A Personal Anthology, by Lindz McLeod
As a writer myself, I seek originality and excellence in craft as well as narrative accessibility in the work I read; it’s a rare story that can entertain me and blow me away at the same time, but each of the following pieces achieved this rarity with aplomb. Since I’m involved in the online lit community, I’ve chosen to include some stories—spanning a range of genres and voices—which readers may not have otherwise come across but which are extremely worth their time.
‘Mal de Caribou’ by Becca de la Rosa (First published in The Dark, May 2018 and available to read here)
A lot of my favourite kind of work revolves around identity, and a huge part of who we are is what we eat. In this savage, beautiful story, the opposite is true—the main character is employed as a chef by an elderly woman called Dorothy. The recipes produced are sublime, their effect on Dorothy is rapturous. However, in between these moments of epicurean joy, the nameless chef recalls memories of her partner, a woman called Leda who suffers from anorexia. The use of sensory imagery and tactile language is hauntingly underscored with taut agony; the story clamps down onto the meat of childhood, and pares gristle from bone until we finally understand the purpose of the specially curated meal plans made with only Dorothy in mind. Revenge, here, is a dish best served gourmet.
“I imagined myself an abuelita chomping her sweetness with my teeth. Saying ai, qué rico. How delicious. There in the hospital I took her face in my hands. Felt its angles, its ursine lanugo. God, I said. God. God. You were beautiful.”
‘Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman’ by Harlan Ellison (First published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, 1965, and collected in Paingod and other Delusions, 1965, with various later editions. Also available in World's Best Science Fiction: 1966, Ace Books, 1966)
In Ellison’s satirical story, the world has become obsessed with punctuality and rigorous time-keeping, all under the watchful eye of the Ticktockman, who has the power to shorten lifespans as a punishment to those who cannot keep up with a scheduled society. The titular Harlequin works to undermine these carefully regimented routines, and in doing so, threatens the very fabric of the world, for such totalitarian societies rely heavily on threats and punishments to maintain conformity amongst the ranks. The Harlequin’s disruptions are whimsical rather than violent—showering factory workers with brightly coloured jellybeans, for example—and it is exactly this quality which so frightens the Ticktockman, and undermines his power and authority.
“Even in the cubicles of the hierarchy, where fear was generated, seldom suffered, he was called the Ticktockman. But no one called him that to his mask. You don't call a man a hated name, not when that man, behind his mask, is capable of revoking the minutes, the hours, the days and nights, the years of your life. He was called the Master Timekeeper to his mask. It was safer that way.”
‘The Fruit of the Princess Tree’ by Sage Tyrtle (First published in Apex Magazine, May 2022, and available to read here)
As a friend of the author, I was lucky enough to read this one before it was accepted and knew instantly that it would be. The branches of the titular Princess Tree are weighed down with seventeen tiny cages, each containing a single princess.
“Inside every cage is a furled flower, trembling with promise, blushing petals soft as the thought of a summer cloud. None of the cages have doors.”
This odd fruit apparently exists only to be plucked by a handsome, kind prince. These men appear from time to time to select the princess which suits them best, though the royals aren’t all handsome and they certainly aren’t all kind. Princess Seventeen’s carefully curated worldview begins to crumble in the face of reality; not all princesses are picked, and those who are face uncertain fates. Some wither on the vine. Some try to free themselves, while some are unable to even comprehend the idea of escape, even if it means their imminent death. Tyrtle takes a simple premise and wields it with devastating, poetic precision; rarely have I read a story which cut me to the bone quite so deeply.
‘We, The Girls Who Did Not Make It’ by E.A Petricone (First published in Nightmare Magazine, February 2021 and available to read online here)
This story is told from the perspective of the ghosts of young women who’ve all been brutally murdered in one particular basement. To make matters more complicated, the murderers in question are two young men, Rolly and Trevor, and one young woman, Sandy, who “may not have led us with a trail of gumdrops and the promise of a candy house, but she smiled at us, laughed openly, so friendly, put us at ease as we slid into their car. Look, they’ve got a woman with them, we thought. They must not be murderers.”
Sandy believes that her position as bait and accomplice keeps her safe; Sandy is wrong.
As we learn more about the ghosts, the author drops tantalising glimpses of their backstories—just enough to satiate, just enough to build a coherent narrative about who they once were and who they now are, and just enough to lay the perfect breadcrumb trail to a dramatic, tense, heart-in-your-throat finale.
