To celebrate the impending release of If Only Tonight We Could Sleep (January 31 through Things in the Well), this week I’ll be giving you the rundown on some of my favourite single-author short story collections. Here you’ll find everything from the iconic and brilliant to the essential and influential – some of these tomes are defining works in their field, and some of them inspired my writing to a greater or lesser degree. For the most part, the covers I’ve included are from the editions I own. And so, with no further ado:
Michael Griffin – The Lure of Devouring Light (2016)
An exemplar of the current crop of weird fiction writers who focus on the humanity amidst the horror, Griffin sets out his stall with this remarkable collection, and his wares will be bringing quite a few readers back for more. Poetic titles that border on pretentious, relatable characters in whom we can invest ourselves, horrors that don’t so much leap to attack but instead lurk in the shadows and intimidate with their weighty and unknowable presence – these are his stock in trade, and The Lure of Devouring Light is premium product indeed.
John Langan – Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2009)
Intellectual but not impenetrable, allusive but not obscure, Langan writes diverse horror that is as substantial as it is accessible, handling action and emotion with equal skill, and his academic background bolsters his work rather than inspiring the self-important dribble that sometimes results from living in that rarefied atmosphere. Mr Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters was his first collection and it’s fair to say that he’s only gotten better since then, but it certainly marked him out as a writer of note.
Camilla Grudova – The Doll’s Alphabet (2017)
More modern fairy tales, but these are not the kind you might be used to – Grudova’s weird world is populated with dolls, wolves, sewing machines, waxy Men, and romantic spider-people, and her first book could be imagined as a literary companion to Jan Švankmajer’s Alice. Comparisons to Atwood, Carter, and Lynch have also been aired, which should intrigue and attract the kind of audience that The Doll’s Alphabet deserves to draw in abundance.
Lisa Tuttle – A Nest of Nightmares (1986)
The tales brought into being by Tuttle in this, her first collection after years of publishing awards-worthy tales, are generally less visceral than a lot of dark fiction at the time, but they’re weighty and distressing in a way that few contemporary authors could match. A Nest of Nightmares deals in a strand of emotional and soul-dark horror that strikes deep and lingers long, something that was almost exclusively the domain of female authors at the time but has thankfully become much more egalitarian as time marches on.
China Miéville – Looking for Jake and Other Stories (2005)
One of the best, most progressive, and fiercely imaginative genre authors to emerge from England in the last couple of decades, Miéville produces scintillating and weighty novels fairly bursting with ideas, so it’s a given that his short fiction is going to be something special, too. Looking for Jake, his first collection, is a diverse collation of works that includes tales about invading shadows, mobile streets, and haunted ball pits, proving that there’s really no limit to the range of his fanciful faculties.
J.G. Ballard – The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)
Less a collection of short stories and more a mosaic which constantly shifts and changes around its core themes and touchstones (a la Naked Lunch, which is regarded as a novel and hence is not listed here), this mindfuck of a book is quite difficult to explain for anyone not familiar with the more outré elements of Ballard’s style. Suffice to say that if repeated ruminations on fractured psychology and geometry, the sexual aspects of the Kennedy assassination, and the penile likeness of Ronald Reagan’s face sounds like your cup of mushroom tea, The Atrocity Exhibition will not disappoint; if you’re after actual stories that begin and end and make sense, it certainly will.
J.S. Breukelaar – Collision (2019)
Weird and dark but not necessarily horror as such, the stories in this collection build their worlds layer upon odd layer and the cumulative effect is alien but not alienating. Breukelaar brings a lot of heart to her tales of strange people in strange situations, ensuring that Collision is relatable even when exploring the outer limits of reality; the fear that we will be unable to reach our loved ones in the event of a calamitous event is a potent one, and it’s mined for a fair amount of black gold here.
