Two Superb Short Stories

Recently I’ve been enjoying lots of new series, such as Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series, the Death Note manga and lots and lots of Agatha Christie novels. Before I dive much further into all these new interests, I thought this would be a good time to look back over my bookshelves and discuss a few old favourites! So here are two short stories that I would highly recommend!

  1. Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake

Of course this macabre tale had to feature on this list – it’s so wonderfully strange and surreal! While the hero of this story is clearly Titus Groan of the Gormenghast series, it can be read in isolation from the series and still make perfect sense. It would be an excellent introduction for anyone new to Peake. I have talked about this story in detail before so suffice to say, it’s an atmospheric, nightmarish tale, which breaks down the boundaries between humans and animals. This is a story best read on a dark night, so close the curtains, dim the lights, and let yourself be absorbed into Peake’s disturbing fantasy.

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2. Please Excuse My Husband, He’s a Vegetarian by Michele Roberts

As a vegetarian, it might be surprising that I’m fond of this story, but I challenge anyone to resist this appealing dark comedy. It tells the story of a British husband and wife trying to settle into life in France; the wife manages to adjust with ease, but the husband’s vegetarian habits are rather baffling to this new society. The wife’s growing frustration is aimed not at their new French neighbours, but instead it’s her unfortunate, oblivious husband that has to face her wrath. I won’t spoil the ending, but even though I recognised some of my own awkward restaurant encounters in this story, it’s an entertaining reminder that not everyone is happy to be accommodating!

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Hieroglyphics and Other Stories

Anne Donovan’s Hieroglyphics and Other Stories is a collection of short stories which largely explore the lives and interactions of schoolchildren and their families (albeit with several interesting deviations). As brilliant a collection as Hieroglyphics is, the experience of reading these stories was slightly eerie, as I’ll most likely be teaching these selfsame stories in just a few months’ time, and so I couldn’t help but imagine how I’ll discuss Donovan’s writing with my teenage students. It’s an exciting prospect, though I’ll also glad that there’s still several weeks left before my course begins, as weather like this is meant for reading outside with your feet up.

annedonovanI can certainly appreciate why this collection has found its way onto the school curriculum. Donovan’s language is skillfully chosen and deeply connotative, and her subject matter is subtle but affecting. Her writing evokes the thoughts and fears of a wide cast of characters with masterful ease. This collection also challenges one of my own unfortunate prejudices about books: I dislike reading any form of dialect. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, I’ll usually just skim over it and hope I didn’t miss anything too important. The ‘Sloosha’s Crossin” section of Cloud Atlas was a struggle, and it’s testament to David Mitchell’s writing that I didn’t skip over a single word. Donovan adopts a Glaswegian vernacular in many of the stories collected here, and I have to confess that at first I found this offputting. It’s been drilled into me for years that Scots and other forms of dialect are inferior to ‘proper English’, and it’s only with effort that I can overcome this assumption. In Donovan’s stories, however, this dialect is absolutely essential: it expresses the true voice of her characters and does not feel at all forced or hackneyed. In contrast, Donovan’s writing is enhanced by her choice of words, which intensifies the sense of sincerity conveyed throughout her stories.

Favourite Short Story Collections

The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell bears a distinct similarity to the Harry Potter series: although written for an older audience, Clarke’s novel similarly presents an alternative vision of Britain, in which British history is entwined with the realm of Faerie and the development of magic. These stories are set, for the most part, within this world and provide an enriching accompaniment to the novel for the enamoured reader.

Highlight: ‘The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse.’ This story isn’t set in Clarke’s Britain, but instead takes place in the world of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. 

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Necronomicon, H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft is truly the master of horror: authors including Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have acknowledged their debt to Lovecraft as the founder of the suspense genre. Lovecraft created an entire mythology for his short fiction, and generations of readers have succumbed to the seductive call of Cthulu. If you haven’t already bought Lovecraft’s stories, I can’t recommend the commemorative edition highly enough. It’s an arm-achingly massive hardback, full of wonderfully haunting illustrations, and its a strong contender for the most beautiful book in my collection.

