‘Likes’ by Sara Sherwood

Stories that tackle head-on social media in fiction seem few and far between despite it being something most of us interact with daily. This is a story about a relationship and what happens when a relationship ends and what happens when you still go on Instagram to look at their Instagram and maybe their new girlfriend’s Instagram and maybe when you’re making your Instagram posts you’re really thinking about what they will think when they look at their Instagram. Sherwood captures so accurately the pressure of watching and being watched online, the careful, carefree performance of it, the rhythm it becomes in our daily lives.

Collected in the Bridport Prize 2018 Anthology, Bridport, 2018

‘Bloodchild’ by Octavia E. Butler

Butler is a master at world-building. Often called her “pregnant man” story, this short story follows a day in the life of a human on a distant planet in an arrangement with the insect-like creatures that rule over them. Butler says she wrote it after reading about insects that lay their eggs in other animals as I way to exercise and investigate her dual fascination and repulsion at the thought. It’s certainly not a story for the squeamish (which I had forgotten recently until I reread it and gasped all over again), but those brave enough to read will find a tale told with sensitivity and a slowl sense of dawning horror. As always Butler shows that science-fiction is never just about aliens and spaceships and she has some of the smartest character building and plotting around.

First published in 1984, Collected in Bloodchild and Other Stories, Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1995. I hesitate to link to Amazing, but a free Kindle edition is available here

‘Renegade’ by Shirley Jackson

Back to the violence of children: Shirley Jackson is another writer who knew how wicked people, and especially children can be. Her work is deeply entrenched in American Gothic but found within the domestic, the horror of a loveless marriage say or children who can’t wait to punish their bad dog as in this story. It contains all the hallmarks of Jackson’s longer work: mistrustful neighbours, small-town gossip, children who revel in the punishment of others a little too much, a propensity towards cruelness and a killer last line.

First published in Harper’s Magazine, November 1948, and available to subscribers here. Collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, Farrar, Straus and Company, 1949, republished by Penguin Classics in 2009

‘Eight Bites’ by Carmen Maria Machado

I don’t know about you but sometimes when I read a really good story it is like a film playing in my head, sometimes I forget if a scene I can see so clearly in my mind is from a film or a book. Reading ‘Eight Bites’ I can so vividly recall its metaphor made real, a body made of flesh once part of a woman, now cut away but not dead, living inside her house, friendly, soft, alone, abandoned: something, “body-shaped. Prepubescent, boneless […] one hundred pounds, dripping wet.” A body that trying to hide itself but which continues, fleshily to haunt.  ‘Eight Bites’ shows the transformation women’s bodies can go through, the weight seen or not that is carried with them, the pain they can endure. That to be a woman is to inhabit a body that will be appraised, that this is inescapable. Machado effortlessly blends reality and something more real than reality to create a story that embeds itself in your own flesh and leaves you gnawing away at its ideas. A story that asks you to be kinder to your body and embrace it as your own.

First published in Gulf Coast magazine 29.2, Summer/Fall 2017 and available to read online here. Collected in Her Body & Other Parties, Graywolf/Serpent’s Tail, 2017

‘Sweetness’ by Toni Morrison

There are some stories you read as a reader and there are other stories you read as a writer with one eye fixed on the how each word makes the sentence, how each sentence stacks up into paragraphs of meaning and emotion. This is a story I read and reread to learn how to write character, to learn how to turn character into plot, to learn how to tell a story before the reader even notices they are in the middle of one. Morrison teaches you how to tell a story that pulls no punches, that doesn’t care if the reader likes the narrator or not, that leaves much for the reader to figure out for themselves while pertaining to state plainly what they mean. There is no better school than this.

Published in The New Yorker, 2015. Read online here. Later formed part of Morrison’s novel God Help the Child, Knopf/Chatto & Windus, 2015

‘The Ghost Club’ by Kirsty Logan

I first came across Kirsty Logan when I read her debut collectionThe Rental Heart, a queer reimagining of fairy tales, and have devoured all her stories full of magic and queer women. In A Portable Shelter Logan cleverly links her short stories through a framing narrative, a Scheherazade-like tale of two women, Liska and Ruth, who take turns telling stories in secret to their child growing inside Ruth. There are stories of selkies and fisherman of lighthouses and witches but it is the final story that I have never been able to forget. The premise is a sort of support group for people who see ghosts of loved ones and who want to disprove their existence. It’s a thoughtful and sensitive exploration of what it’s like to grieve and the role that death plays in the lives of the living. Logan writes, “If no one ever died, maybe we would never learn what it meant to miss them.” That this is the last story in the collection is fitting, a death to balance Ruth and Liska new baby, a poignant reminder to question how much we can prepare our loved ones for the harsher realities of the world. What portable shelters can we carry with us as protection? How safe can you make the world? How much of death do you need to know to truly live?

Collected in A Portable Shelter, Vintage, 2015

‘The Owl Who Was God’ by James Thurber

‘The Owl Who Was God’, as a title, is good enough on its own to qualify as an excellent short story, which is true of many of the choices I’ve made in this selection. A story’s title, maybe given the brevity of the form, maybe given the context in which the decision to read a particular story might be taken (the contents list in an anthology), carries a special force: of course you read the one with the weirdest title first (that or the shortest). For many of these stories, the title feels somehow of equivalent weight to the narrative, as though the story and its title might be interchanged. ‘The Owl Who Was God’, which is accompanied by one of Thurber’s own great, manic illustrations, tells a fable-like narrative about the imputation of enormous gravitas, even godliness, onto the deeply stupid. (Any resemblance to current events is, of course, entirely coincidental.) By asking an owl a sequence of questions it can only answer in its own call (‘“Can you give me another expression for ‘that is to say’ or ‘namely’?” asked the secretary bird. “To wit”, said the owl’), a group of woodland animals are convinced of the truth of the story’s title, with hilariously tragic consequences.

First published in Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated, Harper Brothers, 1940, and included in The Thurber Carnival, Hamish Hamilton, 1945, and available online here, but without the illustration, so don’t bother