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A Personal Anthology of beautiful rejects from the slush pile, by Katy Darby
I started this Personal Anthology in the usual manner – weighing my Nabokov against my Böll, playfully contrasting my Adichie with my Murakami, pitting Carter against Carver in a Thunderdome-style literary cage-fight. Isn’t that what, faced with the immense choice and variety of English-language short fiction, we all do, secretly imagining how delighted Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway would be to get the thumbs-up from us?
But then I remembered how I spent 2020 as a slushpile reader for Granta (as well as teaching, attempting to write, homeschooling two small kids etc.) and a daydream I’d entertained as story after story which I personally loved were (often reluctantly) turned down. I fantasized about starting up a fancy, high-paying print magazine for these wonderful stories by new, yet-to-be-famous authors, so that I could not only boast of finding them first, but pay them the professional rates their talent and hard work so richly deserved. It would be called SLUSHPILE: A journal of beautiful rejects. And at last they’d see print.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and inspiringly (but unsurprisingly), many of them now have – proof that persistence and quality really do win through even in a crowded, competitive market. As a fiction editor for over a decade now, of anthologies, literary magazines and of course Liars’ League, the live short story event I run, I want to encourage writers to submit, submit, SUBMIT (perhaps to the next Liars’ League theme, Heroes & Villains, closing this Sunday 7th May?) – because if it’s good enough, it will get there in the end.
Almost every story on this list has been rejected at least once in its career, often many times – and every story is unique, extraordinary in some way, and thoroughly deserves its eventual success. (Also, most of them are free to read online: win! And they’re all by 21st century authors – a first?) Enjoy.
‘Doll’ by Jeremy Schnee (First published in the Fall 2022 issue of Snarl. Buy the issue here)
The mother of a toddler is horrified by her husband’s introduction of a disturbingly lifelike, animated doll to the household: her son loves it, but she finds it terrifying and threatening, and secretly plots to get rid of the horrible thing. This story has stayed with me for almost three years since first reading it, gasping as I realised exactly what was going on. It demands to be read at least twice – the second time with entirely fresh eyes. It’s wrenching and frightening and soul-destroying and heartening and absolutely unforgettable.
‘Hardened Brides of the Lord’ by Lauren Van Schaik (First published in The Cincinnati Review, June 2020, and named an ‘Other Distinguished Story in The Best American Short Stories 2021. Read an extract here)
All you need to know is that this is about a bunch of nuns in mediaeval France going bonkers for a litter of kittens – and that hysteria, and, inevitably, murder ensues. It’s comedy, it’s historical fiction, it’s satire: it’s got felines and feminism and perhaps best of all, an inspiring origin story: Lauren (whom I know) was feeling very down about her writing, and after a few rejections lacked the confidence to send even this belter out, so I offered to do it for her – that way, she wouldn’t have to hear about it again until she got an acceptance. I picked The Cincinnati Review because anything with Review in the title often indicates the three Ps of Prestige, Print and Payment – and a few months later a superb story of which she’d despaired not only appeared in a very respectable journal, but was named as an Other Distinguished Story in Best American Short Stories 2021. Also, I’m chuffed to have suggested the title: the previous working title, Cat Nuns, being too on the nose 😊
‘The Lyrebird’s Bell’ by Caitlin Galway (Winner of the 2020 Morton Prize, published in The Ex-Puritan: Issue 51, and available to read here)
The lyricism of the writing and the hotbed intimacy of the relationship between the girls is what really impressed me about this piece, as well as the tantalising mystery of Antoinette's antecedents and true name. Set in postwar Australia, it initially hints at being a fictional reworking of the famous New Zealand case where two girls murdered one of their mothers, filmed as Heavenly Creatures – however, reading on, it develops into very much its own story, curious and unsettling, with a memorable and compelling voice.
‘The Wind Has Swept Away What the Fire has Spared’ by Michael Tod Powers (First published in The Boston Review, February 2023, and available to read here)
Elegant writing and a great title: a killer combination for any short story. It's historical fiction, which I write and which I love to read, set during WWII and flashing back to a devastating 1871 firestorm in Wisconsin. The protagonist Ansel designs (conventional) bombs, but the shadow of the A-bomb hangs over the whole piece like a mushroom cloud. The relationship between Ansel's son Ritchie and daughter Claire, and his wife Caroline are delicately drawn, poignant and credible. A keeper.
‘The Elephant in the Tower’ by David McGrath (First published on Liars’ League “Kings & Queens” in July 2013. Read for free here; Reprinted by Arachne Press in Weird Lies, (Winner of the Saboteur Award for Best Anthology) 2014 – buy it here)
The elephant narrator, wrenched from the side of his beloved King Louis, finds himself in the Tower of London as part of Henry III’s royal menagerie. The other animals hate his stuck-up attitude, and the zookeepers end up feeding him red meat and barrels of wine as he slowly descends into lonely alcoholism. My absolute favourite stories – the ones I can neither resist nor forget – are those which manage to combine profound pathos with moments of genuine humour (or arguably, the tragedy’s concealed inside the comedy all along, like a bitter literary Creme Egg), and this little gem of a story does it with gutwrenching brilliance. McGrath has just appeared in The Stinging Fly’s Debuts issue and is one to watch. I’m also very fond of Ed Cooper Clarke’s sublime performance of this story, complete with Cockney Polar Bear.
