Obviously twelve stories out of the world’s millions is a ridiculous ask, and there is nothing definitive about this list, but here are some stories that have stayed with me. Looking at them together, now, I see they’re pretty flashy, lurid in places, and I feel obliged to wave a small and compensatory flag for the quiet, subtle stories in the world – the wallflower stories that are nevertheless full of beauty and value and what-have-you. Still, they didn’t make it, and these did.
Category: Ruby Cowling
Ruby Cowling was born in Bradford and lives in London. Her short fiction has won awards including The White Review Short Story Prize and the London Short Story Prize, and has been published around the place, including in Lighthouse, The Lonely Crowd, the Galley Beggar Press Singles Club and numerous print anthologies. Her collection This Paradise was published by Boiler House Press in 2019.
‘The Red Bow’ by George Saunders
As a shameless Saunders fangirl, I could pick a dozen of his as my anthology. I accept that perhaps he’s written one too many dysfunctional-theme-park stories, but to me he is The Master. Stumbling across ‘Sea Oak’ changed my writing life, while ‘My Flamboyant Grandson’ and ‘The 400lb CEO’ manage to feature exquisite moments of human feeling too complex to name… then there’s the perfect ‘Home’, so full of taut bitterness… Oh, George. After much agonising I’ve chosen ‘The Red Bow’ as the exemplar. It has everything: a just off-real scenario, perfect character motivation-action-reaction, fantastic dialogue, and that dark-tender humour he does like no one else.
First published in Esquire, September 2003 and available to read online here. Collected in In Persuasion Nation, Riverhead Books/Bloomsbury, 2006
‘End of the Line’ by Aimee Bender
Whenever I think of this story, I get a funny feeling. A bad, funny feeling that makes me want to go and read the story again and prolong that bad, funny feeling. A man buys a little man in a cage and keeps him like a pet, and Bender pushes this scenario to its extremes, exploring our darkness and our innocence at more or less the same time. I can’t tell you how much I love this story – and the reason I can’t tell you is because I worry about what that says about me.
First published in Tin House, Fall 2004. Collected in Willful Creatures, Doubleday, 2005/Windmill Books, 2013
‘Girl’ by Jamaica Kincaid
Ah, the voice! The pace! The concision! A whole childhood and burgeoning adolescence, plus a mother-daughter relationship, plus all the eyes of the neighbourhood, plus the wider system, is packed into just a couple of pages. It’s a forerunner of so many of those “rules for” or “instructions for” stories, but without any of the coy fluff they often have. It just kicks arse.
First published in The New Yorker, 19 June 1978. Collected in At the Bottom of the River, FSG, 1983
‘The Doll’ by Daphne du Maurier
I can’t handle contemporary horror but I love du Maurier and her modernist Freudian-horror flavour. The Birdsis a masterpiece. Then there’s this hysterical shocker, which is the filthiest 1930s story I’ve read (though maybe I’ve been sheltered), which pre-empts contemporary angst about sex robots. It’s not just the luridness that’s great, though; the story also deploys that “found narrative” framing device that I find irresistible every time.
First published in The Doll and Other Stories, Virago Modern Classics, 2011 – you can read about how it was discovered here– and available to read online here
‘Agata’s Machine’ by Camilla Grudova
Transgressive, unboundaried female sexuality colours and textures everything about this story, so it feels like a kind of second cousin, though decades removed, to The Doll. It also recalls that horrible D H Lawrence story ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’ so strongly that I wouldn’t be surprised if Grudova said this was a modern retelling, or more likely, a rebuff. It comes from a superb, dense collection published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, The Doll’s Alphabet, which name I take as further proof of du Maurier’s ghost looking over Grudova’s shoulder.
First published online in The White Review here. Collected in The Doll’s Alphabet, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017
‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’ by Nam Le
I normally disdain stories about writers and writing, but this one is an exception. Well, is it a story, or is it non-fiction? The question becomes irrelevant – or, more accurately: it’s super-relevant, but inconsequential. The writing is beautiful: suffused with the weariness of the recently-young, by which I mean, a person who’s spent the first third of their life striving hard and harder, trying to beat life into simplicity, and who’s just realising that, actually, striving isn’t going to work. And it’s a father-son narrative, and an immigrant story that pushes against that label. Soft, sad and masterful.
