Introduction

These are a few of the favourite and formative short stories that came to mind. Making this list has reminded me just how much short stories have been bound up in my day-to-day life: as a gateway into art and literature when I was a teenager, in my own more recent practice as a writer, and in having the privilege of publishing stories by others. The stories are presented here in the order in which I encountered them, and somehow I haven’t included a story – any story! – by the great Danilo Kiš.

‘In the Penal Colony’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

A traveller visits an island prison camp where he witnesses the enthusiastic demonstration of some elaborate instrument of punishment and re-education. I was on the Foundation course at the then West Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham, and I had a cleaning job at the college. I enjoyed getting up early and sweeping the sculpture studio floors for a couple of hours before college started. One morning someone happened to have left a copy of the Penguin Modern Classics paperback of Metamorphosis and Other Stories on a workbench. I picked the book up and started reading. I did the same again the next day. The day after that I got fired. I was riveted and dumbfounded by these stories, which were like nothing else I’d yet read. ‘In the Penal Colony’ (which in that particular edition may be called ‘In the Penal Settlement’) seemed to exemplify something about the stories and how they worked that I found really fascinating, but couldn’t quite yet put my finger on. But it was something I recognised a couple of years later when reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, in a line on the opening page: ‘No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knitting into.’

First published as In der Strafkolonie, Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1919. Collected in Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin, 1967

‘War of Attrition’ by Joolz

A spoken word short story by Bradford-based poet, artist and novelist Joolz (now better known as Joolz Denby), who in the early 1980s was part of the Ranting poetry scene – a term coined by her fellow Bradford poet, the late Steven Wells. ‘War of Attrition’ was released on record in 1983 as the B-side of a 3-track 12” single. With a musical accompaniment by Jah Wobble, it’s a first person, present tense story about two young women leaving a night club and waiting at a taxi rank, hoping to get home safely this time, having been attacked the week before. Singled out for having pink hair, they are verbally abused and harassed by three drunk men and only narrowly escape the violence that seems inevitable because “two taxis come at once. You pull me in. I sit there shaking…”  It’s a great story, and Joolz’s killer timing makes for a spoken word masterclass: the way she can turn in an instant from wistful deadpan or a moment of comedy to righteous anger and analysis. All propelled by Jah Wobble’s adrenalin-fuelled electro-funk bass. There’s been a revival of interest in that early ’80s Ranting scene in recent years, too, thanks chiefly to London live poetry scene stalwart Tim Wells’s excellent Stand Up and Spit project. But ‘War of Attrition’could have been written in the early hours of this morning.

First released on Abstract Records 12”, 1983. Collected on Joolz 1983–1985, Get Back Records, 2014. Watch it online here

‘Chapman’s Bears’ by Myles na gCopaleen

Chapman found himself in rather poor circumstances and looked round for some means of making a living. Through the kindness of a friend, he got an option on two performing bears and managed to buy them cheap. He began to tour the country with these animals and naturally insisted that Keats should go along as a general factotum.

Keats and Chapman (who are occasionally joined by their friend Cortez, and one or two others) are a comic double act worthy of comparison with Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, or with the great Laurel and Hardy. The names of na cGopaleen’s hapless pair are (obviously) drawn from the world of Romantic poetry, specifically, John Keats’ and his sonnet of 1816, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, but there is nothing Romantic about the stories, which were written between 1940 and 1963 and at such a truly prodigious rate that it’s a wonder O’Brien had time to write anything else. Written under the pseudonym of Myles na cGopaleen for his ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column in the Irish TimesThe Various Lives of Keats and Chapman are a constant joy. The stories are not only humorous – albeit in a strangely nihilistic way – but they are a true lesson in economy and wit. As with those other double acts, each story sees Keats and Chapman tackling some new circumstance – visiting the circus, perhaps, or being entrusted by the British Government with a secret mission to India, or advising on the protocol at a niece’s wedding – but the logic of each situation, however outlandish, will be pursued by na cGopaleen onlyso far as is needed – and no further, just far enough – to arrive at some hopeless pun as quickly as possible. And it sometimes seems, too, that the more terrible the pun, the better a tale it is. Some stories achieve this comic jouissance within the space of a paragraph, while others – ‘Chapman’s Bears’ among them – run to a couple of pages. But it will come.
First published in the ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, Irish Times. Collected in The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman and The Brother, Hart-Davis MacGibbon, 1976)

