Introduction

As a child in the 60s I was introduced to short fiction via Listen With Mother. Many of the books I went on to read – the Milly Molly Mandy stories, the William books by Richmal Crompton were essentially short story collections. But as an adult I thought it was time to put away childish things. Grown-ups read novels. 

Yet short stories have always caught my imagination in a way that longer fiction can’t do. There’s something dreamlike and haunting about this genre. Here I’ve chosen some examples that may not necessarily be ‘the best’. They are simply the ones which have never gone away.

‘A Simple Heart’ by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Robert Baldick

I encountered this one as a student, and thought there was something enjoyably grotesque about the story of Felicité’s attachment to her parrot. Years later I find the piece quite different. It now seems to be about the situation of a woman who loves, but is never loved back. Is she ‘simple’ in the negative sense of the word? Or does the faith she places in others – and in her bird Loulou – fill her life with meaning?

First published 1877 as ‘Un Coeur Simple’. Translation in Three Tales, Penguin Books, 1961. Available online in various translations including here

‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

This story could be used in support of the argument that ‘Less is More’. I’ve read both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Yet, with the possible exception of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, all those thousands of words have left remarkably little trace. Here Joyce evokes a Dublin party in which small and large divisions between the guests become apparent as the evening progresses. But there’s an unexpected – and wonderful – shift at the end, when the main character realises what everybody holds in common. In time all of them will be welcomed by very different hosts.

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914. Available online including here

‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’ by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s work seems to attract those who interpret her poems and prose solely in terms of what they might reveal about her troubled life. She is rarely thought of as comedic. But  what I like about ‘Johnny Panic’ is its edgy noir humour. The narrator – like all good authors? – is a collector of stories. She believes the fantastical dreams she transcribes in her hospital job are as true as any daytime narrative. In dreams Johnny Panic may speak freely.Well, from where I sit, I figure the world is run by one thing and this one thing only. Panic with a dog-face, devil-face, hag-face, whore-face, panic in capital letters with no face at al. It’s the same Johnny Panic, awake or asleep.But unfortunately the heroine’s determination to consult the work of her predecessors lands her in a risky situation.

First published in Atlantic Monthly, 1968. Collected in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and Other Prose Writing, Faber, 1977. Available online here

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Though I’m not a fan of horror films my literary tastes are decidedly Gothic – perhaps because it’s form in which issues of sexual equality are readily explored. In ‘The Dead’ caring spouse Gabriel Conroy made his wife wear galoshes for her health. But in this tale husbandly solicitude takes a darker turn. As the narrative progresses both the heroine and those who – supposedly – look after her become increasingly hard to trust. The mysterious wallpaper in the room where she is sent to rest plays an increasingly important role…

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

‘At the Bay’ by Katherine Mansfield

Another story which has changed since I read it as a young woman. I still admire the deftness with which Mansfield shows us the interior lives of a family group on holiday. But what I recalled is lightness, sunshine, her awareness of the preoccupations of children. Now there appear to be a number of shadowy narrative strands, some trouble in Paradise. If the Bay is Eden, then it is one that is more idyllic once Adam has gone away.(“Oh the relief, the difference it made to have the man out of the house.”) And in the story’s final scene a serpent – “You are vile, vile” – rears its ugly head.

First published in the London Mercury,1922. Collected in The Garden Party, Constable, 1922 and widely since then

‘To Room Nineteen’ by Doris Lessing

Lessing’s fiction has gone out of fashion. Perhaps it’s her seriousness – her engagement with Marxism and the ideas of Freud – which makes her unpopular at a time when feminism is reduced to individual ‘empowerment’ and identity politics. This story, written a few years before the Women’s Liberation Movement took shape, shows what an indispensable writer she is. The narrative seems impersonal, a case history. Susan and Matthew are a privileged couple with a comfortable life. Yet Lessing shows us how they are bound together in a kind of growing incomprehension. It is simply not enough, as Woolf suggested, for a woman to have money and a room of her own, if she remains tied to familial expectations. Various means of escape are tried, but for Susan, ultimate freedom is only to be found in Room Nineteen. 

