I’ve written before about the impact of good short fiction, the meteorite punch in your heart, or mind – or better yet, both – as you read. But can anyone honestly say that they remember every single short story they’ve ever read? (Unless they’ve only read five, and have a photographic memory.) Some craters are punched deeper than others. Some stories are just a shower of pretty lights in the sky, enjoyed while the sparkle lasts, until eclipsed by other stories.
Bearing in mind that of course my opinion is entirely subjective, here is a selection of some of my favourite short stories, the ones that have stayed.
Leonardo, Michelangelo, Superstork: Helen Dunmore Ice Cream (Penguin 2001)
Set in a world where eugenic health means that natural conception is outlawed, and a lawful pregnancy needs a mortgage to fund it, it was perhaps a mistake to read this one when I was pregnant. It’s a powerful story, and a hopeful one, strongly told. I love it.
The Gernsback Continuum: William Gibson Burning Chrome (Grafton 1988)
A photographer is commissioned to document a future that was never realised, the science fiction utopia promised by 1930s American design and pulp fiction covers, the Hollywood gothic of Ming the Merciless. And then the veil between that lost future’s aesthetic, and the modern now begins to tear; Metropolis bleeds through. If you loved Neuromancer, read this collection.
Other Kingdom: E.M.Forster Selected Stories (Penguin 2001)
A girl is given the deed to a woodland by her fiance’s father. Her fiance does not understand her nature, seeking to possess her, fence in her freedom. In love as much with the silvan spirit of classicism as with him, she escapes her jealous lover in a way he will never understand. If you know your myths, think of Apollo and Daphne.
The Piper At The Gates of Dawn: Kenneth Grahame The Wind In The Willows (Egmont 1971)
Strictly speaking this isn’t a short story per se, but I read it originally in a long disintegrated animal stories anthology, before I was given my own copy of The Wind In The Willows in 1979. And it is beautiful, and mystical, and the poetic magic in it never fails to move me. Also, today is Midsummer, so it is only fitting that I should mention it now.
The Woman on the Dunes: Anais Nin A Model And Other Stories (Penguin 1995)
This was the first erotica I ever read, at the tender age of 23. My god but I was innocent then! But this is beautiful, tender, and poetic. And, obviously, erotic.
Kew Gardens: Virginia Woolf A Haunted House: The Complete Shorter Fiction (Vintage 2003)
An afternoon in Kew Gardens: impressionistic, Modern, beautiful, strange. It has haunted me, I think.
Pipes: Etgar Keret The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories (Toby Press 2004)
I read this on the train from Paddington. I cried. The girl next to me tried to pretend that I wasn’t there, despite the fact that I cried oh so discreetly. It’s about disappearing, and finding a way into happiness. It is hopeful, and wistful and, wonderful. And it breaks my heart.
The Cat Lover: Kate Atkinson Not The End Of The World (Black Swan 2003)
I love this whole collection, where the stories are set in the here and now, while figures from Greek myth wander about and interfere. In this one, a stray cat takes over a woman’s life, in so many mythological ways… Just fabulous.
Fifty Percent One/Fifty Percent Two: Nik Perring and Caroline Smailes Freaks (The Friday project 2012)
Two heartbreaks, a misunderstanding, a not-good-enough chance. In a collection about small – and not so small – strangenesses, this one, for me stood out. Tender and hopeless and hurting, yet I don’t think it does encapsulate the superpower it says on the tin, the power to amplify memories. It doesn’t need to. That kind of pain never goes away. But, read it, read all of it, and judge for yourselves. You won’t regret it.
The Tiger’s Bride: Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber (Vintage 2006)
A variant on the story of Beauty And The Beast, told in language so rich it’s almost distracting. Lusciously, seductively finessed.
Snow, Glass, Apples: Neil Gaiman Smoke And Mirrors (Headline 1999)
A retelling of Snow White, turned inside out and upside down, as only Neil Gaiman can, with a debt to Angela Carter. Beautiful and disturbing, by possibly my favourite living author.