There is a feeling that I get from certain short stories that is probably best described like this: you know those old ghost train rides at fairgrounds? The totally over the top, clunky silly ones? You get in the nasty little cart and jolt off into the darkness, and usually get a few predictable scares, but then it all goes quiet. As you wait for the next loud noise or skeleton face to come leering at you, what actually happens is the cart somehow veers off in a totally new direction. The track you could see ahead was fake and behind some secret curtain lies the real journey you are on. It’s usually accompanied by a lurch that you feel in the pit of your stomach and that sense of powerlessness, the overwhelming, visceral punch is the feeling I’m talking about. I don’t mean plot twists or changes of pace – I mean when a writer picks you up and carries you off into an obscure territory and there is nothing you can do about it. It infantilises and elevates and educates you all at once.
This is my attempt to itemise some of my favourite stories with that blindside ingredient, which I am now hopelessly, horrifyingly addicted to.
Joy Williams is one of those writers who can reconfigure a handful of familiar words into something breathtaking, totally violating and adjusting a perspective you thought was established and pedestrian inside of you. This particular story isn’t in any of her collections, which is partly why I love and chose it. In it the Russian philosopher and mystic George Gurdjieff haunts Susan Sontag’s childhood home. Williams’ study of Gurdjieff’s point of view, as he tries to embody Sontag and understand her origins and essence, is at once so delicate and so crushing you find yourself swept away, utterly without bearings.
Gurdjieff had made a pilgrimage to the desert, to Tucson, Arizona, where Susan Sontag spent her formative years. G is in love with Susan Sontag. Dead now, sadly, but all the more reason. He’s crazy about her. She hated the desert, but no matter. The desert had her in her formative years. The desert is irreducible and strange and is not merry, it is never merry. Not even the baby roadrunners and javelinas know how to play. It is work, work, work, hopeless living work.
First published in Tin House 62: Winter Reading, 2014. You can watch a fantastic video of Williams reading it here
Mary Otis is a personal hero of mine and a very nice person to boot. This story of hers I came across in a Hammer Museum podcast, and after hearing it I immediately ordered her collection Yes, Yes, Cherries, which I’ve read a bunch of times since. In ‘Unstruck’ eleven-year-old Julie is in love with her ‘supposedly eleven-year-old’ foster brother Pritchard, who could be leaving any day to join a new family.
Julie and her temporary brother, Pritchard, had been getting married every single day since they’d heard that maybe a family had been found for Pritchard, since school got called off for a week due to snow, since Julie’s mother insisted every afternoon that they eat four to six orange halves, which they did, sucking out the juicy flesh, grinding their teeth against the orange peel until their lips were on fire and they had burning red mouth shadows.
Their love is so genuine and flawed and relatable that it radiates its own special power, perfectly capturing the kind of banal, thrilling panic of junior emotional discovery. It’s like ten episodes of Wonder Years suburban heartache compressed into 16 pages of perfection.
First published in Tin House 24, Summer Reading, 2005 and collected in Yes, Yes, Cherries, Tin House New Voice, 2007
‘The Winged Thing’ is one of those stories that is actually an extract from a novel published in The New Yorker,so it’s kind of a cheat to select it, plus it has to work extra hard to impress as a story. But jeepers creepers it does. It’s frighteningly good, truly laugh out loud funny and occasionally so sad and beautiful it makes you want to stand up and throw something.
The narrative in the ‘The Winged Thing’ bounces around a little because of its nature, dipping into the unnamed narrator’s life and obsession with Twitter, but its real thrust comes from her sister’s pregnancy, and the long drawn out process in which the baby is diagnosed with a rare genetic condition. The way Lockwood writes the narrator’s reactions, the family’s experiences, and from the perspective of the foetus are sublime – and I don’t use that word lightly. It’s not simply beautiful – it feels like she’s opening cracks up into something transcendental in each phrase, something that allows this new little life so under scrutiny to exist entirely on her own terms.
