The best short stories make something of situation where there doesn’t seem to be a story at all. I’ve picked some that have helped me along the way to becoming a writer, while being safe in the knowledge that I can’t be sure of what influences me most. More simply these are the ones that have hung around in my head longer than others and, for a form so fleeting, I struggle to think of a better criteria than that. It’s a bit of a magpie’s nest and it seems I have a thing for ghosts.
This story is from the best collection I’ve read this year, After the Sun by Jonas Eika. A systems administrator for a bank arrives in Copenhagen “sweating” and “halfway out of [himself]”, reflecting on a series of “fictional flights” he’s experienced. He remembers one in particular where he saw, through the plane window, a man running who fell to ground as if by shotgun. The rest of the story follows suit and has a fuzzy sense of jet lag where everything is blurred and slippery; a feeling pervasive in Eika’s fiction where things don’t have edges, bodies are without boundaries or thresholds.
The systems administrator, we don’t learn his name, meets another man’s reflection in a cafe window and the pair seamlessly enter each other’s lives. We learn this other sickly pale man is called Alvin, he orders five of whatever meal he chooses from fast food chains so he can pick the best one and he trades derivatives, or “ghosts from the future” as he describes them.
It’s clear that the pair’s amorphous relationship is something of a human derivative and when it shows signs of having a concrete future (I.e., not like a derivative) in the time of a glance the two part as quickly and as smoothly as they came together—like planes quietly taking off through “Broken air.” Eika’s visions of the future are both seductive and disturbing, a trick well practiced by the likes of Ballard which some of the dystopian writers working today seem to have forgotten.
First published in English in The New Yorker, April 2021, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in After the Sun, Lolli Editions 2018, originally published in Danish as Efter solen by Forlaget Basilisk 2018
I started getting to know more Nabokov after reading W. G. Sebald’s essay ‘Dream Textures’: a brief note on Nabokov in Campo Santo, his posthumous collection of essays. It’s more about ghosts and shadows rather than nocturnal sojourns and lead to me seeing ‘The Vane Sisters’ from a previously unknown angle.
The story is well known for its hidden acrostic, the ending that Nabokov said “can only be tried in a thousand years of fiction”. I like it more for showing VN’s skill as a topographical writer and there is an awful depth, something else Sebald wrote about, to the environment his narrator observes. He sees “icicles drip-dripping from the eaves of a frame house.” Where he’s “sure the shadows of the falling drops [will] be visible too.” And the “elongated umbra cast by the parking meter upon some damp snow”. Everything is infused with the spooky sisters of the title without the narrator even being aware of it. There is a wonderful phrase in Nabokov’s Transparent Things: “the secret life of detritus” and here we see the inanimate animated with full force.
First published in the Hudson Review, New York, Winter 1959, and then in Encounter, London, March 1959. Collected in Nabokov’s Quartet, Nabokov’s Congeries, Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories, and The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov
Mansfield is able to do things with pace that I’ve not experienced with any other writer. The best of her stories simmer along for a few pages and then a final few words will suddenly pull everything into a tight knot.
As with much of her fiction, on the first page it’s not quite clear where you are or who is present, or there is some kind of presumption that you already know this place, you’ve been living there for years. A man is standing at a door “turning the ring, turning the heavy signet ring upon his little finger”, and then, amongst a placeless assortment of people, another hand enters the scene, “A hand, like a leaf, [falls] on his shoulder.” The dynamics of anxiousness and frailty, captured in a subtle series of gestures and perspectival shifts, carry through right to the cool aggression of the final line, and there we find a husband unable to reconcile memories of romance with caring for his now sick wife.
First published as ‘The Man Without a Temperament’ in Art and Letters, vol.3, no.2, Spring 1920. Collected in Bliss and Other Stories, Constable, 1920. Now widely available, including in the Selected Stories, Oxford World Classics, 2008
With the publication of her diaries this year which, before editing, ran into 8000 pages, it’s clear that Highsmith was devoutly hypergraphic. Likewise, her work is so packed with apprehension and other mischief that it’s easy to miss her characters are also constantly, maniacally and compulsively, writing—letters, signing fake documents and scribbling dodgy wills on the back of cigarette packets and napkins.
