More brief narratives

I recently mentioned that I had several collections of short stories in hand which I intended to get round to in the near future using the tag the Library of Brief Narratives. It’s my intention to include as many short story titles as I can bear throughout 2021, but to get off to a flying start by reviewing a couple of them in December.

I’ve already listed selections and collections with or including realist themes. Now, as a further amuse-bouche for you all, comes another listing of titles with a more speculative range of genres, from SF and fantasy through fairytales and on to horror and suspense.

Let me begin with tales mostly directed towards younger readers, headed first by Edith Nesbit’s literary fairytales, The Magic World, including one piece with a wardrobe which leads to another landscape. In a similar vein is Eleanor Farjeon’s equally charming The Little Bookroom. While Penelope Lively’s Uninvited Guests deftly mixes humour with fantasy, very much following the earlier Nesbit and Farjeon tradition is Fantastic Stories by the late Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, with comic, satiric, parodic and, of course, fantastic items.

A selection of Joan Aiken’s short stories were published posthumously under the title of The Monkey’s Wedding themed around fantasy, dreams and daily life. Diana Wynne Jones also made use of fairytale motifs within everyday family life in Stopping for a Spell with a trio of tales concerning uninvited visitors.

Some authors prefer to use traditional folk- and fairy-tales as models for their pieces. In Ransom Riggs’ Tales of the Peculiar he uses the format to present ‘authentic’ narratives for his world of ‘peculiars’; Daniel Morden’s Secret Tales from Wales doesn’t pretend to be a collection of secret traditional stories but stories about secrets. Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu contains a group of tales set in the world of her novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, presented as local legends. On the other hand Marina Warner selected eight genuinely traditional narratives from various European countries for Long Ago and Far Away.

Horror and suspense come to the fore in the next few titles. Jen Campbell’s The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night contains a dozen idiosyncratic items that often send a shiver down the spine. A mini-compendium of Neil Gaiman tales, Coraline and Other Stories, includes its disturbing title piece and maintains the standard through all its dozen items. I include another group of Joan Aiken offerings now, A Bundle of Nerves, as representative of her supernatural and suspenseful concoctions. As well as being a highly regarded novelist Elizabeth Gaskell also wrote ghost stories: a duo of tales is included in The Old Nurse’s Story, very apt for the coming season. Meanwhile Robert Louis Stevenson was penning what he called Fables (though in fact they covered a gamut of styles and lengths, some filling just one page, others as long as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde).

I shall conclude with some more hard-core fantasy and SF. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels are justly famous but in the cycle is a volume of shorter pieces entitled, naturally, Tales from Earthsea. Alternatively, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea includes many stories set in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, but others, though pretty much all speculative, range in tone from comic to dark.

Robert Silverberg is well known for his planetary romances set on a giant globe called Majipoor, and Tales of Majipoor is a sequence of narratives spread across centuries located here in our far distant future. Finally, I mention Primo Levi’s miscellany of tales, A Tranquil Star consists of a ragbag of some speculative but mostly unclassifiable, exquisite pieces, as different from each other as artefacts from a range of cultures.

From the first two photos I include above you’ll see some of the short story collections I’ve pulled off the shelves and from which I hope to choose some of my reading in the coming months, including fiction by Ishiguro, Mansfield, Gaiman, Carter, Calvino, Joanne Harris and Anne Donovan, plus some spooky tales from the likes of Dickens, M R James, Wyndham and Poe. I wonder what I shall be choosing first for December?

Have you read any of these? Are you attracted to any of these collections? What are your preferences where short stories are concerned? Are you also a Friend of the Library of Brief Narratives?

22 thoughts on “More brief narratives

    1. Kids have always liked hiding in places like wardrobes—I remember doing so as a kid in the days when coats and clothing smelt of camphor moth balls. Nesbit’s 1912 story of a wardrobe portal must have partly influenced Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe story because he specifically references Nesbit’s books at the start of The Magician’s Nephew.

      On the other hand, in His Dark Materials trilogy Pullman deliberately takes a contrary view to Lewis’s Christianity while nodding towards the tropes that appear in the Narniad—not just the talking animals that appear as daemons but also the different worlds accessed by portals and, of course, Lyra glimpsing (as Lucy did) another world while hidden in a wardrobe, this time during Asriel’s slide lantern show.

      Did something like this really happen? No, but there have always been secret doors (such as those concealed in wooden panelling) to escape, from danger to safety for example. I suppose Alice’s adventures down a rabbit hole or through a looking glass were accessed through portals though not specifically doors.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, thank you, Gert, though only two novellas this month.

          As for secret passages, I think Enid Blyton was responsible for my interest in trying to find them as a kid but, like you, I was never successful at discovering them…


    1. Like novels they vary such a lot, Karen, and I don’t get into all of them by any means, but I definitely need to be in the mood for them.

      I’m enjoying Ishiguro’s Nocturnes at the moment — five almost novella length stories with common themes of music and relationships — and even though I’m only on the middle piece already there’s a character from a previous self-contained story who has reappeared.

      Not all collections are like this of course: when the quality of selections is uneven I do come close to abandoning them, I have to admit.


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