A few years after I first fell in love with literature, in my distant youth, I began putting together an imaginary anthology full of the best short stories I happened to read, and I never stopped compiling it. This anthology ought to be enormous now, unwieldy and unpublishable, but in fact it’s a perfectly manageable length and that is because it only contains stories that truly riveted me and there aren’t so many of those. It’s not good enough for them just to be good. They must be stories that make me jump up and ruffle my hair and shout: “I wish I had written that, but I didn’t, and probably I couldn’t.”
I am sure I am not the only reader who carries such an anthology around in their heads. And though my tastes might have changed over the years, the fact remains that the stories in my imaginary anthology are those that had a forceful emotional effect as well as providing a cerebral satisfaction. Having said that, I must concede that cerebral satisfaction is emotional too. We feel elated when a clever insight suddenly illuminates an opaque mystery or when an impossible puzzle proves to have an ingenious solution.
The first story in my anthology is ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe, which I read when I was 15 years old. It was the first time I encountered the device of an ‘unreliable narrator’ (or at least a narrator with a twisted view of life) and it amazed me. I became an instant Poe devotee. Other stories by Poe that can be found in my anthology are ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, both of them perfect fables, and also a few of his weird comedies (it often comes as a surprise to readers that Poe wrote comedies) such as ‘A Predicament’, which is a fine example of surrealism before the word was coined (maybe we ought to call it ‘proto-surreal’).
Poe gave me a taste for the nightmarish, which isn’t quite the same as horror, and led me to Kafka, after I was informed (I can’t remember who by) that Kafka’s work was even more nightmarish than Poe’s. Maybe it is, but in a different way. And yet neither ‘Metamorphosis’ nor ‘In the Penal Colony’ are included in the anthology, magnificent though they are. I found myself more strongly drawn to some of his less obviously allegorical stories, ‘A Country Doctor’, for example, ‘The Great Wall of China’, ‘A Hunger Artist’, and to the the very brief and brilliant ‘On Parables’.
There has to be an upper word limit to each of the stories in my anthology, of course, and this is why Voltaire’s Candide, which is a novella or short novel, finds no place in the imaginary pages. The next author to be included must thus be Ray Bradbury, my literary hero when I was seventeen or so. I have included ‘The Scythe’ and ‘Homecoming’ (the first Bradbury story I ever read) as being the most important of his stories for me. Bradbury is the true heir of Poe, for his work wanders among the genres in the same manner, and his dark humour sits side by side with his more gothic effects.
I think that Saki must be in the anthology too, and I would choose ‘Laura’ from all his tales, for its sheer ingenuity. It remains one of the best twist ending fictions I have encountered and is hilariously ironic, and twist endings are not common in Saki, who generally prefers to fulfil the uneasy expectations of the reader rather than pulling the rug from under their feet. This is why he shouldn’t be compared with O Henry, who is included for ‘The Gift of the Magi’, though it has already been anthologised hundreds of times.
Chekhov’s early stories were a big influence on me, and although his later work is considered vastly superior to the fiction of his youth, I personally regard stories such as ‘Romance with Double-Bass’, ‘The Objet d’Art’ and ‘Revenge’ with their unexpected endings as more purely enjoyable. I also received a happy shock from two quite obscure tales, ‘The Monster of Lake LaMetrie’ by Wardon Allan Curtis and ‘The Anticipator’ by Morley Roberts. Another of my favourite twist endings is found in ‘Metonymy’ by Rachel de Queiroz. But twist endings aren’t everything. My favourite H.G. Wells’ story, ‘The Country of the Blind’, has no twist at the end. It proceeds with an unstoppable momentum like a slow avalanche, the reader a helpless observer.
The finest stories of Jorge Luis Borges are among the most remarkable pieces of fiction I have read. We might all be familiar with the conceptual rigour and originality of his most famous stories, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ and ‘The Library of Babel’, for these texts have redefined the purpose of the short story as a cultural product, but I have always found ‘The Congress’ to be the ultimate Borges story. The matrix on which it is based is a loop that turns out to be a complex manifold akin to the mathematical shape known as a Reimann surface. It is somewhat like a reverse prose version of Escher’s lithograph ‘Print Gallery’ in which a man is viewing a picture which contains the gallery in which he stands. In ‘The Congress’ a scheme is evolved to represent and control all the variables of the real world, but as the number of variables increases due to the demands of greater precision, the scheme is seen to already exist in the form of the real world itself.
A few of Italo Calvino’s hugely inventive stories are in my anthology too, ‘The Distance of the Moon’ among them, the first of his stories to feature the character, Qfwfq, who is as old as the universe. But Calvino’s shorter fiction tends to be at its best when it comes in sequences, and it’s the entire sequence that ends up being so superb, the Marcovaldo stories, for instance. They work better as linked suites, almost novels. One of his earliest surviving stories, ‘The Man Who Shouted Teresa’, will be in my anthology, however, for its charming absurdity, its precision and ironic logic.
