‘N’ by Arthur Machen

Arnold, Perrot and Harliss, three old men, gather one winter night in Arnold’s comfortable second floor rooms, to rehearse shared—and not so shared—memories of London streets. It all goes quite slowly. They make punch, they maunder on “about the old-fashioned rather than the old”, and suddenly they’re arguing about Stoke Newington, that “wild no man’s land of the north”, and N. What is N? Well, N is a park, a park which according to one testimony has long been built over, and is now just a lot of dull once-prosperous streets with names like “Park Crescent”; but according to another is like

finding yourself in another country. Such trees, that must have been brought from the end of the world: there were none like them in England, though one or two reminded him of trees in Kew Gardens; deep hollows with streams running from the rocks; lawns all purple and gold with flowers, and golden lilies too, towering up into the trees, and mixing with the crimson of the flowers that hung from the boughs. And here and there, there were little summer-houses and temples, shining white in the sun, like a view in China

Perhaps N as glimpsed is an earlier state of the world, visible from unlikely angles. Or perhaps N is Stoke Newington, full of the deep alchemical plasticity of the ordinary. Arnold, briefly obsessed, searches vainly through records written and oral: he even visits Stoke Newington. But the more he pursues it, the more N, so briefly held in superposition between the memories of Harliss and Perrot, slips out of view. There’s no one left to ask if it was ever there, not these days, now the three old men are gone. Machen was 75 when he wrote this.

First published in The Cosy Room, 1936. Widely collected, including in The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, 2018, and available online, including here

‘Rayme’ by Jayne Anne Phillips

Nothing more unlike ‘N’ could be imagined. The prose is clean and see-through, yet heartbreakingly lyrical; the content unfailingly experiential. The viewpoint is autobiographical. Just enough has been learnt from these experiences, it implies; just enough hasn’t. Rayme lives in a house with her friends, of whom the narrator is one. They take care of Rayme, because, as we’ll see, she is a little adrift. Not that, in those days, which we take to be the 1970s, they aren’t all a little adrift, “consulting a series of maps bearing no relation to any physical geography”. But Rayme, who has baggage that makes theirs look light, goes off the Thorazine and takes it all the way, and soon the whole scene evaporates. Looking back, the narrator remembers everyone the last time they were together, swimming at dusk in a lake somewhere in Arizona. “Our destinations,” she concludes, “appeared to be interchangeable pauses in some long, lyric transit.” There was a point when I thought this the perfect model of a short story, with all its movement and causalities and conclusions packed somewhere the reader couldn’t quite find them, yet informing every sentence of the text; and I think I might still say that if you backed me into a corner. Nothing further needs to be told about Rayme or her friends; they’ll be caught as they are, in the cold Arizona lake, in the twilight, in between lives or worlds, forever; suspended in time, pellucid yet still moving, the crucial elements of a novel that no longer needs to be written, a movie that doesn’t, now, need to be shown.

First published in Granta 8: Dirty Realism, June 1983 and available to subscribers here. Collected in Fast Lanes, Faber & Faber, 1987

‘The Voices of Time’ by JG Ballard

Like Truth (though, whatever anyone says, it rarely deserves a place in that category, and a good thing too), the best imaginative or fantastic fiction comes up out of the well in a bad mood, from a place of struggle, rage and uncontrollable, deeply unsentimental weirdness, ready to sort you out. In ‘The Voices of Time’, the clock is running down. The genetic code, so recently discovered, is wearing out. Powers the doomed neurologist watches as his specimens–a brain damaged monkey in a jet pilot helmet, a sea anemone that has built itself a new nervous system, a spider that can only see gamma radiation–evolve to deal with a nascent yet still unimaginable future. Meanwhile, the great bowls of the radio telescopes sieve the sky for clues to the real time in the Universe. There’s a drained swimming pool and a woman called Coma. At the age of seventeen I couldn’t imagine anything more savagely exciting. This story doesn’t try to be science fiction. Instead it tries to make science fiction a poetics, and infuse it into the reader’s way of getting knowledge. This is the thing Ballard did so well. I was sad when he moved along, but contemporary fiction needed a sardonic, threatening, intelligent–if by then more easily measurable–darling, and from the 1970s on he was perfect for the part.

