Introduction

To begin with, a confession. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I really got seriously into short stories. Sure, I’d read plenty and liked a lot – Carver, Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Baldwin, to name a few obvious ones – but I never really sought them out, and if you’d given me a choice between a short story set and a long novel, I’d have taken the novel every time. But with the advent of parenthood and the brain-sapping, time-draining craziness that came with it, I found that it was sometimes easier to dip into shorts as a way of keeping engaged with reading even when my brain didn’t have the capacity for dealing with anything too long or complex. 
 
Around the same time, I tapped into the independent publishing scene and realised there were lots of great new writers who were doing fresh and interesting things with the form, and it opened up a lot of doors for me. As a result there a quite a few contemporary writers in this selection, although there are some older favourites as well, and hopefully a couple of curveballs too, just to mix it up a bit. 
 
I’ll stick the same caveat here as everyone else – this isn’t a definitive list of my twelve favourite stories or anything like that, and there are pieces from stacks of other collections (Dark Neighbourhood, by Vanessa OnwuemeziNordic Fauna by Andrea Lundgren and Variations by Juliet Jacques being three glaring recent examples) I would have loved to have included but couldn’t. This is simply a list of great stuff that I thought was worth shouting about, without wanting to go for anything too obvious that the majority of readers would already know. Anyway, onward…….

‘The Folk Singer’ by Ben Myers

It goes without saying that Ben Myers is a hugely gifted writer, but I don’t think people always recognise how versatile he is. He’s associated with the sort of rural noir/gothic that he mastered in his first three novels, but as this collection shows, he can turn his hand to more or less anything. Yes, there are dark tales of travellers and farmers and the like, but there’s also the Beckettian tragi-comic duologue of ‘Snorri and Frosti’, and this one, which is my favourite in the set. In it, an ageing folk singer is interviewed by a music journalist – who’s a big fan of her work – in a café in London. “For a fleeting moment the writer experiences that feeling of being faced with someone so utterly familiar and yet completely unknown; an intimate stranger,” is how he so tantalisingly describes the journalist watching the singer walk down the street and into the building. What I love about this story is the way he fits so many layers into the dialogue – there’s something of the film noir about it in the way questions are answered with questions and every exchange has a subtext that goes way deeper than the words alone suggest. Not only this, but it’s clear that both characters are aware of it and appear to enjoy the game, playful and teasing in the way they interact, but always with a jagged edge. His years as a music journalist give this a real authenticity too (“everyone knows that interviews start when they’re no longer ‘interviews’” as the singer says), which only adds to the overall effect.

First published as a Galley Beggar Single, 2014, and collected in Male Tears, Bloomsbury 2021

‘Letters From LA’ by Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis was a hugely important writer to me when I was a teenager. Much like everyone else I got into him via American Psycho, but to me his best work is still Less Than Zero and this collection of shorts. ‘Letters From LA’ is an epistolary story in which, Anne, a girl from New York goes to LA to stay with her grandparents and sends over a period of three months a series of unanswered letters to a friend Sean, who she’s left behind in Camden. When she arrives “It was like walking into another world” and the tone is one of overwhelming naivety – “I went out with this couple to some exclusive club… and I danced and got drunk and had great fun. And I thought I wouldn’t have much of a social life!” but as ever with Ellis, LA is the great corrupter, and the letters soon take a more sinister tone. After a month she writes, “I am kind of tired of hanging out at the same clubs night after night and laying by the pool doing all this incredible coke”, and his usual dead-eyed nihilism starts to creep into play. 
 
“My relationships with people here aren’t tense or trying because no one requires a whole lot of serious emotional investment at all,” she writes. The letters become shorter, her language shot through with LA idioms, references to Valium, grass, Librium, empty sex; she hangs out with actors, musicians, studio executives, lies about her age; “I tell everyone I’m seventeen or eighteen (I’m twenty). Randy thinks I’m sixteen. Can U believe it?” In the penultimate letter she writes: “They all told me that Randy OD’d, but……there was blood on the ceiling, Sean. How can blood get on the ceiling if you OD?” before apathy finally triumphs in the closing missive: “Doesn’t it seem like a long time since I’ve written you? I guess I’m not much into it anymore.”
 
