The blurb on the back declares that The Fairlight Book of Short Stories is ‘The best of modern-day short story writing’ and it’s not wrong. This collection of shorts is as varied as you could hope for, and several contain that magic ingredient – that thing that makes you think of the story long after you’ve finished reading it. The opener, ‘My Friend Hristo’, by Nial Giacomelli is an unnerving tale of an unloved child turned outsider and his unexpected friendship with the narrator. As with all good short stories, all is not what it seems, and like a spider, Giacomelli soon weaves the web that will catch and imprison the protagonist. Not only is ‘My Friend Hristo’ a chilling commentary on what happens to the disappeared – the unfortunates no-one will miss – but it’s also a commentary on power and control and how we can let others dominate us all our lives if we’re not careful. One simple mistake can lead to a lifetime of regret.
There are touching stories too. Sarah Dale’s ‘Greenwood Tree’, Judith Wilson’s ‘Winter, 1963’ and Yvonne Dykes’ ‘The Miner’ all have clear and rich narratives. The stories, although very different, are tightly written with every emotion and unsaid thought wrung silently from every word. An element of sadness runs through each, and in all three the theme of loss reaches out to the reader. The chirpy, realistic mother/daughter conversation in ‘The Miner’ is very relatable, the characters well drawn. We know what the mum is saying, when clearly she is saying something else entirely. And yet it is her daughter’s up-beat comments that keep the story focused, making it and keeping it positive. The hardest line however, is saved until last. ‘Winter, 1963’ is a devastatingly powerful story. The protagonist, condemned by others’ prejudices and hypocrisy, is made all the sadder by her desperate voice that no-one other than the reader can hear. It is one in the collection that stays with you – somehow you’re left wondering, did this really happen?
The style and scope of the many writers included in this compilation give the reader the opportunity to visit new, unexpected worlds and styles. Each has a distinctive tone, each delivering a well-crafted piece of writing. For example, ‘Misper’ by Katherine Pringle, is a rare – and every successful example of – the voice of the narrator being an animal. The story unfolds through the animal’s eyes combined with the human voice around which the story turns. I wasn’t sure when I began reading it that it would work, but Pringle pulled it off brilliantly, and I think this story is the most unique in the compilation.
One of the best lines I’ve read in a long time comes from ‘Dry County’ by David Lewis: ‘Seriously. Here in America. Fucking mermaids. Thanks Obama.’ It’s a richly weird, unnerving story, with menace, like the mermaids, never far from the surface. The absurdity of the theme is written so well it seems completely natural and that lets the humour trickle through. Mermaids, menace, weirdness and humour: what’s not to like? Another of the gems in this collection has to be ‘Funreality’ by Anna Appleby. Written in the third person and with restricted punctuation (which creates a wonderful impression of Carol’s train of thought) we read of Carol, a freelance writer, pondering on her sanity and ability to function as an adult is expected to function, as she writes down her thoughts through one long week; and my oh my – we’ve all been there! The scene Anna Appleby describes at the book club meeting had me in stitches: ‘… and then Camille interrupts politely and suggests that everyone share some insights on Carol’s story and everyone does share insights until Carol is sure that she will never write anything ever again.’ Loved it.
Whoever at Fairlight chose these stories knows exactly what they’re looking for and what makes an excellent short story. Each one is spot-on in terms of tone, idea, and individuality. And to that end, Fairlight Books itself is certainly one to watch.
A graduate from Oxford University’s Creative Writing Course, Jacci Gooding is a self-published author writing from a small desk somewhere in rural Warwickshire. Ex-editorial assistant and organiser of the Stratford Literary Festival’s self-publishers showcase, she has won Writing Magazine’s short horror story competition, was runner-up in The Squat Pen Rests short story competition, was shortlisted for The Bedford International Writing Competition and is a runner-up in Fantastic Books short fantasy horror competition of 2020.