‘Fog’ by Anna Kavan 

Chosen by Nicholas Royle
Anna Kavan’s best-known work, Ice, is a bleak midwinter wonderland of a novel. Her story, ‘Fog’, may be short on snow and ice, but there’s thick fog and it’s so cold in the police interview room that the officer’s breath condenses in the air. An unnamed narrator tells us she always liked to drive fast, but she wasn’t driving fast that day, partly because it was foggy and partly because she felt ‘calmly contented and peaceful’. She adds: ‘The feeling was injected, of course.’ The narrator, like her creator, is addicted to heroin. The rhythm of the windscreen wipers has a further tranquillising effect, making her feel she’s driving in her sleep. The fog adds to the dreamlike atmosphere, the world looking ‘vague and unreal’, so that when she drives past a group of long-haired teenagers, they look as if they are wearing Japanese dragon-masks. They remind her of the ‘subhuman nightmare mask-faces’ in an Ensor painting. Since they are not real, then, what would it matter if she were to run one of them over? When the police stop her, she thinks, ‘I might as well be at a police station as anywhere else.’ The inspector who interviews her is ‘just a sham’; she disassociates from everything and everybody. Nothing is real. All she wants is to be ‘a hole in space, not here or anywhere at all’. There’s a desperate, wintry sadness to the story. Rhys Davies’s introduction to the posthumously published collection, Julia and the Bazooka, reminds us that the author suffered from depression and twice attempted suicide, but she couldn’t half write.
First published in Julia and the Bazooka, Peter Owen, 1970. * Nicholas Royle’s latest short story collection, Manchester Uncanny, is just out from Confingo Publishing. It follows London Gothic and will, in due course, be followed by Paris Fantastique. He edits the Best British Short Stories series for Salt, who published his non-fiction book, White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector. He runs Nightjar Press, publishing short stories as signed, limited-edition chapbooks. You can read his other contributions to A Personal Anthology here.

‘A Bright Green Field’ by Anna Kavan

I love Anna Kavan’s cold, burning prose and the intensity of her focus. Every line in this story is loaded with allegorical intent. The field of the title ‘always’ confronts the unnamed narrator on her travels. The grass is a luminous green and grows at a supernatural rate. On one sighting, she sees that the grass is cut by chained humans who resemble ‘struggling flies caught in a spider’s web’. A passing stranger explains that this form of employment – not a punishment, as the narrator imagined – is highly prized and that the workers’ ‘spasms and convulsions’ are ‘mainly just mimicry, a traditional miming of the sufferings endured by earlier generations of workers before the introduction of the present system’. Despite her horror, the narrator concludes by understanding why the grass needs to be cut: ‘That poison-green had to be fought, fought; cut back, cut down; daily, hourly, at any cost’.  It is possible to read so much into the field – climate change, some kind of prophetic comment on capitalist realism, an externalisation of the paranoia that drives her narrator from place to place.  

First published in A Bright Green Field and Other Stories, Peter Owen Publishers, 1979. Collected in Machines in the Head, Peter Owen Publishers, 2019

‘The Old Address’ by Anna Kavan

In my edition of Julia and the Bazooka, the blurb calls it ‘a classic of drug literature’, but I think that’s to do it rather a disservice. Drugs feature – heroin mainly, and specifically in this story –however, I think Kavan shows us more what it feels like to be other, to not feel part of the mass on the street, not to trust even oneself. The end of the story is the end of every junkie story, but still manages to bring new notes to the score. 

First published posthumously in Julia and the Bazooka, Peter Owen, 1970. Reissued in 2009

‘Happy Name’ by Anna Kavan

Anna Kavan had three stories in London Magazine; ‘Happy Name’ was her first to appear there. Readers with any degree of familiarity with her work will not be surprised to learn that it’s a dark and nightmarish piece, despite what its title might suggest. Letitia, or Miss Letty, is a young girl dreaming of being an old woman, or an old woman dreaming of being a young girl. We’re never quite sure and maybe she isn’t either. The story features a powerful father figure, a shadow-strewn house around which it’s impossible to navigate and a series of wonderfully accurate and apposite images of birds. In the mirror across the hall Miss Letty sees a ‘tall pale girl’ with the look of ‘a solitary long-necked bird, wading and peering out warily from the shadows’. Miss Letty surveys another set of shadows ‘like a heron exploring a pool’. Later, when a development in the story has diverted it on to a similar track to the one taken in Wilkinson’s ‘Pillars of Ice’, the thought of having to search for a new home ‘made the bird of panic set up a disastrous flapping inside her’. ‘Happy Name’ was reprinted in the posthumous collection Julia and the Bazooka (Peter Owen) in 1970, an edition of which remains in print.

(London Magazine, December 1954)