It was while reading ‘The Birds Poised to Fly’ that I realised letters have something of a ghostly or phantom presence in Highsmith’s fiction. They often carry the words of a person who is already dead or pretending to be alive. They have little physical presence in the world of things, yet have the potential to wreak havoc in their recipient’s lives, like something of a poltergeist.
In this story a crank, Don, tires of checking his mail box for a message from his lover and, convinced that it may have been posted into the wrong one, breaks open his neighbour’s box. He finds a letter from a woman that his neighbour has ignored, and starts writing to her. Arranging to meet at Grand Central, the man arrives just for a glimpse of her disappointment when nobody turns up.
Highsmith wrote in her guide to suspense fiction that you should start a short story as near to its ending as possible, and here there is a brevity that cleverly suggests whole lives beyond that of this short piece of writing. It’s expansive and the ghosts just keep appearing in different ways.
First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 1969, and collected in Eleven by Patricia Highsmith, Grove Press, 1970, now a Virago Modern Classic
This is from a short story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, that both sits lightly on the soul and then with hindsight crushes it. Writing, the narrator explains in ‘Triumph Over the Grave’, is like “filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie.” And this neatly summarises the surface ordinariness of Johnson’s fiction, a surface that camouflages a despair so tightly spun that it takes longer than the duration of the story to get you. These stories are the same as when someone asks if you’re ok and you say yes even though you aren’t. Comprising of just five longish pieces, it’s full of questions the narrators won’t let themselves ask and people casually unsure of whether they’re alive or dead. It also contains an epitaph that is far better than Spike Milligan’s ‘I told you I was ill’. ‘Starlight on Idaho’ ends a with gravestone that has ‘I Should Be Dead’ scrawled across it.
‘Doppelgänger, Poltergeist’ follows a lonely poet—who looks like Glenn Gould—and a disillusioned academic, charting their coincidental meetings across a massive time period—a heady mix of Austerlitz and The Big Lebowski (sorry for mixing mediums). There is a bizarre theory about Elvis being swapped with his dead twin brother during the war, but really the story unearths the similarities between conspiracy theories and creativity. It’s also about the cult of celebrity and how certain icons, like Elvis, can haunt us. They have a distant and ethereal presence yet they have the ghostly power to move our minds and bodies, they might even make us throw objects across the room. Are we all poltergeists?
From The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Jonathan Cape, 2018
Alice has recently moved to Los Angeles and gets a job in flagship fashion store selling provocative clothing, that may, or may not be, American Apparel. She meets an older, ostensibly more confident woman named Oona who describes how she’s been selling her dirty underwear for money. In need of some extra cash herself and wanting to fit in with Oona’s crowd, Alice does the same. It works for a while and then things take a turn for the worst. Paralysed, Alice dissociates from the situation and thinks about how she will fictionalise the story when telling Oona the day after. Here, fiction is not the saviour it’s often portrayed as, it’s a trauma. This is a fable about the perils of turning too much of life into short stories.
First published in Granta 139: Best of Young American Novelists 3, Spring 2017, and available to subscribers to read here, and collected in Daddy, Chatto & Windus, 2020
Moshfegh is flawless generally, but is supersonic when reinventing the cliches of fiction. A man travelling to a dark hut in the woods, surely ripe territory for an American horror story? I guess it is a horror story for the narrator, who is running from the environment his as yet unborn child will create and his “life as [he’d] known it [is] forever ruined.”
Chekhov said that if a gun is placed in a scene it must at some point be used. Exploring the old house the man finds Chekhov’s gun, only its a large pink dildo. And it really does go off in a way I never expected. With an end game typical of Moshfegh’s, it’s unclear whether the characters have been liberated or debilitated.
First published in The Paris Review Winter 2013, and available for subscribers to read here. Collected in Homesick for Another World, Jonathan Cape, 2017
Talking of clichés, couples meeting in train stations is one of the most well know, and ‘Hauptbahnhof’ by Joanna Walsh gives a wildly new take on it. Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a whole sterile ecosystem, a walled city laced with tracks and it was the first monster train station I visited. I was at the age where I could just look up at the departures board and pick an interesting sequence of letters that also happened to be a place I could visit. I ended up travelling to Bonn, but Walsh’s narrator is forever waiting for someone to arrive.
