I spent last week and some of this one wallowing in the quality short fiction between the covers of this year’s Best British Short Stories 2012. Previously on this blog I’ve made a bit of a song and dance of the fact the collection includes a story by yours truly, but after reading and falling hard for the other 19 stories I thought it was time to sing and dance about them.
What stuck me about the collection as a whole was how each of the stories included by series editor Nicholas Royle could be described as a ghost story of some kind. That isn’t to say the stories are full of ghouls, but more that each story is haunted in some way, by an absence, a loss, a disturbing presence; my own included. It is these ‘hauntings’ that perhaps explains Royles’ admission that this collection ‘might seem rather a dark one.’ Which isn’t to say there is no light here. In this collection, as in life, the light and dark go hand in hand. One without the other makes no sense.
In preparing this review I decided to write about the stories in much the same way I write my mini-reviews of online fiction over on my tumblr, the short and long of it, so what follows are my first unedited thoughts on finishing reading each story as transcribed from my notebook.
I Arrive First – Emma Jane Unsworth
A self-consciously literary love story and a clever take on the love in a library trope. It is no mistake that this story about the meaning that titles can possess has such a great one used to terrific effect.
The Dark Space In The House In The House In The Garden At The Centre Of The World – Robert Shearman
A bold, ambitious and slightly ludicrous take on all the major themes of literature; sex, religion, love, marriage, death, the nature of God, they’re all here. Clever, funny and, as all good fairy stories should be, a little bit scary.
What’s In Swindon? – Stuart Evers
Brims with the universal yearning for passions of the past, seen through the eyes of a character trapped in the all to mundane present.
Alice In Time & Space & Various Major Cities – H. P. Tinker
Bristles with ideas and contains possibly the best ever single sentence description of sex:
‘I entered her shortly afterwards with Chekhovian precision.’
The Visit – Jaki McCarrick
Heartening tale of the truths that only old friends can tell and the secrets that only old friends can share.
I’m The Guy Who Wrote The Wild Bunch – Julian Gough
A tremendously clever, witty story with pitch perfect voice and great use of oral history/interview form. Made me laugh out loud. The kind of story you immediately want to share with people.
Those Who Remember – Joel Lane
Revenge, death and the ghosts of the past haunt this latest slice of Black Country horror from the pen of Joel Lane. Took me back to the streets and towns of my youth.
The Brixton Beach – Stella Duffy
Touches on the transformative power of water and how, when swimming, we become more ourselves, the trappings of our lives put aside for a moment. Thought-provoking.
Wide & Deep – Socrates Adams
Life but not as we know it. Instead, here, it’s glimpsed through the veil of failing memory. A stark portrayal of how we can struggle with time and memory that possess perhaps the best opening four sentences of 2012.
Tarnished Sorry Open – Jo Lloyd
A powerfully understated glimpse inside isolation and the desperation it fosters for connection.
Aperitifs With Mr Hemingway – Jonathon Trigell
Uses the epistolary style to great effect. Great example of sympathetic character doing something unsympathetic that the reader roots for anyway.
Sun on Prospect Street – Neil Campbell
One of the Pictures from Hopper. A near perfect evocation of those eternal summers of remembered childhood and the emerging into the adulthood that attends them.
The Room Beyond – Ramsey Campbell
Rachets disquiet and twists tension up to eleven as a dark past overwhelms the present moment.
iAnna – Will Self
Among his best work. A wildly imaginative idea superbly realised. Clever, clever, clever but in a good way.
The Heart of Denis Noble – Alison MacLeod
A remarkable story that asks ‘ Where does love lie?’ Beautifully precise prose, full of specificity of detail and striking use of metaphor. The kind of story you wish you had written. Prime example of what the short form can achieve.
We Wave and Call – Jon McGregor
Controlled use of second person perches the reader inside the skin of a doomed youth to powerful effect.
All I Know About Gertrude – Jeanette Winterson
Walks the fine line between biography, autobiography and fiction. Not so much stream of consciousness as a stream of connections. A kind of six degrees of fictional association.
Sad, Dark Thing – Michael Marshall Smith
First thing I’ve read of his in years and it’s a corker. A tale of subtle horror, awash with foreboding, that builds to a slow, shattering and utterly inevitable though unpredictable climax.
The Last Library – A. K. Benedict
A beautiful fable of the end of all things and the startling and reassuring inevitability of new beginnings. Life-affirming reading.
Looking at the list of names above and the comments I’ve made about the individual stories, it should come as no surprise that my inclusion alongside so many wonderful authors and amazing stories is the high point of my writing career (if you can call it that) so far. It still amazes me that my little story managed to find a place amongst them.
The inclusion of my story aside though, I can’t recommend this collection too highly. Each and every story above is a great example of what is possible in the short form, each of them does something only a short story can do. They are moving, entertaining, sometimes shocking pieces of fiction that will leave you changed a little inside for reading them. Which is after all, how the best writing should leave you.