I’ve loved the short stories that I’ve read over the year. There are so many and people seem to be rather good at writing them.
As usual, I make my choice with some combination of gut and brain and hope that the result is helpful to you.
The first couple of picks have something in them that is similar – they’re perfectly rounded. In their wonderfully shaped endings, they really pack a dynamite kick to the emotions.
First off is Craig Wallwork’s 'Night Holds A Scythe’, the openener from his collection Quintessence Of Dust
. It’s beautiful and painful at the same time. A father is flying with his daughter trying to find safety. The problem is that, because of a deadly virus, the only way for them to stay alive is to stay awake. I guess it’s a straightforward concept, but it’s what Wallwork does with it that counts. It tapped into many of my own insecurities about being a human and a father. What wouldn’t I do to keep my children safe? How awful would it be to sense their inevitable destruction and to be the only one in a position to take any action at all? It’s tense and difficult, yet it is gentle and soft, the looping theme of alphabet cards that structures the unfolding of a family’s world. ‘E’ is for excellent. ‘O’ for outstanding. ‘L’ is for lump in the throat. ‘X’? ‘X’ is for X-factor, that feeling I sometimes get in the core of my body after a brilliant tale – a cross between awe, defeat, admiration and pain.
It’s a beautiful, fragile thing.
Next, I’m doing something I’ve tried to avoid, which is picking from the collection I edited with Chris called Pulp Ink 2
The one I’m selecting is by Mike Miner and it’s called ‘Kidnapped’.
I also found this one beautiful, partly for its sense of symmetry.
A young boy is taken (in more ways than one) by his father’s beautiful girlfriend and they spend some time together. The surprises are keenly felt, but there’s a tone and an honesty about this one that had me thinking of ‘Plastic Soldiers’ from 2011. Brilliant.
The next pair also go together in some ways.
Allan Heathcock’s Volt
may not have been as consistently electrifying as I had hoped, but there are some incredible stories in there none-the-less.
‘Furlough’ is the icing on the cake for me. It’s my favourite here and is about a modern-day war veteran trying to find his feet.
Here’s a little of Furlough. Jorgen is telling the girl he’s escorting about his pet:
“I got a bird,” he said.
“A little parakeet.”
“What’s she called?”
Jorgen felt uneasy. “Don’t know,” he said.”Never called it nothing.” Mary Ellen smacked his shoulder. Laughed like he’d told a joke. He watched her mouth, the white of her teeth, the gap in the front. “Tried to set it free today, but it wouldn’t go.”
“Bet you treat it well.”
“It don’t say one way or the other.”
“It didn’t fly off,” she said. “That’s how it says."
“You might be too nice for my cousin,” Mary Ellen said. “She’d eat you alive.”
“I ain’t that nice.”
Which is such a fine demonstration of who Jorgen is and adds to the sense of building menace of the story.
And there’s some beautiful description to illuminate the darkness of the work which acts as a counterpoint to the blunt overall style. Try this picture of a building fire on for size:
‘In the lane, oil lapped tiny spectral flames like a riot of hummingbirds.’
Its partner is by Steve Rasnic Tem from his collection Ugly Behavior
My pick (and forgive me if I can’t recall the name) illustrates the writer's skills very well. It's about a man who lives in isolation. His world is dominated by the images he's paid to work with. His clients generally require something a little unusual. In order to cope with the disturbing material he has to use, he focuses upon detail, practically seeing the world in pixels. The author works with a similar attention to detail. He managed to draw me in for a close look, then would zoom out to offer a bigger picture and then POW!
There are some of the writer’s recurring themes here - the difficulties of relationships, the difficulties caused by seeing the world from a fixed perspective, art and images, close-ups and distance, the complications of leaving trails of memory and the need to leave some evidence that we've been on the planet once death has been and gone.
The last pick is a newer piece by a man called Chris Rhatigan. For all that this may seem like some kind of nepotism, you’ll have to accept that I select it honestly and think you’ll understand if you take a read.
It’s from the charity collection Nightfalls
and it’s called ‘Forward Is Where The Croissantwich Is’.
As with all the tales in the book, it focuses on the end of the world.
What I love about this is the way it works in little circles, layers overlapping layers as a man confused by some of life’s simple experiences. By keeping things simple, he seems to create a wonderful depth by adding some kind of new dimension. The best way I can find of to describe it is to mention that it reminds me of my own thought processes during some of my drug-taking experiences better than most other fiction I’ve read and that’s no mean achievement.