‘RIF’ by Donald Barthelme

I still love the way that Barthelme’s stories played with form and expectation, and with the texture and appearance of the story on the page, colliding different kinds of language and illustrational forms within a single story. ‘RIF’ is a great example of Barthelme’s signature ‘dash-dialogue’ stories. These are improvisations, punctuated (as Barthelme scholar Jerome Klinkowitz puts it) in ‘The European style’, with each new line hanging on an M-dash, sansquote marks. The punning ‘RIF’ of this story’s title is a ‘reduction in force’, a workplace restructuring, and Rhoda is in line ‘to be riffed’, that is to be made redundant. I gather that Barthelme wrote these ‘dash-dialogue’ stories precisely because they could be improvised and thus were quick to write. In ‘RIF’, the back and forth conversation between Hettie and Rhoda is by turns whimsical and absurdist: there are sentimental reminiscences about pay-rises, and talk of a former partner being discarded ‘like an old spreadsheet.’ This is a good story to give to a short story class or workshop, because you can get a couple of volunteers to perform it aloud: one can be Hettie, the other Rhoda. They will discover quite quickly that there is a proofing glitch (at least there is in my 1988 Secker and Warburg hardback, but I wonder if this error has dogged the story its whole life). Two utterances on the second page are elided, which means that at a certain point Hettie becomes Rhoda, and vice versa.

First published in Forty Stories, 1987, first UK edition Secker and Warburg, 1988

‘The Secret Integration’ by Thomas Pynchon

In Mingeborough USA, a group of school age boys are hanging out and mobilising a secret society armed with random junk from the abandoned houses on the edge of town and data derived from the statistical observation of traffic. There’s Tim, ‘boy genius’ Grover, Hogan Slothrop, and Carl – who is black, and new to town. There are tantalising glimpses of Gravity’s Rainbow in the story: the name ‘Slothrop’, Grover’s fascination with statistical distributions and curves, an abandoned top-loading washing machine that is their imaginary space capsule. But this is the early 1960s, and Tim and Grover’s parents are making anonymous, racist phone calls. Before the Slow Learner collection of early Pynchon short stories was published, the only way of getting hold of ‘The Secret Integration’ – and his other early shorts – had been in the beautiful chapbook editions that were published by Aloes Books in London during the 1970s and early ’80s. Aloes Books were sold in radical bookshops like the former Compendium in Camden, and they had a totemic value; dispatches from a barely understood pre-punk counterculture. ‘The Secret Integration’ has a great collage on the cover, by the designer Jake Tilson: a man in an overcoat with a Polaroid camera for a head stands against a background texture of random Letraset characters and Expressionist jabs of ink. You might know Jake Tilson’s work now from his large-scale signage projects for the National Theatre, Battersea Arts Centre or the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, and I was lucky enough to work with Jake in 2012, when he designed the ‘melting’ logotype that was used on the cover of my Science Museum climate change novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South. But I love these rough and ready, inky and typographical collages that he made when he was at the Royal College of Art in the late 1970s.

First published in the Saturday Evening Post, 1964. UK chapbook edition published Aloes Books, London, 1977. Collected in Slow Learner, Picador, 1985

‘Jane Fonda’s Augmentation Mammoplasty’ by JG Ballard

In the mid-to-late 1980s, the publisher Semiotext(e) was publishing punky editions of critical theorists and philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. These ‘Foreign Agents’ paperbacks were pocket-sized, with black and neon covers, and you’d be more likely to find them reviewed in the books sections of the style press than the broadsheets. In 1989 Semiotext(e) published an anthology of science fiction short stories, and I was working as a bookseller in Foyles on Charing Cross Road, so ordered a copy. Of all the stories in Semiotext(e) SF, ‘Jane Fonda’s Augmentation Mammoplasty’ by JG Ballard is perhaps the most radical, and is striking for the insight it offers into Ballard’s process, the starkness of the transaction, and – unfortunately – the slightly predictable default sexism of its gender politics. A scientific account of a surgical procedure is augmented by Ballard’s substitution of the name ‘Jane Fonda’ for whatever anonymized subject designation (‘Patient X’?) had been used in the original of what appears to be an otherwise unaltered text. That’s it. That’s all, or appears to be all this story is: a single found text, altered only by the systematic addition of the name of a Hollywood star, transforming it into a kind of minimalist star vehicle.

