Review by Pat Black
Just for jolly – and before I change my mind - here are my favourite short stories.
No particular genre, no specific length.
10. The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke
Sometimes, when you finish a big book, you feel a sense of relief. Even if you really enjoyed it, it’s nice to get it over with and start something fresh.
With Arthur C Clarke’s Collected Stories, I only felt regret that I had finished it, and seriously considered starting it again.
Ignoring “The Sentinel” and its cinematic advantage, “The Nine Billion Names of God” is possibly Clarke’s most famous short story. Set deep in the Himalayas, it sees a group of scientists using a computer to calculate the name of god. The 300-year project has been spitting out endless streams of text, using every possible letter combination in existence. The boffins hypothesise that once their machines uncover god’s actual name, the big guy in the sky will consider humanity’s purpose as complete, and get in touch with us.
Written in 1953, the story betrays a key aspect of early computing which we tend to forget now that these devices are everywhere: they are counting machines, to a greater or lesser extent, even if it’s calculating “1” or “0”. The plodding, clunky, systematic nature of the task in “The Nine Billion Names of God” recalls Borges’ Library of Babel, its books stuffed with every possible combination and sequence of letters into infinity. The task seems so meaningless and futile, I’m surprised no-one has produced a computer program to replicate it in our gilded age.
Lots of people find Clarke boring, and denigrate his characterisation skills as well as his slightly tin ear for dialogue. But he packs loads of atmosphere into this one, as his scientists peer out into the stars from the roof of the world.
Clarke occasionally showed religious flashes in his stories, leaning more towards Buddhism than the Christian tradition of his homeland as he grew old in Sri Lanka. But this tale evokes a decidedly Old Testament sense of awe and dread as we turn our faces towards an almighty presence completely relaxed at the prospect of turning out the lights.
9. Cathedral by Raymond Carver
During my dim and distant undergraduate days, I recall a lecturer reading out this whole story to a class and suffering some kind of breakdown near the end of it. “I make no apology for this,” the guy said, wiping the tears away, “I’m not ashamed. This story affects me like no other.”
Whether this was a literature-induced breakdown or, as I now suspect, the poor guy had a panic attack, I’ll never know. What I do know is, I mocked the lecturer for his emotion, braying pitiless laughter as I recounted the incident later on to anyone who would listen. I was just sixteen years old, and a fool. Education is indeed wasted on the young.
Carver is justly hailed as a great late-20th century American voice. His characters and the problems they face are prosaic; the execution of his stories is anything but.
“Cathedral” sees a wife inviting a blind friend home for dinner. The husband, who narrates the story, is jealous to start with, after the wife reveals she once allowed the blind man to touch her face.
The sequence of events is, “blind man comes for dinner; they have dinner; they get stoned; they draw pictures”. But a sublime communion starts to develop between the three as they embark on a great feast, consumed by a fit of the munchies. “We ate. By god, we ate.”
Epiphany lurks on these pages, an insight into that higher plane where great art can send us. I think that’s what the lecture was about. The story was certainly on a higher plane to my 16-year-old self; it whooshed far overhead.
Perhaps now, more than 20 years since I first encountered “Cathedral”, I can understand why a soft-spoken Australian man, or anyone, might crack up in the reading of it.
As a weird post-script to my Raymond Carver experiences, I remember someone once setting up a “Raymond Carver tribute” near a run-down garden in the shadow of some Glasgow tower blocks. This bizarre collage sitting in the middle of a residential street even made the BBC Scotland news. My recall is hazy but I think it might have been the work of an art student on some project or other.
But I like to imagine that it was the tearful lecturer.
8. The Monkey’s Paw by WW Jacobs
A beloved stand-by of scary anthologies the world over, this is the classic Edwardian horror. No dark fiction collection feels complete without it. That would be like the Eagles not playing Hotel California, or more appropriately, Iron Maiden eschewing Run To The Hills.
“The Monkey’s Paw” is an English variation of the Aladdin folk tale from the 1,001 Nights, but it has become famous in its own unique way.
You surely know it. The old general visiting the couple and their son, a domestic situation as mild and homely as hot buttered toast… then the horrid object in the title, the three wishes it bestows, and the terrible price that must be paid for them.
But more than that, there’s the simple fear of the unknown. What in god’s name is behind that door?
7. Weekend by Fay Weldon
As jarring as any horror story, Weldon’s “Weekend” looks at the trampled, taken-for-granted world of an exhausted wife and mother. She’s a functionary of her household’s lives, an essentially unloved factotum. Her status and existence is threatened when a friend of her husband comes to visit for a weekend, bringing along with him a younger girlfriend - a trade-in deal on his own long-suffering wife - and all the potential horrors she represents.
I’ve seen this misery inflicted on tired, ground-down women so many times, and you’ll certainly recognise elements of the mother at the centre of the drama. I’ll quote my own words, from one of our reviews from a few years ago: “Weldon sustains a terrific pace, and portrays the tragedy of a woman who has become a doormat, part of the furniture, an uninteresting fixture. It was the most disturbing story in the book, and it didn’t rely on bloodshed, sex or death to draw this reaction.”
6. Abject Misery by James Kelman
A Glasgow man gets through his day as best he can. He’s down to the fluff in his pockets. He’s not thinking too much beyond what’s happening there and then. There’s not a great deal in the way of good luck to be had. But he laughs in the face of his misfortunes, as only those at the bottom can.
The title is a misnomer, as this story indulges a certain insouciant glee in the face of poverty - poverty of means, poverty of ambition, poverty of circumstances. But as Kelman’s fellow Glaswegian (and mine) Paolo Nutini sang: nothin’s gonna get him down.