Robert E. Howard – The Conan Chronicles Vol. 1: The People of the Black Circle (2000)
Sometimes you want deep stories that say something profound about the world, and sometimes you just want the prose equivalent of a smartly dumb action movie – enter Howard, who defined the whole sword-and-sorcery thing so well that mediaeval fantasy is still shaped by his work to this day. The man was a workaholic, pumping out top-notch pulp adventure and horror at a tremendous rate until his sadly Oedipal death in 1935, and Conan is only his most popular tough-guy protagonist; the movies and comics are okay, even sometimes the additional stories written by other authors, but go straight to The People of the Black Circle or any other unexpurgated volume for the real thing.
Tananarive Due – Ghost Summer: Stories (2015)
Historical hauntings, modern numinosity, post-apocalyptic Afrofuturism – Ghost Summer covers a lot of ground in its fifteen tales, and every inch of that soil is rich in wonder and emotion. Due uses encounters with the inhuman to contrast and enhance her explorations of the very human, whether it be the suffering caused by hatred or the transformations offered by love, and the result is a crop of tales that leaves the reader both satisfied and hungry for more.
Shirley Jackson – The Lottery and Other Stories (1949)
Often thought of in horror terms though rarely delving into anything most would recognise as such, Jackson is rightly regarded as an author that anyone looking to write thoughtful weird fiction must investigate – even if she had only ever written The Haunting of Hill House, her place in history would be secure. The terror she evokes best is simply the everyday pressure of being a woman – the domestic expectations, the public dismissals, the double standards, the constant unspoken threats – and it’s no wonder so many of her characters bend or break before the end; the world can be a surreal and dangerous place for a woman, and it’s in the explorations of this theme that The Lottery truly shines.
Richard Laymon – Dreadful Tales (2000)
Hardly the world’s most sophisticated or subtle writer, Laymon packs his second collection with all sorts of depraved characters and deadly situations, and as in his (admittedly far superior) novels, they come tagged with the raging hormones and distasteful desires that define his work and make it a thrill ride for some readers, a tiresome chore for others. But Dreadful Tales has to be included here for its unexpected twists, influential violence, and ribald enthusiasm if nothing else, and as David Cronenberg once said, we all need periodic releases from the tyranny of good taste.
Alan Baxter – Crow Shine (2016)
Baxter’s long-form fiction often blends crime and the supernatural into a hard-boiled fantasy, but his shorter works are more diverse; here, you’ll find moments of touching beauty amongst the eruptions of violence, and tough guys meet their match in unassuming souls who are no less determined. Crow Shine is populated with witches, nurses, toymakers, magicians, and even pirates, making for a dramatic, dark, and sometimes dire journey into unknown and unsuspected folds of our weird world.
Lisa L. Hannett – Bluegrass Symphony (2011)
Bringing a little Southern Gothic to the Australian weird fiction scene, Bluegrass Symphony weaves dark magic time and again with its tales of dying girls comforted by moths, minotaur rodeo marriage rituals, and oracular chickens. Hannett is afraid of neither whimsy or brutality, transcendence nor terror, and they all live side by side here in a symbiotic relationship that is brought to aching life by her beautifully rich wordcraft.
Well, that’s it – five days of thirteen collections, sixty-five books in all, and there were a few tomes that didn’t make the cut for one reason or another, so be thankful – I could’ve kept going! But one thing I’ve learned from this exercise is that critical writing, even two sentences at a time, is hard graft. I’m starting to feel like I’ve used up all the superlatives I can think of, so let’s quit while we’re ahead!
A few things I’ve noticed doing this: a large number of the books are first collections, though many of these authors have subsequently put out others equally as strong or better; almost all the listed authors are American, English, or Australian, and they’re almost all white (my novel-length reading is more diverse, but it’s a little worrying to note this nonetheless); and a fair chunk of the books were released in the last ten years, which makes sense as that was when I became more invested in writing and discovering new writers.
Maybe one day soon, another author will draw up a similar list, and there, amongst the great and the good, we’ll find If Only Tonight We Could Sleep… one likes to hope, or else why would one bother…?
Well, I’m knackered. Thanks for sticking it out! Stay tuned for more and more stuff as January 31 draws ever nearer!