I used to have this idea that I didn’t like short stories. It was an ongoing argument in our house; my husband adores them, and would argue for them endlessly, but I was not, I felt, a short-stories person. When I tried to articulate my objections, I tended to come up with an argument along the neither-fish-nor-fowl lines; they provided, I suggested, neither the depth and breadth and heft of novels, nor poetry’s quick, beautiful dance. They occupied instead some sort of provisional hinterland between the two, and I wasn’t interested in visiting. If the city and the country are both on offer, why go to the suburbs?

I was wrong, obviously; in fact, looking back, I’m bemused by the level of my wrongness. The best way I can explain it was that I was looking down the wrong end of the telescope, seeing weakness in strength. The moment of conversion – of revelation, really – came, for me, with Alice Munro’s collection, Runaway (which I’ll talk about in a bit). I read these stories and finally, fully, got it: those spaces which surround and swiss-cheese short stories, which I had perceived as absences, are precisely where their power lies. Novels and poems offer – or offer to me – completion, satisfaction, the sense of something wrapped up and fully realised. They meet needs, and provide answers. Short stories do the opposite: they’re liminal, they’re gestural, they give something but not everything; they leave you wanting more. The best of them require you to fill in the edges, leave you feeling exposed, raw and incomplete. They don’t answer questions; they pose them – and it’s stories that do this which, give or take, I’ve focused on here. Turns out, when it came to short stories, the problem was me. I’ve grown up now. I can cope with unanswered questions.

‘Grandmother Lucy and Her Hats’ by Joyce Wilson; illustrations by Frank Francis

The irony, of course, is that my five-year-old self was entirely comfortable with unanswered questions, and knew the value of ambiguity. You won’t have heard of this book (if you have: mail me! Let’s talk!); it’s been out of print for years. But it haunted me as a child; and as an adult with children of my own, I tracked down a secondhand copy on eBay, at no small expense, in order to pass it on to them. It’s the story, told in the first person, of a young girl who visits her grandmother’s house and climbs with her (and her cat, Tom) into the attic, where Grandmother Lucy tries on her collection of hats, one by one. Then they have tea, and the little girl goes home. That’s it.
The first thing to note is that the illustrations are purely magical: deep and rich; jewel-coloured; filled with mid-20th-century patterns and flowers. But the text that sits alongside these pictures is deeper and richer still: odd and off-kilter; dream-like and – I now feel – psychologically playful. The sentences have an almost synesthetic quality that chimes with childhood, where thoughts and senses bleed into one another more readily, but the subjects are big, weighty, adult ones, albeit glancingly addressed. Love, death, relationships: they’re all in there, but above all the subject is time, and the way in which it doesn’t work; the incomprehensibility of a world in which people age but objects – to the human eye, at least – do not. Grandmother Lucy leads her granddaughter up into the attic – which, with its cases, and piles of old books, and ominous Grandfather Clock in the corner, appears to me now as an unmistakeable metaphor for her memory – and offers her a glimpse into her earlier life. It’s light and deft and gorgeous, and I’ve been wondering about it for nearly four decades now. And if you’re a children’s publisher, can I make a plea for a reprint? It’s one in a series, and the others are just as strange and beautiful.

First published Armada Picture Lions, 1974

‘The Landlady’ by Roald Dahl

Looking back at the historical record, the evidence would appear to suggest that my close-mindedness on the subject of short fiction kicked in around puberty, along with other vices including, but not limited to, Sour Apple 20/20 and Regal Kingsize. I first encountered Dahl’s chilly little tale in an English lesson at the age of 12: it sunk its claws into me then, and in the years since it hasn’t loosened its grip a fraction. The story opens with young Billy Wheeler, newly arrived in Bath on “business”, casting around for a night’s lodgings. Walking from the station to a hotel, he passes a house with a B&B sign in the window and glances in. The scene is gloriously inviting: chrysanthemums in the window, a bright fire in the hearth and, in front of it, “a pretty little dachshund … curled up asleep”. He reasons that “animals were usually a good sign in a place like this” and decides to chance it.

