‘Don’t Look Now’ by Daphne du Maurier

‘Don’t Look Now’ is wildly brilliant, and genuinely terrifying. A tale of grief, fantasy, and terror, it’s the kind of story I love – where something can turn, can pitch into an altogether different reality and register. The writing has an unsteady heartbeat to it, but a tightly controlled surface; my heart starts racing just thinking about it.

First published in 1971, by Victor Gollancz

‘So Much Water So Close To Home’ by Raymond Carver

I first read this story in my teens as a result of seeing the brilliant Short Cuts by Robert Altman. The story interests me in part because it’s about a gulf of understanding, about a deep disparity of knowledge and feeling that can arise between men and women around questions of violence, degradation, and bodily dignity – something I am thinking a lot about these days. The narrator’s husband goes on a weekend fishing trip with friends; they discover a dead girl’s body floating in the river, but choose not to curtail their trip or inconvenience themselves by finding a phonebox to call the police. Carver makes economical use of the queasy mingling of the fish they acquire and the female corpse they ignore. The narrator’s subsequent horror at the men’s indifference, and her anxiety about her husband’s implication in the story, draw an increasingly violent wedge between husband and wife. There are some killer lines: “He put his arms around me and rubbed his hands up and down my back, the same hands he’d left with two days before.” It’s an uncomfortable and astute rendering of the sickly knowledge of male violence with which women live.

In Where I’m Calling From: The Collected Stories, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988

‘Dream Story’ by Arthur Schnitzler

Nightmarish, hallucinatory, unsettling – I love this exploration of the subterranean underbelly of cities and of the psyche, of the crossing of sexual and religious thresholds, set in early twentieth-century Vienna. Freud was, unsurprisingly, a great admirer of Schnitzler. Kubrick was too, and his 1999 Eyes Wide Shut is a terrific and uncanny adaptation of the story, transferred to a New York that is both well-heeled and seedy.

Published in 1926 as Traumnovelle, and in Penguin Books, 1999, translated by J.M.Q Davis

‘The Mark on the Wall’ by Virginia Woolf

The first short story Woolf published, in 1917 – and it is pure Woolf. It has many of the preoccupations of her lifetime’s writing, among them the instability of perception. This story has some lines that capture so much of her sensibility, such as the whimsical: “Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour – landing at the other end with a single hairpin in one’s hair!”

The line “I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts” is exactly the kind of thing she would write in letters to her friends, or in a kind of self-knowing tantrum in her diary. Woolf would often present her philosophical musings with a tone of lightness and self-mocking flightiness, but they were philosophical through and through. Hermione Lee argues in her biography that, similarly, Woolf’s political views were often expressed through statements that appeared to negate politics, or separate herself from it. Woolf’s need for privacy and her bent towards singularity made her mistrust, whether in herself or others, overt and determined political positions that demanded consensus, but her writing is always political and philosophical, even when it is at its most playful.

And then there are the moments of breathtaking beauty and simplicity. Writing about trees towards the end of the story, she says: “the cows swish their tails beneath them on hot afternoons; they paint rivers so green that when a moorhen dives one expects to see its feathers all green when it comes up again. I like to think of the fish balanced against the stream like flags blown out.” And “a naked mast upon an earth that goes tumbling, tumbling, all night long.” What I love in this story is what I love in Woolf in general: her ability to roam and wander, while also to be unerringly, shatteringly precise.

In A Haunted House and Other Stories, The Hogarth Press, 1943. 

‘Mon Légionnaire’ by Raymond Asso and Marguerite Monnot

I knew the Gainsbourg version of this heart-breaking story first, when it came out in 1987, as a pop hit, with Gainsbourg hammily whispering the lyrics. I later realised it was a Piaf song. I now associate the song strongly with Claire Denis’s wonderful film about the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti, Beau Travail (1999). Loosely based on Melville’s Billy Budd, and featuring fragments of Britten’s opera in the soundtrack, the film centres on the triangulation of male rivalry and desire around a beautiful young soldier.

In the video, men dance in a bar under Gainsbourg’s ambiguous gaze. This chimes uncannily with Beau Travail, in its reckoning with unacknowledged male desire for men, and with French relationships to Africa and the eroticised African body. In Beau Travail’s famous final scene, Galoup, played by Denis Lavant, disgraced for letting the legion’s honour down in his intent to destroy a soldier he envies, dances alone, maniacally, desperately, to The Rhythm of the Night.

Made famous by Marie Dubas, then Edith Piaf, and then covered by Serge Gainsbourg

Introduction

Twelve you say—how can that be? Such a small amount of water and the pool is so big. To narrow it down first I had to remember, and then I had to read and re-read. Such exquisite pleasure. Such exquisite pain.

A good short story is like an arthouse film or a poem; you jump straight into the action and step off lightly at the end. Nothing is resolved. There is no neat summing up or resolution. The reader is made to work—imagining what came before and what could happen next. The stories that interest me usually focus in some way on the complexities of human interaction—the ways in which we misunderstand, mislead and are cruel to one another.  I like stories that are rooted in everyday life—but explore the dark undercurrents.

These twelve are stories that stayed with me long after reading them. Stories I have found myself thinking about in the supermarket queue or in bed at night. They are stories that trouble me or disturb me, stories that have changed me in some way.

‘The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death’ by Shawn Vestal

My son sometimes eats four meals in a row. The same thing, four times in a row. He walks up to the counter and yells, “Thanksgiving dinner!”

The protagonist exists in an absurd kind of afterlife where everyone remains the age they were when they died and there is nothing to do but relive key moments of your life and eat—one can eat any meal as long as it is something you ate in your lifetime. The result is both comic and strangely profound as the narrator comes to realize that even those happy moments in life are never as untroubled as they may first appear.
From Godforsaken Idaho, Little A, 2013