‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried’ by Amy Hempel

If I could only read one story for the rest of my life it would be this. The fact that this was the first story she ever wrote – the product of a prompt by Gordon Lish in his writing class – is nothing short of miraculous. The prompt was to write a story that would ‘dismantle’ their sense of self, and Hempel wrote about a friend who died too young of cancer. The narrator is flawed, brutally honest and unsentimental (almost willing us to dislike her) But, by the end, the voice is one undone by loss and a gnawing regret. It’s a masterclass in the importance of blank space on the page, of what isn’t being said. Hempel herself stated “You want to be underneath the bleachers in a story, looking for what’s left”. 

First published in TriQuarterly Magazine, 1983, and collected in Reasons To Live, 1985, Harper Collins. Read it online here

‘Signs and Symbols’ by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov is a favourite writer of mine and his stories are slices of perfection. This story, on the surface, is very slight – an elderly couple return from visiting their son in a sanatorium on his birthday, after he has attempted to take his own life, and they sit at their table at midnight and eat some jam – and yet not one word is wasted. Small details devastate (their son’s unopened birthday present on the table, the realisation that knives need to be kept in a locked drawer if he returned home) During the story, the couple receive two apparently misdialled telephone calls from a girl asking for Charlie; and the story ends abruptly when the phone rings for a third time. It is, frustratingly, never answered and the delicious ambiguity of it means that, whenever I re-read it, I’m always slightly hopeful that this time the father will pick up the phone. 

First published – as ‘Symbols and Signs’ –  in The New Yorker, May 15, 1948, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Nabokov’s Dozen, Doubleday, 1958 and Collected Short Stories, Knopf, 1995. Also in the Penguin 70 Cloud Castle Lake, 2005

‘Tangled Up in Blue’ by Bob Dylan

When I was a kid, my dad had this beat up leather case he stored his albums and 7” singles in which I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere near (which obviously meant that all I wanted to do was see what was inside!) One day, when I was about 11, I sneaked it into my room and was flicking through the records when the title of a song caught my eye – Tangled Up in Blue. I had no clue what it meant so I took the single out and played it on my cheap little record player. From that first verse – “Early one morning, the sun was shining, I was laying in bed, wondering if she’d changed at all, if her hair was still red” – I was intrigued. I didn’t know songs could be life stories like that, I was totally immersed in the lyrics and invested in this relationship with the singer and the redhead who worked in a “topless place” who gifts him a book of poems written by “an Italian poet from the thirteenth century”. I played it over and over. Some of the language was confusing, his phrasing too clever for my youthful mind, and it felt like a riddle I had to solve, or hieroglyphics on a tomb I needed to decipher, but it definitely made me feel something. A connection. A sensation of words transporting you someplace else. I never had that with a song before. ‘Tangled…’ feels like poetry because it is.

From Blood on the Tracks, 1975, Columbia Records

‘Tralala’ by Hubert Selby, Jr

There was a gnarly guy named Kenneth who was in my English class in college. He had a shaved head, a fetish for plastic buttons and lived on a diet of bongs and Kraft cheese slices. Importantly, he also had a flat where me and my mates could go and drink vodka and listen to records. To say his flat was monastic, is an understatement – stained mattress in the living room, bare floorboards, cigarette butts everywhere – but he had a ton of vinyl and even more books. Mounds of them, all piled up in precarious piles, floor to ceiling. It was here I discovered Thomas Pynchon, Aleister Crowley, William Blake, Plutarch, Alexander Trocchi. It was like the best, most fucked up, library ever. It was also where I discovered – Kenneth’s hero – Hubert Selby, Jr. He, reluctantly, gave me a loan of his dog-eared copy of ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’.

Which brings me to ‘Tralala’. 

She picks up sailors, takes them to a room, knocks them unconscious then robs them. Her world is bleak and unrelenting, like a fever dream that keeps escalating and escalating, but you can’t look away. The horrifying last paragraph of the story provoked an intense, almost violent, physical reaction from me. I carried the image of it with me for days. Weeks. Took me a decade before I could brace myself to read it again.

Some stories can be parasites that infect you and alter your DNA a little. 

