Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Monthly Archives: February 2014


My name is Cassandra. Maybe you have heard of me already. I don’t mean to appear egotistical when I say that, but it never ceases to amaze me how many complete strangers seem to know about me. I don’t know if that is just because of my striking appearance (I am rather tall, and my hair is very red, and I wear rather outré clothes) or if it is something else. It appals me to think that strangers might know my business. I must not give way to paranoia: I am crazy enough already.

Would you care for some vodka? It’s Polish, and very smooth. There is plenty of ice, but I don’t have anything to mix it with. Yes, I know it is rather early, but what the hell. There was some Guinness in the fridge, but I think I’ve drunk it all.

You can probably tell I have been crying for a long time. On and off for nearly three days, in fact. I heard the news by letter. It seemed a strange coincidence, that I had just been thinking to myself that I must take the time to make a trip to Bruges and see Georges again, after not having seen him for nearly two years. I didn’t know how I had lasted that long without seeing him. I would usually see him at least every six months. Even a day or two in his beautiful flat would make me feel re-charged: relaxed and happy in a way that no other experience produces in me – not even drinking the very best champagne.

Some people seem to think there is – was – sorry – I think I am starting to cry again – something kinky about the relationship between Georges and me. I know he is – was – forty years my senior, but what is wrong with that? He was so full of vitality. Our trips round Paris and Brussels and Amsterdam used to tire me out much more than they did him. And of course, he was as queer as a nine-shilling note (though not so energetically promiscuous as he was in the old days). But we just got on so well together. I think he was my only real friend.  As I was his.  At least I was nice to him, which is more than I can say for those street-urchins in designer clothes that he used to dine with.  The things they used to say to him, and their breath-taking ingratitude!  Talk about biting the hand that fed you.

You’ll never guess where I met him. Go on: have one guess (but if you don’t know, you’ll never get it). What was that? No. I first met him in – of all places – Tallinn. Have you ever been there?  It’s a funny place. It has become very modern in the last few years, but it still retains much of its mediaeval character. Parts of it look like the set for a Dracula film. It has some little cafés and bars in very atmospheric, dark, stone cellars, with arched ceilings and cobbled floors. You wouldn’t want to wear high heels in those places: you’d go flying. I was having a row with a little pipsqueak of a desk clerk about some misplaced allegations to do with the mini-bar, and Georges intervened. He spoke to the chap in fluent Finnish (a lot of Estonians speak it, and they are remarkably more forthcoming in Finnish than they are in English). The problem just seemed to melt away. He does – did – that with many of my problems. I am a person who has a lot of problems.

I could never understand how some-one with such impeccable taste as Georges could also work so hard for a living. I am absolutely allergic to work, which is one reason why I have always been so poor. He ran a designer clothing company, marketing mainly to a network of wealthy gay men, most of whom were his personal friends, or friends of friends. This handkerchief I’m using is one of his. See how superb the quality of the silk is? He designed some dresses for me when we were seeing each other more frequently. They are breathtaking, but I hate to wear them in restaurants or clubs – anywhere outside the apartment, in fact – I would be heartbroken if they got stained or wore out. They will be my best reminders of him, I suppose, along with the letters he wrote to me. How many people do you know who still write letters? Georges could be very expressive, in several languages. I really think he loved me, even though there could never be – have been – anything physical between us.

Anyway, I should be able to endure my grief in tolerable comfort, because the letter I told you about was from the lawyers who are handling his estate, and he has left me ninety-eight million euros. That little fashion-house of his must have been doing rather well.

Review: ‘Morvern Callar’ by Alan Warner

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (2 May 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099586118
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099586111

‘Morvern Callar’ is one of those books that I wish I had written.  It is written entirely from the point of view of the eponymous protagonist, in the first person and the past tense.  Except, not all of it is strictly in the first person.  Sometimes the narrator refers to herself as “you”.  A sentence which contains two personal pronouns tends to use “I” first, and “you” second, but this is not absolutely consistent.  The narrative mode is therefore unique.

The narrator’s voice is very idiosyncratic, not just in its grammatical person, but in vocabulary and emotional tone. 

The first thing the narrator does is psychopathic.  The emotional reaction is “normal” (whatever that means) but the physical action is insane.  The development of the narrator’s character becomes more and more empathetic after that.  This is a form of literary cheating, but it works brilliantly.

This is so far the only book by Alan Warner I have read.  I can’t decide if this is a book written by an intuitive, untrained writer who had never read the creative writing rulebook, or if it is a calculated attempt to write a conventional novel that is disguised to look unconventional.  The answer to that question probably does not matter, because I finished it in three sittings. 

This book reminded me of ‘The Wasp Factory’ by Iain Banks.  It takes place in more than one setting, unlike TWF, but, like TWF, each of those settings is deliberately limited, in order for the writer to depict it more vividly. 

It reads like a piece of life-writing.  This happened, and then that, and then this other thing.  Some of the things that are raised in the story are not resolved, in a manner which seems almost careless.  But the voice of the narrator is so convincing and engaging that this doesn’t matter. 

This is a book which is irritating and satisfying in equal measure.

