‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ by Katherine Mansfield

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 Erl-King’ by Angela Carter

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)

‘Julia K’ by May-Lan Tan

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)

‘Future Digital’ by Anna Maconochie

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)

‘Notes on a Love Story’ by Philip Langeskov

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)

‘Monte Verità’ by Daphne du Maurier

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)

‘Lavin’ by John McGahern

Lavin, an elderly blacksmith, ‘close to the poorhouse’, in a rural Irish backwater, where most of McGahern’s brilliant stories are set, is the local paedophile. He is taunted by the village kids, who are both frightened and fascinated by him. What’s most clever and disturbing about this story is that McGahern makes you sympathise with Lavin, who was once young and handsome but who had ‘taken no interest in girls though he could have had his pick’. You sympathise with a life wasted in hard work; as the narrator remembers ‘…hardly a day passes but a picture of Lavin comes to trouble me: it is of him when he was young, and, they said, handsome, gathering the scattered tools at nightfall in a clean wheatfield after the others had gone drinking or to change for the dances’.

(from The Collected Stories, Faber, 1992)

‘Spring in Fialta’ by Vladimir Nabokov

A beautifully constructed story about memory and loss, full of sensory detail and luxurious imagery. While on holiday in a fictional Mediterranean resort, the narrator, Victor, an exiled Russian, bumps into Nina, a fellow exile, for whom he has carried a torch since they first met at a party in 1917, just before fleeing their homeland. They first kiss in the snow: “Windows light up and stretch their luminous lengths upon the dark billowy snow…I was already kissing her neck, smooth and quite fiery hot from the long fox fur of her coat collar…”. She has flitted through his life ever since but, despite a mutual attraction, they have never quite connected. The tragic ending comes as a shock, although you suddenly realise that it has been foreshadowed throughout with clever little clues.

(from Nabokov’s Dozen, Penguin, 1958, or it can be read here)

‘My Wife is a White Russian’ by Rose Tremain

A perfectly plotted short story, which reaches far beyond its seven pages. The narrator is a boorish, elderly, extremely wealthy man, who has made his fortune from mining precious metals: ‘I’m a financier. I have financial assets world-wide. I’m in nickel and pig-iron and gold and diamonds. I like the sound of all these words…The glitter of saying them sometimes gives me an erection’. These little shocks are all the more powerful for being buried within the elegance of Tremain’s prose. The narrator’s gold-digging wife is a former prostitute of White Russian ancestry. The pair are entertaining one of the narrator’s employees and his wife in an expensive restaurant. We gradually realise the narrator has been severely disabled by a stroke and cannot talk or feed himself. The wife doesn’t help him to eat. The contrast between the younger couple, who are deeply in love, and the older couple, whose marriage has always been a coldly transactional arrangement, is stark. Even before the narrator’s stroke, he could not communicate with his wife and, now, he literally can’t speak to her. The story ends ambiguously with a stylish echo of the opening: ‘Why did she never love me? In my dreams, too, the answer comes from deep underground: it’s the hardness of my words’.

(First published in Granta Best of Young British Novelists, 1983, and collected in from The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories, ed. Malcolm Bradbury, 1988. Granta subscribers can read it online here)

Chapter 27 from The Devil’s Larder by Jim Crace

The Devil’s Larder is a collection of 64 stories about food. It’s billed as a ‘cumulative novel’ but in fact each story stands alone. Chapter 27 stands out, partly because of its arresting opening: ‘I am a pimp of sorts. I have a team of girls’. The narrator goes on to explain that he runs a seafood restaurant and the girls, who are still at school, gather razor clams for him at low tide. They describe the process of gathering clams as ‘prick-teasing’ because they pour salt into the clam’s burrow to encourage the clam’s pink, fleshy penis-like siphon to appear. The narrator is voyeuristic; he watches the girls through binoculars from the terrace of his restaurant. He also watches their alluring teacher, who one day goes out with the girls to experiment whether the clams will pop up for culinary items other than salt; vinegar, cinnamon, soda pop and so on. Through his binoculars, he sees her squatting to pee on the sand, and the clams ‘springing up between her legs’. Later he cooks her piss-soaked clams: “She liked the satisfying chewiness and swore she could detect the jam, the cinnamon, the pop, and many things besides”. Like ‘My Wife is a White Russian’ and ‘Lavin’ this story straddles a disturbing line between elegance and disgust. I like its uneasy quality.

 (Viking, 2001)

‘To Feed the Night’ by Philip Hensher

Another story with, like much of Hensher’s work, an intriguingly uneasy atmosphere. This fable about property and greed in the 1980s is full of strange cool gems of expression: “Inside, there was one man, at an empty desk, running a pen along his lips like a harmonica, and watching”; “golden light, electric with dust”, “The colour of the house became paler as he went upwards, like blood draining from the head…”. Hensher excels at defamiliarization, so even the most ordinary things are seen anew: an estate agency is described as looking as if “it sold…nothing but photographs”, a pistol is “needle-neat”, uneaten food on a plate is “the brown and sordid ends”.

(from The Bedroom of the Mister’s Wife, Vintage, 2000, or it can be read here if you have a subscription to Granta)

‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

Saying that this story is your favourite ever is a bit like saying the Mona Lisa is your favourite painting or Chanel No. 5 your favourite perfume, but who cares. The final story in my collection, Smoked Meat, is a homage to ‘The Dead’. The last lines are, for me, the most beautiful ever written in literature: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”.

From Dubliners (first published 1914; it can be read here)