Short stories have been good to me. At Influx Press we’ve published collections that have won prizes and sold lots of copies. It’s also the form in which I started my own writing career, before I chose the path of least resistance through my valuable academic study of pub carpets. I have always read short stories, but I’ve never once thought about my favourites, or those most influential to me until this personal anthology. I have no real concept of what this list says about me as a reader or a person, something my therapist would be very disappointed to hear, but a lack of insight isn’t necessarily a terrible thing in this case. These are purely stories that have made me feel something; a belly laugh, or a cringing stomach twist, a blubbering weep, or even a burst of pride.
So consider this an Anthology of Feels. And in no particular order, of course.
Right, so this one I edited and published in An Unreliable Guide to London, which is why I have feelings for it. Mostly pride, I think, and admiration. Schilz’s meander through Hanwell and Ealing is an exceptional piece of writing that takes in the history of an unwritten part of London, her own personal childhood, some totally made up nonsense and much more in between. It is lyrical, funny, stuffed with character and energy. I have never visited Hanwell, nor do I plan to any time soon, but it is so fully rendered in ‘Beating the Bounds’ that I almost feel like I don’t need to.
From An Unreliable Guide to London, Influx Press 2016
I was introduced to Percival Everett by Courttia Newland (more on him later). Since then I have tried to read as many Everett books as possible (there are over 25), but he is not very widely published in the UK, so books have proved hard to get hold of. Everett is an absolute master of storytelling and subversion. He loves to play with form and narrative and expectations and ‘The Appropriation of Cultures’ is him as his mischievous, provocative best. A black musician, Daniel is playing slide guitar in a bar one evening with his band, when some white frat boys ask him, “Play Dixie, play Dixie!” Dixie being, of course, a famous blackface minstrel song. Daniel thinks about refusing, but chooses to take on the song and repurpose it for himself, “deciding the lyrics were his”, and totally transforms the atmosphere of the room. No longer than a page, the power in the story and its minimal delivery is quite phenomenal.
From Damned if I Do, Graywolf 2004
This was my first and still my favourite Ballard story. I think I read this when I was around seventeen years old and I’d only really read books like Of Mice and Men and The Remains of the Day at school. I wasn’t a big reader until I got to my late teens – too busy kicking footballs, throwing cricket balls and playing with my own balls to care about literature. Essentially, I had no idea that you could write like this – with a total lack of characters or plot, no dialogue and certainly no particular literary merit to speak of. What I love about this story is that the concept (time travel meant you could make TV news set in the past by travelling there and filming it) rules the entire six pages. It’s bold and Ballard is clearly just sketching out an idea without needing such bourgeois complications like characterisation. Little did I know that absolutely everything he wrote is like this and it does get tiresome if you binge on it. But this story, it’s still my first love, and it always will be.
1972, from The Complete Short Stories Volume 2, Harper Perennial 2006
Irenosen Okojie’s 2016 collection Speak Gigantular will be rated a 21st century modern classic in years to come, I’m certain of it. The imagination, wit, energy and bravura in that book is unparalleled and I’ve loved reading and re-reading it over the last couple of years. The literary punch in stories like ‘Gunk’, the pathos in ‘Why is Pepe Canary Yellow?’ and the oddness of ‘Jody’ make her book an unequivocal joy. My favourite story in the book is ‘Walk with Sleep’, a strange tale of limbo in the London Underground. It is told with real elegance and poise. The central conceit is haunting – that those who commit suicide on the Underground meet each other as ghosts, trying to find their way back to the world, and many times I’m waiting for a train at a Tube station I think about it and imagine Okojie’s characters playing in the tunnels.
From Speak Gigantular, Jacaranda Books 2016
Now, I don’t know about you, but I remember the hype and furore around this story when it was released. Reports of people fainting in the audience when Palahniuk read it out loud, suggestions to ban the sick filth of it by newspapers, reading it out to your mates to make them squirm and get dizzy. Not until ‘Cat Person’ was published do I remember a short story being so hyped – and this was way before social media existed. The story itself: a boy is finding different, increasingly more extreme methods of masturbating, until one day he is wanking in his swimming pool and is attracted to the pull of the pool drain, leading to what a doctor would call, trans-anal intestinal evisceration. It’s a rough read, graphic and bloody and gross, but it’s brilliantly represented on the page. ‘Guts’ was a total masterclass in extreme literature being allowed in to hallowed spaces like the South Bank (where I saw Palahnuick read it). It was published in Playboy and if I remember correctly, also in a UK newspaper. I think this would prove to be Palahniuk’s last great work, following great novels such as Fight Club, Lullaby and Survivor.
First published in Playboy, 2004, collected in Haunted, Vintage 2005
This story comes from the brilliant Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction I picked up in India earlier this year. Tamil Nadu has a long history of publishing pulp novels and short stories that are traditionally sold at train stations and newsagents across the state (I suppose in a slightly similar fashion to the old Penny Dreadfuls). Tamil writing, much like its cinema, has a unique style and approach and is a fascinating, vital part of south Indian culture. This story from Subha (aka two school friends Suresh and Balakrishnan who, since 1983, have co-authored around 550 short novels, 50 longer novels serialised in magazines and more than 400 short stories – phew!), is a classic – featuring their long running characters Narendran and Vaijayanthi of Eagle Eye Detective Agency. It explores corruption and religion in state politics and power, via slapstick and crime noir. I love the setting and the set up, and it reminds me of the many trips I have taken to south India in the last fifteen years. I’m not going to pretend you should read all Subha’s work, as that would take you a lifetime, but if you’re going to read one story, this is it.