Highlight: I couldn’t choose a single story for this list, as the whole collection is phenomenal. Though if you really twist my arm, maybe ‘The Dunwich Horror’ or ‘The Cats of Ulthar’.

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A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Yiyun Li

I love everything I’ve read by Yiyun Li (she has released three works so far: the others are her novel The Vagrants and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, another collection of short stories). A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is Li’s stunningly impressive debut collection. These stories transport the reader into the company of a wide variety of seemingly insignificant people, and provide a compelling account of modern China along the way.

Highlight: As with Lovecraft, this collection should be devoured as a whole, but if you need further convincing, then I’d suggest starting either with ‘Extra’ or ‘Immortality’.

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Spectacle

Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle was recommended to me by a fellow blogger with trustworthy taste and this recommendation was supported by highly praising reviews from critics and authors alike. For me, however, the promise of Steinberg’s prose fell flat. I always feel like I’ve failed as a reader when I don’t respond positively to books that others have been enthralled by. Infinite Jest is another example of this; David Foster Wallace’s ideas about literature and the failure of irony are fascinating, but for some reasons his novel just didn’t work for me. So, this post is my attempt to figure out my own feelings about Spectacle. Hopefully I’ll convince you that I’m not a terrible reader in the process.

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Steinberg’s short stories are primarily concerned with exploring questions of female identity and the roles adopted by women in their relationships with men and society in general. Although I found the stories largely devoid of any great emotional meaning, Steinberg does occasionally succeed in producing poignant remarks about her subject. One example is the comparison Steinberg makes between the reactions of two men to a female driver: the first verbally abuses her, while the second comes to her rescue. These are two very different men, yet they both respond to the femininity of Steinberg’s narrator, calling her ‘certain names reserved for women, certain names I’d been called before and would be called again.’ On the other hand, the sensitivity with which Steinberg handles the subject of female identity is not extended to her treatment of male characters. Arguably the nameless, formless men in these stories are as objectified as Steinberg’s narrators consider themselves to be.

Initially, I was taken in by Steinberg’s pithy and unadorned prose. Steinberg’s narrators (perhaps it’s incorrect to speak of them in the plural, as every story is told by the same voice) reflect on their own word choices and are careful to avoid tired metaphors. This self-awareness was enjoyable, at first, but as the same techniques are used in each story, the postmodern playfulness quickly becomes laboured. Giving each female narrator the same voice undermines the collection’s potential to present a moving piece of fiction. Elements which feel powerful and engaging in the first story have become dull and repetitive by the third. Several stories are revisited in the latter half of the collection; the circularity of its structure exemplifies the fault of the book for me: for all its early promises, the collection ultimately goes nowhere. Overall Spectacle felt like the work of a creative-writing student: not without promise, but still a distinctly unpolished voice.

Boy in Darkness

We are all that is left of them…of all the creatures of the globe; of all insects and all birds – of the fish of the salt ocean and the beasts of prey. For he has changed their natures, and they have died. But we did not die. We became as we are through the powers of the Lamb and from his terrible skill.

The deadline for my dissertation is fast approaching and I have Mervyn Peake on the mind. I fancy escaping, for a short while, from the confines of Gormenghast and delving instead into Peake’s shorter fiction. Boy in Darkness [1956] is a deeply unsettling novella, which presents the attempt of the eponymous Boy (unnamed but undoubtedly Titus Groan) to flee from the castle and the nightmarish episode which ensues.

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Boy in Darkness demonstrates the same flourishing, wildly evocative language of its predecessors. Through the Boy’s flight from his home, it also explores a similar theme: the desire of youth to revolt against age. The incoherence of the adult world is expressed through the ‘idiotic ceremonies’ in which the Boy is forced to participate; the traditions of the old are meaningless in the eyes of the young. Yet it simultaneously expresses the fears which constrain this desire to rebel, and which come close to curtailing the Boy’s escape: ‘It was not that something had gone that in his heart of hearts he wanted back but that something lay ahead of him that he had no wish to meet.’

