NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL SHORT STORIES
DAVID McVEY gives his ultimate short story playlist.
Recorded music is invisible nowadays; you can’t point and say ‘there’s a digital download!’ or put all the tracks you’ve streamed in a cabinet in the living room. It was very different in the 1970s; when we bought the latest album by Pink Floyd or Yes or Led Zeppelin (and later The Clash or The Police), we removed it from the record shop plastic bag as soon as we were back in the street and carried it home unprotected. That square-foot of album cover announced to the world how cool we were, how impeccable were our musical tastes.
Mind you, even if it’s lost to sight, people are still passionate about music. Their favourite songs, their favourite bands, their most memorable gigs form a large part of who they are. I wish people were as upfront about their literary loves.
Let me explain.
I love short stories - reading them and writing them. I wish everyone else did too (well, reading them, anyway, there’s already too much competition in the latter). And I wish the literary world, publishers, bookshops and libraries treasured, celebrated and marketed short stories more than they do. They are the perfect literary miniature, the cameo, the cinematic short in words.
Or, to use another simile, if novels are symphonies (or 1970s concept albums), short stories are singles and album tracks. In my literary utopia there’s a weekly ‘singles’ chart counting down the most read, bought, downloaded or streamed short stories (including, hopefully, some of mine) and an ‘album’ chart featuring the top short story collections and anthologies. In this imaginary world, a new short story volume can have the impact that an album - Pet Sounds, Sergeant Pepper, Never Mind the Bollocks etc - used to have in music.
Short story anthologies, featuring a variety of authors, are analogous to ‘various artists’ compilation albums. In the United Kingdom, Now That’s What I Call Music… is a series of recent chart hits compilations that began in 1983 (when the first compilation was available only on vinyl, cassette or that brand new CD format). The series recently reached Now That’s What I Call Music 100. Of course, we also used to enjoy putting together compilation tapes* of favourite tracks, and perhaps in my utopia there is an app on e-readers that enables you to make a ‘compilation tape’ of your favourite short fiction. Maybe such things already exist. I don’t use e-readers. That’s how old school I am.
What I’ve done below is to draft an ideal collection of short stories, a dream anthology, a cool compilation that, in its physical format, I’d never imprison in a plastic bag for taking it home. People would see just how unimpeachable were my short story tastes. These are favourite stories, stories that I think show the possibilities of the medium, and not necessarily the best (though some of them are). If you disagree, great; go and argue about it, loudly, in public, as if you were engaged in a Beatles v Stones discussion in 1966. And then create your own Now That’s What I Call Short Stories compilation…
'They' by Rudyard Kipling
Some people are still surprised to learn that the big booming bard of empire was adept at subtle and quirky in the short story medium. They is a ghost story that first appeared in Scribner’s Magazine in 1904, and later in the same year was published in Kipling’s collection, Traffics and Discoveries. It’s not a frightening tale, though certainly unsettling, but ultimately moving and sad. It draws on Kipling’s love of motoring in the South Downs and on his grief for the loss of his seven-year-old daughter Josephine in 1899. The story is far removed from his tales of imperial derring-do and upfront patriotism. However, after you’ve read the story, you’ll never listen to the playful laughter of unseen children in the same way again. They will haunt your memory. Short stories are good at that.
'Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook' by MR James
Another ghost story; the short form is ideal for them. It’s a cliché to describe Montague Rhodes James as the master of the genre, but it’s not a cliché for nothing. There’s not really a ‘typical’ MR James story - they vary in setting and structure and effect - but if there were, it would be something like 'Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook'. This early story was published in a magazine in 1895, and appeared, slightly altered, in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904. It features a dusty antiquarian, an old manuscript, a historic church and is written in a restrained style that makes the hellish apparition all the more shocking when it comes. Now here’s another cliché - 'Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook' is perfect armchair reading by a roaring fire on a cold winter’s night. But leave the light on.
'The Garden Party' by Katherine Mansfield
The novel has mutated and developed markedly over the last 100 years; you couldn’t, except in conscious parody, write a novel in the style of the early 1900s. Yet you couldn’t give an aspiring short story writer better advice than to study James Joyce’s Dubliners (more on that story later) or the works of New Zealand’s master of the genre, Katherine Mansfield.
This 1922 story is much anthologised, deceptively simple and, as good short stories do, remains long in the memory. The bright opening is memorable but deceptive;
"And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden party if they had ordered it."
Something is going to disturb the idyll, you feel. You’re right.
'The Dead' by James Joyce
'The Dead' was written in 1907 and is the last story in Dubliners (1914), a collection that, I’d suggest, is the Sergeant Pepper or Dark Side of the Moon of short story volumes. It’s much longer than the other stories in the volume, and introduces more characters, yet there is still a moment near the end, an epiphany, a reflection that brings together all the ideas of the story. If you find the idea of Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake forbidding, try Dubliners instead.