Still, the baby would not practice her breathing, would not practice it in preparation for being born. The baby would not practice being in the world—why should she?—until she said to her sister, “I have an idea,” and took out her phone to blare the up‐tempo songs of the Andrews Sisters, sturdy mules and wide lapels and high brass shining in the hospital dark, music for the boys to listen to overseas, far from home and frightened, bright lungfuls for them to gulp before they headed into battle. It had been useful. It was useful again. The baby, where she did not need to, breathed.
I first listened to this story on The New Yorker’s Writer’s Voice podcast whilst rushing to a Covid test centre on a wet December night and I would gladly go back to that dreadful journey and re-insert a stick up my nose if it would allow me to hear it for the first time again.
First published in The New Yorker, November 2020, and available to subscribers to read and listen to here. It forms part of Nobody is Talking About This, Riverhead/Bloomsbury Circus, 2021
Story premises don’t get better than this: a wounded man is trapped in a cabin with a giant centipede that won’t eat him because he smells like the centipede’s dead wife.
The centipede had been marching through the forest when he heard a scream and went to investigate. A man was caught in a bear trap. The metal jaws had made a mess of his right leg, biting in deep with rusted teeth and dead leaves. The man had forgotten his agony for a second when he saw the centipede, then redoubled his efforts to prize the trap open to escape. The centipede was joyous. This much meat would provide food for a week, but as he leaned in close to paralyse the man with a nip from his toxic pincers, he smelled something familiar. Something in the man’s sweat and fear reminded him of his wife.
This brutal, heartbreaking story is so cleverly constructed, and such a great example of Marek’s technique of fusing the incompatible – in his words ‘making mayonnaise’ – that it really sinks its teeth into you (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Plus Marek makes it all feel so effortless, like this kind of starting point is the most natural and obvious thing in the world.
Published in Instruction Manual for Swallowing, Comma Press, 2007
If you’ve read The Passion According to GH, you’ll know Clarice has a thing about vermin – as do I. This very short story is about a woman dealing with an infestation of cockroaches. It begins by outlining all the possible alternate titles the story could have had, and how she will
…tell at least three stories, all of them true, because none of the three will contradict the others. Although they constitute one story, they could become a thousand and one, were I to be granted a thousand and one nights.
In the first story, she learns a horrible kitchen potion for killing them and in the second she puts it to use. By the time we reach the third story, she must face the aftermath of what she has done, squaring up to an existential horror that is at once domestic and universal. I won’t spoil what comes next, except to say that these moments are replayed and echoed, and what seems to be a resolution is absolutely not, exploding your preconception of narrative, passage of time, intent, self, the natural world, violence, obsession and a fair few other things too.
First published as ‘A quinta história’ in A legião estrangeira, 1964 and in translation in The Foreign Legion, New Directions. Also in the Complete Stories, New Directions, 2015, and in Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms, Persea. You can read it in full here
This is another one of my favourite secret stories, discovered quivering and jellified, fresh from the author’s brain. I could happily have chosen Owen Booth’s prize-winning White Review story or his Moth Short Story Prize winner, and nearly did, but I prefer this one for its concealed power. It was given away as an Influx Patreon Incentive in 2018, openly acknowledged as a ‘work in progress’, complete with the odd typo.
And you will be a warning to others. And you will be a cautionary tale. And you will be the before in the before and after pictures. And you will be terrified, most of the time, and like an idiot you will visit your fear and pain on everyone around you. And one day everything will finally fall apart in front of you and you won’t even realise that this is the best thing that could possible [sic] have happened. And you will trudge across snowy fields keeping your eyes out for rogue polar bears because you never know.
For me this is like dipping my toe into an elemental stream of consciousness as it bubbles fresh from underground. It’s almost a sermon. It’s shapeless and every sentence starts with an ‘And’ and I absolutely freaking love it.