I still haven’t decided which stories to include by Stanislaw Lem, Roger Zelazny, John Sladek, and so many other writers, but I feel confident they will have at least one piece in the anthology. Those were all science fiction writers and I read a lot of science fiction when I was young. Fredric Brown’s ‘Answer’ must be included in my anthology as a perfect example of a one-page story that manages to deal with the biggest themes in the universe in a way that is snappy and funny but also deeply thought provoking.
Now I will mention ‘The Dead Lady of Clown Town’ by Cordwainer Smith. All literature of the imagination is ‘strange’ but most of it is created by men and women who are not particularly strange. Most tales of the far future maintain the impression that they are imagined by writers who are living in the present. But Smith’s stories give the impression they are realistic fictions written in the future. I have heard it said elsewhere that the strangeness of Smith’s style derives from Chinese methods of storytelling (Smith spent his formative years in China) but that doesn’t account for the strangeness of his visions. They are authentically strange, not forced or contrived.
‘The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother’ by Gabriel García Márquez is another candidate. It is an extension of a brief scene in his renowned novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Eréndira is a young girl who accidentally sets fire to the home of her grandmother, who forces her to work in order to repay the debt, a term of servitude that lasts years. The hallucinatory tone of the story and its incipient strangeness intensify rather than detract from the fact that this is essentially a love and revenge tragedy as bloody and passionate as any ever conceived but conveyed in language that is simultaneously moon-washed with magic, heady with tropical oppression and sharp as a machete.
‘A Manual for Sons’ by Donald Barthelme is there too. For many people ‘postmodernism’ is a suspicious word, but it never has been for me, because I discovered the work of Barthelme long before being exposed to the somewhat pretentious academic side of the ‘movement’. Barthelme’s stories are playful, wise, profound, dry, unique and funny. There is no finer stylist in the cosmos of the short story. He was an experimentalist but also had an utterly solid grasp of the fundamental rules of the craft, and ‘A Manual for Sons’ demonstrates all his strengths. It is both tragic and comedic to an extreme degree.
‘The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D’ by J.G. Ballard. When Ballard was at his best his prose had a strange sort of clarity that was intellectual and emotional and quite heady. He was able to make geometries lyrical. The forlorn abandoned landscapes of modern civilisation were projected by him into a curious world of glacial fabulation. It often seems as if he is writing the same story again and again, refining it in an attempt to achieve some ultimate truth. In my opinion, he never bettered ‘The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D’ in which the usual Ballardian obsessions, the overlit deserts, the elegant women, the misfits, the surreal juxtaposition of old and new, the vast silences, fuse as perfectly as grains of sand that have turned into glass. Ballard was a writer who relied almost entirely on imagery, deeply affecting sequences of mind patterns, to impress and even mesmerise the reader. After first reading this story almost twenty years ago I have never been able to forget the gliders carving clouds into giant shapes above the bizarre resort of Vermilion Sands.
‘The Four-Colour Problem’ by Barrington Bayley, a story which at first glance resembles a dissertation on geometry. There are mathematical lectures embedded in the text, but these are never too technical for digestion. To further soften their impact, Bayley adopts a darkly comic tone which owes much to William Burroughs. The plot involves the discovery that geography is wrong and that between political borders lie new countries. The explanation for this concerns a real mathematical problem. Cartographers have long known that just four colours are required to fill in a map so that no colour borders itself, but mathematics yields only a proof for five colours. Bayley’s response is that maps exist that really do require five colours and that on the surface of our globe there are missing countries existing in dimensions tangential to our own. During the course of the tale, efforts are made to probe these intersections, with unexpected and humorous consequences.
‘Five Letters From an Eastern Empire’ by Alasdair Gray. This was the first story by Gray I ever read and it burned itself into my mind so forcefully almost three decades ago that I still regard it as the zenith of what is possible in the art of the short story, or rather what I regard as ultimately desirable. It’s a political satire, a fantasy, a tragedy and a story about definitions. The changing of one word in the title of a lament written by the main character, Bohu the Court Poet, turns an act of rebellion into a perfect propaganda tool for a repressive regime ruled by an immortal puppet. This remarkable conceit has much to say about how dictatorships manipulate the masses, and the evolution of the intolerable irony of the situation in which Bohu finds himself is perfect in pacing, mood and depth of meaning.
Recently I added another story to my imaginary anthology, a piece called ‘Cul-de-Sac (Uncompleted)’ by Australian writer Murray Bail, a deeply strange, quirky, logically lateral, hugely inventive, funny and disturbing piece. I know of nobody else who has read it. It’s a story that has clearly slipped through the cracks of time and awareness. I suppose there must be hundreds of stupendous works out there similarly neglected…
The anthology in my mind is a work continually in progress. It will never be finished until I stop reading short stories and it will never be published.
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.
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