‘The Colonel’s Photograph’ by Eugène Ionesco, translated by Jean Stewart

This was, somehow, part of the set reading in either English or French (I read it in English, but perhaps we looked at the French as well) in secondary school in Ireland in the 1980s. It was the first non-realist piece of fiction that I’d ever encountered and it made a huge impression on me. What is going on? How are people being murdered continuously even though everyone knows what the murderer looks like, and how he operates, and where? Why are there military trucks in the street? Who is the colonel? Why are people so interested in his photograph? So interested that it gets them killed? What you need to understand is this: the contents of Edouard’s briefcase, the rumble of those military trucks, the click of the impossibly tall policemen’s boots, a bouquet of flowers, a fountain.

The original, ‘La Photo Du Colonel’, first appeared in Nouvelle Revue Française, 1st November 1955. This translation is from the collection of the same name published by Faber & Faber in 1967, and in the USA by Grove Press in 1969

‘Mystery in São Cristóvão’ by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson

Much as in Ionesco’s story, there is something here – barely hidden – that should worry any homeowner, family man, upstanding member of society. The fragility of bourgeois life is much attested to, but it’s always fun to see it wobble, and in this close-to-perfect story Lispector – genius of the invisible incident – gives everyone the heebeegeebees.

Appears in the New Directions / Penguin Modern Classics Complete Stories, 2015. The original, ‘Mistério em São Cristóvão’ was first published in a pamphlet by the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Health in 1952. More famously of course in the collection Family Ties in 1960)

‘How Things Were Done in Odessa’ by Isaac Babel, translated by Peter Constantine

From 1923, this tells the story of how Benya Krik became The King. It’s funny and it’s not-funny, but it is funny, because you have to laugh. I would also commend to you the story of the death of Froim Grach. And any other of the Odessa stories for that matter. And any of the Red Cavalry stories, of course. And anything by Babel. Everything, in fact, by Isaac Babel. For Isaac Babel is The King.

First published in Russian in LEF: Journal of the Left Front for the Arts #4, 1923. Appears in the Norton Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, 2002

‘The Story’ by Cathy Sweeney

A story about a story is one of my favourite sorts of stories. In this story by Cathy Sweeney is another story, by a man called Albert Solberg. It is read by the narrator in a shed, on and off, smoking a pipe, in secret. The secret story is always, ultimately (isn’t it?) a love story. And even a story about a love that appears afterwards, when it is all too late, when there is nothing to be gained from it but pain and sorrow, is still a love story.

From the collection Modern Times, Stinging Fly Press, 2020

‘Valentino’ by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Avril Bardoni

A long story. A short novella. About Valentino, for whom his family hold high hopes. But Valentino seems incapable of anything really, other than being loved. And it is love for Valentino, which Ginzburg makes impossible to resist, that creates and destroys, starts and stalls and continues … everything. A queer tragedy, a comedy, an Italian masterpiece, a heartbreak, and a joy.

From Valentino and Sagittarius, NYRB Classics, 2020

‘They Keep Killing Us’ by Sergio Loo, translated by Annie McDermott

By us we mean us. I’ve never been to Mexico City, but this is familiar. This slice, this throat-cut cross section, of the city’s queer scene, its hook-up scene, its murdering, cock-sucking, clubbing scene, its infectious, paranoid scene, its bathhouse scene, its gossiping, drinking, fucking, living, breathing, loving, exhilarating scene. Familiar like vertigo. What are we like?

Published online in The White Review, June 2018, and available to read here. Collected in Frank Wynne’s anthology Queer, Head Of Zeus, 2021

‘The Events On The Banbury’ by Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Bill Johnston

We’re like this. No one writes sexual tension like Gombrowicz, and this surreal story of a ship full of horny sailors becalmed but bestirred on a voyage to Valparaíso is bizarre, embarrassing, ridiculous, accurate, enviable, outrageous, and very funny.

First published in Poland in 1933. This translation from the collection Bacacay, Archipelago Books, 2004

‘The Castafiore Emerald’ by Hergé, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner

Of course I’m serious. A perfect plot, immaculately paced, beautifully rendered. The boy detective and his alcoholic friend host opera diva Bianca Castafiore, her entourage and her diamonds at Marlinspike Hall. There is hilarity, cleverness, intrigue, a sense of justice, romance, deft characterisation – all of it as preposterous and as entertaining as an aria from Rossini. A master class in story creation.

