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12 of the best British short stories you've never read – Viral Trends

12 of the best British short stories you've never read



Short stories are underrated.

If you were asked to name a famous novel, or even a famous poem, you could probably rattle off at least a handful quite comfortably off the top of your head.

But try and think of the titles of a few famous short stories. It’s harder, isn’t it?

It might be because they’re less lucrative than novels and less widely-studied than poetry, but short stories tend to fall into something of a literary no-man’s land.

The thing is, some of them are ridiculously good.

A few years ago, I started buying an annual anthology called The Best British Short Stories, edited by Nicholas Royle. I don’t love all the stories published, but every year there are a bunch of absolute gems from authors I’ve usually never heard of.

The vast majority of the stories below are featured in those collections. I’ve also added in a couple of others from bigger name authors which have stuck with me over the years…

What’s it about? 

A widow struggling to come to terms with her husband’s sudden death.

Why should you read it?

Fair warning, this one’s a real tear-jerker. It’s also one of the most poignant and beautifully-written short stories I’ve ever read. The simple, straightforward descriptions of the main character going about her day-to-day life in the wake of her loss gives the tale a feeling of realism, which makes the final paragraphs all the more heartbreaking.

What’s it about? 

Drama unfolds at a care home after one patient attacks another.

Why should you read it?

There are many important ingredients to a great short story, but I think one of the most crucial things — the thing most likely to make you remember a story long after you’ve re-shelved the book — is the final line. For some reason, the last line of “The Sea in Birmingham” really stayed with me. It’s the perfect close to a story which is unsettling, mysterious, and brilliantly written. Nursing homes don’t often feature as the settings for tales of crime and mystery, but Mike Scully uses one to great effect here.

What’s it about? 

A swimmer fights against the current as he’s slowly pulled out to see.

Why should you read it?

This might be the first short story I ever read that was written in the second person. I remember thinking it was a strange decision when I began reading, but I soon got sucked in. And in this case, the style works well. The story is all about the kind of tragedy you read about, but never expect to experience yourself — the second person narration makes it feel like a story being told about you, though, which helps you place yourself in the main character’s shoes.

4. “The Dark Space in the House in the House in the Garden at the Centre of the World”, by Robert Shearman (published in The Best British Short Stories 2012)

What’s it about? 

Sort of hard to sum up succinctly, but basically it’s a surreal, modern-day extension of the Adam and Eve story (complete with a spectacularly sleazy God).

Why should you read it?

As well as being a super talented writer, Robert Shearman is clearly a very imaginative man. This short story is one of the most creative I’ve read — it’s amusing, it’s dark, and above all it just feels like a very original take on an age-old tale.

What’s it about? 

A father takes his son out on a drive to try and track down a storm.

Why should you read it?

The description above doesn’t do this story justice, but I don’t want to say too much because it risks giving away the ending. What I will say is that while The Stormchasers is one of the shorter stories in this list, it packs a very large punch. Like the storm mentioned in the title, there’s a sense of something building as this tale progresses. And the ending, when it comes, is genuinely unsettling.

What’s it about? 

A man realises there’s something strange about his landlady after he arrives at a B&B.

Why should you read it?

Okay, so this is one you might actually have read, but I’m including it because it’s a long way from Dahl’s most famous work (or even his most famous short story) and it’s a great read. “The Landlady” is one of those classic tales where you immediately have to go back and re-read certain passages for clues after you’ve finished it — it’s original, it’s unsettling and the final twist has to be one of Dahl’s best.

Image: vintage/penguin/mashable composite

What’s it about? 

A victim of domestic violence discovers a mysterious creature in her kitchen.

Why should you read it?

John Burnside is another excellent short story writer — his collections Something Like Happy and Burning Elvis are well worth checking out — with a flair for putting a new twist on some fairly dark themes. “Slut’s Hair” is the perfect example of this. It starts off as a grim and depressing story about domestic violence, but the speculative element gives the story a weird — and weirdly intriguing — extra dimension.

8. “In Between the Sheets”, by Ian McEwan (published in In Between the Sheets)

What’s it about? 

A father grapples with the dark feelings he has towards his daughter.

Why should you read it?

Another lesser-known story from a big name author, and another tale with a hauntingly memorable last line. In Between the Sheets is one of McEwan’s two early collections of short stories, many of which deal with some very dark themes. In Between the Sheets is one of those. Like much of McEwan’s early work it’s a disturbing psychological study told from the perspective of the perpetrator. Not an easy read, but a devastatingly well-written one.

What’s it about? 

A young footballer struggles to come to terms with his sexuality.

Why should you read it?

One of the great things about short story anthologies is that they often lead to you reading about subject matters and themes you might not ordinarily encounter. “When You Grow into Yourself” was the first story I’ve read about the world of football, for instance, and it will be a hard act to follow. Of course, it isn’t really about football; it’s about homophobia. It’s also about the struggle to work out who you are, and the ways in which that struggle can manifest itself.

What’s it about? 

A dementia patient in a care home reflects on his life.

Why should you read it?

Coming in at just over two pages, this is easily the shortest story on this list. But the tale itself spans an entire life, and it does so in an incredibly subtle and devastating way.

What’s it about? 

A mother tries to shield her daughter from the darkness she herself experienced as a child.

Why should you read it?

Another excellent Robert Shearman story here, written in the same winding, fairytale-gone-wrong style as the first. This one is even darker, though — genre-wise it’s more on the horror end of the spectrum — and it comes with one particularly grim passage about bedtime stories that’s seared itself into my memory.

What’s it about? 

A couple are on their way from the airport to start their holiday when their driver hits something in the road.

Why should you read it?

Hilary Mantel has a proven track record with lengthy historical fiction, but it turns out she’s a dab hand at short stories too. This is another classic example of a well-utilised twist ending and the devastating power that can be caused by a perfectly-delivered final line.

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