This was the first short story anthology I read by choice. I can’t remember how I got hold of it, but I see it is stamped Doncaster High School library, so I guess I got it when my school library had a sale. I must have been around 13 when I first read it and yes, I still have the same copy.
The introduction by A.A. Philips, a writer and anthologist, carries excellent information for writers more than readers. He talks about the importance of caring about characters so that we care what happens to them. He says, “…that action must be in harmony with his character as we have learnt to know it.” I take this very much to heart; even in the strangest of circumstances, our characters need to behave in a way that is believable for them.
Phillips also has instructive things to say about endings. He says that endings are both important and difficult to handle well. That ‘sometimes we ‘make do’ with a bad alternative, either just to stop, without really ending, or else rather lamely to repeat something you have already said in order to round off your work.” Words I have tried to live by, or at least write by.
This sentence inspired me to look harder: “The good writer sees and feels more sharply and more understandingly than the rest of us. He (sic) notices what we merely see.” I wanted to be that good writer!
Phillips talks about how to weave your research into your story because we shouldn’t see the seams, and about the importance of a ‘quietly told’ story. And he finishes by reminding us that sometimes a single absurdity, explored well, is better than one absurdity piled atop another.
There are two stories that have stuck with me, another two I love, one so utterly gross and racist I won’t mention it and others that all taught me lessons about story telling.
The variety of tales helped me understand the importance of the difference of voice, and of the importance of character. Those with twist endings thrilled me, and to this day stand testimony to a good twist, rather than one where the whole story is built around the surprise.
The anthology is separated into segments and I remember wanting to write a story for each!
What Happens Next carries The Bottle Imp, by R.L. Stevenson. I adore this long story beyond all measure. The ending is utterly perfect. I’ve read the story 40 times perhaps, and the ending even more, because I just love the way it plays out.
A Sting in the Tail has Exit, by Harry Farjeon. As far as I can tell he didn’t write much else, which is a shame because this story is so perfectly timed and played out. There is a short movie made of it, somewhere on the internet, which is worth tracking down.
Life as We Know it and Life as We Don’t Know it are not my favourite sections, but The Logic of Nonsense, with H.G. Well’s wonderful The Truth About Pycroft, and Gavin Casey’s gloriously hilarious Rich Stew, are perfect examples of normalizing the ridiculous.
One final, inspiration quote from Phillips: “But a short story, like an oyster, goes down at a gulp, and it is the after-taste that matters most; it is by the sense of the whole in our minds after we have finished reading it that we shall judge it.”