First published in A Man and Two Women, Simon & Schuster, 1963. Collected in To Room Nineteen: Collected Stories Volume One, Flamingo 2002. Available online here

‘Sleep It Off Lady’ by Jean Rhys

As with Sylvia Plath, it is a mistake to muddle the life and the work. Why is it that we repeatedly fail to see that creative women are just that – creators? Rhys may have struggled in almost every aspect of her life. Yet her writing exhibits formidable control. This story may draw on the isolation she experienced while living in Devon, but it also takes inspiration from Saki’s short story ‘Sredni Vashtar’. The result is a kind of noir whodunit that has affinities with ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. Is Miss Verney herself responsible for her troubles? It is the fault of the villagers with their blend of hostility and indifference? Or do the problems spring from Miss Verney’s shed and its terrible inhabitant?

First published in The New Review. Collected in Sleep it Off Lady, Penguin, 1979

‘The Company of Wolves’ by Angela Carter

Before Jeanette Winterson there was Angela Carter, whose work is more wide-ranging, less egotistical, more magical. For too many years fairy stories have been Disneyed down, infantilised. Here the tales are not only reclaimed for adults but also transformed into narratives where females have agency. This is a variant of the Red Riding Hood story but the heroine is no child victim. “She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing.” She is “nobody’s meat”. Happiness is to be found in grandmother’s bed, even though it’s unclear if the woman and her wolf-lover will live happily ever after.

First published in Bananas, 1977. Collected in The Bloody Chamber, Gollancz, 1979, currently available from Vintage, 1995, and in Burning Your Boats: Collected Stories, Vintage, 1996

‘Fat’ by Raymond Carver

Though he is unsentimental, Carver is a hugely compassionate writer. This story is a perfect example of how short fiction is like a pebble thrown in a pond. It ripples out over a great expanse. On the one hand ‘Fat’ is about a waitress who serves an obese customer. Other staff mock him but she looks after him with exemplary care. When she talks about her shift, the waitress realises that she has been unsettled by this encounter. But on the other hand, ‘Fat’ it’s about magnanimity, the place we occupy in the world.

First published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1971. Collected in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please, McGraw-Hill, 1976 and Where I’m Calling From, Atlantic, 1988Available online here

‘The Stone’ by Tove Jansson, translated by Kingsley Hart

Selecting these stories has made me aware that my favourite short fiction tends to be either gothic or magical. Finnish. Jansson is best known for her tales about the Moomins. This piece is set in a Helsinki that has all the strangeness of Moomin Valley.  It’s an apparently simple story about how a child finds a precious object and struggles to take it home with her. Jansson’s writing is precise, yet mysterious. It’s as if the stone though factually described, is much more than a stone. The final loss of this object is felt keenly by both narrator and reader.

From A Winter Book, Sort of Books, 2006, also available in Sculptor’s Daughter, Sort of Books, 2013

‘Blind Circles’ by Joel Lane

These last two stories are set in my home city of Birmingham. They both make use of the conventions of crime fiction and are by writers who I know personally. Joel, who died five years ago, had the ability to make known territory very strange indeed. In his hands the West Midlands becomes “a lonely and faceless country”. Often the detective story is a vehicle for criticism of society, but in Joel’s hands social realism is tinged with supernatural elements. Kingstanding on the city’s outskirts becomes a territory rather like Oran in Camus’s La Peste– only rather than rats it is ‘pale men with hair like frost’ who worship ‘the Light of the North’ who spread pestilence.

First published in Where Furnaces Burn, PS Publishing, 2014. Collected in The Book of Birmingham, Comma Press 2018

‘The Sea in Birmingham’ by Mick Scully

Perhaps the very young and the very old are especially fruitful subjects for the writer of short fiction. This story deals with murder in a care home. The increasingly surreal comedy of this narrative will be relished by anyone who has had to deal with the tragic farce of dementia. Just how can the police carry out an interview about suspicious events, when most of the residents have no short-term memory and harbour all sorts of delusions? It seems inevitable they will arrest the wrong person.

In The Sea in Birmingham, Tindal Street Fiction Group 2013. Also in Best British Short Stories, Salt, 2014