First published in 1963

‘Aballay’ by Antonio Di Benedetto, translated by Martina Broner

Aballay decides to stay on his horse. He has killed a man, and he has heard of holy saints who sat atop pillars and columns, and he has decided to stay on his horse, never to dismount, out of penance. Like all good stories it reminds me of other stories. Ultimately it reminds me of Oisín, returning to Ireland from Tír Na nÓg. Death is always a sudden ending.

From the collection Nest in The Bones, from Archipelago Books, 2017

‘The Houseguest’ by Amparo Dávila, translated by Audrey Hararis and Matthew Gleeson

Dávila’s writing puts you somewhere slightly outside the world as it is, and directs your attention back towards things previously unacknowledged and unnamed. It’s like looking through a window into your own home and seeing a monster fold your bedclothes. Here, the monster comes to stay, and does not leave. And we can’t have that.

From the collection of the same name, New Directions, 2018. The story is available to read on LitHub, here

‘The Vampire in Love’ by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Only Vila-Matas could write a lovely, funny, startlingly moving story about a paedophile barber who tap dances his way through the streets of Seville, past the locals who know him as Nosferatu, to the Cathedral, to see one last time the altar boy he loves. I mean, it would only occur to Vila-Matas to write such a story. And we should all be grateful.

From Vampire In Love – Selected Stories, And Other Stories Press, 2016

‘The Last Heat of Summer’ by Percival Everett

Difficult to say what this story is about, other than a fathers and sons camping trip, fishing, a first kiss, a tiger, and the repetitive slaughter of loved ones who want to save you. You tell them to stay away. But they come anyway. Everett looks like he doesn’t care, that he writes like no one is reading. But he does care. He considers the reader. And he knows us better than he lets on, better by far than we realise. It’s a large part of his power. This is a strange story, but like the strangeness in all great fiction it finds the strangeness in its reader, and embraces it. It comes anyway. And it’s a very beautiful thing.

From the collection Damned If I Do, Influx Press, 2020

Introduction to a Personal Anthology of beautiful rejects from the slush pile

I started this Personal Anthology in the usual manner – weighing my Nabokov against my Böll, playfully contrasting my Adichie with my Murakami, pitting Carter against Carver in a Thunderdome-style literary cage-fight. Isn’t that what, faced with the immense choice and variety of English-language short fiction, we all do, secretly imagining how delighted Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway would be to get the thumbs-up from us?

But then I remembered how I spent 2020 as a slushpile reader for Granta (as well as teaching, attempting to write, homeschooling two small kids etc.) and a daydream I’d entertained as story after story which I personally loved were (often reluctantly) turned down. I fantasized about starting up a fancy, high-paying print magazine for these wonderful stories by new, yet-to-be-famous authors, so that I could not only boast of finding them first, but pay them the professional rates their talent and hard work so richly deserved. It would be called SLUSHPILE: A journal of beautiful rejects. And at last they’d see print.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and inspiringly (but unsurprisingly), many of them now have – proof that persistence and quality really do win through even in a crowded, competitive market. As a fiction editor for over a decade now, of anthologies, literary magazines and of course Liars’ League, the live short story event I run, I want to encourage writers to submit, submit, SUBMIT (perhaps to the next Liars’ League theme, Heroes & Villains,) – because if it’s good enough, it will get there in the end.

Almost every story on this list has been rejected at least once in its career, often many times – and every story is unique, extraordinary in some way, and thoroughly deserves its eventual success. (Also, most of them are free to read online: win! And they’re all by 21st century authors – a first?) Enjoy. 

‘Doll’ by Jeremy Schnee

The mother of a toddler is horrified by her husband’s introduction of a disturbingly lifelike, animated doll to the household: her son loves it, but she finds it terrifying and threatening, and secretly plots to get rid of the horrible thing. This story has stayed with me for almost three years since first reading it, gasping as I realised exactly what was going on. It demands to be read at least twice – the second time with entirely fresh eyes. It’s wrenching and frightening and soul-destroying and heartening and absolutely unforgettable.

First published in the Fall 2022 issue of Snarl. Buy the issue here