Collected in the Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Blaft, 2008
This is another short story that I have published. In 2014 Influx released Above Sugar Hill, one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read, regardless of whether I edited it or not! Mannheim’s writing wastes no words and hits you exactly where it you want to be hit by a story. ‘Dropping’ is something else though, I tell you. It is the story of Squire, a paratrooper in the army, his former life in New York and how 9/11, those bodies dropping from the burning building affected his life. Even writing about it now gives me goosebumps and makes my eyes moist. It is extraordinarily well written and with a pathos, similar to the way Okojie writes, that gives you all sides of the character, allowing you to sympathise and understand someone who you may initially be turned off by, say, if they are a gung-ho solider. The rest of the collection centres on the lives of those living in and around Washington Heights in Manhattan, but this is the only story that leaves those bounds. It’s a total masterpiece.
From Above Sugar Hill, Influx Press 2014
I have to have a Newland story in here, but I confess I know Courttia quite well and have even had dinner with him on more than one occasion. My excuse for this one not being a buddy-entry is that I read it before I ever met Courttia. Back in 2014 I used to do a radio show on NTS, a local Hackney broadcaster that is now the biggest online radio station in Europe (potentially the world). I did the breakfast show on a Friday morning 9-12pm. It was immense fun. Sometimes I would invite writers on to read stories and talk about their work in between playing banging tunes to start your weekend. Courttia was one of those guests and we had a total blast. I had invited him based on this story, ‘Fresh for ’88’, because I loved it so much I wanted to hear him read it out loud. It’s a simple tale of two young friends entering a rap battle contest in the late 80s with a wonderful little twist at the end (I won’t spoil it for you). The beauty is in the dialogue, the sense of wonderment in the characters and that feeling that youth will go on forever. Newland captures a forgotten element of London’s cultural history so well.
From A Book Of Blues, Flambard Press 2011
I discovered Alexia Arthurs totally by accident. We share the Influx Press office with Kobo (the alternative to Kindle) and the Guardian Bookshop. This means there is a shit tonne of proofs and advance copies sent to the office every week. Sometimes you feel like you’re swimming through heat bound paperbacks just to get to your desk. One day last summer Alexia Arthurs’ collection How to Love a Jamaican appeared on the shared shelves. I picked it up out of curiosity and have cherished it ever since. The opening story, ‘Light Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands’ is a fantastic piece of short fiction focusing on a friendship between two black girls in New York. Arthurs writes from the heart and eloquently paints the friends’ gradually disintegrating bond with real grace. The story is about the impact of race and class, white supremacy and immigration on what could have been a lifelong friendship. Great stories have the power to make you see the world from another person’s perspective, and this is certainly of contemporary vintage.
From How to Love a Jamaican, Picador 2018
The White Review Short Story Prize is one of the best out there right now. It’s where Influx got to know Eley Williams’ work initially (that and Ambit, and at live events) before we published Attrib. and Other Stories. It is also where one of the best short stories by a middle-aged northern man written this side of the 21st Century was published. Any story that starts with the subheading ‘The Triumph of Capitalism’ gets my attention, and Booth holds it all the way through. Written in his trademark first-person plural personal pronoun, or ‘we’ as I like to call it, ‘I Told You…’ zips along at a remarkable pace, and all over the globe. I love its ambition and tenacity, I love its humour and oddness. Booth has since worked on novels (for 4th Estate, no less) but I cannot wait for him to release his first short story collection.
From The White Review 2015, available online here
Bernhard’s book, The Voice Imitator contains 104 very short stories, none longer than a page, most only a paragraph. I genuinely can’t remember how or when I bought this book, but it is something I regularly return to. It changed the way I thought short stories could work, and partly led the way to publishing Clare Fisher’s collection How the Light Gets In, which has a similar concentration of very short stories in it. It’s the perfect toilet book. Which I’m sure Bernhard wouldn’t mind me saying. Each story is its own little world, vignetted to the point of absurdity, and some pack whole lives in to ten sentences. ‘Scientific Purposes’ is so short there’s really no reason to write about it and in fact I think I’ve written more words in this paragraph so far than in the whole story. Thus, I will faithfully rewrite it below so you can judge its brilliance for yourself:
A hairdresser who suddenly went mad and decapitated a duke, allegedly a member of the royal family, with a razor and who is now in the lunatic asylum in Reading – formerly the famous Reading Jail – is said to have declared himself ready to make his head available for those scientific purposes which, in his opinion, would be rewarded with the Nobel Prize within at least eight or ten years.
From The Voice Imitator, UCP 1997
I love this story (as I do much of the great anthology from Comma Press in which it resides). At its heart is a betrayal between two lovers, but it is set firmly in the overarching betrayal that so many of us on that protest felt weeks and months after our ‘biggest demonstration in British history’. I know the characters that Kate draws – the condescending more-political-than-thou boyfriend (yes, recognising elements of myself in there), the liberal, woolly parents with their Fairtrade coffee in the home counties, the rainbow-haired fire eater, the newish mum, Melissa struggling to retain her political commitments with a toddler in tow. I recognise the space, the feeling, the millions on the street. And I keenly felt the hope of political action fade as Melissa gets more isolated in the crowd. The Iraq War demonstration was a peak political moment for my generation and it took us years to recover and rebuild the motivation to engage with politics again. Clanchy’s story reminds me that we can never go back, but we must keep looking forward and try to imagine a different future that is still possible.
From Protest: Stories of Resistance, Comma Press 2017