Gifted an Influx Patreon Incentive, 2018
Okay, so I’m cheating (again) here. Technically Street of Crocodiles is a ‘novelistic collection of short stories’ and technically I want to include all four chapters about tailor’s dummies. But anyway. I’ve always been a sucker for descriptions of dysfunctional family dynamics, and this particular depiction of a household is like nothing else. Described by Schulz himself as a “genealogy of the spirit”, he manufactures myth from the plain and obvious, weaving place and atmosphere so vividly and yet allowing everything to bleed together and feel utterly insubstantial and unclear.
In ‘Tailors’ Dummies’ the largely invisible narrator’s father is parading around the family house, indulging in increasingly eccentric flights of intellectual and imaginative fancy.
The affair of the birds was the last colourful and splendid counteroffensive of fantasy which my father, that incorrigible improviser, that fencing master of imagination, had led against the trenches and defenseworks of a sterile and empty winter. Only now do I understand the lonely hero who alone had waged war against the fathomless, elemental boredom that strangled the city.
I can’t coherently do justice to what follows, so I won’t even try. Other than to say it’s sublime.
Originally published in Poland in Sklepy cynamonowe, 1934. First published in English in Cinammon Shops, and later reissued as Street of Crocodiles, Penguin 20th Century Classic, 1992
It sounds like ropey sci fi – and came from a McSweeney’s Quarterly themed around ‘an investigation of the world to come’ – but this story by Wells Tower is the best kind of down-to-earth unpleasantness. A married couple – Rodney and Cora Booth – travel out to a holiday caravan on the edge of a “do-it-yourself ocean”, a manmade sea that has turned red thanks to a bunch of one-celled organisms that thrive in the salt. It’s supposedly harmless, but weird stuff starts happening to them and Rodney begins regressing to a primal state.
Even in the new hours of the day, the water was hot and alarmingly solid, like paddling through Crisco. It seared his pores and mucous parts, but his body had a thrilling buoyancy in the thick water. A single kick of the legs sent him gliding like a hockey puck.
Needless to say, things get very creepy, though you never quite know if the lustful, elemental transformation overtaking Rodney is caused by the water or something else about this place on the edge of things. Tower is an arch-stylist and this is one of my favourites of his simply because it’s so hard to find, compared to his extraordinary collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. We’re well overdue a follow up, so hopefully he’s completing the final edits on the periphery of some remote, hostile expanse right now.
Published in McSweeney’s 32, 2009
Getting Electric Literature straight to your inbox is always a good thing, but nothing has so totally shaken me out of the stupor of the ordinary working day quite like this story from Emrys Donaldson. Their story is nearly impossible to categorise. The best I can do is that it is a primal scream of frustration from ancient/futuristic crustaceans, turning an oceanographic lexicon into a unique study of consciousness, place, balance and ecosystemic connectedness. By turns surreal and moving, it’s shatteringly good.
We are the three-hundred-year-old heckin big bois of the sea, grown larger than any of our kind has ever been before, covered in carapaces made of titanium custom-molded to our bodies, the embodied dreams of our elders who gradually decayed until they collapsed into fleshy heaps on the floor of the sea, fortified with the language we developed to sustain us, suited up in our cyborg flesh probably able to live forever, placed here in the time where we have a fighting chance at taking over the rest of this water planet, kind among our kind, moulting with the assistance of bigboi doctors and bigboi scientists, investigating the future-focused potentialities of telomerase manipulation, well-armored against enemies of any size, and we did not come to play.
Published in Electric Literature, Nov 9, 2020 – Issue No 141, You can read it here
No map of my psycho-fictional-geography would be complete without a nod to George Saunders and Tenth of December, my favourite of his collections. He’s like an acupuncturist who somehow knows your internal nervous system so well that he can just reach over and prod you somewhere and before you know it you’re laughing and crying simultaneously.