Collected in Semiotext(e) SF, edited by Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Robert Anton Wilson, Semiotext(e), 1989

‘Second Variety’ by Philip K Dick

I devoured the five volumes of collected Philip K Dick short stories when they came out in 1990 or so. In the title story of Volume 2, Dick pushes a familiar kind of Second World War drama into an irradiated and automated future where nothing and no-one is quite what they seem. He plays with the familiarity of the war story genre, its gender conventions and its longueurs, to lull the reader into identifying with what to all intents and purposes seem like characters. American soldiers are fighting as part of a UN force against the Russians, aided by the ever more complex robot forces that the UN have developed from their Moon base. Major Hendricks commands a motley unit of UN troops and stragglers, and is sent to negotiate with the remains of some Russian forces. A traumatised and taciturn child refugee named David tags along for a while. As they reach their destination, the Russian unit blow the boy up. He’s a robot, and Hendricks is doubly shocked to learn that the Russians now have several types of artificial fighter: Wounded Soldiers are Variety One, Davids are Variety Three, so what is Variety Two? Balancing paranoia and the boringly prosaic, this is an archetypical Philip K Dick short story.

First published in Space Science Fiction, 1953. Collected in Second Variety: Volume 2 of the Collected Stories of Philip K Dick, Grafton, 1990

‘About Lisa: A Short Bad Story in Twelve Good Parts’ by Tim Etchells

“Lisa is basically an unlucky misery guts with a hidden gift for brilliant ideas,” writes Tim Etchells. When she finally agrees to go on a date with her chip shop boss H. Stannington, her sister is killed, and Lisa blames herself – “if she hadn’t gone out it would never have happened etc.” Tim Etchells’ vivid and ultra-compact tragedy ‘About Lisa’ was written for the format and dimensions of Piece of Paper Press, a series of A7-sized publications that I’d started the year before in 1994. I’d got to know Tim Etchells, and his work with the brilliant and award-winning theatre company Forced Entertainment, while I was studying at the former Psalter Lane art school in Sheffield in the late 1980s. In the early ’90s I’d put on a reading by Tim in London of an unpublished novel of his called Helen © & her Daughters, so when I started Piece of Paper Press, he was an obvious person to invite to contribute. ‘About Lisa’ is a brutal, darkly comic and altogether surprising story that refracts its abbreviated plot through the miniature format of Piece of Paper Press, and an equally abbreviated language: what Etchells calls a ‘rough, cut-up, hybridised, slang.’ Tim writes that he plundered the unpublished novel ‘for landscape, characters and gags and atmospheres, hanging them on sharp, brutal, compacted little narratives – postcards from hell.’ A collection, Endland Stories, was published in 1998 by Pulp Books. It’s uniquely brilliant, and I wish someone would reprint it. An updated and expanded German translation of Endland was published in Switzerland not so long ago. Non-German-speakers can read Tim’s introduction to that Swiss edition here.

First published by Piece of Paper Press, 1995. Collected in Endland Stories, Pulp Books, 1998

‘The Visitor’ by Diane Di Prima

Di Prima is primarily a poet, and it shows in her use of white space and the way that her short paragraphs are laid out on the page. The titular visitor is an unexpected caller, just released from Rockland – a psychiatric institution – who calls on Lee, the poet acquaintance of a former fellow inmate. The visitor gives Lee the creeps. The visitor is a man, but Lee could be a man or a woman, and the fact that this is not specified adds to a sense of risk that permeates the story. The visitor asks why they (Lee) even write poetry, but they say nothing. The visitor tells them that he used to write, but that he burned it all before he went to Rockland. The Moderns is a great anthology, progressive for its time – featuring works by William S. Burroughs, Ed Dorn, Hubert Selby, Jr. and more. LeRoi Jones (aka the late, great Amiri Baraka) packs them in too, with two or three or more stories per writer. And no space is wasted: if one story ends mid-page, the next one starts right away. What is striking now is that Diane Di Prima is the only woman included. Her writing also stands out because it is concise and economical – in contrast to most of the other contributions. And because ‘The Visitor’ is about power and who has it and who gets to write. And because all of those things shift a little in just these few short lines.