First published as a chapbook, ‘Hauptbahnhof’, 3:AM Press, 2013 and collected in Fractals, 3:AM Press, and Worlds from the Word’s End, And Other Stories, 2017
I sometimes get a bit bored of all the men lying around on sofas, drinking beer, thinking about baseball and listening to Jazz, and I don’t like to mix mediums (I did it again, sorry) but Wong Kar-wai just does a better job of showing boredom and crisis mixing into one. Murakami’s stories, however, are unique in how they flit around between seemingly random events, like dogs getting distracted by squirrels, and manage to draw them together into gold.
There is a successful and married writer who meets a flighty younger woman at a wedding party. Despite having nothing to talk about they have something of an emotional affair, then the girl goes away to North Africa. When she returns to Japan three months later the writer meets her at the airport, she’s transformed and has her new lover in toe. He learns that the lover is rich and cares for nothing, and his favourite pastime is burning barns—a glimmer of recognition flares between the two.
The writer takes to running and looking for the charred remains yet, being independently wealthy himself—similar to the lover—can’t see them. There is something of exploitation in the images of barns burning in the night, some needless destruction against a lower class, and both men seem to forget about the woman who’s future they have also set to flame. Murakami’s men come across as quirky fools, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be creeps.
First published in The New Yorker, 1983, and available for subscribers to read here. Collected – in a different translation – in The Elephant Vanishes, Harvill Press, 2001
David Hayden’s stories are like silences set in a velvet background, like jewels in a display case. This one is chilling, yet there is a strange pull between relaxation and aggression as someone sees what might be their violent actions as being the work of someone else, or something else. It’s like a compressed slasher road novel, but truly it doesn’t quite fit any genre, and that’s partly why I like it.
I was once told that to write a good short story you must first create an atmosphere that leads the narrative, and this, for me, is a prime example. It feels a bit like how I experience ASMR, pleasant by way of discomfort.
First published online in Granta, October 2018, and available to read here
I first read this story while I was studying architecture at university and it made the whole thing feel redundant. It showed me that rather than design buildings you can just see the ones that already exist in a different way—Perec came next, intensifying the realisation. It’s still building and the best way to do it is by writing.
My copy of this story, in War Fever, is littered with so many notes that it runs the risk of sprouting a novel. It came later in Ballard’s writing career when the stories got better by dispensing with narrative in a more traditional sense, and the premise is simple: one morning a man decides not to leave his suburban home. The fallout is anything but, domestic space is a desert island traversed by a lone explorer, the house dilating with psychological proximity and distance, between agoraphobia and claustrophobia. The result is mesmerising, a mix between Caspar David Friedrich and potholing.
Nobody else has demonstrated so powerfully how the imagination can remake the world, while also showing that utopias can only really exist in our own heads, and it’s in there where they can quickly turn on us. Dali invented The Paranoid Critical Method but Ballard did it better.
First published in Interzone, 1989, and collected in War Fever, Collins 1990, and the Complete Short Stories Vol 2, Fourth Estate, 2014
For some reason, when I’m reading the work of M. John Harrison I have the German experimental rock band CAN playing along in my head. Recently, on his radio 6 show, Iggy Poppy described CAN as psychedelic picturesque and I think the same phrase can be easily applied to Mike works. It has the band’s expansive panoramas that are sometimes empty, sometimes full of some ether that can talk but nobody fully understands. Crumbling train lines shooting into the distance stand in for CAN’s repetitive beats and damp nettles for the profusion of white noise. And Damo Suzuki’s discordant mumbling and moaning? That will be everyone’s perpetual inner scream while they attempt to continue as normal while everything fades around them. ‘In Autotelia’ is a large landscape painting with the story and characters growing through the crack like lichen.
First published in Arc. the New Scientist Magazine, 1983, and collected in You Should Come With Me Now: Stories of Ghosts, Comma Press 2017