‘In the Hills, the Cities’ by Clive Barker (First published in Books of Blood Volume 1, Sphere Books, 1984)
A classic horror tale from the master himself, featuring two gay men on a road trip through eastern Europe, realising that their short relationship is already coming to an end largely because of their opposite personalities. “In Italy the sermon had been on the way the Communists had exploited the peasant vote. Now, in Yugoslavia, Judd had really warmed to his theme, and Mick was just about ready to take a hammer to his self-opinionated head.”
Despite this, the men find brief respite in their sexual connection, though their happiness is short-lived. Barker—who came out late in life—deftly leads the tale away from the literary mountain and plunges it deep into a horrifying, speculative valley. The foreshadowing throughout the piece creates a sense of eerie, rural dread, and makes the tale worth reading over and over again.
‘The Fifth Story’ by Clarice Lispector (First published in the collection A legião estrangeira, translated as The Foreign Legion, New Directions, 1964; also available in the Complete Stories, New Directions/Penguin Classics, 2015)
Lispector is a firm favourite among Personal Anthology entries, and for good reason. While I adore her work in a more general sense, it’s the boundary-pushing stories which captivate me and inspire me in equal measures. A woman whose apartment is suffering from a cockroach infestation might at first seem like a mundane problem with a simple solution, but Lispector turns it into an art form by repeating the story five times. Each time the story is told, Lispector adds more detail, peeling back layer by layer of metafiction, until the tale is no longer really about the cockroaches at all, but about the ways in which the narrator craves power and yet is afraid to wield it.
“This story could be called “The Statues.” Another possible title would be “The Killing.” Or even “How to Kill Cockroaches.” So I shall tell at least three stories, all of them true, because none of the three will contradict the others.”
‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ by Ambrose Bierce (First published in the San Francisco Examiner, 1890 and widely available)
A wealthy planter and slave owner, Peyton Farquhar, decides to sabotage the nearby railroad in order to help Confederate soldiers. His action earns him a death sentence. Awaiting his hanging, Farquahar is terrified by a clanging sound—the ticking of his watch—as the seconds flash past, spelling his doom. Though he falls through the bridge, he lands in the river:
“The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!--the idea seemed to him ludicrous.”
Farquhar swims to safety amid a hail of bullets and journeys back to his home through hallucinations of glorious natural beauty, all the while thinking of his wife and children. This was the first short story I ever remember reading as a teenager, and the first time I realized that a tale did not have to be linear, did not have to follow a specific path, and could twist like a serpent at the last moment, landing a final, venomous bite on the reader.
‘A Short And Slightly Speculative History of Lavoisier’s Wife’ by Amber Sparks (First published in Outlook Springs, October 2018, and available to read here)
As someone who enjoys the history of science—frequently petty, often blood-soaked, and always entertaining—I knew that Antoine Lavoisier was a famous French scientist who met his untimely end under the blade of a guillotine. His wife, with whom he conducted his experiments, is a much less well-known figure. Here, Sparks reimagines her story, taking facts and blending them with fiction to create a hilarious and touching tale of a remarried (but, crucially, not renamed, though she was now technically a Countess) Madame Lavoisier, who trolls her new husband expertly and texts Charlotte Corday with barf emojis about the term ‘helpmeet’. Under Spark’s adept hands, the tale is spun with just the right amount of controlled chaos and seething anger to convey a particular feeling of erasure that women see happen to others so often throughout the historical canon and can’t help wondering if it will also happen to them.
“Lavoisier’s wife probably said something like, Oh, Mr. Thompson, didst thou discover phlogistan? Doest thou even know what phlogistan is? Yeah, prithee I did not think so…
Lavoisier’s wife did not sound like a sitcom character, of course. We are sorry to have previously given that impression. History does not record any extraordinary level of sassiness on her part.”
‘But Don’t You Ever Think of Sex, Viskovitz?’ by Alessandro Boffa (First published as Sei una bestia, Viskovitz, Edizioni Garzanti, 1998, and translated as You’re An Animal, Viskovitz, Random House, 2002)
This entire collection is centred around the main character Viskovitz, who is represented in each short story as a totally different animal, but who repeatedly searches for—and sometimes finds—his soulmate, Ljuba. Boffa’s sense of irony and playful inventiveness shines through in these tales, showcasing very human foibles through a series of different species and genres; his training as a biologist is clear in the amount of loving, careful detail which goes into each story. The one I’ve picked is an oddity even among this collection, as Viskovitz is a proud intersex snail who falls in love with their own body, to the chagrin of those around them.
