I love short stories, especially short stories about women, and mostly about the ways in which their bodies misbehave, or how they misbehave inside them. I love rewritten fairy tales, where the women are able to get their revenge, or speak in their own voices for once. I love female characters who don’t do as they’re told; who are a bit… strange. I love stories about women doing things they aren’t expected to do, or doing things that they – quote unquote – shouldn’t. And don’t worry, I know you weren’t expecting a male author up first, but he’s the only one, I promise.
William Faulkner might not be the first author that comes to mind when thinking about short stories, but this is the short story that made me fall in love with short stories. Miss Emily Grierson lives (of course) in Jefferson, and is under mounting pressure to find a husband. After an engagement is called off, Miss Grierson becomes more reclusive, dismisses her staff and closes off half of her house. Her strange behaviour becomes part of the town’s fabric, and it’s only after her death that her strangeness is revealed for what it truly is.
First published in The Forum, April 1930. Collected in the Collected Stories, Vintage, 2009
The stories in Oyeyemi’s 2016 collection are all loosely linked by keys and locks and secrets. This story opens the collection with a baby found in a monastery with a key fastened around her neck. As she grows older, and becomes a heroine figure, she’s suddenly replaced by another. Another heroine, another key. It’s a great example of how short stories, in particular, don’t always go where you expect.
First published in Granta 129: Fate, November 2014, and available to subscribers to read online here. Collected in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Picador, 2016
When I was much too young, I had a huge, illustrated copy of Grimm’s fairy tales, and I would read them over and over, and imprint the grotesque illustrations on the insides of my eyelids. After a full month of nightmares inspired by Bluebeard, my beloved book was confiscated and hidden in the cupboard under the stairs, where I had to sneak-read it, and force myself not to be afraid. Reading Angela Carter as a teenager, all of my nightmares were rewritten by her reimagined fairy tales, and this one is my favourite.
First published in The Bloody Chamber, Gollancz, 1979. Currently available from Vintage Classics
A version of the folk/fairy tale/horror story (depending on who’s telling it), ‘The Green Ribbon’, Machado rewrites it here as a visceral visitation of the horror and ownership inflicted on women’s bodies. Not content with paying her surgeon more for an ‘extra stitch’ after she’s given birth, the narrator’s husband also nags at her, for years and years, until she finally gives in, and unties the thick green ribbon she wears around her neck.
First published on Granta, 2014, and available to read online here. Collected in Her Body and Other Parties, Graywolf Press/Serpent’s Tail, 2017
A couple live comfortably in their nice house, in their nice lives. They’re content. Until one day, without warning, the wife turns into a fox. Her husband tries to adjust, to keep her content in their old life but her new body, until he realises the impossibility of what he is doing. A fox cannot be kept as a wife. At the end of the story, he’s resigned to her new self, understanding that he cannot understand her, that she is not his, and perhaps never was.
First published in 2014 by Faber as a Kindle single, and collected in Madame Zero, Faber, 2017
I couldn’t not include this, and I’m sure that every person who’s written A Personal Anthology has included it, but here it is again. When I first read this story, I read it as a horrifying account of the tricks your mind can play on you, especially when your mind is already somewhere vulnerable. On later reads, my attention switched to John, the narrator’s husband, and his cruelty and condescension. Paired with the Machado story, the moral here is that husbands suck, especially when you’ve just had their baby.
First published in The New England Magazine, January 1892. Widely collected and published, including as a £1 Penguin Little Black Classic. Available to read online here
In this very short story, a catcaller gets his comeuppance. It’s super short, so I don’t want to spoil it too much, but it’s welcome relief from the terrible men in the prior two stories. Phew.
First published at Sick Lit, 2015 and available to read online here. Collected in Exercises in Control, Influx, 2020.
Three beautiful young women-shaped creatures move to the fens, in search of new men to seduce and eat. It was really difficult to choose just one of the stories from Daisy Johnson’s debut collection, because they are all phenomenally good, but I carried this one around with me for a long time, so it won.
First published in Fen, Jonathan Cape, 2016
aving a teenage body is a strange thing. There’s something peculiar in the sudden awareness of yourself, of how you move, how you look, feel, smell, which is never replicated. There’s something especially peculiar when your body, in particular, is transforming in different ways to the other teenagers around you. ‘Mantis’ perfectly captures this feeling, and then amps it up, by having something truly unusual happen. Julia Armfield’s bodies – throughout this entire collection – flip the idea of how we see monstrosity and what is monstrous, with such talent that I was squirming and cheering in equal measure.
First published in Neon 48, Spring 2018. Collected in Salt Slow, Picador, 2019
A hot cannibal girlband, what more do you want? The line “Mara winks at me – she has both her eyelids at the moment so it looks hot as fuck” has me crying. I love Kirsty Logan’s writing, and her short stories are really some of the best.
First published at Verbicide Magazine, 2009. Read online here
Another teenage girl themed pick; Schweblin writes weird so well. And it’s not Sara’s fault that she wants to eat birds, she just… does.
First published in translation on pen.org, November 2011, and available to read online here. Collected in Mouthful of Birds, Oneworld, 2019
Joffre does so much in this not-quite-400-word flash fiction. There’s something that really pulls me towards stories about transformation, or stories where girls turn into something other than women. It seems an unfairness in life that boys get to stay boys pretty much forever, if they want to, whereas girls have womanhood thrust upon them. Women writing stories where some version of their teenage selves get to become something else is kind of a response to that, and maybe I’m drawn to it because some days I want to be a stone or a bird or a wolf instead of the woman I am. Thankyou for reading, Dr Freud.
First published in The Offing, March 2018, and available to read online here