Introduction

Welcome to my personal short story anthology, where I’ve curated a strange collection of fiction I’ve found captivating or disturbing over the years. These aren’t all my favourite stories in the world, just ones that have stayed with me for better or worse. Death, madness, Whatsapp, womanhood, lemons, psychics. Enjoy!

‘Los Angeles’ by Emma Cline

‘Los Angeles’ is a tremendous portrayal of the exploitation and insecurities of young women. The protagonist is working in a clothing store in L.A where everything’s overpriced and the girls are hired on how they look, not their intellect or experience. Management picks too-tight clothes for her to wear, and all the models in the pictures around the store have a sort of starved nymphomaniac aesthetic. We see how the structures that exploit women can be fought against or leaned into (the protagonist ends up flogging her dirty knickers to men in car parks for cash) and how sex is used as a tool and a weapon to exploit us all as consumers. 

First published in Granta 149: Best of Young American Novelists 3, April 2017 and available to read there for subscribers. Collected in Daddy, Random House/Chatto & Windus 2020

‘The Wind’ by Lauren Groff

There’s so much pain, terror and love in this story, it’s exquisite. We find ourselves on the run with a woman fleeing her abusive husband. It’s clear that if the escape is not pulled off precisely, if she doesn’t manage to slip away with her children in tow, he will murder her. The narrator is the granddaughter of the story’s brave protagonist, and is retelling the tale as passed down to her from her mother. It’s a beautifully written and touching portrayal of a mother staying strong for the sake of her children — styling her hair though her face is battered, smiling though her husband knocked out her teeth. It’s a tragic, heartbreaking piece of work that highlights the reality faced by many women the world over. I can’t fangirl hard enough over Lauren Groff at the moment — my love heart eyes pop out on their stalks when I read her work.

First published in The New Yorker, January 25 2021, and available to read online for subscribers

‘Premium Harmony’ by Stephen King

King is a (the?) master of horror. Over the years I’ve loved his tales of zombie pets, demonic cars and telekinetic teenagers, but in ‘Premium Harmony’, he presents the real-life horrors of marriage and mortality. Within our mundane, pedestrian lives we are jolted into remembering that we should not forsake our loved ones, and we should appreciate what little we have before it’s snatched away from us. The focus on everyday, otherwise unimportant details (the purchase of cigarettes, the products on sale in Wal-Mart) and the subtle jibes and constant bickering between the married couple are what fascinate me in this piece. There is an agonising double blow in this story which left me completely shaken, idolising King for being so mercilessly brutal.

First published in The New Yorker, December 1, 2009, and available to read online for subscribers. Collected in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Scribner/ Hodder & Stoughton, 2015

‘The Englishman’ by Douglas Stuart

Queer longing, lemons, and the rural Scottish countryside — what’s not to love? I read this story before the explosion of Stuart’s Booker-Award winning Shuggie Bain, and it stayed with me long after reading. The protagonist, and his to-and-fro with the Englishman who employs him as a ‘houseboy’, are perfectly captured. The dynamic between them is uncomfortably realistic. I adore the contrast in this story: between rich and poor, old and young, the rural Hebridean landscape and the bright lights of London. I love the ever-present thread of lemons that runs through the story, a reminder that no matter how far from home we travel we are always tethered to our past. Stuart’s reflections on family and relationships are always so deeply moving. I particularly enjoyed: “I am the youngest of five brothers, each son fading slightly, becoming paler, more flaxen. It was as though our mother were a rubber stamp that was running out of ink—and she was. She always seemed to be weary.” Ugh! Delicious. A pleasure to read from start to finish.

First published in The New Yorker, September 7 2020, and available to read online for subscribers

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This story hits so many of my favourite themes. Feminism! Hysteria! Hideous home decor! It’s impossible to extricate the story from the context and climate it was written in, the forced rest-cures of the Victorian era that the writer herself was victim of. I first read and studied the story at university, and as I get older (and during the long, dark months of living alone during a global pandemic) I relate more to the protagonist — driven to madness when left to her own devices in forced solitude. A deliciously gothic exploration of motherhood, mental health and oppressive patriarchal structures.

Published in The New England Magazine, January 1892. Widely collected and published, including as a £1 Penguin Little Black Classic. Available to read online here

‘Sons at My Feet’ by Grahame Williams

I’ve gone a bit full immersion with Stinging Fly lately. I treated myself to a subscription the other day so I’m trying to absorb some of the power of the great talents they publish just by reading and reading and reading. I loved ‘Sons at My Feet’ because of its unusual format — it’s told via the medium of Whatsapp messages. I’m also a sucker for a story about alcohol use and abuse within families, and the storytelling ramble of the protagonist is captured perfectly by late night stream of consciousness Whatsapps. Very memorable, and I love the way the structure and storytelling give us the same sense of panic as the narrator recounts a frightening event.

