This list is not definitive; in a few years’ time I might chose a very different set of stories, although ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ and ‘The Dead’ would probably always feature. Loss is a recurring theme in these stories, as well as surface detail; I’m attracted to bittersweet sparkling things.
When I first read this on my MA I couldn’t understand why our tutor (the poet, Michael Hulse) thought it was so good. As with all Katherine Mansfield’s stories, this is about subtle human interplay rather than dramatic events, although, in fact, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ has more plot than many of her others. It took several re-readings to realise this story’s subtle brilliance. Two unmarried sisters contemplate the past, future and immediate present in the aftermath of their domineering father’s death and almost, but don’t quite, admit to themselves and each other how much they have missed out on in life. A quietly tragic story about the stifling grip of convention and timidity but with flashes of humour. I now press this story on my own students and they generally fail to understand its brilliance.
(from The Garden Party, Penguin Modern Classics, 1977, first published 1922 or it can be read here)
The Bloody Chamber is one of my favourite collections, and plays a key part in what I hope will be my next published novel. All the stories are deliciously rich in symbolism, sensual language and allusions to fairy tales. ‘The Erl-King’, a retelling of a Scandinavian legend about a sinister forest spirit who lures a young woman into his woodland dwelling, is my favourite. Carter’s descriptions are as lush and detailed as mediaeval tapestries: “There was a little tangled mist in the thickets, mimicking the tufts of old man’s beard that flossed the lower branches of the trees and bushes, heavy branches of red berries as ripe and delicious as goblin or enchanted fruit hung on the hawthorns… One by one, the ferns have curled up their hundred eyes and curled back into the earth. The trees threaded a cat’s cradle of half-stripped branches over me…”
The Erl-King is both frightening and alluring, and there are some wonderfully spooky passages, including this, which has, for me, the chill of infinity: ‘I walked through the wood until all its perspectives converged upon a darkening clearing; as soon as I saw them, I knew at once that all its occupants had been waiting for me from the moment I first stepped into the wood, with the endless patience of wild things, who have all the time in the world’. That ‘endless patience’ is so sinister.
(from The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories,Vintage Books, 2006, first published 1979)
The dark sexy glitter of May-Lan Tan’s writing blew me away when I first read this debut collection. Like Angela Carter, she’s excellent on atmospheric surface detail and, by that, I don’t mean she’s shallow; surface detail is what grounds a story. It was hard to choose my favourite from this collection as they work as a whole, but ‘Julia K’, about a mysterious alluring woman who lives upstairs from the narrator, is full of Tan’s characteristic hard-edged, occasionally hallucinatory imagery: “Kissing Julia was like kissing language. Her tongue was a flame, licking phoneme and diphthong. She swallowed me like a sword and her eyes were doves, her mouth a lake of fire.”
(from Things To Make and Break, CB Editions, 2014)
Like May-Lan Tan’s collection, this debut was one of my favourite books of recent years. Maconochie’s writing is cool, pristine and observant, with surreal flashes. I totally identified with the narrator in ‘Future Digital’, who works in admin in a big corporation, while trying to pursue her writing ambitions on the side. It took back to me the angst of my late twenties and early thirties – internet dating, trying to find time to write, fearing that nothing is ever going to work out and envying colleagues who aren’t flaying themselves with creative dreams: ‘Oh, to be Sue and not have a creative care in the world. To chat about a million nothings, and not have a melancholy that flares up at will like eczema, unresponsive to any help.’
(from Only the Visible Can Vanish, Cultured Llama, 2016)
The bulk of this incredibly clever and satisfyingly circular short story is written in footnotes, some of which are true and some of which are fiction. It’s a story within a story about another story, which also references other stories. It’s about art versus love/life, the nature of stories, and also about how the narrator, who is a writer, foretells how his relationship with his girlfriend will end right at the moment he meets her. He writes it down in a story entitled ‘How It Will End’, which, ironically, causes the end of his relationship when his girlfriend reads it. According to one of the footnotes, “In A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes proposes that falling in love involves telling ourselves stories about falling in love…All stories are love stories…”. The final footnote ends with these words disappearing into nothingness: “Unlike love, the story never ends. It never ends. It never ends. It never ends. It never ends. It never ends. It never ends. It never ends.”
(from The Best British Short Stories 2011, edited by Nicholas Royle, Salt, 2011. First published in Five Dials Issue No. 9)
A newly-wed couple go on a mountaineering holiday in a remote region of an unnamed European country. They are warned by the locals not to climb Monte Verità as the wife will be inextricably drawn into the mysterious monastery at the summit of the mountain. Many of the young women of the village have been lost to the monastery, never to be seen again. Of course, the wife, who already has the strange light of the ‘called’ in her eyes, disappears in the middle of the night, before her husband can stop her. This story is reminiscent of Picnic at Hanging Rock, one of my favourite films, and is equally creepy and memorable.
(from The Birds and Other Stories)