“’This is nothing but a typical example of the collapse of gastropodic society,’ said one. ‘The “I” has replaced society and the narcissistic personality triumphs. We are falling back on the personal and the private.
I confess I was falling back on my privates rather willingly. It was one of the few advantages of not having a spine.”
‘Inventory’ by Carmen Maria Machado (First published in LitHub, 2017, and collected in Her Body and Other Parties, Graywolf, 2017)
An unusual apocalypse story, structured in segments where the main character recounts all the sexual relationships she’s ever had. As she describes the physical attributes of each man or woman, the narrator casually tosses out information about the ways in which a new virus has been spreading throughout the world. It was an unnerving story to read in 2017, and even more uncomfortable to read post-Covid (though I’d argue we’re still peri-Covid in many respects); current readers may be all too familiar with this sense of creeping unease, as well as the loneliness and despair caused by severed intimate connections.
“In the master bedroom, I caught my reflection in the vanity mirror as I rode him, and the lights were off, and our skin reflected silver from the moon and when he came in me he said, ‘Sorry, sorry.’ He died a week later, by his own hand. I moved out of the city, north.”
‘White Fang’ by Jack London (First serialized in Outing Magazine, 1906, and published as White Fang, Macmillan, 1906)
This is the first part of the famous novel, but I’ll argue that it’s a wonderful, standalone short story unto itself. Henry and Bill, two men almost as stoic as the surrounding Yukon wilderness, are discomfited by the sound of a wolfpack in the near distance. Six dogs haul their sled, which contains the third, already casketed, member of their party. Night after night, a single dog disappears from the camp. The men squabble over various topics: the disappearances, the lack of coffee, the constant, pervasive cold. It’s set up almost like a murder mystery, though the first disappearance is met with derision and irritation rather than concern.
By the time Frog, their strongest dog, disappears, the men realize the problem is serious. A beautiful she-wolf with a reddish tinge to her coat turns out to be the culprit; seducing the sled dogs one by one and leads them into the maws of the hungry pack. With fewer dogs to push the sledge, and only three bullets remaining, Bill and Henry’s chances of survival are slim, and the tension is running high.
“It looked at them in a strangely wistful way, after the manner of a dog; but in its wistfulness there was none of the dog affection. It was a wistfulness bred of hunger, as cruel as its own fangs, as merciless as the frost itself.”
‘Need for Restraint’ by Janice Galloway (First published in the collection Blood, Minerva, 1991)
Scottish author Galloway’s work veers between matter-of-fact and surreal, and her ability to disrupt her own story in a way which brings the reader further into the world is a marvel; her introductory sentences are often startled, as if you’ve caught them midway through an ongoing conversation.
they were both on the ground clutching up
gouging and hacking with hands pulling at cloth and
snatches of hair wound on fingers the flat of flesh slapping
dull on tile”
Inside a shopping centre, narrator Alice observes men beating an unnamed victim up—though she tries to break the fight up herself, it’s the intervention of another passerby which finally finishes the incident. Alarmed by what she’s seen. Alice scours her memory, struggling to remember who she is and why she’s there in the first place. Information arrives in staccato drips, punctuated by strange, capitalised screams over the tannoy system warning her to stay out of other people’s business, and the reader begins to realise that Alice’s marriage to her husband Charles is perhaps as violent in its own way as the scene she’s just witnessed.
Lindz McLeod is a queer, working-class, Scottish writer and editor who dabbles in the surreal. Her prose has been published by Apex, Catapult, Pseudopod, The Razor, and many more. Her work includes the novelette Love, Happiness, and All The Things You May Not Be Destined For (Assemble, 2022), her short story collection Turducken (Spaceboy, 2023) and her debut novel Beast (Hear Us Scream, 2024). Her work has been taught in schools, universities, and has been adapted into avant-garde opera. She is a full member of the SFWA, the club president of the Edinburgh Writers' Club, and is represented by Laura Zats at Headwater Literary Management.
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* A Personal Anthology is curated by Jonathan Gibbs, author of two novels, Randall, and The Large Door, and a book-length poem, Spring Journal. His story 'A Prolonged Kiss' was shortlisted for the 2021 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award. He is Programme Director of the MA/MFA Creative Writing at City, University of London.
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