‘Good Country People’ by Flannery O’Connor

In any list of the best short stories ever written, you have to include something by Flannery O’Connor. It’s an actual crime not to – and with good reason. She was a flat out, one of a kind genius. O’Connor is someone else I first read in the Granta anthology and it’s that story, ‘Good Country People’, that I want to include here. It tells the story of Mrs Hopewell and her daughter, Hulga, a morose 32 year old with ‘a number of degrees’ and a wooden leg who has changed her name from Joy specifically to spite her mother. When a bible salesman visits, Hulga is fascinated by the possibility of seducing him and he by the thought of her leg. Usually, when I admire a writer, it makes me want to write like them, but not in O’Connor’s case. You know that you could never write something so strange, so savage and so funny – and you shouldn’t even try.

First published in A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955, Harcourt, Brace and Company) and widely collected and anthologised.

‘The Lame Shall Enter First’, by Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor died of lupus in 1964  at the age  of 39; this story was published posthumously a year later in the collection Everything that Rises Must Converge.Like William Faulkner , Carson McCullers and a host of others, O’Connor wrote in the Southern Gothic tradition, populating her work with grotesque characters, violent incident  and moral debate. I also have lupus; on diagnosis I identified as a shadowy Flannery O’Connor, one without the writing talent or the peacocks (she famously kept many exotic birds), an atheist in thrall to O’Connor’s rhapsodic Catholicism. In this story, a father refuses to empathise with the grief of his young son who has recently lost his mother. Instead, he offers his charity to a manipulative homeless teenager, with tragic consequences for the child. It’s unsettling, unsentimental and never fails to make me weep and rage.

(In Complete Stories, Faber and Faber, 1990)