‘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

‘I See You, Bianca’ by Maeve Brennan

Maeve Brennan’s ‘The Bohemians’ contains my favourite lines of hers: “They were a fine battered pair, marked for life by their ravenous hopes. They both had the glittering, exploring eyes of people who have never learned to control their dreams.” If it’s possible to be compassionately vicious, that assessment is. She was good at people with lives like chicken coops, which just about kept the fox out but very efficiently penned everything else in. But the story I like most is ‘I See You, Bianca’. It’s about Nicholas, and his two-room New York apartment, a “floor through” with a window at each end. Nicholas and his room, and his ailanthus, “New York’s hardship tree”, and his cat Bianca. Brennan’s focus seems to be wholly on the room, and the way Nicholas lives in it, and what he wants from it and from his city. There’s no narrative, just Brennan’s subjectivity, restless, aware, souped-up, into every shadow of the apartment, interrogating someone else’s expectations; but quite soon you recognise that Nicholas’s way of life is doomed. Brennan describes the room like this: “Sometimes it seems to be the anteroom to many other rooms, and sometimes it seems to be the extension of many other rooms. It is like a telescope and at the same time it is like what you see through a telescope.” This is a careful description of her own work, which is both what’s seen and the means of seeing it. All fictions should be instruments like this. Here, she encourages us to use the instrument to look out at Fourth Avenue in the rain, “with the cheerful interest of one who contemplates a puzzle he did not create and is not going to be called on to solve.” Because a view “is where we are not. Where we are is never a view.”

Can this piece, with its nonfictional structure and cleverly abrupt ending, actually be described as fiction? It’s perilously close to being one of her Long Winded Lady pieces for the New Yorker. I’m not sure I care. Though it appears to be more an assessment than a narrative, the tension is appalling, it mounts and mounts. And then there’s a massive resettlement of perception and intention concentrated across the last page or two. That’s enough for me. An event occurs, is recorded and is encouraged to roll over the reader in an unpredicted fashion, leaving no way out. You’re forced up against an understanding about the central character, but you aren’t sure what it is.

First published in The New Yorker, June 11th 1966. Collected in The Rose Garden, Counterpoint, 2001

‘Fatherhood: Three’ by David Means

David Means won’t let up on an idea; by examining it so exhaustively, he just compresses it further and further into its own space. This is not a bug, obviously, it’s a feature. If you like it you’ll like this compendium of three very short, apparently autofictional stories, the first of which, ‘The Problematic Father’, begins: “The problem is, my son sees the man I am now and not the man I was before I became the man I am now. The man I am now is a result of his presence in my life…” and continues to exhaustively explore this problem of rolling identity–or characterisation–in exactly the same terms, for about a thousand words. It’s completely serious or there’s a wry humour to it, or you would like to throw it across the room, depending on your mood as you read. The second component, ‘The Sad Sack’, shows a man looking from a train window at another man canoeing a river, and is very readable and funny–even though it seems a shade long at five hundred-odd words. And the third component, ‘(Another) Story I’d Like to Write’ combines two images so subtly and powerfully that you’d never know it was (or wasn’t) fiction. What they add up to is what they add up to. In another writer, you might want to call these stories fragments, or sketches, or “squibs”; but they so clearly aren’t. Sometimes the dogged, apparently pellucid sincerity of Means’ work reminds you of David Constantine. At the same time it suggests, interestingly, that Constantine’s viewpoint is a little more distant–a little more patrician–than you might first assume.

