Introduction

Many years ago, I tried to write a blog that offered comment on fiction, film, art and music. I very quickly realised within a matter of weeks that it was a hard thing to do well and that I was better suited to something completely different such as photoshopping myself into pictures of The 13thFloor Elevators or re-creating Wire album covers using bits of plasticine.

Mostly I felt that I was in danger of producing something that approximated William Empson’s view of art catalogue text: “a steady, iron-hard jet of absolute nonsense”.

I’ve tried to avoid that here, when writing about twelve stories I love.

‘Uncle Willy’ by William Faulkner

An unnamed teenage narrator recalls Uncle Willy who ran the local drugstore. The boys of the town would eat ice-creams and watch Uncle Willy inject himself with morphine: “somebody would say, ‘Don’t it hurt?’ and he would say, ‘No I like it.’” To the people of Jefferson he is a sinner who must be saved but to the narrator he is “the finest man I ever knew”. The teenager comes to Uncle Willy’s assistance in his final flight of agency: “He wound up his life getting fun out of being alive and he died doing the thing that was most fun of all.” I am not the first to say that this is the best film the Coen Brothers have not made.

First published in the October issue of American Mercury, 1935; collected in Collected Stories, Chatto and Windus, 1951, newest edition Vintage, 2009

‘The Barbecue’ by Mary Ward Brown

I like iconoclastic young people. And wunderkinds can be thrilling. But there is nothing about writing which makes it necessarily the province of youth. Mary Ward Brown, for instance, was in her late sixties when she published her first collection, Tongues of Flame, set in Perry County, Alabama. Here are people who aren’t southern grotesques going about their business. In ‘The Barbecue’ a non-invitation to a barbecue confirms for Tom and Martha their inferiority – his physical, hers social – and the general unfairness of how things are. But what to do? “Why don’t you take an aspirin?” Martha suggests. But Tom’s mind is filled with questions “he couldn’t even understand, much less answer”.

First published in The Threepenny Review,1982. Collected in Tongues of Flame, University of Alabama Press, 1986

‘Imaginary Friends’ by Laura Hird

Rebel Inc was so exciting: Warner! Legge! Welsh! Trocchi! Fante! And taking her place with these bad boys was Laura Hird. Laura Hird! ‘Imaginary Friends’ is an account of a young girl and her piano teacher, Mr Patterson. Mr Patterson is a magician of sorts, a low-rent Prospero with a dog called Caliban, and he talks of the magical kingdom of Blackpool while using tricks and disappearing potions to manipulate a child. The narrative from the girl’s point of view maintains her unquestioning wonder and delight – “Why couldn’t she run away with him and Caliban and be his magician’s assistant and have him stick swords through her and then say, ‘Only kidding!’” – but when Mr Patterson vanishes for real, the reader feels huge relief. Yet the girl still maintains her belief in his magic. Hird presents a robust innocence.

First appeared in Chapman, 1996. Collected in Nail and other stories, Rebel Inc, 1999

’Ceremony’ by Sean O’Reilly

Just as the majestic sound of 4AD bands in the 1980s prompted responses of the ‘shimmering shards of sepulchral majesty’ sort, so the artistry of Sean O’Reilly seems to provoke a range of abstruse, delphic musings of a laudatory nature. I feel I want to join in. But instead I’ll say that this is a story about a fella who goes to the christening of his ex-girlfriend’s baby.

First published in All Over Ireland: New Irish Short Stories, Faber and Faber, 2015. Collected in Levitation, The Stinging Fly Press, 2017

‘Blood’ by Janice Galloway

A used tampon at the bottom of a toilet, slowly seeping its blood like a miniature Rothko, can be a beautiful little sight. In Janice Galloway’s story however, a sanitary towel is jammed in a girl’s mouth to stop the flow of blood from her recently removed tooth. This is body gothic, corporeal horror: “the gum parting with a sound like uprooting potatoes”; “the roots were huge, matt like suede… Hard to accept her body had grown this thing.” As “the unstoppable redness” pools in her mouth she seeks out the white sanctuary of a school music rehearsal room and the clean sound of Mozart.  But the door can’t be locked, nor the blood staunched.

From Blood, Vintage, 1991, and also The Picador Book of the New Gothic, Picador, 1991

‘The New Villa’ by Anton Chekhov

In life you’re either a bastard or you’re a stupid bastard. That’s what my pal said. Kutcherov, an engineer, is involved in building a bridge near the village of Obrutchanovo. He and his wife like the area and so build a beautiful house there which becomes known as the New Villa. Generous and well-intentioned, Kutcherov and Elena treat the local peasants with kindness, but the people in turn regard them as fools, stupid in their benevolence. Even the bridge is called into question. Did they ask for a bridge? No. Did they get by without it before? Yes. Baffled and frustrated at their harsh treatment, Kutcherov and his wife eventually leave Obrutchanovo. In their place a government clerk comes to the New Villa, someone whose behaves as the villagers expect: “he talks and clears his throat as though he were a very important official, though he is only of the rank of a collegiate secretary, and when the peasants bow he makes no response.”

First published 1899, from Later Short Stories 1888-1903, trans. Constance Garnett, The Modern Library, 1999 and The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, trans Ronald Wilks, Penguin Classics, 2002. Available online here