‘The Horse of Iron and How We Can Know It and Be Changed by It’ by M John Harrison

‘The Horse of Iron and How We Can Know It’ opens with what appears to be one of M John Harrison’s favourite images, that of a horse’s skull (“not a horse’s head: a skull, which looks nothing like a horse at all, but like an enormous curved shears, or a bone beak whose two halves meet only at the tip”), a disturbing recurring image in Viriconiumand a vital element of Light. The story of a man – the Ephebe – mapping out his life according to the Tarot, and of journeys taken on the horse of iron (i.e. the train) between places like Harrow and Kilburn High Road, or London St Pancras and Sheffield Central, its intoxicating blend of heady esoterica and the banality of British train travel continues to intrigue me; it’s a story I return to again and again, trying to fully decode it.

Published in Tarot Tales, ed.Rachel Pollack & Caitlin Matthews, Legend, 1989; collected in Things That Never Happen, Gollancz, 2004

‘Four Abstracts’ by Nina Allan

Nina Allan, one of my favourite contemporary novelists, is also a brilliant writer of short fiction. The recently published ‘Four Abstracts’ is a follow-up of sorts to the novella A Thread of Truth, focusing on the life of a reclusive artist suffering from an illness that may or may not have turned her into a spider. Her friend, the narrator, is archiving her work and preparing to present it to the public – the ‘Four Abstracts’ of the title become the framing device with which to explore the life of this solitary woman.

Like M John Harrison, Nina Allan is a master of a kind of banal British weird fiction that I find completely compelling. ‘Four Abstracts’ is a very human and downbeat story set in rural West Devon, full of references to the Arachne myth and other stories of women becoming spiders, like the Japanese Jorōgumo, but essentially a story of the hurts and difficulties life can throw at a person.

First published in New Fears, ed. Mark Morris, Titan Books, 2017

‘The Man Whom the Trees Loved’ by Algernon Blackwood

It was quite arresting, this way he had of making a tree look almost like a being – alive. It approached the uncanny.

Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), the crease-faced and twinkly-eyed exemplar of a form that came to be known as weird fiction, has a large and varied output, ranging from the transcendent to the hokey. ‘The Man Whom the Trees Loved’ is one of his best, from a collection tellingly sub-titled ‘A Volume of Nature Stories’. Blackwood peddled his own brand of nature mysticism that could often be quite silly, but when channelled the right way gave us powerful work such as this, and iconic tales like ‘The Willows’ and ‘The Wendigo’.
The story articulates the latent feeling most people have that trees and woods are inherently frightening. A male artist begins to ‘listen’ to the trees in the woods beyond his house, much to the consternation of his wife, and, though we never fully know what happens to him, is somehow ‘taken’ by it. This is presented as both terrifying and somehow appealing; reflecting the feelings many people have towards the woods. We like them but we wouldn’t want to be lost in them forever.
First published in Pan’s Garden, Macmillan & Co. 1912

‘The Cheater’s Guide to Love’ by Junot Diaz

Possibly a controversial choice, considering recent events (and the fact another writer on this list publicly decries Diaz), but I’d feel dishonest for not putting this story on my list. When I read it at the time of publication, it blew me away. A very successful use of the second-person, chronicling the “half-life of love” of Diaz’s recurring protagonist, the story tracks the months and years in the aftermath of a relationship that could have been “the one” had the “you” of the story not been such an inveterate philanderer and all-round shit. It’s quite depressing to be honest, but with a strange energy to it. I doubt you’re supposed to sympathise with the character, and the use of the second-person made reading the story very uncomfortable. I assume that is the point.

First published in The New Yorker, July 2012; collected in This Is How You Lose Her, Faber & Faber 2012

‘The Last Clean, Bright Summer’ by Livia Llewellyn

Livia Llewellyn’s writing is a nightmarish wander through lust, violence and treacle-thick darkness. I love it. I am constantly impressed by the sheer dark originality of her writing, and the power of the densely-crafted prose.

‘The Last, Clean, Bright Summer’ uses the classic format of a young girl’s journal (reminiscent of Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’ and Robert Aickman’s ‘Pages from a Young Girl’s Diary’ – except this girl is a Beyoncé fan in the 21st Century) to reveal its mounting horrors. And these really are horrors; it’s rare I can say a short story genuinely surprised me. This did, and now it’s lodged in my brain like a particularly unwholesome parasite.

First published in Primeval – A Journal of the Uncanny, #2, ed. Geoff Hyatt, 2014; collected in Furnace, Word Horde, 2016

‘The Unwish’ by Claire Dean

I had never heard of Claire Dean until I picked up this chapbook from Nicholas Royle’s ever-reliable Night Jar Press; I am so glad I did because this is one of the best contemporary weird short stories I’ve encountered. ‘The Unwish’ creeps up on you like all good writing of this type should; it is the story of two sisters, one happily settled and pregnant, the other waiting expectantly on the texts of a new boyfriend, who gather at a house in the countryside for a family event. But flashes of a past perhaps buried begin to show themselves. Wasn’t there a third sister?

First published by Nightjar Press, 2017

Introduction

For quite a time, if asked, I would say that I disliked short fiction, qualifying my answer with an acknowledgement of the special qualities of certain short stories that embraced the everyday through obliqueness and elision. This wasn’t an entirely honest response, but easier than the admission that it isn’t the form of the short story that makes me apprehensive, but that I don’t really like stories. That isn’t quite true either, but short fiction often makes transparent the scaffolding of fiction that I’ve come to distrust, especially the self-deception of character and the tensions of plot. Nor do I care much for those meticulous, well-crafted sentences that are merely aesthetically pleasing and intelligent. I am drawn most to a writer’s voice, to shape and movements that expose the beauty of another mind, to writing that is hazardous to identity and composure.