First published in All-Story, Summer 2006, and available to read online here. Collected in The Boat, Canongate, 2008
‘Wild America’ by Wells Tower
When is Wells Tower’s next book coming out? Is what those of us who love his collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, have been asking for ten years. No pressure, Wells. But get on with it. His work is wildly funny, stylistically wide-ranging, and full of painful truths. I’m picking this story over other possibles in the book because of its opening description of a baby pigeon, mauled and dropped by a cat onto a pillowcase: “The thing was pink, nearly translucent, with magenta cheeks and lavender ovals around the eyes. It looked like a half-cooked eraser with dreams of some day becoming a prostitute.”
From the collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, FSG/Granta, 2009. Most of the story is at online here but it seems to cut off about a page and a half from the end…
‘Vertical Motion’ by Can Xue tr. Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping
“I was a little critter submerged in the desert.” The narrating critter – described in passing as an “insect”, but, to me, more of a spindly kind of mole – lives in darkness underground, among other smooth, wiggling creatures. She/he/it starts digging up towards the surface, driven by a species legend about an elder who dug upwards and disappeared. Humans on the surface are mentioned, but I don’t take this story as human allegory. Instead, I believe completely in the narrator’s “critter consciousness”. Why is it so delightful, this dark and wriggling world of creatures with beaks and atrophied fingers? I don’t know, but there’s something fantastic about the narrator whose consciousness treads the border between animal and human (“Hidden in me now was an obscure plan that even I couldn’t explain”) and who can’t help but burst up, fearfully, through layers of soil and sand toward the light.
Collected in Vertical Motion, Open Letter, 2011. Available to read online at The White Review here
‘Leckerdam of the Golden Hand’ by David Hayden
One of Hayden’s short-short stories of the fabula type. This one is so rich and glorious and terrible it’s like cracking open a cursed treasure chest and being blinded by the dazzling hoard within. The narrator is already dead, killed by his children in revenge for violences he’s done to them, though it takes a little while – and it takes the children beginning to “live outside my hate” – for his narrating consciousness to cease. Deep, dark psychodrama with ground-breaking special effects: always a winning combination.
First published in The Stinging Fly, Summer 2016 and available to subscribers online here. Collected in Darker With The Lights On, Little Island Press, 2017
‘Black Box’ by Jennifer Egan
Originally published in bits via 140-character Twitter, this is an 8,500-word super-story of a technologically-enhanced spy whose mission is to bring down the powerful head of a crime syndicate. But it’s really about the cost to her (and her undercover colleagues) of acting as a honeytrap, and the fragmented form is perfect for expressing the internal conflict, as well as cranking up the suspense and the pace. Hopefully we’ve realised by now that Twitter isn’t a decent fiction publishing medium (even with 280 characters), but at least the experiment produced this wonderful, gripping, Egan story.
First published on Twitter.com, Spring 2012, then in The New Yorker and available online here
‘Young Mothers’ by Joanna Walsh
Like much of Walsh’s Vertigo, this story lays out bare units of the quotidian under our noses, bringing taken-for-granted things into question by positioning them baldly outside of a “normal” narrative. This time it’s the mothers of young children who are under the Walsh heat-lamp. ”Our children gave birth to our function”, state the young mothers, their identities subsumed as soon as their child is born. They’re infantilised through the clothes they’re expected to wear and the round-edged objects they handle all day. And, at last, here’s a mention of the way young women so often become “X’s mum” – not only at nursery-gates introductions, but also in those deliberately-non-threatening online handles women feel obliged to use. Seeing Walsh record this so directly and plainly is such a relief, like a thirst has been quenched.
From the collection Vertigo, And Other Stories, 2016
‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’ by Roald Dahl
I was a lucky child who was read to, and then taught to read, and then allowed many, many books from the library. I was also lucky to be the generation that was brought up with Roald Dahl. The Henry Sugar collection is a teenage rather than children’s book, and I’ll never forget the specific type of end-of-childhood excitement and wonder this particular story provoked: a grittier, darker, more promising kind of excitement than that of a child, but the same absolute willingness to believe in the story’s unbelievable premise. I love it when a writer presents the impossible and says, “I know this is unbelievable, but trust me, it’s really true”. I don’t need to be asked twice; I’ll throw off all trappings of sensible rationalism, grab their hand, and go along for the ride.
Collected in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, Jonathan Cape, 1977