All the trademark Ellis motifs are in here – meaningless sex, drugs, the dissolution of the idle rich and the sanguinary violence that permeates pretty much everything he does, all told with his fucked-on-downers detachment and studiously minimal cut glass prose. As a 14-year-old I was in love with his voice and the years have done nothing to diminish it. His output has slowed and he’s way past his prime, but the knowingly allusive and self-referential Lunar Park and Imperial Bedrooms are still worthy reads from a writer who knows his place in the literary pantheon is secure.

First published in The Informers, Knopf/Picador, 1994

‘Disorder’ by Nicholas Royle

This is from an anthology of shorts based on one of my favourite records, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. When I read this story (named for the opening track on the record) for the first time, I struggled to pin it down. The imagery was very much in keeping with the lyrics of the album but much as I liked the vibe, the clashing, fragmentary images and the jarring dissonance of the prose, it was somehow too on-the-nose, a touch too derivative and it frustrated the hell out of me. 
 
Then I got to the end and read the author’s note in which he said the story was written by taking every single word used in the album’s lyrics and rearranging them to form the piece, using each word once and once only, except in cases where a word was repeated on the record – and at that point my mind was blown completely. Such a great idea for a way to assemble a piece on the theme of Disorder, and also very much in line with Ian Curtis’s love for avante-gardists like Ballard and Burroughs and the cut-up techniques they used to experiment with. The whole collection is excellent and has some great writers in it – Jenn Ashworth and Toby Litt being two other notable contributors – but this one is the jewel in the crown for me.

First published in We Were Strangers, Confingo Publishing, 2017

‘Condor Avenue’ by Elliott Smith

I love Elliott Smith’s early records. The lyrics on the first three albums in particular (and the ones on New Moon, which were recorded around the same time but released posthumously) have always struck me as being like Carver stories in miniature, and this is probably the greatest example of them all. A couple have an argument, one of them leaves and drives off in the Oldsmobile that’s referenced throughout. Very few songwriters are capable of being so striking yet so succinct: “Eyes burning, voice dry and hoarse/I threw the screen door like a bastard back and forth/the chimes fell over each other/I fell onto my knees,” for example. 
 
There’s some lovely imagery in here too; “The fairground’s lit/a drunk man sits by the gate she’s driving through/got his head tipped, bottle back between his teeth/looks like he’s buried in the sand at the beach” or “I’m lying down blowing smoke from my cigarette/little whispered smoke signs that you’ll never get.” I love the way he captures the bitterness leftover at the end of the argument, after the other person has long gone and he flips it around as if it he’s the one that’s left, and signs off with characteristically hushed fury: “So now I’m leaving you along/you can do whatever the hell you want to……” 
 
According to Smith, he wrote this song when he was seventeen years old, which only makes it all the more remarkable; even after playing the instrument for twenty fucking years I still can’t get anywhere near being able to fingerpick it on guitar, never mind sing it at the same time.

From Roman Candle, Cavity Search Records, 1994

‘A Night’ by Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys is one of my all-time favourite writers, which is odd to say when you consider I didn’t read her for the first time until very late on. I work in libraries and we’ve always got copies of Wide Sargasso Sea kicking around but I never thought to pick it up. A couple of years ago I went to house sit for a friend of mine in Cambridge and picked up After Leaving Mr Mackenzie from her bookcase. I caned it in an hour, fell head over heels, and read everything Rhys ever wrote in the space of about two months afterwards. I love the bleary-eyed poeticism of her work, the lip curled into an arch sneer, eyebrow raised in mockery at the futility of it all as the gin goes down and the fag smoke fills the room; the way her stories are suffused with a despair so deep and apathetic it can barely even be arsed to feel sad anymore; it simply is, just as it was, and always shall be. In a similar way to so many of Elliott Smith’s lyrics, there’s a sense of being out of step not just with everyone else and the world around her, but also completely, irreconcilably out of step with herself. It’s the story of my life but I’ve never seen it articulated with such unflinching clarity. 
 
Her writing really touches me where it hurts, and there are very few writers I can think of – if any – that I connect with on such a profound emotional level. This one’s so short it’d probably be called flash fiction these days, although it was written a century ago, way before that term entered the lexicon. The title refers to a typically Rhysian dark night of the soul, in which the protagonist ponders Le Saut dans l’inconnu and the various ways she may go about it, before signing off with the exasperated impotence that characterises so much of her work. “Ridiculous, all this. Lord, I am tired. A devil of a business…..” Wonderful stuff.

