When I was first asked to edit my personal anthology my first response was to panic. What did I know of short stories or their literary value? I only began to write at the age of forty! I’m a working-class writer and a working-class reader. Until my studies, my novel reading involved stealing my mam’s Shirley Conran’s off her bookshelf, maybe having a Jackie Collins stuffed under my pillow, or feasting on a Jilly Cooper, loaned from the local library. Before that, my primary school teacher gifted me classics, The Chronicles of Narnia or Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree. She knew I would take good care of the books, no accidental spills or grubby finger marks from this student. Farther back still, stories came from the lilting North East voice of my nanna, who tucked me under the bedclothes in her big brass bed, and recounted an endless array of family sagas, until the wee small hours.
I came to writing late, and to reading short stories later still, but now I realize that, although I’m not well read, I do read well. I’ve always felt the pull of a good story, always understood there is a certain structure, a magical weaving of words and I’ve learnt to shrug off the shame of having never read Tolstoy or Virginia Woolf. Recently, my reading world has widened, I have begun study the craft a little more closely and, in that study, I have discovered short stories and the absolute pleasure I gain from reading them. My anthology is eclectic, not thematic, except to say that each of these stories has produced an emotional response in some way and hopefully, in reading them, this student of the craft has learnt a little something.
Published in the New Yorker in 1948, The Lottery has long been considered the best short story of all time. A small American town performs an annual ritual of running a lottery, where its inhabitants draw lots to see which one will be sacrificed to a death by stoning. Jackson is so skilful in placing the unimaginable firmly in realism, that when first published, some readers were utterly convinced and consequently horrified that this was an actual event in a real town. Truly one of the best short stories I have ever read it makes for tense and deeply unnerving read.
First published in The New Yorker in June 1948 and available online to subscribers here. Widely collected, including in The Lottery and Other Stories, Penguin 2009
A wonderful example of how setting can be seen as a character in itself. Persaud writes beautifully, with just enough descriptive detail to transport the reader to the wilds of Wales.
Grass winds its way up through the rough surface of the driveway and wind felled trees lattice themselves together like gnarled fingers.
When she jumps out to open the ninth and final gate, the forest twitches news of their arrival along the length of the valley.
A couple spend the weekend in the crumbling cottage they have bought as a renovation project. Slowly, slowly, Persaud reveals that there is more to this relationship than first thought and that one of them is hiding a devastating secret.
I love that this story has now formed the basis for Hannah’s wonderful debut novel, The Codes of Love.
First published on Hannah’s blog, Creating Worlds to Wander in, 30 June 2016 here
Much of Jonathan’s work is concerned with neurology and memory, and this short story is no exception.
With its slight nod to Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, this story is structured as a series of diary entries charting the progress of a patient in a scientific trial. Narrated from the patient’s partner’s point of view, we learn of his undiagnosed neurological disorder, one that has left him unable to recognise faces. The narrative is both compelling and devastating. You said, Doc, it’s all because of a damaged “dorsal pathway” to the facial processor. You said the damage might be caused by Lewybodies, the L-Dopa he takes, or it might even be the ECT he had as a boy. You said these things move, so to speak, in mysterious ways – more things in heaven and earth, et cetera et cetera. You showed me the MRI scan, and I said I didn’t understand.Taylor masterfully flits between the empathy and the distress and often the outright frustration of the narrator, then leaves us bereft, with a delicately dark twist of an ending.
First published in Lunate Literary Magazine, April 2020, here.You can also find links to Jonathan’s work here
When I was struggling to write sex scenes for my novel, I put a call out on Twitter for help. A huge collective of voices pointed me toward Leone Ross and her sultry seductive writing. I read her collection Come Let Us Sing Anyway and found it utterly bewitching. ‘Drag’ stood out for me with its lyrical, erotic prose and its feisty protagonist, Josephine, who strives to find her own identity through a series of sexual encounters. She is first a drag queen, relinquishing her femininity, then an executive, surrendering her power and finally a bride-to-be, who realises that SHE is all she needs. Rich in sensuous detail and utterly seductive prose, this story is a masterclass in erotic writing.
First published in Brown Sugar: A Collection of Erotic Black Fiction, ed. Carol Taylor, Dutton Plume, 2001. Collected in Come Let Us Sing Anyway, Peepal Tree Press, 2017. An excerpt of the story was printed in Cosmopolitan magazine, September 2018, and can be read here
Really, one of the first stories that rattled my bones, with its languorous tone, incongruous against the abject violence within. This story sparked an exploration of Sothern gothic literature and inspired my own MA dissertation. Flannery O’Connor’s short story ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ is a wonderful example of how Southern Gothic can contain both dark humour and a bleak and shocking theme.