'A Sound of Thunder' by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury’s short story used to be a favourite in schools. I hope it still is. It had everything for a young lad growing up in Scotland in the 1970s - dinosaurs, time travel, politics, shooting and cool American dialogue. Add to this Bradbury’s marvellous prose and a sense of political unease - the timey-wimey messing about in the story ends up reversing the outcome of a US presidential election so that Deutscher, a brutish right-wing candidate, wins. 'A Sound of Thunder' was first published in 1952. Deutscher might be read as a personification of the McCarthy witch-hunts, but I can’t help wondering if someone was messing about with time-travel dinosaur-shooting holidays in the USA in 2016…
Side Two **
'Honeysuckle Cottage' by PG Wodehouse
Another ghost story. This one, as you’d expect of the comic master, is a little different. It appeared in 1927 in Meet Mr Mulliner and like the other stories in the book it is related by Mulliner, Wodehouse’s loquacious resident storyteller of the Angler’s Rest. He asks;
"Do you believe in haunted houses? Do you believe that it is possible for a malign influence to envelop a place and work a spell on all who come within its radius?"
What follows is utterly true to the ghost story genre; a writer of hard-boiled crime fiction inherits a property from his aunt, a writer of slushy romantic novels. As he works there, he finds himself coming under the evil influence of the deceased occupant.
Of course - this is Wodehouse - the story is played strictly for laughs. What happens to the victim, James Rodman, is that he finds he cannot help slipping into writing sentimental claptrap like his aunt’s. A thoroughly traditional ghost story that also leaves you helpless with laughter. Now, there’s a trick to pull off.
'The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale' by Allan Sillitoe
Short stories stay with you.
Not long ago I came across this story in Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The schoolboy narrator tells the reader;
"Instead of doing arithmetic lessons at school I glue my eyes to the atlas under my desk, planning the way I’m going to take when the time comes (with the ripped-out map folded-up in my back pocket); bike to Derby, bus to Manchester, train to Glasgow, nicked car to Edinburgh and hitch-hiking down to London."
As I read the rhythmic escape route I remembered that I had studied the story in school, 30-odd years earlier. It had been refreshing to read about a working-class character not unlike ourselves who wasn’t above nicking stuff. It’s a fine story from a fine collection. But stealing is still wrong.
'Christmas Visitors' by George Mackay Brown
The late, great, Orcadian writer Brown was primarily a poet, but his spare language of simple words transformed into poetic gold is reflected in many volumes of short stories. I could have picked dozens, but, inevitably, I’ve picked another ghost story. Sort of.
An elderly woman sits at home on Christmas day, interrupted by visitors - family, neighbours and an opportunistic ginger cat. What she’s really waiting for is the annual visit she believes she receives from her fisherman husband Samuel, who was drowned at sea many years before:
"When you come today, young man out of the sea to visit this old woman with cow and cabbage patch, it will be forty-three Yules since you unmoored that boat for the last time.
I think my lover will not come tonight…"
Less than five pages long, 'Christmas Visitors' is a portrait of a life, of a way of life, and it breaks the heart. Both literary and genre, it packs the kind of emotional punch that only a short story can. It was first published in 1985 and gathered in Brown’s 1989 collection The Masked Fisherman.
'Fullcircle' by John Buchan
Buchan, best-known for his proto-thrillers (and criminally under-rated for his fine historical novels) was a particularly accomplished writer of short stories. This one, from his 1928 collection The Runagates Club follows Sir Edward Leithen - effectively Buchan’s alter ego - on three visits to the house of Fullcircle, and to the Giffen family who have just taken up residence there. The Giffens are a mild spoof of Bloomsbury intellectuals and we see them slowly being affected by the house and its past, adapting themselves to country life, sensuality and religion. Again, it is written with the structure and atmosphere of a ghost story, although it isn’t one. Well, probably not.
The fictional Fullcircle is based on Elsfield Manor, Buchan’s own home in the Cotswolds.
'WLT (The Edgar Era)' by Garrison Keillor
Keillor is a writer and broadcaster known for his radio programme A Prairie Home Companion. Many of his stories are about radio, including this one, told in his familiar dry, laconic style, a style that ensures you don’t see the laughs coming so that, when they do, your coffee spouts from your nostrils.
Edgar and Roy Elmore start a radio station in Minneapolis in order to advertise the products of their sandwich restaurant; it’s called Radio WLT (‘With Lettuce and Tomato’). Were you driven mad by those Go Compare ads with the jingle based on Cohan’s Over There? Imagine there really had been a Radio WLT, advertising its signature hamburger using the same tune;
"It’s the one!
It’s the one!
It’s the one with the fun in the bun!"
Edgar, a devout Christian, finds himself listening obsessively to the station, fearful that at some point something unsuitable, unseemly or profane might slip out. The story appeared first in the New Yorker and then in the 1981 collection Happy to be Here.
* Tapes: younger readers, ask mum, dad or, in some cases, perhaps, your grandparents.
** Sides One and Two: younger readers, find that person again and ask them again.
David McVey lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly, and supporting his home-town football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.