From this moment on, Dahl allows the sense of menace to gradually mount. The woman who opens the door puts Billy in mind of “the mother of one’s best school friend welcoming one into the house to stay for the Christmas holidays”, and the rent is “fantastically cheap”. But when he signs in, he notices that there are just two other names in the guest book, each dating from several years back, each oddly familiar. He asks the landlady whether her guests were famous. “Oh no,” she replies, “But they were incredibly handsome … tall and young and handsome, my dear, just exactly like you.”

As the pair sit on the sofa, sipping tea, with Billy still worrying at the question of where he’s heard those names before, he notices suddenly that the animals he saw through the window are, in fact, dead. Stuffed. Goodness, he says, “it’s most terribly clever the way it’s been done … who did it?” “I did,” the landlady answers. And the tale fade to black soon after, ending with the landlady, in response to Billy’s question as to whether there really haven’t been any other guests in the last two years, replying, “No my dear. Only you.”

Dahl’s story is a masterclass in atmosphere. Through delicate hints (the stuffed animals; the way the landlady’s eyes travel “down the length of Billy’s body, to his feet, and then up again”) and details that are alarming only in context (her “small, white, quickly moving hands and red fingernails”, the tea with its whiff of “bitter almonds”), he shows us how it’s possible to tell a whole story by indirection. The setting itself is a coup de grace: that which at first seems so delightfully cosy and inviting is slowly revealed to be nothing more than a stage set; a rickety facade whose charm throws into relief the horror of what’s concealed behind it. Reader, I live in Bath now. And let me tell you, I keep my eyes peeled.

Originally published in The New Yorker, November 1959 and available online here. Collected in Kiss Kiss, Knopf, 1960, currently available from Penguin. Also in The Complete Short Stories Vol 2, Penguin, 2013

‘Lentils and Lilies’ by Helen Simpson

Let us skip lightly across the next two decades, when I arrogantly turned my back on ambiguity, and reenter the fray on a Sunday morning in 2010, in the café of Foyles bookshop in London. My son is 18 months old, I’ve been a single mother for 12 of them, and if there’s one thing the last couple of years has taught me, it’s that sometimes there are no answers, and that, while we’re still living, endings of any sort are illusory. I’ve come to Foyles on my own on a Sunday morning because my son is with his dad, and I have some free time, and I want to spend it reading. And I pick up Helen Simpson’s collection, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, because a close friend of mine – also the mother of young children, and a literary agent, by the by – has recommended it.

I sat in the café for a couple of hours, and read the collection from cover to cover (and then I bought it; I’m not a monster). The experience was something akin to being hit over the head, repeatedly, by a psychotherapist. All of the half-formed thoughts I’d had about motherhood – the reconfiguring of my body, my priorities, my brain, and my work; the loss of freedom; the critical transition from heedless ease to humbled exhaustion – were in there, and their expression as short stories – brief snatches, hurried revelations – wasn’t secondary to their impact, but was in fact integral to it. The stories were linked (which no doubt eased the shock for me somewhat) but their individuality was vital to them.

The central tale, ‘Burns and the Bankers’, I later discovered, is generally held to be the collection’s masterpiece, but for me, the opener, ‘Lentils and Lilies’, is the one. It’s told through the eyes of 18-year-old Jade: young, confident, smart (she’s revising for her A levels); “moving like a panther into the long jewelled narrative which was her future”. That future, as Jade perceives it, is wide-open and suffused with promise; she is never going to be “dead inside”, like the adult women – the mothers – she sees around her, or even like her own apparently successful mother, who juggles a career and a household by means of “rotas and lists and endless arrangements”. She knows who she is, what she wants, and where she’s going.

Simpson, though, has other ideas. Through the story, she juxtaposes Jade’s vision of her future with a down-and-dirty encounter with a woman a few years’ Jade’s senior. Walking through her neighbourhood on her way to a job interview, Jade comes across this woman wrestling with two children, one of whom has a lentil jammed up his nose. She’s inadvertently dragged into this family drama, and ends up helping the woman carry the child back to her house, in search of tweezers.