First published in New Worlds, October 1960. Collected in The Complete Short Stories Vol 1, Flamingo, 2001

‘Odd Behaviour’ by Lydia Davis

Davis begins this forty-six word story, “You see how circumstances are to blame”, and ends it with, “when I lived alone I had all the silence I needed.” Anyone else would have placed a novel between the two and still dealt with less along the way.

First published in Conjunctions 24, Spring 1995 and available online here. In The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Hamish Hamilton, 2009

‘The New Veterans’ by Karen Russell

Karen Russell’s stories are the illegitimate children of Ray Bradbury and Annie Proulx. Her prose surface is as slick with coloured lights as a soap bubble, and the reader skids off it in every possible direction the story allows, looking for the meaning of the things that are happening. This is so exciting it must be bad for you. ‘The New Veterans’, is narrated by a masseuse, in language carefully inappropriate to the discourse. What characterises a “massage subject”, she explains, as if addressing beginners in the trade, is that they try but fail to be relaxed on the table. It’s “a ruse that never works”, though. Their bodies talk anyway, confiding, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this.” Today’s subject is a soldier, his upper back covered with a hyper-realist tattoo of his time in Iraq. What follows could have been just a clever riff on ‘The Illustrated Man’, postmodern eye contact with Bradbury, half-mischievous, half deadly serious; but as the story moves into itself it discovers its own sad values. The masseuse, drawn in, is captured by the massage subject despite herself, and turned into his unwitting sin-eater. She knows, she says, that the dead give off an uncomfortable illumination, “a phosphor than can permanently damage the eyes of the living. Necroluminescence–the light of the vanished.”

First published in Granta, Winter 2013 and available online ”to subscribers. Collected in Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Chatto & Windus, 2013

‘The Great Awake’ by Julia Armfield

In the cities, sleep has somehow mutated from a habit into an entity. We don’t know why, but it is no longer an activity. Instead it has become, for each individual, another individual, sharing their life, sharing their rooms, not entirely real, not entirely a haunting. Everyone has a Sleep. They’re “always tall and slender”. They don’t do much, though they’re prone to strangely inept gestures, some compulsive behaviour, some of it bad. Nobody can sleep since their Sleep got a life of its own, but they try to continue as normal and the world doesn’t seem to be changing much as a result. All of this is told from a thoughtful distance, as if only very calm observation can separate the problem from hysteria and allow it to be stated, let alone understood. “People in my building,” the narrator records, “stopped sleeping at a rate of about one a night.” You can’t quite tell if her equanimity reflects a style of thought or simple dreaminess, the result of the deprivation now forced on everyone. Or perhaps not everyone. The narrator’s friend Leonie still sleeps, and it is making her desperate. No one but Leonie wants their Sleep; no one but Leonie wants to be insomniac. She feels left out. “The Great Awake” won The White Review Short Story Prize in 2018, so everyone probably knows about it already.

First published in The White Review, 2018. Collected in Salt Slow, Picador, May 2019

‘The Same Dog’ by Robert Aickman

It’s sometimes hard to synopsise a ghost story without just describing everything that happens in it. That would give the game away. I’m not going to do that. Neither is Robert Aickman. Two children, a boy and a girl, spend their holiday from a mixed preparatory school wandering the sunny heaths of “southern Surrey”. As long as they’re together, they find plenty to do. We look at subsequent events and ask, What has happened here? Behind the first thousand or so words of careful introduction to the children and their milieu, before the ghost story itself has had a chance to begin, some social tension has already mounted up. There’s no reason for it. There’s no anxiety you can put your finger on until Aickman introduces you to their nascent sexuality–which they don’t even notice. Like another story of his, ‘The Swords’, this one is Freudian enough. But the Freudian conversion of that original unease into a guilt the children don’t feel (it’s for the reader, perhaps, to feel that) isn’t enough to put the hair up on your arms. Even the girl’s fate, the obvious horror, isn’t enough to do that. Something else does it, every time I read this story. So I’m not giving the game away here, and Aickman certainly isn’t. Two children arrive outside a house holding hands, and they don’t even go in, and when they leave they aren’t holding hands, and all they have seen is a dog. After all, what’s a ghost story but a set-up and a revelation? Something strange happened, that’s all, to two children: they saw a dog, yellow, in the garden of a house. For one of them that was enough to mar a life; for the other… well. Or perhaps I’m wrong and that isn’t it either. Perhaps it’s not even possible for me to give the game away.

First published 1974. Collected in Cold Hand In Mine, 1975, Faber Finds, 2008. You can hear Reece Shearsmith read it here