Edited by Nicholas Royle, this 2018 collection of twenty short stories is the eighth in an annual series published by Salt. It provides eclectic and engaging reading with stories selected from a range of authors, although as the title suggests to qualify for inclusion all contributors must be British. The stories have previously appeared in a wide variety of print and online magazines and anthologies.
The collection opens with Payman’s Trio, written by the late Colette De Curzon, and one of several chilling tales. Set in last century’s post war London the voice is appropriately evocative of the time period, somehow deferential when compared to contemporary writing. The story begins with the purchase of a second hand book that places an uncanny musical score into the hands of a musician. When he and his friends perform the piece they realise the folly of their curiosity.
Although written by British authors quite a number of the stories are set abroad. A Thunderstorm in Santa Monica, by Adam O’Riordan, tells of a faltering long distance relationship that culminates in the titular event. It is the characters’ thoughts, behaviour and observations more than a plot that provide interest.
Trio for Four Voices, by Jane McLaughlin, is another character driven tale located abroad. Tension is maintained as the narrator is drawn into the scheming of a family staying in the same hotel. Like the previous offering, the temporary nature of the setting adds an element of dislocation.
In contrast, How to be an Alcoholic, by William Thirsk-Gaskill, features a narrator very much stuck at home, although whose actions are inexorably leading to a crisis that may cast him adrift. It is a story of self-inflicted breakdown that he observes whilst lacking the will to change.
We Are Methodists, by Alison MacLeod, introduces a plumber with a terrible history who decides to share his dark background with his client, a stranger recently moved into her new home. Unburdening to loved ones risks their judgement and a change of perception. A stranger’s reaction can be more straightforward to deal with.
Life Grabs, by Adrian Slatcher, is a disturbing tale of a man whose young son disappeared many years ago. Desperate to know what became of the boy he resorts to desperate measures.
Dog People, by M John Harrison, is taken from a collection by the author I reviewed last year – You Should Come With Me Now.
Skin, by Jo Mazelis, is set in New York and details the swan song of a relationship. Told from the woman’s point of view there is a refreshing lack of blame when she recognises her boyfriend’s true nature.
Cwtch, by Conrad Williams, is a dark tale of the effects on a family of a tragedy that continues to haunt a surviving twin. The denouement may have been telegraphed but was still chilling.
And Three Things Bumped, by Kelly Creighton, exposes how memories are twisted in the telling. A taxi driver chats about his life unaware that his client has heard previous versions.
In Dark Places, by Wyl Menmuir, is set underground in an area long popular with cavers. A honeymooning couple have booked a guided tour beyond the popular caverns. Tourists display interest in macabre history from their sanitised safety. Written by the author of The Many, it is narrated by those who have inhabited the caves for centuries.
The War, by Owen Booth, is a thoughtful if somewhat depressing take on the many causes and effects of conflict – of man’s self-indulgence and damaging self-pity.
And What If All Your Blood Ran Cold, by Tania Hershman, is set in a hospital where medics are experimenting with raising the dead. I wonder if this was inspired by actual medical research.
The Homing Instinct, by Mike Fox, features the homeless and their precarious survival. It highlights how those offering help are doing so on their own terms.
“a more formal prayer followed by a short homily from the verger was over. This they tolerated: food mostly came with God attached.”
Mask, by Brian Howell, is set in Japan where a man is attracted to a dental nurse. Sexual predilections can be weird.
Sister, by CD Rose, is another story of twins, one of whom goes missing. Even loving and supportive families cannot always offer the help needed.
Waiting For The Runners, by Chloe Turner, is a tale of family betrayal in a small community. A mother must decide how to behave when her lonely son finds a new friend.
Swatch, by Eley Williams, is taken from the previously reviewed Attrib. (and other stories), published by Influx and winner of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses.
The Last Dare, by Lisa Tuttle, is set in Texas where a grandmother returns to visit her family. It involves a spooky house and missing children, a memory from childhood brought back around Halloween.
Dazzle, by Iain Robinson, involves an adulterer whose wish for absolution manifests itself. Comeuppance is rarely this direct.
For those wishing to dip their toes into short stories currently available in a variety of mediums this collection offers an excellent primer. As a fan of the literary format I found it a well curated and enjoyable read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.