First published in The Left Bank, Jonathan Cape, 1927. Currently available in the Collected Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 2017

‘HAGS In Your Face’ by Michelle Tea

I first discovered Michelle Tea a couple of years ago when And Other Stories published their UK edition of this anthology of “confessions, complaints and criticisms” and I fell in love with her writing immediately. She has such a fresh voice and a clearly brilliant mind, and she’s a great chronicler of queer and outsider lives and subcultures. This essay is a brilliant example. In it, she tells the story of the rise and fall of the HAGS, a small gang of lesbian punks named after an obscure John Waters film who tore up San Francisco’s Mission District in the 90s. They were “a motley crew of surly twentysomethings resembling Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, if the Lost Boys were girls, the sort of girls who might break a beer bottle over your head at a club.” 

She details how the disparate group, who mostly came from broken homes, were drawn together as a form of protection from the homophobic violence of the city at the time and how they revelled in their status as absolute outsiders, taking on anyone who dared to mess with them. Ultimately, beneath the surface story about a righteous sisterhood, it’s a sorry tale of homelessness, drinking, drugs and fights that culminates in utter tragedy when a contaminated batch of black tar heroin causes an outbreak of necrotising fasciitis amongst the drug-using community, affecting many of the gang. In the end, the HAGS dissolves as some of them sober up, some transition to male, and a few don’t make it out of the other side. It’s a blistering portrait of a tiny subculture that would be forgotten by most and would never be known to the wider world had it not been told here by this most sympathetic and empathic of writers. It’s clearly a subject close to Tea’s heart as she so beautifully sums it up at the end: 

When facing down the drooling and ferocious wild beast of homophobia, the HAGS became gorgeous monsters. The strategy was not sustainable. Is it any less valuable for that, any less admirable, beautiful, clever? Even at a distance, the HAGS marked me, had a tattooed and silver-ringed hand in making me who I was and am.

First published in Against Memoir, The Feminist Press at the City University Of New York, 2018

‘Even Nature Is Corrupt’ by Heidi James

There was no way I could do this without including something from the great Heidi James, one of my very favourite writers. It was a toss-up between this and her slipstream short ‘The Mesmerist’s Daughter’, published by Neon Books, which has all the depth and complexity of a novel within the confines of a chapbook, but this one came out on top. It’s about a woman in a stale relationship, dealing with the aftermath of her mother’s death. As the story progresses, her mother’s life is revealed as the contents of her flat – replete with all its stains and smells – are enumerated, a place where “feelings were always best expressed with objects.” 

One of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to her writing is that she shares a pre-occupation with some of the main themes of much of my own fiction and poetry – time, memory, the distortive symbiosis between the two, the mutability of personality. She spells it out explicitly here in a passage which is as close to summing up her oeuvre as you can get.

Philip says she must exorcise the past, with its daily intrusions into the present. So intrusive she sometimes forgets where she is, who she is, which self. What an odd route to take through life, forwards, back, never entirely just still, in the present. She must work through the past in order to move forwards.

Time is fluid in her work – past and present are interchangeable, they co-exist and are often experienced simultaneously; the past is always present in her work. As ever, the prose is peerless. She writes like a surgeon – probing, meticulous, forensic; she never wastes a word and makes every single one count, each sentence implying far more than what’s actually been said. There are always densely stacked layers of meaning in her work, so it stands repeated reading – there’s a piercing intelligence underlying everything that becomes more and more apparent as you read deeper between the lines. The voice is one of ice-cold detachment in a sense, but always with a blistering rage bubbling away between the surface (as in the final line of this story), which is all the more powerful for the fact that you know she could let it boil over at any point but chooses not to; this unbelievable level of control – not just of the words on the page but the emotions underpinning them – is something else I find hugely appealing about her work. By far and away one of the most talented and interesting British writers around.

