For many years I was a no-go-zone for short stories. I just wasn’t interested. I told myself and others than I needed something to get my teeth stuck into and short stories always left me hanging.
I’ve since revised this opinion, after discovering a new found love of short stories – thanks mainly to Jessie Greengrass’s debut collection An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk According to One Who Saw It (John Murray). I’ve now decided that the main reason I previously didn’t warm to short stories was that, unlike reading a novel which you tend to pick because the subject matter appeals to you, with short stories you don’t get to choose case-by-case. Of course you can elect to read some or all, and the order in which you read them, but (for me) they need to have an extremely compelling unifying theme if you’re going to enjoy them as a collection. Most of what had put me off were the various Collected Short Stories of [insert Great Writer here] which are probably never going to work for me, in the same way that Best Of [insert Great Band/Artist] albums don’t truly represent a full creative arc.
Reading An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk was actually quite life changing (which is why I’ve now name-checked it twice). Its unifying themes of loneliness, alienation, desperation and longing for escape carried across the stories in a really evocative way that has made me return to them over and over. I’ve read a few other collections of stories since and been pleasantly surprised but not wowed, that is, until I picked up both Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams (from Influx) and A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson (from Text).
Both have a theme that works for me, and pulls the reader through the stories. They work together and individually, but better together. Attrib. is all about the weirdness and wonderfulness of language and how it shapes our experience of the world, particularly of love. Collapse of Horses is all about putting the sinister into the everyday. Both have stayed with me in the weeks after reading to a greater extent than usual.
Attrib. especially works as a series of beautifully written detached vignettes upon the themes of language and love. And what finer themes are there? The narrator of the opening story suffers from aphasia and, in all the stories to a great or lesser extent, characters are at the mercy of their relationship to language. Colours are unspeakable, inanimate objects have voices, birds scream and shout, other languages say things better and more succinctly. Another character suffers from neurological synaesthesia. There’s a story about an ortolan chef, a rosette maker, someone who trains rats to detect landmines and a foley artist. Every story is spectacular.
A Collapse of Horses is also wonderfully weird and sublimely (although I balk at the overuse of this word) Kafkaesque. It contains some very surreal terror in its twists on the everyday and is quite unlike anything I’ve read before – these are not ghost or horror stories: they are far scarier. There’s something of the early X-Files in there, but much subtler and more insidiously frightening. A teddy bear beats with the recorded heartbeat of a dead baby. The only survivor of a deadly fire tells his story. The crew on a space mission are being slowly asphyxiated by a deadly dust, whilst a killer picks them off, one by one. A young man returns to his controlling girlfriend who tried to kill him, and a prisoner is incarcerated without knowing why. I am still afraid.
I need more short stories like these. Suggestions
Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams is published by Influx
(£9.99, p/b, 169pp, 9781910312162)
A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson is published by Text Publishing
(£8.99, p/b, 240pp, 9781925355796)