A prisoner, ‘the Misfit’, has escaped from the ‘federal pen’. An unbearable Grandmother, exposed by O’Connor as a hypocrite, racist and religious zealot, sets off with her family to visit relatives in Tennessee. She insists on a diversion to an old plantation house, leading the family straight into the path of the misfit and his gang. What transpires is utterly horrific, yet due to O’Connor’s skilful storytelling, we ultimately find sympathy for the anti-hero.
First published in The Berkeley Book of Modern Writers, ed. William Phillips and Phillip Rahv, in 1953. You can read this, and other stories here
This anthology has some wonderful essays and short stories, but McCrudden’s story resonated with me because I grew up in the north-east and instantly recognised his grandmothers, both of whom sit firmly on either side of the hierarchal fence that runs directly through the centre of a north-east council estate. McCrudden’s incredibly wry, yet often poignant memoir exposes the aspirations and complexities of working-class families, almost as if he had held up a mirror of my own experiences. Littered with humour, ‘Shy Bairns get Nowt’ is a brilliant introduction to his writing.
First published in Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers, ed. Kit de Waal, Unbound, 2019
As an avid flash reader, and a flash writer myself, it would be remiss of me not to choose a very short story to add to the list. The flash community is a wonderful place if you’re looking to read tiny, powerful stories that challenge you. This one, from Gaynor Jones, demonstrates how even the shortest of stories can leave the reader reeling.
‘The Thing Between Your Legs’ traverses the awkward curiosity of a young girl and her body and the muted discussions and barriered response from a reserved and puritan mother. Jones’s style is wry and witty with the occasional knock to the head that makes the reader see stars. Mother kept her legs crossed – always at the ankle, never at the knee. But there were six of us, plus the dead baby, so we knew she had opened them up plenty.The Thing Between Your Legs went on to win the Mairtín Crawford Short Story Award, and it’s not difficult to see why.
First Published in Bending Genres, April 2018. You can read it here
Highly commended by the in the Costa Book Awards and later published in the London Magazine, I loved this deeply layered short story with its unusual subject matter and themes of loneliness, grief and inherent racism. Haleh is a skilled storyteller, and on each reading of ‘Not Contagious’ I seem to find something new, a fine detail that breaks my heart even more. Her wonderful debut novel Out of Touch is out now.
Published in The London Magazine, March 2020. You can read it here
Technically this is a novella not a short story, but it can probably be read in one sitting, so I’m compelled to slot it into this anthology. With its lively creole dialogue and comedic scenes contrasting beautifully with the powerful and heart-breaking pathos of the narrator, Moses, The Lonely Londoners is a masterpiece in contemporary writing. Selvon’s novella depicts the plight of West Indian immigrants who travel to post-war London in search of a better life, only to be disappointed by the reality of a cruel welcome to the ‘promised land’.
First published in 1956 by Longman’s Press. Currently available as a Penguin Modern Classic, 2006
I’m not usually a fan of the macabre, being somewhat of a wimp, but this short story by David Court pulled me in entirely. Nestled within his short story collection Scenes of Mild Peril, this is a plague story, set in Dublin, with elements of folk tale eeriness and compounded by a breath-taking finale. Given the current climate of a global pandemic, it resonates even further with the reader.
First published April 2016 at Stitched Smile Publications here. You can find out more about David’s work here
This Mogford Prize-winning story is set in the Scottish Highlands and focuses on Esme, a local woman who lives a solitary life, punctuated only by passing hipster tourists, who fill her ‘honesty box’ with coins in return for her home-made wares. Ingram is the mistress of foreshadowing when, in the opening paragraph, we learn:The crows don’t eat the nuts when they get crushed, instead they wait for a squirrel gathering up chestnuts to get hit by a car, and eat them instead.This stunning short story subverts the idea of the hunt in the cleverest of ways and its vivid detail and sardonic voice make it an absolute joy to read.
Published by The Mogford Prize for Food and Drink Writing, 2019, you can read it online here
Scholars of Joyce might discuss, at length, his contribution to modernist literature, his imitable narrative style and uncompromising prose, but I chose ‘Eveline’ simply because it was the first short story that ever made me cry.
Eveline is nineteen and faced with the dilemma of eloping to Buenos Aires with her lover Frank, or remaining in Dublin, working in The Stores and taking care of her abusive father. Joyce examines the danger of sentimental reminiscence. When Eveline hears a street organ playing, she is reminded of a promise to her mother, “to keep the home together as long as she could” followed by a swift bout of panic that her life will be as pitiful as her mothers: “Escape! She must escape!”
We are hopeful for Eveline until the last moments, when her fear of what she truly desires becomes too much to bear and instead she commits her to a lifetime of drudgery. Eveline is left “gripping both hands to the iron railings” on the dock, whilst Frank is swept away in the crowds.
Joyce’s stories are buoyed by his imitable attention to detail and his incredible capacity to inject poignancy and self-reflection into his uncompromising social commentaries on Dublin.
First published in Irish Homestead, 2014. Collected in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914