5. The Tower by Marghanita Laski
In a tournament I devised one feverish Sunday afternoon on these very pages, I judged “The Tower” to be the greatest horror story ever written. It might be the best one you’ve never heard of. It features an English woman visiting a tower in rural Italy. She comes across a spooky painting. Then she makes her way downstairs…
This story works hard to be weird and unsettling. What’s her husband’s problem? And who is the guy with the evil eyes in the painting? On top of this, it has a perfect finish, leaving us with a horrible last-line shock.
“The Tower” blends subtle dread and nasty surprise to an extraordinary extent, frightening us despite not a drop of blood being spilled. It’s quite hard to find; the JA Cuddon-edited Penguin Ghost Stories is your best bet. But it’s well worth the search.
4. Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
I had no idea before researching this story that it had won quite so many awards, but it didn’t surprise me.
Part of Brian Aldiss’ Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, this story sees a linguist handed the ultimate challenge: to help translate an utterly alien language after humans make contact with beings from beyond the stars. Through this task, the linguist painstakingly unravels our assumptions about speech, communication and its written representation, building something completely new and reaching a fresh understanding about existence while she’s at it.
In the midst of these dense philosophical concepts there’s a personal drama taking place, as the linguist gets close to one of her fellow scientists. She also addresses her daughter in the narrative, speaking to her in the second person…
Gradually, our assumptions of time and experience are challenged, our knowledge boosted, and our philosophical understanding of the universe turned upside down.
Great literature is like taking a long drink after a hike on a hot day. This is a very special story, and, if printed out and rolled up, could make a perfectly weighted weapon with which to clobber people who don’t consider SF to be serious literature.
3. Solid Objects by Virginia Woolf
The prime example of a great story in which nothing of note happens.
A parliamentary candidate diverts his energies from campaigning towards finding treasures in his daily life – “treasures” meaning things like broken china, pieces of glass worn smooth on a beach, flakey iron bars. Like the people in his life, we wonder what the hell this man is doing. Doesn’t he realise there’s an election coming up?
Woolf shares her protagonist’s sheer delight in what AS Byatt called “the thingyness of things” in the introduction to The Oxford Book of English Short Stories. She describes the man’s objets trouve with the attention to detail and brio of the great visual artists. Woolf revels in her main character’s carefree, childlike joy in discovery - and because of that, so do you.
I wouldn’t say this year’s Westminster election hopefuls should be made to read “Solid Objects” before polling day, but I might be more prepared to vote for one who had enjoyed it.
2. The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway
Uncle Ernie could be such a sourpuss.
Here, the classic Hemingway protagonist slowly dies of gangrene in a tent; while he goes grumpily into that good night, he can’t help but take a swipe at his fretting woman.
Despite its grim scenario, this story is joyous, a rampage through the untold stories that fizz inside us all. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” portrays storytelling as the stuff of life. It shows how the recollection of experience becomes fuel for our own tales, which then go on in turn to inform experience for others. As it bursts into sudden, startling bloom, “Snows” has a freewheeling sensation you wouldn’t normally associate with Hemingway’s famously staccato, sometimes stolid delivery.
The author’s reputation has taken a dreadful beating in recent years, with his machismo – and in particular his bloodlust, as he blunderbusses rare and beautiful animals out of existence – badly out of step with the modern world.
“What was the leopard doing so far up the mountain?” Probably trying to avoid being shot by you, mate.
At times, Hemingway seems the most horrid boor, like that friend you know to say goodnight to before he’s had one too many pisco sours. He’s almost certainly who you’d want to take on in Literary Fight Club.
But “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a monumental achievement, and stands tall to this day.
1. The Fog Horn by Ray Bradbury
Two lighthouse keepers stare out into thick fog as the great beam slices through the night. Somewhere out there, a monster lurks.
What a classic premise. There are many ways Bradbury’s monster mash could have gone to schlock – and indeed, the lighthouse gets a thorough monstering by the end. But it’s the sense of loneliness that makes this tale, as chilly as the fog that enshrouds the mysterious creature as it returns to the surface, hoping to find what it has been searching for all its life.
We feel sympathy for the monster’s terrible predicament, its loneliness, and perhaps, in our heart of hearts, its ultimate rage. Whoever said unrequited love is the best kind obviously never got on the wrong side of a randy sea monster.
But “The Fog Horn” could be history’s greatest love story; it’s certainly history’s greatest monster story. So for that reason, I reckon it’s the greatest story, period.
I hope the monster found what it was looking for, out there in The Deeps.
Pleas in mitigation:
:: I’ve only ever read one John Updike story, one James Thurber story and two Graham Greene stories. I have never read anything by John Cheever.
Where the women at?
:: It should be a fifty-fifty split between the boys and girls, really, and I was thinking about slicing it that way. But I must be honest about which stories I enjoyed best.
Katherine Mansfield, Maya Angelou, Ali Smith, Kate Chopin, Margaret Atwood and Flannery O’Connor could have appeared here, but didn’t. That’s to say nothing of Anais Nin: the Elvis Presley of erotic writing.
Perhaps this says more about publication and critical regard being more heavily weighted towards men throughout history. Or maybe I simply haven’t read enough women.
But I fully accept: three out of ten’s a fail.
Hey, why didn’t you include..?
:: I had to be brutal. On another day I might have put Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Roald Dahl, William Trevor, MR James, JG Ballard, Martin Amis, Alan Sillitoe, James Joyce of course, EF Benson, HG Wells… the list is practically endless (and all male so far!)... Argh, how could I forget about Saki?!
But here’s a comforting thought: there’s so much more wonderful work still to discover, and yet more still to be written. In ten years’ time, my top 10 could be totally changed.
I’ll meet you back here in 2025.