First published in Dinners and Nightmares, Corinth Books, Inc., 1961. Collected in The Moderns: An Anthology of New American Writing, edited by LeRoi Jones, Corinth Books, 1963, and first UK edition Mayflower Dell, 1967

‘The Man Who Took Down the Great Pitpat’ by Victor Hadley

I quoted Jones/Baraka in the introduction to my own anthology britpulp!, a cross-generational anthology of short stories by writers who’d emerged in the 1990s including Nicholas Blincoe, Stella Duffy, Tim Etchells, Catherine Johnson, and Stewart Home, and a previous generation of authors who had inspired them: Michael Moorcock, Ted Lewis, Richard Allan, etc. I really wanted to include Victor Headley, whose 1992 novel Yardie had helped redefine the British literature of the period, as well as being a signpost to the more diverse aspirations (and achievements) of today’s literary scene. But Yardie had been a few years ago by then, and it seemed that Headley was no longer writing. It was incredibly exciting when word eventually came back from Victor in the Congo that he was interested, and would try and send me something. One evening the fax machine in my Whitechapel flat started spooling out page after page of typed prose. At the other end of the connection was Victor, who had got a fax machine linked up to a satellite phone and was feeding in manuscript pages. It was a thrilling moment, reading new work from him that maybe no-one else had seen before, what would become his 2001 novel Off Duty. Of course, the relationship between short stories and novels is not cut-and-dried, not simply a matter of word-counts. Sometimes what starts out as a short story can turn into a novel. Here it worked the other way, and as I read – agog! – through the scrolls of fax paper, I could see that one chapter really stood out as a standalone short: a pivotal and transformational episode, a police interrogation with a difference set in Half-Way-Tree police station, Jamaica: ‘The Man Who Took Down the Great Pitpat’.

First published in britpulp! Sceptre, 1999, subsequently Chapter 7 ‘The Showdown’ in Off Duty, Sceptre 2001

‘Shklovsky’s Zoo’ by Joanna Walsh

There are some things you still can’t get on the internet.

In Joanna Walsh’s short story, a writer in residence at a theological college is searching in vain for a copy of Zoo, or, Letters Not About Love by Viktor Shklovsky, which had been recommended to her by her agent’s husband on the day before she took up the residency. She is meant to be writing a novel about emails to an ex, but, ‘I do not write about my ex’s emails. I write about not being able to read Shklovsky’s Zoo.’ Joanna Walsh’s recent collection, Worlds at the Word’s End was my favourite short story collection of last year, but in 2015 I was privileged to publish ‘Shklovsky’s Zoo’ on Piece of Paper Press, in a limited, numbered edition of 150 copies. Half the print run was given away during a launch event at the bookartbookshop on Pitfield Street, London. Joanna and I divvied up the rest, and sent them out gratis to people we thought might like it. I have a numbered copy and Joanna has one. Apart from that there aren’t any left. ‘Shklovsky’s Zoo’ is now essentially unobtainable, and as far as I know Joanna has resisted at least one offer of further publication. So, a story that largely comprises speculation about a book that cannot be read, cannot now itself be read. I think ‘Shklovsky’s Zoo’ is a literary and conceptual masterpiece, but you may have to take my word for it.
First published Piece of Paper Press, 2014

‘Reversible’ by Courttia Newland

London, early evening, any day. The warm black body lies on the cold black street.

Courttia Newland’s ‘Reversible’ begins with a sadly all too familiar scene. A crowd surrounds the body of a young, black man who has just been shot by a policeman. But ‘Reversible’ – as the title suggests – enacts its own revolutionary proposition: ‘The blood beneath the body slows to a trickle and stops. It makes a slow return inwards.’ Slowly and carefully, and with a methodical relentlessness and rigour, Newland turns back time and undoes this crime. Bullets leave the body, the young man rises, cars swerve away from the scene in reverse . . . ‘Reversible’ is both a daring and visionary story, and in itself an act of protest. There are of course other stories – novels – that reverse time to political ends: Philip K Dick’s 1967 civil rights movement novel Counter-Clock World, or Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis. ‘Reversible’ is a great story, and it’s an example of the way that short stories are sometimes exchanged between writers, behind the scenes. I saw ‘Reversible’ in its draft form pre-publication after I’d sent Courttia a copy of a short story of mine that looked at the issue of deaths in custody in a different way. Out of that exchange came a live event at the brilliant Housmans Bookshop in King’s Cross, London, but also a sense of solidarity that was important at a time when I was unsure about the direction that this particular story of mine was taking. It was reassuring to learn that another writer was writing about the same difficult subject from a different angle, doing so with the utmost conceptual rigour and depth of thought, and without dishonouring any victim. Quite an achievement.

First published in Sex And Death: Stories, edited by Sarah Hall & Peter Hobbs, Faber and Faber 2016. Collected in Best British Short Stories 2017, edited by Nicholas Royle, Salt 2017