First published online at 3:AM Magazine, 10th July 2020, and available to read here)

‘A Lonely Coast’ by Annie Proulx

As with Heidi James, there was no way I could do this list without Annie Proulx, who’s not only a wonderful novelist but one of the modern masters of the short form. I couldn’t find the story I was looking for and didn’t have time to reread four books in their entirety to track it down, so in the end I flipped open a book at a random story, scanned the opening paragraph and decided immediately to go with this one. It’s worth quoting at length: 

You ever see a house burning up in the night, way to hell and gone out there on the plains? Nothing but blackness and your headlights cutting a little wedge in it, could be the middle of the ocean for all you can see. And in that big dark a crown of flame the size of your thumbnail trembles. You’ll drive for an hour seeing it until it burns out or you do, until you pull off the road to close your eyes or look up at the sky punched with bullet holes. And you might think of the people in the burning house, see them trying for the stairs, but mostly you don’t give a damn. They’re too far away, like everything else.

It’s breathtaking stuff, but of course, that’s just standard from Proulx. As with most of her work this is earthy, down-at-heel, coarse and violent, full of characters living tough lives in the rural outlands. She’s a master of style, and voice, her prose is dazzling and like all the best writers she has the most wonderful ear for the patterns and rhythms of vernacular speech. “I’m so hungry I could eat a rancher’s unwiped ass.” “You want some buffalo wings? I said. “Practically the same thing.” The feel for the country and the people she writes about across the three volumes of Wyoming Stories is on a par with Faulkner for me, and it’s hard to pay her a higher compliment than that. 

First published in Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Scribner, 1999

‘Black Ice’ by James Clarke

I was a big fan of Clarke’s first novel The Litten Path – about the Miners’ Strike and the Battle of Orgreave – and was blown away when he managed to follow it up with a book of this quality. It’s a collection of interconnected shorts set in a valley (the titular hollow in the land) in rural Lancashire, packed with petty local politics and stories about the kind of lives that people who’ve never lived in that kind of environment are blissfully unaware of. It was hard to pick a highlight from here, but this one’s probably my favourite. In it, Benj returns to his hometown after a few years away, some of them having been spent in prison after he crashes a car on the way back from a rave. 

Benj had coughed his gum out, while Al Pinder, Tez, and Pete gasped in the back. Pete held a nose broken so badly that he looked like a different person. Holly Lomax wept against the airbag in the front seat. As the youngest member of the party, Tim had been in the boot. Our Kid, the flowers decreed up the interior window of the hearse in its corsage, two weeks later.

The scene in the pub where he’s confronted by Tim’s mum, who’s dissolved into alcoholic despair, unable to move on, is beautifully rendered. Benj ends up going home drunk with Dani, an old friend recently widowed after her husband died in an accident at the paper mill, the grim presence of which casts a shadow over the whole town in more than one of these tales, and what follows shows how easily lives can slide away from us in ways far beyond our control. 

The closing paragraph and the last line in particular is one of those magical endings where you’re left hanging, frozen in an instant in which all time collapses, and it’s pulled off with such skill you can only stand back and applaud. He has a terrific eye for detail and the subtleties of the relationships between his characters, and the prose is pretty much flawless. He’s yet another writer from this list who has a great ear for dialogue, which is hugely important in capturing the feel of the valley and its inhabitants. I grew up across the border in Yorkshire in an environment just like this one, not far from where these stories take place, so towns like Todmorden and Rawtenstall are places I know well and many of these stories and the characters are achingly familiar as a result. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

First published in The Hollow in the Land, Serpent’s Tail, 2020

‘The Things They Carried’ by Tim O’Brien

Taken as a pair, this collection of shorts and O’Brien’s raw-as-fuck memoir If I Die In A Combat Zone (1973) are some of the best and most important literature about war ever written for me. These stories are meta-fictional to the nth degree; he says they are fictional and yet dedicates the book to some of the characters in them, for example. The title story is a masterpiece, much of which is given over to listing the equipment that the grunts had to lug around Vietnam with them, almost always specifying how much each item weighs. Added to the catalogue of equipment is a list of metaphysical baggage: “He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men.” A list of weapons blends the physical and the metaphysical, ending with “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” Death is ever-present and happens suddenly, without fanfare.

….just boom, then down – not like in the movies where the dead guys rolls around and does fancy spins and goes ass over teakettle – not like that, Kiowa said, the poor bastard just flat-fuck fell. Boom. Down. Nothing else.

