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