Al Roosten is a painful and very funny exploration of one man stranded in his own life, yo-yoing between over-confident aloofness and crushing self-doubt. It opens with him backstage at a Local Celebrities charity auction, comparing himself to a buff, swimsuit-wearing rival. When he eventually follows him on stage, a new bar is set for literary cringe:
Roosten stepped warily out from behind the paper screen. No one whooped. He started down the runway. No cheering. The room made the sound a room makes when attempting not to laugh. He tried to smile sexily but his mouth was too dry. Probably his yellow teeth were showing and the place where his gums dipped down. Frozen in the harsh spotlight, he looked so crazy and old and forlorn and yet residually arrogant that an intense discomfort settled on the room, a discomfort that, in a non-charity situation, might have led to shouted insults or thrown objects but in this case drew a kind of pity whoop from near the salad bar.
Al is tormented by the life he’s been given by a culture that is full of paradoxes and disappointment, that asks such strange mental athletics of identity to feel like you have a role with value. It moves effortlessly between his self-critical and self-congratulatory POV and objective third person narration, no mean feat. The painfully flawed antihero has never been in more masterful hands.
First published in The New Yorker, February 2009, and available to subscribers to read here, and collected in Tenth of December, Random House/Bloomsbury, 2013
There’s not a bum note in Salinger’s collection For Esme with Love and Squalor, but the closing story is the best. Set on a cruise ship, it centres around Teddy McArdle, a ten-year-old blessed with a universal wisdom far beyond his years. He rises above his sniping family’s emotional, easily riled American excesses, calmly musing on concepts of permanence, reality and reincarnation.
As the story gently leads us towards his 10:30am swimming lesson Teddy, we learn that he a cause célèbre among high ranking professors of religion and philosophy in various countries. Before this trip to Europe, he left some deeply ruffled feathers among an examination group in Boston. The tape of the occasion has been heard by a fellow traveller who corners Teddy, anxious to interrogate him on his views about life, God, death and existence.
‘I understand you left a pretty disturbed bunch–’
‘“Nothing in the voice of the cicada intimates how soon it will die,”’ Teddy said suddenly. ‘“Along this road goes no one, this Autumn eve.”’
‘What was that?’ Nicholson asked, smiling. ‘Say that again.’
‘Those are two Japanese poems. They’re not full of a lot of emotional stuff,’ Teddy said.
The lightness with which Teddy embodies this enlightenment makes the impact of the final, inevitable scene – to which we’ve been inexorably drawn throughout – all the more devastating.
First published in The New Yorker, January 1953 and collected in Nine Stories, a.k.a. For Esmé – with Love and Squalor, Little, Brown/Penguin, 1953
Every now and then you come across a story that operates on a completely different frequency and yet makes so much sense it hurts. ‘Wild Milk’’s narrator is leaving her baby at Live Oak Daycare for the first time, and the description of those feelings and exchanges trace a vivid network of associations that I relate to intensely. It shines a Klieg light on the disorientating and illogical pain of navigating your offspring’s separateness from you in the world.
“Your child,” says Miss Birdy, “is a phenomenon.” I blush. “Oh, thank you. We too think he is very special,” I say. I want to ask about the poncho, but Miss Birdy goes on. “I mean, your child is a mana mana,” says Miss Birdy. “What I mean to say is that your child is a real man.” Miss Birdy softly pinches her tongue and pulls out a long white hair. “Oh, that’s better,” she says. “I mean, a ma.” She makes little, tiny spits. “I mean, a no one. Your child,” says Miss Birdy, “is a real no one. No, no. That’s not it either.” Miss Birdy smoothes her stiff cotton skirt. It’s pink with tiny red cherries on it. “What I mean to say, most of all,” says Miss Birdy, “is that I love not being dead.” “Me too,” I say. “Oh, good! says Miss Birdy. Here’s his bottle. He drank all his milk and then cried and cried and cried for more.
First published by Tin House, 2014 and available to read here. Later collected in Wild Milk, Dorothy a Publishing Project, 2018