She’s contemptuous of her, and repulsed by her: by her house, by her children, by the way her “heels stuck out from the backs of her sandals like hunks of Parmesan.” In the end, she walks out of the house back into the sunlight, without resolving the situation; she’s free to do so, where the child’s mother is not. But in the silence at the story’s close we’re invited to project forwards; to imagine Jade into the mother’s role in a few years’ time. It’s a deliciously bittersweet moment that sets the tone for this collection – the rest of which could be read as a series of alternative versions of that future. It was exactly the story I needed to read, in the café that morning. And as far as short stories were concerned, it proved to be the thin end of the wedge; the chink in my armour; my route back.

Originally published in Hey Yeah Right Get A Life, Jonathan Cape, 2000. Collected in A Bunch of Fives, Penguin 2012

‘Passion’ by Alice Munro

If Helen Simpson opened the door for me, Alice Munro pushed it wide and invited me in. The same friend who’d recommended Helen Simpson to me leant me, a few months later, a copy of Runaway by Alice Munro. It knocked me sideways. I can’t think of a single book that has stopped me in my tracks, brought me up short, in the way that this one did. The deep focus; the profound, understated power of the writing; the delicacy with which she draws us into her characters’ lives and then the devastation that she wreaks upon them, and us – well, others have written more, and better, about all of this – including, of course, the Nobel committee. But for me, her work was a personal epiphany: I was swept away by the content – the small lives; the humdrum tragedies; the sense of the losses inflicted, and the accommodations forced, by the passage of time – and by the pure, clear brilliance of the words on the page. But I was swept away by the form, and its essentialness, too. Even though several of the stories in this collection are linked, charting the life of one woman, they nevertheless function as short stories, and draw their strength from the confines of the form: they’re economic, selective, focused and exact.

I hate to play favourites with these tales: Runaway, it seems to me, is one of the most ideal and complete collections of short stories going, and the way in which the stories resonate with and complement each other – the skill, in other words, with which they’ve been assembled – is a great part of its strength. But if you forced me to it, it’s ‘Passion’ that I’d have to name; it perfectly demonstrates those aspects and qualities that Munro, more than any other writer, exhibits. This is the story of Grace: the small sweep of her life, from school, to waitressing, to an unexpected marriage, to late middle-age. It is, profoundly – to borrow from the title of another of Munro’s collections – the life of a girl, a woman: a life that involves response, acceptance, accommodation, and thus a series of negatives: decisions not taken; opportunities missed. The pang it delivers, the sense of loss, is amplified by the way in which Munro swims back and forth in time, in order to show how insignificant the moments are in which changes can happen, and lives are shaped – and, finally, how little even we, the protagonists, remember of them. “Describing this passage, this change in her life, later on,” Munro says, of the event that lead to Grace’s marriage, “Grace might say – she did say – that it was as if a gate had clanged shut behind her. But at the time there was no clang – acquiescence simply rippled through her, the rights of those left behind were smoothly cancelled. Her memory of this day remained clear and detailed, though there was a variation in the parts of it she dwelt on. And even in some of those details she must have been wrong”. It’s all loss, loss, loss: loss of potential, of self, and finally of recollection. Oof.

Originally published – and still available online – in The New Yorker, March 22, 2004. Collected in Runaway, McLelland and Stewart, 2004