First published and available to read in The Stinging Fly, Issue 40, Volume 2: Summer 2019

‘Graceland’ by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

Another Stinging Fly! I love this story. It depicts a father’s day out with his daughter so beautifully that it made me reminisce about father-daughter museum days I’m not sure I ever had. It’s also a very touching look at how children perceive the world, the things they notice that adults have become blind to. It’s an honest depiction of a fractured marriage and the protagonist’s frustration at being unable to see his child. This image, in which the father is acknowledging and making peace with his rage, particularly struck me: He hushed the violence. He whispered to it and caressed it like you would a cat to gain its trust then he gripped the loose skin of the nape and removed it squirming from the room.”

First published and available to read in The Stinging Fly, May 2021. Collected in Trouble, The Stinging Fly 2021

‘Butterflies’ by Ian McEwan

I am HAUNTED by this collection and not in any good way. I actually couldn’t keep the book in the house after I read it, I should have buried it in the garden. The protagonists here are often sociopathic perverts and the stories are traumatising. ‘Homemade’ is a very explicit tale of a boastful adolescent boy who has sex with his 10-year-old little sister in order to get one-up on his friend. The whole description of the event is grotesque. Similarly in ‘Butterflies’, an older man accosts a young girl down by a canal to fulfil his sexual needs and then murders her without a second thought. Terrifying and deeply troubling. Not sure this is a recommendation… Obviously very well written and Ian McEwan’s first published works I believe….but yes. Nightmares.

First published in New Review, 1974. Collected in First Love, Last Rites, Cape, 1975

‘Homemade’ by Ian McEwan

I am HAUNTED by this collection and not in any good way. I actually couldn’t keep the book in the house after I read it, I should have buried it in the garden. The protagonists here are often sociopathic perverts and the stories are traumatising. ‘Homemade’ is a very explicit tale of a boastful adolescent boy who has sex with his 10-year-old little sister in order to get one-up on his friend. The whole description of the event is grotesque. Similarly in ‘Butterflies’, an older man accosts a young girl down by a canal to fulfil his sexual needs and then murders her without a second thought. Terrifying and deeply troubling. Not sure this is a recommendation… Obviously very well written and Ian McEwan’s first published works I believe….but yes. Nightmares.

‘Homemade’ first published in New American Review 15, 1972. Collected in First Love, Last Rites, Cape, 1975

‘Your Shoes’ by Michèle Roberts

This is probably the first short story I ever read. We were given it at Standard Grade (age 13/14?) to study in English, and we were to write our own short story of the same title. I feel like I wildly plagiarised Michele’s work for my story — the themes, the format. All I did was swap out characters and dial the violence and dread up a notch, if I remember correctly. It was my first insight into short story structure and so I thought it deserved an honourable mention in the anthology. Thanks, Michèle for the introduction to the form (and to my teacher Mrs Stirling, wherever you are).

First published in During Mother’s Absence, Virago Press 1993

‘The Hunter’s Wife’ by Anthony Doerr

I love stories that play with the natural and supernatural, and ‘The Hunter’s Wife’ is a perfect example. I adore being so absorbed in a story that any paranormal, psychic or supernatural elements seem perfectly plausible, or secondary to the main plot. The Hunter’s Wife is full of beautiful, vivid descriptions of the hunter and his young (psychic!) wife falling in love in a remote cabin in the woods. God, I am revisiting it as I write this, and I’m just so completely in love with all of Doerr’s words. I challenge ye not to succumb to the infatuation also. An extract: “Their first winter passed like that. When he looked out the cabin window, he saw wolf tracks crossing the river, owls hunting from the trees, six feet of snow like a quilt ready to be thrown off. She saw burrowed dreamers nestled under roots against the long twilight, their dreams rippling into the sky like auroras. With love still lodged in his heart like a splinter, he married her in the first muds of spring.”

First published in The Atlantic, May 2001 and available to read here

‘Girls at Play’ by Celeste Ng

This is a really beautifully written and touching story about childhood, sexuality and class. It’s a coming-of-age tale about adolescent girls who wear ‘shag bands’ (as they were called in the UK during that era) but who actively encourage and allow boys to snap the bands in exchange for sexual favours. It looks at friendship and the complex metamorphosis of little girls into young women. Gorgeous! 

First published in Bellevue Literary Review, Fall 2010, and available to read here. Collected in the Pushcart Prize Anthology 2012