A couple of years ago Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs edited a brilliant anthology for Faber entitled Sex and Death (2017). In addition to stories by both editors it has work by Ali Smith, Courttia Newland, Kevin Barry, Yiyun Li, Guadalupe Nettel, Alan Warner and other contemporary voices. Faber publicity sums up the theme as How we come in, and how we go out. Indeed. What else is there? I would recommend Hall and Hobbs’ book to all lovers of the short story, but the theme itself cannot be exhausted in just twenty stories, so I’ve made my own selection here. Some of these stories are about sex, most are about death, some are about both.

‘Observation’ by Wendy Erskine

Wendy Erskine’s humane and wonderfully funny stories are set in Belfast, a city of church-run coffee shops, DIY superstores, hairdressing salons and community centres. Her characters are ordinary people doing their best to cope under pressure, but bizarre and fantastical things are never too far away. This particular story focuses on teenager Cath and her friend Lauren. The girls meet regularly in a café called ChipShop. On the day the story begins, they’re in there with a crowd of boys who are “occupied with downloading porn ringtones to their phones” and then ringing each other “so that they could hear the elaborate crescendo of female gasping”. Lauren’s mum, Kim Cassells, is beautiful, bad tempered and exhaustingly sexy. Kim Cassells goes on adults-only holidays and has lots of boyfriends. Lauren confesses to Cath that the current boyfriend Stuart is only twenty-six and has kissed her in passing on the stairs. Cath’s knowledge of guys is “pretty theoretical” but here is a real live sexual drama playing out right under her nose. She starts dropping in to see Lauren on various pretexts and finding reasons to stay overnight, sleeping on the floor of Lauren’s room. She regards Kim Cassells with a mixture of horror and fascination, and she can hardly take her eyes off Stuart. The claustrophobia of small houses where you can hear people getting up to go to the toilet yards away from you is beautifully evoked. The story captures the intensity and the boredom of teen years in a small town. 

First published in Sweet Home, Stinging Fly, 2018, Picador, 2019

‘The Winter Garden’ by Dorthe Nors, translated by Martin Aitken

This is a quiet story by the Danish writer Dorthe Nors, weaving together a public death and a private loss. A popular comedian Dirch Passer dies on the 3rd of September 1980, the same day that the narrator’s parents decide to tell her that they are divorcing. Her mother moves in with a new partner who has two children of his own so the narrator decides to go and live with her father. Things go well at first. The father, who had no hobbies when he was married, starts growing succulents in the little conservatory attached to his flat – the winter garden of the title – and father and daughter like to sit there in the evenings and talk. Then they are invited over to the house of a divorcee he knows from work, a woman called Margit. It’s the same day, the narrator tells us, that Dirch Passer’s health card would have expired had he not died on stage of a heart attack. Margit has a son who glowers sullenly at the father and sticks his tongue out. The narrator realises that “I was the only person who thought that my father was special. It was only my way of looking at him that stopped him from being just some ordinary guy of no importance.” And so she cuts up her feelings and hides them under the table, in the houseplants, in “the ugly mouth of [Margit’s] son”. And by the time they drive home again, her father is nothing special any more. 

First published in English in A Public Space 12 and available to subscribers to read online here. Collected in Karate Chop, Pushkin Press 2008

‘The Hole’ by Hassan Blasim

Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi writer who was forced to leave his country in 1998 and now lives in exile in Finland. Many of the stories in this book take place in the climate of baroque cruelty and violence of Saddam-era Iraq where the Ba’ath party officials string up young Kurdish rebels on the football pitch and the children use the bloodstained posts to mark their goals. ‘The Hole’ seems to be set in the period after Saddam was deposed when revolutionaries and religious extremists vie for control. The story begins abruptly. The nameless narrator is ambushed by gunmen while trying to stock up on supplies from his boarded up shop and he ends up falling into a hole at the far end of the park, “down by the side of the Natural History Museum”. In the hole he finds a decrepit old man, a djinni, and the body of a Russian soldier who died “during the winter war between the Russians and the Finns”. The hole itself is not very deep. When the shopkeeper looks up he can see the lights of the park and he remarks that if another man fell in they’d be able to get out by standing on each other’s shoulders. But it soon becomes clear that even though he can still see that old world, he has fallen right out of it and the laws of causality and logic have no purchase where he’s standing. Blasim writes with caustic humour about the powerlessness of individuals caught up in cycles of violence. What I particularly love is the he combines recognisable day-to-day details with the tone of a fable. Kafka is clearly an influence. 