Review: The Syllabus of Errors by Ashley Stokes, Part 1

Paperback: 206 pages

Publisher: Unthank Books (14 Feb 2013)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 095642239X

ISBN-13: 978-0956422392

Price: GBP 12



 I requested a review copy of Ashley Stokes’ first collection of short stories in 2012, before it was published.  I have not written a review of it before, because it is taking me a long time to decide what I think about it, which is a good thing. 

 I have still not made up my mind about the collection as a body, and so I have decided to review individual stories.   I’m starting with the last story in the book, which is entitled ‘I Remember Nothing’. 

 Like many of Stokes’ short stories, it is a long one by contemporary standards – nearly 30 pages.  It is a complicated story and, given the timescale of the narrative and the amount of development that the protagonist undergoes, I would suggest that it might be considered to be a novella.  It would also, in my opinion, make a good film script. 

 The story opens, like ‘The Great Gatsby’ (a book on which Ashley Stokes and I have diametrically opposing views – he loves it and I hate it) with some historical reminiscence which is, by contemporary standards (the second time I’ve used that phrase) arguably irrelevant and mis-directing to the reader. 

 The protagonist is an intellectual 15-year old boy.  Like many intellectual teenage boys, he finds himself the victim of the school bully.  This is just one strand of a multi-threaded story.  The protagonist is neither a goodie or a baddie – he is a human being with limited resources, filled with self-doubt, and just trying to do the best he can.  This is very contemporary. 

 The narrative mode is first person unreliable, past tense.  The protagonist is only referred to by his real name nearly at the end, and turns out to be called Foxton.  There is quite a lot of direct speech, mostly conversations between the Foxton and either his amazingly enlightened history teacher, or the elderly and mysterious Mr E.  Foxton is Mr E’s paper-boy.  Foxton and Mr E talk about Foxton’s history lessons, which are concerned with Nazi Germany.   It is left to the reader to decide what he/she thinks about Mr E’s opinions. 

 The setting for the story is elaborately developed, which is another aspect of it which makes it feel like a novella rather than a short.  This development takes place mostly inside Foxton’s head.  He devises an alternative set of names for the places and things in his surroundings.  For example, he calls the school bus Kindertransport 151.  This did make me empathise with Foxton.  It is the kind of thing my contemporaries and I used to do at school as part of the struggle to escape boredom.  Foxton’s implied yearning for the conflict and complexity of Weimar Germany contrasts with the backdrop of the 1980s, which is convincingly-created. 

Given the story’s themes of survival, teenage confusion, and the colossal shadow cast by World War Two, I would be very interested to hear what Ashley Stokes thinks of my forthcoming novella, ‘Escape Kit’.

Review: Collected short stories of Richard Yates

Paperback, 496 pages
Published May 3rd 2002 by Picador (first published May 3rd 2001)
The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
ISBN 0312420811
ISBN13: 9780312420819

This book contains the collections ‘Eleven Kinds of Loneliness’ and ‘Liars in Love’, and also some uncollected stories. The titles of both those collections are impeccably well chosen and accurate. It occurs to me that a technique for writing short fiction might be to think of the title of a collection before thinking of any individual story.

Richard Yates is possibly the best value for money short story writer I have ever come across. There is not a single poor or unengaging story in the book. The quality is astonishingly consistent. Unlike with Raymond Carver, or a lot of contemporary collections, there is no story which leaves you thinking “What was the point of that?”

The biggest theme in Yates’s stories seems to be vulnerability. At times, one finds oneself captivated and horrified at the same time. An outstanding example of this is ‘Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern’. This is that most technically difficult of writing projects – a story without a single empathetic character. The pleasure the reader gets is from the acuity of the observation of human behaviour, and the expertly controlled way the story unfolds.

Yates began publishing these stories in the late 1950s. Many of them have an evocative, post-war atmosphere, like the American equivalent of Graham Greene. At the same time, the themes are universal and the style is contemporary.

The settings and the life-styles of the characters are comparable to Carver’s. The characters are unglamorous, often short of money, often hate their jobs or surroundings, and are nearly always unfulfilled. Another difficult feat that Yates achieves (several times) is to write engaging stories about characters who are writers.

When I was collecting critiques of my story, ‘Can We Have You All Sitting Down, Please?’ a friend compared it to Richard Yates. I can now see a thematic resemblance – miscommunication, frustration, unfulfilment – and it is one of the greatest compliments my writing has ever been paid.

Grist chapbook launch: 13 March 2014

My next publication is a novella, entitled ‘Escape Kit’.  It will be launched during the Huddersfield Literature Festival on Thursday 13 March at 7pm, in Queenie’s Coffee Shop, Queen Street, Huddersfield HD1 2SP. 

You can download the festival brochure here:  http://www.litfest.org.uk/?q=node/10

Copies will be available to buy on the night, at a discounted price of GBP 5. 

Work by two of my fellow Grist chapbook competition winners will also feature, ‘A Call In The Night’ by Gabrielle Leimon, and ‘Cowboy Genes’ by Wes Lee.  I expect that Gabrielle will be reading her own extract.  Wes’s may have to be read by the Grist editor-in-chief, Michael Stewart, because Wes lives in New Zealand.  Nevertheless, I hope she can make it. 

I thank Jayne Edge and her colleagues the University of Huddersfield for their contribution to the editing.