‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe

This is a story of paranoia, obsession and guilt, of post-Sophoclean horror and pre-Freudian psychosis.
True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
This is the first short story I remember reading that stayed with me, that I copied out to see how it was done, that – at the pretentious age of seventeen – I decided to turn into a play and got as far as ‘casting’ it. I disagree with Henry James who wrote, “An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection. Baudelaire thought him a profound philosopher… Poe was much the greater charlatan of the two, as well as the greater genius.” Bitch.
First published in The Pioneer, 1843, and widely available in Penguin Little Black Classics, 2015 and online here)

‘The Gift’ by The Velvet Underground

Waldo Jeffers had reached his limit. It was now mid-August which meant he had been separated from Marsha for more than two months. Two months, and all he had to show was three dog-eared letters and two very expensive long-distance phone calls.

At an even earlier age, this song transfixed me with its mixture of a short story (written by Lou Reed, read by John Cale) and feedback rock. This was experimental music and an experiment with the form of the short story. From this point on, both noise music and experimental literature would interest me, and still do. I could have chosen other examples of the short story as song – Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’, Bob Dylan’s ‘Black Diamond Bay’, Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘Holland, 1945’ and Current 93’s work with Thomas Ligotti. Reed’s mixture of humour (rare for Lou) and suburban horror blends and contrasts with Cale’s mellifluous accent and the raucous noise of his fuzz bass, Sterling Morrison white-hot guitar and Maureen Tucker’s power percussion.
On White Light/White Heat, Verve, 1968. Listen here

‘Retaliation’ by Marquis de Sade, translated by Margaret Crosland

Born five years after the death of Jonathan Swift, Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) – as Camille Pagila argues in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (snappy!) – is best categorised as a satirist rather than a pornographer. Sade would have denied both and all forms of literary taxonomy. Iconoclastic, anti-clerical, revolutionary, Sade even contradicted his own psychopathic sexuality. In Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), Richard von Krafft-Ebing used the terms sadism and masochism (after Leopold von Sacher-Masoch) to describe active and passive sexual pleasure derived from pain. If anything, taking as clues Sade’s sexual preferences in his novels, the Divine Marquis was a masochist. In this masochistic and funny short story, Sade attacks everything – the Church, the State, marriage, literature, himself and finishes with Carry On-like ribaldry. The Crimes of Love and The Misfortunes of Virtue and Other Early Tales (both Oxford World’s Classics) act as literary foreplay to the longer philosophic prose orgies.

In De Sade Quartet, Peter Owen, 1963. Online here

‘Spinning Gears’ by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Probably my favourite Japanese author, well, the one I return to more than others, Akutagawa is best known for his short stories ‘Rashōmon’ and ‘In a Grove’ – Akira Kurrosawa’s Rashomon is based on the latter and not the former tale. For a take on Akutagawa’s troubled life and writings, read David Peace’s fictional biography Patient X. This story details the slow disintegration of Akutagawa’s mind, faith and life. It recalls the doubles in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoevsky and looks forward to the doppelgangers in the novels of Vladimir Nabokov and Ursula K. Le Guin. Akutagawa walks through the streets of Tokyo’s Shitamachi, much as Poe’s William Wilson had done in Stoke Newington one hundred years earlier. In this Tokyo, still devastated by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, Akutagawa encounters people we are not quite sure exist, friends say they have met him in bars when Akutagawa wasn’t there and he becomes obsessed with the strange workings of his mind and memory. Other Japanese authors I could have included are Kanoko Okamoto, Osamu Dazai, Kenji Nakagami, Mieko Kanai, Yūko Tsushima, Yōko Ogawa and Mariko Nagai.

First published posthumously as ‘Haguruma’, 1927. Translated by Jay Rubin in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2009. Online here

‘A Distant Episode’ by Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles’s works are disturbing. Not in the sense of a Stephen King or a Clive Barker but in that overused term “psychological”. I’m not one to divulge the storyline in a review, as I’d like the reader to enjoy (if that’s the word) the creeping sense of disquiet, the horripilation, the quickening of breath as the story unfolds. Bowles is sometimes grouped with the Beat Generation writers (he happened to be living in Tangier when William S. Burroughs moved there, later being visited by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso) but Bowles is a better and more subtle writer than all of them (even if Burroughs is the more experimental and influential). Bowles’s novels and short stories are full of violence and depravation – both actual and inferred – and infused with the desert’s silence and darkness. This is a North Africa where European/Americans are out of their depth, however much they feel integrated.

First published in Partisan Review, January–February, 1947. Collected in Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2009. Online here

‘The Concentration City’ by J.G. Ballard

In 1969, in his essay ‘Theatrum Philosophicum’, Michel Foucault claimed that, “Perhaps one day this century will be known as Deleuzian.” Let us allow Gilles Deleuze the 20th century and strike a claim as early as 2018 for the 21st being Ballardian. Of course, Ballard owed much to earlier speculative fiction, to Kafka (the two main characters in this short story are called Franz and Gregson), Jorge Luis Borges, and even to Philip K. Dick. But Ballard’s “inner space”, his domestic dystopias and his triumvirate of doctor, desirable woman and psychopath (or an amalgamation of all three in different personae) circumscribe personal and narrative loci while synchronously shattering our given ideas on family, sex, violence and society. To add an autobiographical note, I grew up five miles from where Ballard lived – Old Charlton Road in Shepperton – so I knew Ballard’s topography, cycled its roads, watched planes land and depart, walked around the reservoirs. I think I was about eighteen when I summoned up the courage – or had quaffed enough pints of lager – to phone Mr. Ballard (his number was in the book) to ask him for an interview. He was very polite but declined, saying that he had a deadline – no doubt with a large glass of scotch and soda. So I took to walking past his house with its yellow door and overgrown front garden, hoping to catch a glimpse through the dingy net curtains of Jim or at least his reproductions of Paul Delvaux’s ‘The Violation’ and ‘The Mirror’, apt descriptions of Ballard’s prose with its doubles and perversions, its violence and psychological/pathological reflection. ‘The Concentration City’ is a very early Ballard story and on re-reading it I was struck again by its dystopian vision of an over-populated and extensively built world, a premonition of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz and Planet of Slums, but saw anew how it prefigured William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy.

First published, under the title ‘Build-Up’, in New Worlds volume 19 number 55 in January 1957. Collected in The Disaster Area, Jonathan Cape, 1967, and The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard: Volume 1, Fourth Estate, 2014. Online here