heard her cry for Mumma; I tried not to, yet my ears went on hearing.
From Black Juice, Gollancz, 2004. Read it online here

‘Elephant’ by Raymond Carver

My mother and my daughter and my former wife. That’s three people on the payroll right there, not counting my brother. But my son needed money, too.

It was hard to choose just one Raymond Carver story but this is the one that has stayed with me the longest, perhaps because of the hopelessly unfair situation the narrator is in. He works long hours in a dead-end job in order to support various family members whose demands become increasingly unreasonable. Carver perfectly captures the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that the narrator feels. Yet despite this he still manages almost angelic moments of optimism and good will towards the world and even his hapless and predatory relatives.
Published in The New Yorker, June 9, 1986 and collected in Elephant and Other Stories, The Harvill Press, 1988 and Where I’m Calling From, The Harvill Press, 1993. Read it online here

‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall

An in-your-face story about the friendship between two teenagers—the narrator, Kathleen and the volatile Manda. Kathleen is fascinated by Manda and her family. There are dark undercurrents and a sense that violence is always in the wings waiting to erupt.
That’s why we were all afraid of her. That’s why her name went before her — Manda Slessor — and if you heard it said in a room you felt ill at ease, you felt things shift out of the way for its coming into the conversation. Everyone knew she was hard. It was the first thing ever they knew about her. It was her pedigree.
From The Beautiful Indifference, Faber and Faber, 2011

‘Peter’ by Rob Roensch

One of those stories where less is definitely more. It is as much about what is not said as what is said. Every time read it I think it is about something different. Could be compassion, friendship, death, loss, fragility, the minutiae, could be the whole fucking lot of it. Exquisite.
My five-year-old, gleeful weirdo, stands at my knee gnawing on the elephant we keep telling her not to gnaw on. There’s rain in my hair still. I have so much and am so bereft.
First published in Bull, Read it here