First published in The Iraqi Christ, Comma Press, 2013

‘Chest’ by Will Self

‘Chest’ is a substantial story, 37 pages long, set in an England of the near future where the feudal past has not-so-subtly reasserted itself. There are plenty of familiar details: schoolboys hanging about at bus stops, cell phones, motorways, Citroen cars and The Guardian. But the pleasures of this bleakly funny story lie in the way Self pushes certain elements to make this world both familiar and strange. A permanent fog has rolled in over the country and air quality has deteriorated to such an extent that everyone is ill. Masks and oxygen tents have become highly desirable items, obtained by pulling strings. In this atmosphere of chronic unwellness, nerves are frayed and an English version of the Russian Orthodox faith seems to have taken hold. Everyone has two names, a patronymic for men, a matronymic for women. There is a rigid social hierarchy topped by Peter-Donald, lord of the manor and member of a Lloyds syndicate. The central character Simon-Arthur is an icon painter and thinks it very broad-minded of him to invite the local newsagent, Dave-Dave Hutchinson, to his house for a glass of cough linctus and ‘a go’ on the family’s new nebuliser. Everyone coughs. There’s not much in the way of sex here, apart from Simon-Arthur’s brief glance at his sister-in-law’s “woolly bosoms”. Some of the finest passages are those where Self describes the coughing: operatic, richly productive, baroque. The story is more than twenty years old now, but its themes are bang up to date. The spectre of death is woven into every line.

First published in Grey Area and other Stories, Penguin, 1994

‘The Metal Bowl’ by Miranda July

Like many of Miranda July’s narrators, the woman in ‘The Metal Bowl’ has trouble letting people know who she is and what she really wants. It’s a long and complicated story, with many strands and long detours into the past that then loop back into the present. A married woman – who adores her husband – goes out to buy a fitted sheet. She notices a handsome man looking at her. This has happened to her before, though not for a long time. She thinks the man recognises her from a porn video she starred in when she was young and broke. The story swoops off into an account of the circumstances that led to her to make this video, the shoot itself, and how the experience affected her. Her own sexuality, she explains, is now

oriented around myself in that video and anyone who’d seen it. There was only one boyfriend I didn’t tell. He was a very classy man, emotionally speaking, and I didn’t want to give him any indication of basket-casery. After I married him, I kept meaning to bring it up, to draw him into the fold of my sexuality, such as it was. But I waited too long; we were so close now.

This is the real theme: the enormous silences that can exist within the intimacy of marriage. The ending is both moving and surprising. But along the way there are plenty of painfully funny little shocks and moments when the writer whips the rug from under our feet. The story was written to serve as an introduction to a book of photographs by the artist Friedl Kubelka. In an interview on the New Yorker website July discusses the way that came about and she says about other writers’ work: “I’m often drawn in by a description of a woman thinking something familiar that’s never been articulated before.” This, I think, is something she herself does very well.

