‘A Little Place Off the Edgware Road’ by Graham Greene

I think the first time I ever realised that short stories were a thing that grown-ups wrote was when our English teacher read us a couple of Graham Greene stories: ‘The Destructors’ and ‘A Little Place Off the Edgware Road’. I was about 14 at the time and they made such an impact on me that I went out and bought a copy of the collection for myself and devoured it from cover to cover.

‘A Little Place Off the Edgware Road’, written in 1939, is the story of a troubled man who goes into a seedy cinema to shelter from the rain and gets into a strange and unsettling conversation with the occupant of the seat next to him. I think the first thing that appealed to me about the story was the gloriously macabre twist that comes at the end of it, causing the protagonist to re-evaluate everything he has learnt up to that point.

Twists are tricky things to handle in stories. It’s very tempting to lift the hat with a flourish to reveal the rabbit and raise your hands in anticipation of your readers’ applause at your clever trick. Green’s genius, however, is to follow the big reveal with these final few short sentences, pulling the camera back to view the developing chaos:

He began to scream, ‘I won’t go mad. I won’t go mad. I’m sane. I won’t go mad.’ Presently a little crowd began to collect, and soon a policeman came.

That ending haunts me to this day.

First published in 1939. Collected in Nineteen Stories, Heinemann 1947, Twenty-One Stories, Penguin, 1970, and The Complete Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 2005

‘The Destructors’ by Graham Greene

Like a lot of people I first came across this story when it was used in the film Donnie Darko. It’s a tale of nihilism, set in aftermath of World War II. A group of kids hatch a plan to vandalise one of the large houses that survived the war. Bit by bit they destroy it, and like the kids in Lord of the Flies or the teen gangs in Brighton Rock, their orgy of violence grows as they work together for their aim.  I think you can just read it as a great adventure story, a “high concept” done expertly, but of course, as the discussion in Donnie Darko shows, it’s also a story that can be seen as a morality tale of sorts. Clearly Greene is observing this new idea of the teenager and making something of it. We are only a couple of years away from the riots that would accompany Rock Around the Clock after all. 

First published in Picture Post, 1954, and collected in Twenty-one Stories, Heinemann, 1954, and Complete Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 2005, and available to read online here

‘Under the Garden’ by Graham Greene

I found this story, collected in the appealingly named A Sense of Reality, in a second hand bookshop in Leamington Spa when I was in my teens. I remember reading it and shivering at the strangeness of the tale in which a young boy, William Wilditch, chances on a door in the bottom of a tree in the garden of his uncle’s large house. He crawls down a path and finds himself in a strange abode of two very strange people, Maria, an aged woman in a tattered sequinned dress, whose only utterance is “Kwahk”, and the much more voluble Javitt, a one-legged old man. Javitt has a lot to tell William, in homilies that strike the child (and frankly, the teenage me reading the tale) as bulletins from life. I still remember the assertion “Beauty doesn’t come from beauty […] only when you come back to zero, to the real ugly base of things, there’s a chance to start again.”

This is apropos Javitt and Maria’s daughter, Miss Ramsgate, whose pictures in a magazine Javitt shows the narrator. On and on it goes, including a moment of seeing “the treasure”, until finally, several days after he went under the garden, William is able to escape. Was it all a dream? Or something far more psychoanalytical? The story is layered in other frames – the Treasure Island-esque narrative a slightly older William writes about it for the school magazine, and the present-day impetus he has to revisit the house, and the island in the pond where the whole episode took place. Rereading it now, maybe thirty years after the first time, it was no less eerie. I seem to have dreamed it myself, and when you read ‘Under the Garden’, perhaps you will have dreamed it too.

First published in 1957; collected in A Sense of Reality, Viking, 1963; also available as a Penguin 60, 1995

‘The Basement Room’ by Graham Greene


All his seven nursery years vibrated with the strange, the new experience…

When his parents set off for a fortnight’s holiday, seven-year-old Philip Lane is left at home in the care of the butler and housekeeper, Mr and Mrs Baines. Philip takes the absence of his parents in his stride. He is giddy with his new-found freedom and more than happy to exchange the familiar confines of his nursery of the for the strange new world of the Baines’s titular basement room. Indeed, throughout this story Philip seems to be on a quest to expand his experience even further and explore the world beyond the walls of his parents’ “great Belgravia house.” (“This is life,” he tells himself again and again, the phrase running throughout the story like, well, like a stick of Brighton rock.)

But as Philip pushes against the boundaries of his childhood he discovers that life beyond the nursery is beset with incomprehensible adult concerns. And Philip soon becomes unwittingly entangled in Mr Baines’ extramarital affair – something that has terrible consequences for all concerned; consequences that go far further than the realisation that Philip’s beloved Mr Baines has feet of clay; consequences, indeed, that will reverberate down the years, and colour Philip’s own adult life. (And colour, perhaps, L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go-Between, which seems to be a development and expansion of Greene’s brilliantly compact short story.) 

First published in Town & Country, 1936. Collected in Nineteen Stories, William Heinemann 1947 and Collected Stories, Penguin 1986

‘A Shocking Accident’ by Graham Greene

This story was read to me at that same boarding school by our Headmaster, Mr Gilbert Wheat. In both my home world and my school world, I had already noticed that appalling tragedy was often greeted with jokes and laughter. These strange emotional distortions made the world difficult to navigate. But in this story Graham Greene seemed to take these contradictions and celebrate them. How could he move so smoothly from laughter to pain? Forty years later, Greene remains one of my favourite writers and I continue to admire his ability to use shifts in tone to devastating effect.  

First published in May We Borrow Your Husband?, The Bodley Head, 1967; Collected in Collected Stories, The Bodley Head, 1973 and now Penguin Classics, 2000

A Shocking Accident’ by Graham Greene

This story is about a boy whose father is killed when a pig falls on top of him and who then spends the rest of his life trying to tell people about the tragedy without making them laugh.

I probably first read this when I was a teenager, around the time my father died.

There is probably no short story in existence I have thought about more often than this one.

First published in May We Borrow Your Husband?, The Bodley Head, 1967; Collected in Collected Stories, The Bodley Head, 1973 and now Penguin Classics, 2000

‘A Shocking Accident’ by Graham Greene

This story is brilliant for the concept at its core – that a tragedy (the death of a parent) can have about it an inherent comedy (method of dispatch) such that it haunts the offspring left behind in a uniquely undignified way. I first read it in an anthology of the same name, and sadly it set the bar so high that most of the other stories couldn’t compete. It also has a great opening. Like David Copperfield summoned to the headmaster’s office on his birthday, expecting a hamper and receiving instead news of his mother’s death, Jerome sits opposite his housemaster without fear, for he is an ‘approved, reliable’ boy, destined ‘for Marlborough or Rugby’. Rather, the housemaster appears a little afraid of Jerome. What does he have to tell him? The news is delivered, and a guilty smile spreads across the reader’s face. Perhaps there is also a snort, or a hoot, at the gift of this awful, wonderful image. So many short stories are dark, it is true, and this one in a way is no exception. But it is also exceptionally funny.

In A Shocking Accident: stories with a twist in the tail, ed. Sara Corrin, Walker Books, 2003; available online here