‘Jam’ by Dan Rhodes

The night before our wedding day, my fiancée and I had a romantic meal. She held my hand. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Thank you so much for marrying me. You’re just so wonderful taking me on. Me and my three ugly children.’ I was horrified. It was the first I’d heard of these three ugly children, and I wanted to know more. She explained that she hadn’t told me about them in case they put me off her. ‘Come and meet your new daddy,’ she called, and they ran into the room. Their faces were covered in jam. They were horrible.

First published in Anthropology and a Hundred Other Stories, Fourth Estate, 2000)

‘Brownies’ by ZZ Packer

Another story about horrible children.

I first read ‘Brownies’ circa 2004 and at the time thought it was an efficient piece of creative writing, literary, circumscribed, American. But when, at the behest of Nikesh Shukla, we did ZZ Packer’s collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere on Backlisted last year I found I couldn’t get this particular story out of my head, and still can’t. No one appears to have tampered with my copy of the book so it must be the same story I read then. Gosh.

We don’t just change as readers as we get older, we improve.

If you haven’t read ‘Brownies’, you need to read it; also if you have read it.

First published in Harper’s Magazine, November 1999 and in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Riverhead Books, 2003

‘Let Them Call It Jazz’ by Jean Rhys

This and the following selection are from my two favourite literary collections of short stories. Although it wasn’t published until 1968, Tigers Are Better-Looking is the missing link between Jean Rhys’s incredible novels of the 1930s and her return from the missing-presumed-dead with Wide Sargasso Sea. The stories were written piecemeal during the 1940s and 50s and no one wanted to publish them until WSS had become a huge success (Rhys: “It has come too late”). They are utterly magnificent, each one a languid study in fatalism and defeat. The worst has happened; well, so what? Let them call it jazz and let them play it wrong. That won’t make no difference to the song I heard.

First published in The London Magazine, 1962, and in Tigers Are Better-Looking, Andre Deutsch Ltd, 1968. Collected in The Collected Short Stories, W.W. Norton & Co, 1992, now Penguin Modern Classics. Also published as one of the Penguin 60s in 1995

‘The Fly-Paper’ by Elizabeth Taylor

‘The Fly-Paper’ was rejected by William Maxwell at the New Yorker and subsequently turned into an episode of Tales of the Unexpected; I didn’t know either of these things when I first read it.

Although all Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories are currently available as one huge tome, they are more easily enjoyed in the editions in which they were originally published: Hester Lilley (1954), The Blush (1958), A Dedicated Man (1965) and The Devastating Boys (1972). The latter is my favourite of the four because of the range of subject matter and because there isn’t a sentence in it, anywhere, that is anything other than flawless. Taylor was a genius of fancy prose but, unlike VN, she didn’t like to talk about it.

I read ‘The Fly-Paper’ aloud from beginning to end at a festival a few years ago and, steadily, it froze a room full of people into absolute shock, not because of the ‘unexpected’ denouement – it isn’t, particularly – but because of the horrible truth of what precedes it: the elegant apprehension of quotidian, human evil.

First published in The Devastating Boys, Chatto and Windus Ltd, 1972; Collected in Complete Short Stories, Virago Press, 2012

‘A Country Doctor’ by Franz Kafka

I was introduced to Kafka’s diaries around the same time I first read Pale Fire. I only discovered ‘A Country Doctor’ a couple of years ago, however, as the first story in Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories (1958, republished by NYRB in 2002). In his introduction Jarrell writes:

One of the things that make Kafka so marvellous a writer is his discovery of – or, rather, discovery by – a kind of narrative in which logical analysis and humour, the greatest enemies of narrative movement, have become themselves part of the movement. In narrative at its purest or most eventful we do not understand but are the narrative … in fiction, to understand everything is to get nowhere.

In other words, a story can carry us to its conclusion but one of us will have to walk home again.

Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories is often astounding and the stories in it, alongside that introductory essay, challenged my preconceptions of what a short story is for and what it can be; nothing in that statement is an exaggeration. Get hold of a copy before it slips out of print again.

First published in A Country Doctor (Ein Landarzt), Kurt Wolff, 1919; translated by Edwin and Willa Muir, first published in The Metamorphosis, The Penal Colony, and Other Stories, Schocken Books, 1948. Now available in various translations, including online in Ian Johnston’s translation here

‘The Axe’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

I read all of Penelope Fitzgerald’s fiction for the first time last year. Her novel The Gate of Angels, set in a Cambridge college in 1912, contains a spectacular pastiche of an M.R. James-style chilling tale. Rather than close the narrative however, I have instead opted for ‘The Axe’, one of the first things Fitzgerald wrote. It has several elements in common with the other stories I have selected here – if you have read it, they will be obvious – but the twist on this occasion is there is no twist; no one is coming to help the narrator or the reader.

In narrative at its purest or most eventful we do not understand but are the narrative.

This is an open ending. And so is this. They are, I think, the way to go.

First published in The Times Anthology of Ghost Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1975, and in The Means of Escape, Flamingo, 2000, now Fourth Estate, 2016


In my reading and writing of short fiction, I am probably most stimulated by the uncanny. Which is not to say that which is merely weird. A lot of art is weird, yet only some art is uncanny. What does it mean then, exactly, this word from the German unheimlich (unhomely, but not quite that either)? It’s notoriously hard to define, fleeting, fugitive. Freud, in his famous essay, ultimately resorted to describing it through a chain of examples, which reminds me of a hoary slogan to do with a genre of electronic music, appropriately named House, for the uncanny is bound with the domestic, but also notoriously hard to define: “House is a feeling”. The rapper Pusha T’s lyric “If you know, you know” also comes to mind. For the uncanny, although difficult to define, is unmistakeable in its effect.

The short story form is particularly suited to the uncanny, I think, because it is not an easy effect to sustain over a full book. In my own reading, only Kafka, in his novels, and Lewis Carroll (in Through the Looking Glass) manage to sustain the feeling at great length. It is more likely to happen in flashes, in window frames. And that is what short stories are. Flashes in window frames.

The stories in my personal anthology are loosely connected by uncanniness. In some of them, it runs right through. In others, it flickers here or there. I don’t think I’ve ever really felt a story that wasn’t at least a little bit troubling. I guess I find that – being troubled – is important.