First published in The New Yorker, 4 September 2017. You can read it online here or listen to it read aloud by novelist Emma Cline here. The story was shortlisted for the Sunday Times / Audible Short Story Award in 2018, there’s an interview with Miranda July here

‘Footer’ by Irenosen Okojie

Irenosen Okojie’s stories are bold, shimmering with energy and imagination, often with a dash of the surreal or grotesque. This particular story combines both realist and fabulist elements, as well as flirting with a crime format at the very end. The central character Grace has developed an erotic obsession that can only be indulged by foot fetishists. After a series of sexual encounters in parks, studios and attic apartments she goes home to her pet creature, Loneliness. “It was three months old, had a green head, blank human eyes and a crocodile’s tail.” Then – and this is what I love about the story – her mother Merlene comes to stay for a week: uninvited and unannounced, barging into her daughter’s life, and into the story itself, to interrupt and judge and criticize. “‘That dog needs a bath, Grace’”. Loneliness is not a dog, her daughter retorts. They sit together, considering Merlene’s favourite memory of eight-year-old Grace riding her bike. Grace remembers how her mother cried at the end of her sixteenth birthday: “‘You’re not my little girl anymore, Grace’” – this “said with a hint of malice”. The story doesn’t expressly link this infantilising relationship with Grace’s peculiar sexuality, it simply lays these pieces on the table for us to consider as we please. 

First published in Speak Gigantular, Jacaranda Books, 2016

‘Going for a Beer’ by Robert Coover

What I love about this one is its speed. Skipping with bravura comic energy from one half-apprehended event to the next, ‘Going for a Beer’ tells the story of a life in a little over 1,000 words, and in the time it might take a drunken man to tumble down a flight of stairs. The unnamed central character keeps deciding to take control of things and then being swept along in the opposite direction, usually into a bar. There are many beers and not too much logic: 

…he has no desire to commit adultery, or so he tells himself, as he sits on the edge of her bed with his pants around his ankles. Is he taking them off or putting them on? He’s not sure…

By the end, “After a few more beers and orgasms”, he is lying in a hospital bed and his adult son arrives to say goodbye. “It’s probably for the best. For the best what? he asks.” The form itself, with its skips, hiccups and lacunae, represents the experience of an unexamined life. 

First published in The New Yorker, 14 March 2011. Collected in Going for a Beer, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. You can read it here or listen to Joshua Ferris read and discuss it on a New Yorker podcast here

‘Lord Royston’s Tour’ by Lydia Davis

In this long and detailed story we follow a nineteenth-century British merchant, Lord Royston, as he travels around Scandinavia, Russia and central Asia. Lord Royston falls ill and then recovers. Various members of his party die. Finally he meets up with his friends Colonel and Mrs Pollen and they embark on a sea voyage back to England via Scandinavia. When I first read the story it reminded me of Mary Wollstonecraft’s account of her travels in Sweden or even the letters of Lady Wortley Montague. It’s a picaresque. But the last four pages move into a much more detailed account of the journey by sea and here the pace quickens. Their ship starts to take in water, and threatens to run aground fifteen miles outside Memel. An English sailor declares the captain to be incompetent. Tensions builds. The situation gets more and more desperate. And then the story ends. In the acknowledgements, it says that it’s based on a book published in 1838. The style, though, is all Lydia Davis’s: cool, dry and controlled. It’s the ending that has stayed with me, over-turning my expectations. 

First published in Almost No Memory, FSG/Picador, 1997. Collected in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, FSG/Hamish Hamilton, 2009

‘The Prussian Officer’ by D. H. Lawrence

I couldn’t leave D.H. Lawrence out of a collection about sex and death. This is the story of an aristocratic army captain’s growing obsession with and bullying of his conscript manservant. It was first published in 1914, more than fifty years before the legalisation of homosexuality. In some ways its themes of shame and violent repression feel out of step with our times and yet as a story it remains powerful. The atmosphere of claustrophobia is intense. Although they are surrounded by other people, no one can help either of them. I particularly love the contrast between the beautiful landscape – fields of green rye and golden corn with blue mountains in the distance – and the lonely tragedy that unfolds.

