In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.Sacheverell Sitwell, For Want of the Golden City
A few months ago a friend recommended I read a short story by the English writer Robert Aickman. ‘The Real Road to the Church’ is in the collection Cold Hand in Mine (1975), and my friend wanted to discuss the story with me. And so I abandoned the novel I’d been reading, and have been enthusiastically devouring Aickman’s “strange stories” since then.
Last week I was asked why I’m drawn to writing short fiction. I talked about the form suiting my mind and process, and how writing short pieces means, for me, never encountering a creative block. But since that interview I’ve thought more about the question, and realise that the answer could be much simpler: I’ve always loved reading short stories. When I was a young boy my mother bought me a paperback of O. Henry’s stories from the basement of Blacklers department store in Liverpool, England. I was hooked, finding magic in those tales, over and over, each reading adding something to the last, sometimes revealing previously unexplored narrative corners. I marvelled at the places and ways a short story can transport its reader in such a small space of time. I longed to take others on similar journeys.
At school I would feel a frisson of joy whenever we were set the task of writing a story for English classes, and wondered why none of my classmates seemed to share the same level of excitement. That making things up should be an academic activity, and one that was encouraged by my teachers, never ceased to amaze and delight me. What other unexpected delights, I’d wonder, did life have in store?
In the last few days I’ve come back to reading the novel that the Aickmans so rudely interrupted. Because I like novels, too. As long as they’re short.