The Boy’s fears are not without foundation; lost in an alien landscape, he encounters creatures akin to the Beast-Folk of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. Goat and Hyena possess the uncanny quality of H.G. Wells’ creations; they appear at once both familiar and strange, both human and beast. The Boy struggles to pinpoint the source of repulsion evoked by the creatures (‘The head was long and huge. But why should that, in itself, be repellent or impossible?’) but cannot help shuddering at their distinctly animalistic gestures. Unlike Doctor Moreau’s research subjects, Hyena and Goat are men re-fashioned as animals, but their transformation nevertheless expresses the same anxiety: the possibility that civilised men could revert to their bestial origins. Hyena and Goat have vague recollections of their human experiences: when the Boy weeps in response to his fear and fatigue, his cries provoke old memories, although neither creature can remember what it means to shed tears.

The transformation of Hyena and Goat represents the handiwork of the Lamb, to whom his creations show an almost religious devotion, hailing him as ‘our sovereign lord of the white head’. In contrast to his angelic white features, the Lamb’s voice cuts like a knife, while his sighs are ‘the sound of a scythe’. Unlike his creations, the Lamb is neither human or animal, but distinctly Other. In controlling the half-men he performs a similar role to Doctor Moreau, but with the crucial difference that his experiments were not undertaken in the hopes of benefiting humanity, but rather as an expression of his loathing towards mankind.

Boy in Darkness presents a truly disturbing tale; the crumbling Gothic castle of Titus Groan and Gormenghast feels almost homely in contrast to the cavernous lair of the Lamb.

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

Christopher Hitchens once said that there are certain books which appear not to have been written by human beings. For Hitchens, these books included Middlemarch, Ulysses, Satanic Verses and The Moor’s Last Sigh; for me, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li falls firmly within this category.

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Gold Boy, Emerald Girl is a collection of short stories, loosely connected by the themes of kindness, isolation, and the ties which bind the individual to society. The stories are concerned with the impact other people have in shaping both the courses of our lives and in defining our own selves. In the opening story, Kindness, the narrator suggests that her life has been shaped by the people she has encountered:

I have never forgotten a person who has come into my life, and perhaps it is for that reason I cannot have much of a life myself. The people I carry with me have lived out not only their own rations but mine too, though they are innocent usurpers of my life, and I have only myself to blame.

Curiously, the effect of these connections is not represented as an entirely positive one. The nameless narrator feels that her life has been diminished by the interference of outsiders; although their intrusions may be innocent, her life has been usurped nonetheless. Other people become burdens, twisting the courses of our lives. Kindness itself is a tie, a debt that must be carried with us (‘Kindness binds one to the past as obstinately as love does’).

Throughout the stories, characters are haunted by past cruelties, whether the harm inflicted upon others was intentional or otherwise. Mrs Lu, for example, is followed by the ghost of the girl she once inadvertently pushed to suicide:

The girl sneaked into the dorm building a month later, when Mrs Lu was busy with the mail, and jumped from the top floor. The thud, ten years later, still made Mrs Lu shiver at night.

Connections can spring even from seemingly distant sources: literature, both Chinese and Western, features within several of the stories. A line of ancient poetry is discovered by a daughter scribbled inside one of her mother’s novels, and she initially believes it to have been written for her father, but a later discovery prompts her to rethink this assumption. Dickens, meanwhile, is transported from Victorian London to 20th-century Shanghai, which leads, in turn, to the suicide of Siyu’s mother in the final tale of the collection.

While these ties, of literature, kindness and cruelty, may appear to be a burden, a debt which keeps the bearer beholden to others, the stories ultimately suggest that isolation is not a useful response to this problem. The roles played by others, whether positive or debilitating, cannot be escaped, and so can only be embraced.

Still, seeing her through other people’s eyes, Hanfeng realized that all that made her who she was – the decades of solitude in her widowhood, her coldness to the prying eyes of people who tried to mask their nosiness with friendliness, and her faith in the notion of living one’s own life without having to go out of one’s way for other people – could be deemed pointless and laughable.