First published in The Oxford American, Issue 82, Fall 2013 and available online here. Collected in Instructions for a Funeral, Faber & Faber, 2019

‘Spiderweb’ by Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell

“I think political violence leaves scars, like a national PTSD,” Mariana Enriquez, said in an interview with Literary Hubin 2017. And, later in the same piece: “In general, I don’t think you can take the power back, not completely, but you can break the silence.” This Argentinian sensibility permeates the landscapes of Things We Lost in the Fire, via imagery that might in other hands seem both wilful and empty. I read the title story on a train journey, in tandem with Gore Capitalism, Sayak Valencia’s analysis of the “Endriago” subjectivity. The two texts seemed to complete one another quite naturally, threatening to unmask the single violent landscape that founds both. I might choose any of these stories as my favourite Enriquez. But let’s say–speaking of taking back the power–that it’s ‘Spiderweb’, and quote from it her description of a peacock’s tail: “the feathers with their eyes, beautiful but disturbing. Many eyes arrayed above the animal, which walks so heavily”. It’s “a beautiful animal,” she says, “but one that always seems tired.” These stories seem to be exactly that animal. Things We Lost in the Fire is translated by Megan McDowell.

First published in The New Yorker, December 19 & 26, 2016. Collected in Things We Lost in the Fire, London; New York: Hogarth, 2017

‘Arse on Earth’ by Tim Etchells

I have the Pulp Books edition of Tim Etchells’ endlessly grainy, deeply sly, rebarbative, criminally under-published collection Endland Stories, with the blurry grayscale photos & the typeface that mimics a cheap printer from ten years earlier. It’s held up well although the paper’s looking forlorn after being cured so many years in flats, cellars & self storage units etc etc. Etchells’ fiction is less experimental than out on its own somewhere looking at things on your behalf, often from a viewpoint of psychically-damaged faux naif. My personal favourite is a story whose name I never remember but which is no more or less than a two or three thousand-word list of the nicknames of a vast motorcycle gang composed perhaps of everyone in Endland, or maybe even on this planet. Sadly, that one doesn’t seem to be in here, so I am going out on a limb for ‘Arse On Earth’, the weird but compassionate odyssey about a goddess–or perhaps less a goddess than a headstrong Aeon–and aren’t they all–who descends to Earth with the intention to solve this problem: WHY IS MODERN LIFE RUBBISH? and ends up in Derby, where a cull of street pigeons is in progress.

But you could pick any of these stories and it would be the finest as far as you were concerned. Endland Stories is best summed up from its own introduction—

Bear in mind it is not a book for idiots or time wasters but many of them are wrote about in it. For the rest–concerning the bad language, bad luck and low habits of the persons described–I make no apologies and, like the poets say, “welcome to Endland”©, all dates are approximate.

–and is about to come back into print from And Other Stories. Look out for it.

In Endland Stories, Pulp Books, 1999

‘They’ by Rudyard Kipling

It’s sentimental, self-pitying and twee. It’s the very definition of self-indulgence. It’s beautifully bound in a Macmillan edition of 1905, printed only on one side of each page and with lush but utterly awful illustrations by FH Townsend. It arrives accompanied by all the problematics you would expect with Kipling: but somehow delivers anyway. It must be his perfectly constructed ghost story, ‘They’.

“One view called me to another,” it begins; “one hilltop to its fellow, half across the county…” Kipling never learned to drive, but here casts himself as the lone free motorist who finds he has run himself “clean out of my known marks” and is lost on the Downs until he finds an “ancient house of lichened and weather-worn stone, with mullioned windows and roofs of rose-red tile”. It seems quiet, but then a child appears at an upper window. A woman in a big gardening hat sets her foot “slowly on the time-hollowed stone steps” and greets him softly across the turf. It’s a heritage outing contemporary readers can fully share.

“I never dreamed–” exclaims our narrator. But he did. He did dream. And this is all he ever dreamed, really: the great shining powerful motor car, the perfect little valleys and bridges, the rose-red tiles, the house where “hollowed” and “hallowed” have the same meaning, this perfect blind graceful woman, the little vanished children who gather round him. ‘They’ is the ultimate Sunday drive, the kinship reconnection with the ghosts of the fiction of England.

First published in Scribner’s Magazine, August 1904. Collected in Traffics and Discoveries, Macmillan, 1904, and as an illustrated volume, 1905. Widely available. Read it online here.