It’s nothing more than a simple fact of life, brushed aside with the cynicism and black humour that the men use to keep themselves sane. If you’ve never read him before I’d urge you to seek this out – he’s a phenomenally gifted writer and you can only marvel at the fortitude of the man to endure what he did and be able to write about it so well in the aftermath. His surreal, National Book Award-winning Vietnam novel Going After Cacciato is well worth tracking down too. An honourable mention is due here to Bosnian writer Faruk ŠehićI’d have loved to include something from his brilliant collection about the Balkan wars of the 90s, Under Pressure, but I figured one war story would be enough, and it had to be this one.

In The Things They Carried, Houghton Mifflin, 1990

‘To All Their Dues’ by Wendy Erskine

Erskine’s latest collection Dance Move has been garnering rave reviews from just about everywhere this year, and with some justification. She’s one of the best short story writers around and had to go in here somewhere, but I’ve decided to pick one from Sweet Home and have gone for the first one in the set. I remember sitting down with them for the first time and being hooked right from the off; even after the first couple of pages I thought, this reads like it’s going to be the fucking business, and so it proved. The story features three characters – Mo, who’s just set up her own beauty parlour; Kyle, a man with extremely questionable connections who’s running a protection racket on the street where Mo’s business is, and Grace, his wife. It’s a clever bit of work; each character has their own section where we find out a bit more about them and their past, but she manages to get a huge amount of depth into each, especially considering how short the pieces are. It’s almost like three stories in one, but as you read you see how they overlap to get a fuller picture, and she skilfully shows how three people’s lives can overlap even when they’re not all aware of it. 
 
As has already been made clear, I’m drawn to writers who can do dialogue well, and it’s an area in which she excels, capturing the dry humour and idioms of her character’s speech in a way that’s pitch-perfect. There’s always a grim humour at work too, like when Kyle visits a hypnotherapist and is told to imagine a happy place, and his first memory is him and his brother as boys aged thirteen and fourteen beating the shit out of their abusive, alcoholic father; he asked to focus on something to keep him there, a memory of something specific, and comes up with “the blood on the floor, way darker than you’d think”. That she can imbue her characters with so much humanity in so few words is hugely admirable; that she can do it over and over again is extremely impressive indeed. 

First published in Sweet Home, Picador, 2018

‘Hippies’ by Denis Johnson

One of the rare breed of writers whose name must always be prefixed with ‘the great’, the great Denis Johnson was a singular talent, a writer who could turn his hand to any form and smash it. He was a brilliant poet and he wrote some amazing novels too, not least the minimalist classic Jesus’ Son (which has figured more than once in these anthologies), the minor miracle novella Train Dreams (ditto) and his stunning debut Angels. Even in his “lesser” works like Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, the crystal-clear imagery and sparse poeticism of his prose is untouchable. In this collection, he proves that he could write stellar non-fiction too. It covers a lot of ground – Christian bikers spreading the gospel, loners panning for gold in the Alaskan wilderness, Somalian militias and much more besides – but this one is a real highlight. In it, he writes of a trip to the Rainbow Gathering, a modern-day Gathering of the Tribes where hippies, mystics and dreamers of all stripes join together to commune in the spirit of peace and love. “I who have had so much peace and love,” he writes, “have never believed in either one.” 

He attends the festival with Joey, a friend he hasn’t seen for thirty years, in an attempt to recapture the spirit of their hippy youths in the distant past, and get high on Shrooms while they’re at it. Anyone in the know will tell you it’s virtually impossible to describe the psychedelic experience on paper – mere words are laughably insufficient – but he captures the essence of it beautifully.

I crawl into my tent. It’s four feet away but somehow a little bit farther off than the end of time… it’s been somewhere between twenty five minutes and twenty five thousand years since I ate the mushrooms… and the drums, the drums, the drums. Fifty thousand journeys to the moon and back in every beat… Four hours later I succeed in operating the zipper on my sleeping bag: tantamount to conquering Everest. I got in and held on.

His observations about the festival are shot through with wry humour but also a great deal of affection for the other participants, especially the “whole new batch in their teens and twenties, still with their backpacks, bare feet, tangled hair, their sophomoric philosophising, their glittery eyes, their dogs named Bummer and Bandit and Roach and Kilo and Dark Star”, even though he has the grizzled old-timer’s knowledge that the dream they’re chasing is an empty one. He seems like a well-kept secret; mention his name and more often than not you’ll be met with a blank face, but every now and again you’ll get the smile of recognition that says, oh man, so you’ve read him too… One of the greats, for me.

First published in The Paris Review 155, Summer 2000, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond, Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 2001