First published in The Prussian Officer and Other Stories, Duckworth 1914, restored text based on Lawrence’s manuscripts, typescripts and corrected proofs republished by Penguin Modern Classics in 1995. Read it here

‘She Murdered Mortal He’ by Sarah Hall

This is a brilliantly unsettling story. A young British couple are staying in an otherwise deserted luxury camping resort on the wild coast of southern Africa. They’ve driven up from South Africa and the local language is Portuguese so presumably they’re in Mozambique, but the country is never named. Their relationship is unravelling and the woman has stormed off for a walk on the beach. She is stunned and confused by the sudden shift between them. How could he talk like this when only that morning they’d had such good sex? “Sex is not rational”, he replies. As she walks, she churns through the events of recent days. She feels both safe and unsafe in Africa. Danger is everywhere: “close to the surface, or rupturing through”. Turning back, she sees a white shape in the distance. She hopes it’s her boyfriend coming to find her but it turns out to be a large white dog, a female with a distended belly and long black teats and eyes that are “very, very bright”. The interaction between the woman and the dog is beautifully delineated, moving from blind terror to a kind of playful companionship. After drinking alone in a bar in the nearby town, the woman returns to the hotel along the beach in the dark, meeting the dog again. The way the story ends is truly shocking. The horror isn’t supernatural but Hall manages to suggest the power of unconscious drives, which is somehow even more disturbing than the idea of monsters or ghosts. The writing itself is both restrained and lush and always beautifully precise.

First published in Granta 117, Horror, 27 October 2011. Collected in The Beautiful Indifference, Faber & Faber, 2012. Read it here

‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever

Neddy Merrill lounges with his wife and friends beside a swimming pool, a golden creature, no longer young but slender and handsome. “He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one.” In a fit of whimsy, Neddy decides that he will make his way home by swimming through all the pools in the county. His journey begins in a spirit of delight. People welcome him. But gradually the tone grows more sombre. The Welchers’ house is for sale and the pool is empty. The Sachses say they have given up drinking since Eric’s operation. When Neddy gets to the Hallorans they say that they’re sorry for all his “misfortunes”. The Biswangers are having a party but they snub him and the bartender is rude. Neddy starts to feel cold. There are autumn leaves on the ground. When at last he gets to his own house it’s dark and locked and the rooms are empty. He has swum to the end of the river of life. Cheever planned this as a novel and had carrier bags full of notes on each of the households but in the end he boiled it down to this single glorious sweep of a short story. 

First published in the New Yorker, July 18, 1964. Print version here. Collected in The Stories of John Cheever, Knopf 1978, various UK editions including Vintage 1990. Listen to Cheever himself read (rather haltingly) here or Anne Enright here

‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a story I like to use when I’m teaching. It’s so funny and acutely observed. It’s about a writing workshop, but beyond that it’s about the power plays that go on between men and women. We follow Chioma, a young Nigerian woman, as she arrives in South Africa to take part in a residential workshop for African writers run by the pompous but well-connected Edward. The other participants are referred to throughout by their countries: “the Tanzanian”, “the Ugandan”, “the Zimbabwean woman”, “the Kenyan”, “the Senegalese woman” and so on. Chioma’s judgements are mercilessly sharp. She thinks she might like the Zimbabwean woman “but only the way she liked alcohol—in small amounts”, and Edward looks “as though God, having created him, had slapped him flat against a wall and smeared his features all over his face”. The account of the workshop is intercut with the story that Chioma writes while she’s there, a story full of pain and rage, about a young woman whose father has left the family to live with his mistress. The mother’s business begins to suffer without her husband’s contacts and the girl is unable to find a job so in the end she is forced to swallow her pride and go to her father for help, but the job he gets her involves sitting on the laps of rich businessmen to get them to keep their bank accounts with her employers. Meanwhile, in the workshop, Edward preaches to them about what’s African and what isn’t and ogles Chioma’s breasts until she finds the courage to put him in his place. It’s a story for the #MeToo generation, which seems like a good place to end.

First published in Granta 95, Loved Ones, October 2006. Collected in The Thing Around your Neck, HarperCollins 2009. Read it here