Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Top ten short stories of the year so far

I couldn't let short story month slip by without mention. (OK, I admit I knew nothing about it until this morning ... and, technically, it's not May any more ... but never mind that.) So I thought I should put together my top ten short stories of the year so far to mark the occasion. That is, not necessarily stories that were written or published this year, but ones that were new to me.
It's been an excellent year so far, and I've enjoyed so many short stories. So, in no particular order, here's my top ten.

1. Bones in the Meadow by Tim Jeffreys. From Bones in the Meadow and other weird tales.
I first read this in the anthology What Fears Become, before buying the author's collection itself, which I have not yet read. I was sucked into this strange tale, captured by its sense of unease. Jim is a youth embarking on a camping trip with two traveling companions, Ste and Kelvin. It seems, as they make the transition by train from normality to an abstract, fog-bound landscape, that Jim is being coerced by his more worldly-wise friends. '"Guys, I think the town is that way." "Town!" said Ste with a laugh. "We're not going to town, Jim. We came to get away from everything, didn't we? We came here to get lost."' However, once Ste finds a skull in a nearby field, being lost loses some of its attraction; and it seems they are just as helpless as he is. Can Jim resist the lure of the mysterious girl tempting him to confront his deepest fears? I found this to be one of those stories I'm compelled to go back and read again, and I am eagerly anticipating the rest of Tim's collection.

2. Skirmish by David Longhorn. From The Ptolemaic System.
I have previously mentioned that I am a fan of David's Supernatural Tales short story collections, and that I enjoyed his collection The Ptolemaic System. This tale of morale-building manoeuvres "in a wooded valley in Northumberland on a drizzly August weekend" explores what happens when office workers on a team-building exercise collide with the past. Bill and Tracy, straying from the war games they have no interest in, become involved in a deadly hunt. Or do they? The mixture of the banal and the fantastic, and the ancient and modern, made this story stand out for me; and the ending intrigues.

3. The Remover of Obstacles by James Brogden. From Urban Occult.
Terry Grainger has all sorts of bother picking up his car after obtaining an MoT. He is led on a less than merry chase from one seedy establishment to the next, in a spiral of confusion, through a bleak industrial landscape. His increasing disorientation and ultimate 'priority fast-tracked' fate combine to create a Kafka-esque roller-coaster ride which I found to be quite compelling.

4. Elevator by Adam Millard. From Urban Occult.
Also from Urban Occult, this is just my kind of tale. The setting, a bleak high-rise block of flats within a concrete wasteland, rings so true to me; and Sean is the perfect anti-hero. His chance meeting on the stairs sets the scene apparently to go in one direction, but things get turned around in the most shocking way. Elevator is full of brooding, threatening atmosphere, but the real danger approaches from an unexpected source. The scene involving Dennis and his mother in their insalubrious flat will stay with me for a long time, and more than makes up for the ending; which I found perhaps a tad conventional.

5. Inside/Out by Nicholas Royle. From House of Fear.
I'm a big fan of Nicholas Royle, ever since I read his remarkable tale of urban alienation Archway many years back. House of Fear is an excellent anthology, and this story is one of the best of a good bunch. In this deceptively complex tale, Japanese sensibilities collide with a prosaic north London setting, creating an austere atmosphere. The house, with its conflicting entrances and labyrinthine layout, serves as a great analogy for the confusion within the protagonist's mind. This story reminded me a little of Laura by Robert Aickman. Which is something of a recommendation!

6. Mirages in the Badlands by James Everington. From Sanitarium #008.
It's always interesting to read a good writer's interpretation of an unfamiliar genre. I suppose it could be said that this is a zombie story; which would not normally interest me. However, I soon found out that foremost it is a James Everington story. That is, written from his usual slightly skewed perspective, and therefore gripping from beginning to end. The relationship between the unfortunate Chavez and his two captors is convincingly told, and the change of perspective at the end will make you think. The best zombie story I have come across by far.

7. The Engineer by David Haynes. From Ballet of the Bones.
The Engineer is a short story from Ballet of the Bones, part of David Haynes's collection of Victorian-style penny dreadfuls, including Mask of the Macabre and Seance of the Souls. The titular engineer's career develops from repairing sewing machines to something decidedly macabre, prompted by the unexpected visit from a badly injured officer of the Crimean war. The engineer's quest for perfection leads to murder, and subsequently to his unsuspecting part in a grisly sideshow. The story is told with authentic atmosphere and an impressive sense of impending doom. Enter at your own risk.

8. A Tale of Chirbury by PJ Hodge. From the Darker Times Anthology Vol 3.
For me, PJ Hodge's blog, Freaky Folk Tales, has been one of the finds of the year thus far. His thoroughly researched and well-written (in the style of MR James) accounts of local folklore from around the British Isles are quite compelling. His output is prodigious, and certainly deserves to be compiled in print; so I was pleased to see A Tale of Chirbury included in the Darker Times Anthology Vol 3, following on from my own story, Abraham's Bosom. I won't spoil the story, but this tale of supernatural happenings in the little village of Chirbury, and its gateway to the past, will intrigue you; and you'll soom be a regular visitor to the Freaky Folk Tales blog, just like me! 

9. Three Degrees Over by Brian Aldiss. From Dark Fantasies.
This is an oldie but a goodie, from the anthology Dark Fantasies, which is long out of print but well worth looking out for; I rediscovered it on my bookshelf recently. Brian Aldiss is of course a very accomplished writer, and Three Degrees Over is something of a tour de force among the many strange stories I have read. Alice Maynard is returning by 'plane from the US to her settled and mundane life among the spires of Oxford. However, on the flight, she finds herself seated next to Felicity Paiva, an American who somehow imposes herself upon Alice's hospitality. Her baffling effect upon Alice's previously reserved husband Harold, with its heavy undercurrents of passion, sets the scene for a literally fantastic conclusion which has to be read to be believed.  

10. Rope Trick by Mark P. Henderson. From Rope Trick: Thirteen Strange Tales.
This is a great story, and has been called 'Aickmanesque', which is what attracted me to Mark P. Henderson's work in the first place. Well, I must say it is not in fact 'Aickmanesque'; however, it does not need to be. It stands very well in its own right. A group of friends suffer a breakdown of the mechanical kind while on a driving holiday, and are forced to find solace in a large, solitary house. Were they somehow expected? Their travails when attempting to leave, and subsequent strange disappearances, add up to a supremely atmospheric tale which wrong-foots the reader at every turn (and, most importantly, the ending is great). This is a good example of the author's work, all of which I have enjoyed.


  1. Martin, thank you so much for your very kind words. Your round-ups and reviews of contemporary supernatural and weird fiction are always very much appreciated and continue to provide me with a rich source of reading material. I am sure that I speak for many people when I say that it is through the efforts of fellow bloggers and short story authors like yourself that we are able to spread the word about the continued worthiness of this genre — in particular, its use as a literary vehicle for examining the most primal aspects of life and the discovery of meaning there.

    1. My pleasure! Thanks so much for your comments, Paul, it's always good to get feedback.

  2. Very belated thanks for mentioning my story 'Skirmish'. I should mention that it originally appeared in Ro Pardoe's excellent magazine Ghosts & Scholars.

    1. No worries, as they say. I really enjoyed reading The Ptolemaic System.