Short, Sweet Stories

Controversially, my local library has now relegated short stories to a section by themselves. While it’s nice to have somewhere to go if you only want to read short stories, innumerable questions arise. Will it be a multi-generic mingling of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, with Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, James Joyce’s Dubliners and Dylan Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, or do the genre works go elsewhere? What about works that were serialised as short stories, but were collected as novels, such as Asimov’s Foundation and Sax Rohmer’s The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu, both of which, later in the series, eventually morphed into novels? Shelve them apart or together?

Most of all, there’s the worrying notion that this might ghettoise the short story, which is fast following poetry into a little-bought, little-read, uncommercial sideline. Mostly Joyce’s fault, I feel, for making the short story so damned literary, together with the boom in Creative Writing for flooding the market with hundreds of early literary writers working painstakingly up from the short story collection to the semi-autobiographical novel to Ulysses! Me, I wrote my first novel at 13 (a terrible fantasy knock-off) and when I write short stories, it’s generally a horror story for reading around the campfire during a hiking trip. It may be terribly pulpy, but it’s more fun than any writing group.

I’ve decided to do my small bit to revitalise the art form and hence, I’ve collected and recommended half-a-dozen writers whose short stories are fun, pacey, and not altogether lacking in literary merit. I’ve tried to steer clear of the obvious genre writers, but even so, here you’ll find vampires, murderers, and devils a plenty, together with ‘real world’ stories just as entertaining.

Jane Austen

Her short stories are the most overlooked works in Austen’s extraordinary oeuvre – many of those who have read her novels time and time again will never even have glanced at her Juvenilia – the unruly, mocking, anarchic works of her teenage years. The sly sense of humour that continually undercuts her writing style – and which is so often lost in the po-faced costume dramas – runs riot through these 26 (often very short) works, which are like nothing in the eighteenth century and very little in the nineteenth. The History of England… By a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian anticipates 1066 and All That by more than a century; in Edgar and Emma we have Austen’s only murderess; in The Beautiful Cassandra an entire novel condensed down into a sentence or two per chapter. The invention and energy is such that by the time we reach the final item in the book, Catherine: or The Bower, which displays the mature Austen’s more sedate style, it’s almost a disappointment.

Stand Out: The innocuously titled ‘A Collection of Letters’; each one more hilarious than the last.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 

Most famous for his peerless consulting detective, A C-D’s second best-known creation is probably Professor Challenger, who led a dinosaur hunting expedition to a plateau in South America in the Victorian Jurassic Park. His other works are mostly forgotten. The one that least deserves to be is Brigadier Gerrard, a hilariously vain, dashing and none-too-bright French Hussar, on the frontline of Napoleon’s Army during all his various campaigns. The writing is so vivid and modern, that although it was a clear inspiration to George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, it feels more like a modern rival. His two entries in the volume of Late Victorian Gothic Tales show he can tell a spine-chiller with the best of them: ‘Lot. 249’ is one of the earliest and best of the mummy stories, and ‘The Case of Lady Sannox’ is a tale of dreadful cruelty to rival Edgar Allan Poe.

Stand Out: It’s hard to choose a favourite from a writer whose work spanned detective, historical, horror and early science-fiction stories, adding something new to each. Of his isolated pieces, however, ‘The Captain of the “Pole-Star”‘ best rewards rediscovery.

Rudyard Kipling

‘Once upon a time, O best beloved…’

Those words were such an integral part of my childhood that even now they nearly bring me to tears. Where Conan-Doyle spans the genres, Kipling spans the years. The Just So Stories, The Jungle Book, Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies should be indispensable companions to any childhood. He often gets a bad press for his uncritical view of the British Empire, but he knew India backwards, and his works are full of colour and local knowledge.  ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ is a thrilling adventure story, but also a vivid tale of Imperial hubris, while ‘Lispeth’ is a tragic inditement of colonial attitudes. His horror stories, collected in Strange Tales, span continents and time-scales with ease. Despite the uneasy racism, ‘At the End of the Passage’ is a doppelgänger story to stand alongside The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Stand Out: How the Whale Became displays more than any poem Kipling ever wrote his absolute mastery of rhythm.

Dylan Thomas

Every previous writer in this list was also a poet, but for Dylan Thomas prose was obviously a second string. To be honest, that comes as a relief. Many of his tangled, intricately crafted poems can take hours of study to decode, but his short stories are a lot simpler and easy to get a handle on. The stories in his first collection, The Map of Love, came bundled with his poetry, and are a lot darker and more Gothic than the rest of his output, but still enjoyable. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog is where he really hits his stride, with a series of semi-autobiographical tales, alternating between Carmarthenshire and Swansea. All of them are filled with larger than life characters, lively turns of phrase and brilliant storytelling. Read the poems to get the sense of him as a great poet; read the short stories to get the sense of what he would be like down the pub.

Stand Out: The trip out to Rhossilli Beach in ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us?’ captures the joy of getting outdoors together with the illusory sense of escape. It really makes you want to get on the road.

George MacKay Brown

Possibly even more bardic than Burns, G M Brown barely ever left his native Orkney, but his short stories bring every genre and every page of history to him. There are ghosts, Vikings, Faustian pacts, murders and revenges, all of them individually captured in spare, beautiful tales with no sense of indulgence to them – he can even write about the afterlife without making me want to wince. He carved out a role for himself in his community, as writer and poet, and all his work has the sense of something honed, polished, and read out many times before an ordinary audience before finally committed to the page, like something simultaneously modern and from a much older oral tradition. A true craftsman.

Stand Out: Not having a collection by me, I can’t remember titles, but everything in The Sun’s Net and Winter Tales.

Angela Carter

Insisting she wrote tales rather than short stories, Angela Carter connected her work to an older tradition of the short Gothic tale. It’s tempting to talk of her feminist perspective – she often retells the story from the woman’s point of view – but it makes her sound bowdlerised and politically correct, when she could hardly be more controversial. Her most famous work, The Bloody Chamber, retells classic fairytales as violent psycho-sexual fables – like Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes but even more bloodthirsty. Psychologically acute, twisting and drenched in detail, they’re an experience like no other.

Stand Out: The title story in The Bloody Chamber, which brings back to me all the creeping dread I first felt on hearing the tale of Bluebeard for the first time.


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