‘A Long Way Round’ by Delia Radu (First published in Piccioletta Barca, and available to read here)
A policeman, a translator and a Roma woman who’s been involved in an “incident” at Wimbledon tube sit in an interview room – but it’s not what it first appears. The tension between what’s said, heard and replied in this triple-layered conversation, everything that’s lost in translation, is intriguing and makes for a thought-provoking story about identity and survival which reads almost like a piece of poetry or a three-hander play. This one stands out for its underexplored but ever-relevant subject, formal innovation and its striking and unusual presentation on the page. Its brevity is a great strength, lending it a certain scriptlike succinctness, and the voices of all the characters, but especially those of Mrs Nadira and the impatient translator, ring clear. It's an interesting angle on a hot topic, and a compelling, down-to-earth yet lyrical narrative voice for Nadira, especially at the end.
A weirdly compelling monologue by an unnamed technician in a factory where wheeled machines consume gel to produce bricks, gradually turns into what I understood as a metaphor for life, art and existential meaning. Or maybe I’m reading it wrong – see what you think :) The author glosses it thus: “A worker tries to unravel their place and purpose in an infinite factory, where nobody knows what the factory makes”. Nothing like anything else I read that year, so I had to share!
‘Birth Plan’ by Uschi Gatward (First published on Liars’ League “Beginning & End” May 2014 and available to read here. Reprinted by Arachne Press in We/She, 2018 (ed. Cherry Potts & Katy Darby) – buy it here.)
Gatward’s debut collection English Magic, published only a few months before her tragically premature death at the age of 49, has generated a couple of other mentions, but since Liars’ League had the privilege to publish ‘Birth Plan’ first, it’s my pick. The story is narrated by a pregnant mother and told in the beguilingly novel form of a hospital birth plan: I read it when I was a week overdue with my first baby, and at the end I just completely dissolved. It has that wonderful mixture (which I also love in ‘Elephant in the Tower’) of humour and pathos: there are some superbly acid laugh-out-loud moments, and yet it ultimately, inevitably transmutes into something so tender, so tentative, so hopeful, so fearful, that anyone who’s had a child, or been one, can’t fail (I hope) on some level to identify with it.
‘Hope v Texas’ by Read Cook (First published in The Illinois Law Review, September 2021, and available to read here)
Without spoiling it, this is a highly unusual piece (and pushes the sort of formal & [non]fictional boundaries I like to see dissolve) and stood out effortlessly from the crowd for its unusual format and style; it is a fascinating and compelling example of fiction masquerading as fact/history. The Atwood influence is clear, but the story remains highly original, with a genuine "gasp" moment about two-thirds of the way through. Some truly breathtaking and hard-hitting moments in this piece which, sadly, continues to be relevant.
‘Bodies of Water’ by Denise Heyl McEvoy (First published in American Short Fiction, August 2022, and available to read here)
This is a slow burner, really blossoming for me on a second read, with some haunting and gorgeous turns of phrase. Beautifully and clearly observed, some lovely writing, and pleasingly eerie with the voices in the water. “Water desires water” – the personification of the water, trapped in a pool in the San Fernando valley is insinuating, haunting, and slightly sinister. The three family members’ separate consciousnesses are also explored: husband Eric, wife Lisa, an ex-dancer, and 13-year-old daughter, Camille, until an unexpected mini earthquake brings them together. By the end, it’s about desire and escape, solitude and connection, and it’s got some great lines: “With her family asleep, needing nothing from her, it is not possible for her to fall short. The burden of loving them feels lighter.”
‘The Box’ by Alistair Daniel (Bridport Short Story Prize: Highly Commended 2020. First published in the Bridport Prize Anthology 2020. Buy the anthology here)
I love the way that the box is subtly anthropomorphised and cared for like a child from the start – its size and weight both recall an infant, it cannot get too hot etc. and how later it (and the loft in which it's kept) transform into a substitute womb for the man. There's humour in here, too – the way the woman enjoys the company of her nieces and nephews "for up to an hour" and the cliched gifts (the Give Peas a Chance bibs) the man buys for others' babies. I also really liked the sinister absence of knives in the kitchen, which imply the possibility that the woman may self-harm if pushed too far … This story is so much about what is unspoken yet tacitly acknowledged between the two central characters: the impossible irreconcilability of their conflicting desires, expressed through the neutral and anonymising (“the man” & ”the woman”) third-person narrative voice. The voice reminds me somewhat of Carver or Hemingway: the way it presents the characters, their actions, thoughts and words, without comment or judgement is a very hard trick to pull off and still allow the story to carry its own significant emotional weight.
‘Galway Sinking’ by Claire-Lise Kieffer (First published in Seaborne Magazine, Issue 2: October 2021. Buy the issue here)
Successfully combines a sort of Irish magical realism with climate dystopia (and a nod to recent history reminiscent of scenes from New Orleans after Katrina) in a tale of what happens when Galway Bay is flooded, and a "hold-out" community grows up around the disaster zone. In addition to the intriguing plot and premise, lovely precise descriptive writing and convincing characterisation won me over.
Katy Darby’s prose & poetry have won multiple prizes, and appeared on BBC Radio 4 and in print with Stand, Mslexia, The London Magazine and the Arvon/Daily Telegraph Anthology. Two plays are published by Samuel French, and her historical Gothic novel The Unpierced Heart is published by Penguin. Her BA in English Literature is from Oxford University and her MA in Creative Writing from UEA, where she received the David Higham Award. A former editor of short-story magazine Litro (www.litro.co.uk) she’s also Senior Short Story Editor of TSS Publishing, Literary Editor of www.centmagazine.co.uk and Director of award-winning live fiction event Liars’ League (www.liarsleague.com). @katydarbywriter / www.katydarby.com
* You can browse the full searchable archives of A Personal Anthology, with over 2,400 story recommendations, at www.apersonalanthology.com.
* 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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