‘The Body’ by Stephen King

So there it is: how I re-learned to love short stories. But before moving on to a list of stories-I-just-like, one final foray into autobiography. As I look back over my teens and 20s, the other unforgivable absence from my personal literary canon is, unquestionably, the work of Stephen King. As with short fiction, this absence was based on unreasoning prejudice. Somewhere along the way, in my teenage years, I came to identify myself as someone who didn’t like horror. This was based in part on the genuine terror I felt in the wake of reading Nicholas Fisk’s SF-horror mash-up, Grinny, at an impressionable age (the cover of the 1980s edition still gives me the heebie-jeebies). But it was also based – and it pains me to admit this – on the embossed covers. I think I had some notion that embossed covers indicated a lack of seriousness, and I took myself *very* seriously, back then. I realise now, of course, that taking against a cover in this way makes me not so much serious as a pompous, but we live and learn. Anyway, luckily for me, I hooked up with my husband in my 30s, and among many other good qualities (including, of course, an encyclopaedic knowledge of short fiction) he possessed a full back-catalogue of Stephen King, and a desire to get me to read all of them so we’d have something to talk about. I read The Stand, nearly passed out from fear, and was hooked.
And so: ‘The Body’. Yes, it’s technically a novella, but it’s a mere minnow by Stephen King’s standards, and this is my list, so you’ll have to suck it up. I loved King’s work for its ability to exude menace and build tension, and on occasion scare you out of your wits, but I love it most, I think, for its contribution to the project of writing the US. He’s the undisputed laureate of smalltown America: of Main Streets and gas stations and high schools, and of the people who inhabit them. And he’s also a mastercraftsman at the art of reaching back through time and writing childhood – again, that specifically late-20th American childhood which was free from external threats, and so, when it was looking for conflict, turned on itself, waged internal wars.
‘The Body’ exemplifies all of this, perfectly. Told in flashback by an author, now grown up, it’s the story of four friends, on the cusp of adolescence, who overhear talk of the body of a dead boy, apparently by the train tracks outside of town, and set off to find him. It’s a coming of age story, set in the torpid, empty days of summer, as all such stories should be, and overlaid with an odd, twisted quest-narrative: over the course of their journey, the boys dodge speeding trains, avoid junkyard dogs, and come out of a pool of standing water covered in leeches. In the cultural memory, it lives on in the saturated colours of Rob Reiner’s excellent film of the book, Stand By Me, but it’s King’s version that has stayed with me. The writing is superb, the psychological investigation far deeper and richer, and the final line is one for the ages; grief for childhood, and innocence, and old friends, cast in unsentimental vernacular. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve,” says the narrator. “Jesus, did you?”

Originally published in Different Seasons, Viking Press, 1982

‘Starver’ by Daisy Johnson

Daisy Johnson’s debut short story collection is set entirely in East Anglia’s fenland: a silty mix of fresh- and saltwater marshes, drained in the 19th century and now well-populated and heavily cultivated, but still a tricksy, liminal landscape lying below sea-level wholly dependent on the system of pumps and embankments that protect it. There’s an uncanniness to the fens that derives both from their singular geography (the lack of firm perimeters; the edgeless, overlit swathes of sky-filled water) and their essential provisionality; the ever-deepening sense that their inhabitants are living on borrowed time, in a borrowed place. 
In the stories in Fen, Johnson taps into that uncanniness and makes of it something original and gripping. Boundaries shift and slide, myth and folklore seep up and insinuate their way into her characters’ solid-seeming lives, and the barriers between past and present, fact and fiction and even humans and animals become fluid and unreliable. Again, it’s a collection that repays reading as a whole – the stories themselves are only lightly bounded, flowing into one another and setting off ripples. Which is why I’m recommending the first story: on the grounds that once you’ve read this, you’ll have no choice but to read the others, too. Also: the opening sentence is a slam-dunk. “The land was drained”, Johnson begins, before briefly describing the delight of the “workforce brought in to build on the wilderness” to find it filled with eels, a rich source of food – and then their horror when the captured eels refused to eat, leaving the workers starving in turn. The story then jumps forward to the present-day, where an apparently unexceptional teenage girl – party-going, netball-playing, make-up-wearing – announces her own, 21st-Century intention of “stopping eating”. What follows, though, is not the expected slide into anorexia – in this fenland setting, the act of self-deprivation effects not a reduction, but an astonishing transformation. The girl turns into an eel, and the story concludes with the narrator (her sister) carrying her in a wet towel to the canal at the bottom of the school field. “I lay her on the ground, jerked her free from the towel, pushed her sideways into the water. She did not roll her white belly to message me goodbye or send a final ripple,” she says, unexcitedly. “Only ducked deep and was gone.” No explanation is asked for or offered; we’re simply left, high and dry. It sets the tone for the rest of this odd, unsettling, atmospheric collection.

First appeared in Fen, published by Jonathan Cape, 2016