‘Nicholas Royle’s affair with all things uncanny shines through’ – The Best British Short Stories 2012 Edited by Nicholas Royle

Hot on the heels of a panic Christmas campaign a couple of seasons back to save it from what at the time looked to be certain death, the fortunes of Salt Publishing appear to have turned around. And pretty dramatically, too. For one thing, the indie publisher has just landed itself on the Booker shortlist – no mean feat when you’ve got heavy-hitters the likes of Hilary Mantel as contenders – and with a novel that is whizzing off the virtual shelves so fast, the Amazon stocks are being constantly depleted. Still, that’s not stopped Alison Moore’s debut The Lighthouse getting a sales rank of 74 at time of press, which is pretty impressive, especially when fellow shortlistee Will Self is wallowing at 251 with Umbrella. Salt has also slammed the anchors on its demise with the new “Best Of” series, which launched in 2011 with an anthology of short stories  that has become the house’s best-seller (knocking David Gaffney’s Sawn-off Tales from its pedestal, but, hey – let’s not grumble), and which has this year also kick-started a popular poetry version.

So how about The Best British Short Stories 2012, then? Well, for the second year running, it serves up twenty tales, and, once again, editor Nicholas Royle’s affair with all things uncanny shines through. Alison MacLeod’s The Heart Of Denis Noble is the longest by far, running to twenty-five pages, and is nicely put together with a cheeky wink of a device involving a middle-aged surgeon looking back over his love life while undergoing the preparations for and aftermath of a heart replacement operation. I’ll admit I’m not entirely convinced by the ending, but then again neither am I disappointed by it.

Another lengthier offering with another twist in the tail, this time one I really couldn’t reconcile myself with, is Ramsey Campbell’s The Room Beyond – the “ta-da!” reveal surprised me, but purely because this guy’s, I suppose, a bit of a veteran and the sign-off seemed somewhat clichéd .

The second Campbell in the book – Neil Campbell – offers up a vividly lethargic and atmospheric long-summer-holidays-as-a-bored-kid story, Sun On Prospect Street. Unfortunately, this, while satisfying through the tangible dissatisfaction of its main characters Joe and Leo, equally dissatisfies as I’m sure that at one point near the conclusion these two are somehow accidentally confused and their names get swapped over. Of course, it could just be me not getting it.

One I did get and which (aside from perhaps Socrates Adams’ comparatively short Wide And Deep and Robert Shearman’s darkly humorous The Dark Space In The House In The Garden At The Centre Of The World) I think is my favourite in the collection, is Jon McGregor’s We Wave And Call, the backdrop to which is also a break, except this time for a slightly older generation. About a man taking a swim in the sea while abroad, the story’s repetition of style is very effective at gradually building up and bringing out the underlying tenseness the man is experiencing while equally well creating a wave-like reminiscence that lulls us, like the water is doing to him, into a false sense of security.

Aquatics crop up again in Stella Duffy’s intensely emotional To Brixton Beach, which, along with Dan Powell’s Half-mown Lawn and Jeanette Winterson’s All I Know About Gertrude Stein, had me reaching for the tissue box. Which actually isn’t a bad thing.

Any Cop?: Another effective and well-rounded short story anthology from Salt – keep up the good work, we say!

Clare Conlon

Sarah-Clare Conlon

* https://bookmunch.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/the-collection-illustrates-just-how-vibrant-and-varied-the-uk-short-story-writing-scene-is-at-the-moment-the-best-british-short-stories-2011-edited-by-nicholas-royle/

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