First published in Last Exit to Brooklyn, 1964, Grove Press)

‘Birdland’ by Patti Smith

When I was a teenager, I used to lie on my bed in my room in the dark and listen to John Peel on the radio. One night he played a song called ‘Birdland’. I didn’t realise at the time that it was inspired (just like Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’) by Peter Reich’s memoir of his father, Wilhelm Reich. The first line – “His father died and left him a little farm in New England” – is softly spoken by Patti, over a mournful, sparse piano, and the story is about a boy, at his father’s funeral, who believes he sees a UFO being piloted by his dead dad. There are too many achingly beautiful lines to quote, but I always loved “It was as if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars, ‘cause when he looked up they started to slip…”

I went out and bought Horses the next day. (God, I miss John Peel)

From ‘Horses’, 1975, Arista Records

‘Blood’ by Janice Galloway

I once wrote in a short story of mine – “a woman is fluent in the language of blood”. Never was it more evident than in this visceral, almost carnal, story about a schoolgirl who starts her day having a sanitary towel jammed into her mouth to stem the bleed from a tooth extraction at the dentist and ends with her, at school, stuffing toilet paper in her underwear to stop a heavy, unexpected, period. She seeks solace in a music rehearsal room with a rosewood piano and Mozart playing, but the door won’t lock, and she hears the approaching footfall in the corridor of the students as the ‘unstoppable redness’ seeps from her, unable to stanch the bleed. 

The story is sinewy, compressed, with not one ounce of flab. Truthfully, I could have picked any of her stories. Janice Galloway is not Scotland’s best writer, she is simply the best writer, full stop.

From Blood, Vintage, 1991, and also The Picador Book of the New Gothic, Picador, 1991

‘Bullet in the Brain’ by Tobias Wolff

The last paragraph of this – the final, split-second thought (of a childhood baseball game in the heat of summer) as a bullet shatters through his skull – is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful things I’ve ever read

First published in The New Yorker, September 1995, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Night in Question, Bloomsbury, 1995

‘Game’ by Donald Barthelme

A great short story is tightly wound, not one wasted moment, and ‘Game’ is a breathless, claustrophobic, paranoid tale which takes place in a single room in an underground bunker. The two protagonists – Shotwell and the Narrator – are bored and restless, armed with pistols and rocking each other to sleep at night. The story feels as suffocating and airless as the bunker they live in. They are frustrated and strange, and in charge of possibly releasing a missile that could destroy a city. Power to destroy is always in the wrong hands, ‘Game’ suggests, because that degree of power can warp a soul.

First published in The New Yorker, July, 1965, and available to subscribers to read here; collected in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968, and Sixty Stories, GP Putnam’s Sons, 1981

‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ by Raymond Carver

So many Carver stories could have been on this list, but I chose this one because – in only 1600 words or so and set entirely on a driveway where a garage sale is being held by the alcoholic narrator – we see the broken remains of a life, and how important connection is, however minimal that may be. 

A young couple scope out the furniture pieces, possibly to buy for their own apartment, but there are no price tags on any of the items. As the girl is looking through his record collection, they put a song on and dance together.

There is no traditional ‘plot’ and the reader is only drip fed certain tiny, but crucial, elements of information. Nothing is resolved, everything is implied. 

First published in Quarterly West, 1978. This version first published in the Paris Review, 1981. Collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Knopf, 1981, and Where I’m Calling From, Atlantic, 1988

‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ by Ray Bradbury

The title is from an anti-war poem by Sara Teasdale. The story is about a lone house that remains intact in a city obliterated by a nuclear bomb. There is no dialogue, other than the chilling automated pre-recorded devices within the house, giving the illusion that these objects are alive. The only things alive. The shock of the shadows of the family on the wall, frozen in time, is an eerie, emotionally annihilating, and starkly relevant, image.

First published in Collier’s Weekly, 1950, and collected in The Martian Chronicles, 1997

‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’ by Denis Johnson

Reasons that I knew I would adore Denis Johnson.

1. He named his short story collection Jesus’ Son, after a line from ‘Heroin’ by The Velvet Underground.

2. After reading about twenty words of this story I felt the ground fall away from my feet and had to stop to take a breath.

Fuckhead is the narrator, and we are complicit in his story immediately, we’ve been sucked us into his world and dragged along with him in this nightmarish premonition of an accident on a rainy night. Life is senseless, redemption is wonderful but fleeting.

There are some people that you meet, complete strangers, and yet after only a few minutes, you bristle, and instantly feel uncomfortable around them. Sometimes, you trust them implicitly. There’s no rhyme or reason for this, other than an instinct, our primal lizard brain kicking in, sensing who the good guys are. The genuine ones.

Denis Johnson writes the truth. He is the truth. And I trust him completely. 

From ‘Jesus’ Son’, 1992, Farrar, Straus & Giroux