There aren’t too many print journals or anthologies dedicated to the short story in the UK at the moment – most are split between fiction, poetry and art, or they’re online-only ventures, or they’re associated with a major story prize, like Comma’s affiliation with the BBC National Short Story Prize. The Fiction Desk is an exception; a stand-alone anthology without preformatted criteria, open to submissions from the public; in their own words, they’re ‘independent publishers of new short stories’, and they’re working on a four-times a year schedule. That strikes us as an ambitious target if you’re looking to publish the best-of-the-best, and, unfortunately, we’re not too sure that in this case the ambition hasn’t outstripped the product.
This particular volume is a little longer than Redman’s usual anthologies, because it also includes the winning and shortlisted entries from The Fiction Desk’s new annual flash fiction contest; we’ve got sixteen stories, then, ranging in length from two to fifteen pages, from authors who are new to the game to those with several books under their belts. Redman’s introduction explains the book’s title as being about consequences, the machinery of causality and story-making, and the stories included do, in the main, follow through on this, from SR Mastrantone’s tale of a couple who run out of things to say to one another, to the logical mind-games of Ian Shine’s mother and child figures in ‘Love Stops at Ten Metres’, and, not least, the fallout of a con gone wrong in Warwick Sprawson’s ‘The System’ or of interplanetary attack, in Ian Sales’ ‘The Last Men In The Moon.’ Redman’s managed to include a decent range of styles, too, from Shine’s dialogue-only story to Robert Summersgill’s dystopian zoo, and from the bleak realism of Cindy George’s tale of male friendship, ‘The Coaster Boys’, to the creepy whimsy of James Collett’s ‘The Clever Skeleton’. Still, we felt that the quality of the work here, sadly, was not as various as these outlines might suggest. There was a predictable nature to much of the writing – marriages going slowly, slightly wrong; parents worried about their children’s safety; bullied kids with secrets – and the flash fiction stories, in particular, relied a little too much – with one exception – on a self-conscious quirkiness that didn’t seem to add to the resonance of the pieces.
Still, there’s always a bright side, and in this case, two stories in particular stood out. While we did like others (‘The Last Men in the Moon’, for instance, was an interesting development of an alternate-history timeline, but it didn’t, ultimately, lead us anywhere startling, and although ‘The Coaster Boys’ didn’t give us as in-depth an insight into male boding as it might have done, its theme-park setting was inspired) we were most taken by Tania Hershman’s very short fiction, ‘A Call to Arms’, and Tony Lovell’s ‘The Stairwell’. Hershman’s story about an elderly man’s nightly traumatic reliving of a wartime horror is precise and evocative; her description – mostly by implication – of a wheelchair-bound man playing virtual tennis with his carer is beautifully rendered, and her slightly fractured syntax throughout perfectly captures the tired, breathlessness of somebody ill. In Lovell’s story, a lonely man makes slight contact with his tower-block neighbours – a little girl who claims to have found a way to time-travel and an old(ish) widow who’s afraid she’s making people sad, who claims she feels like she belongs ‘in a cupboard’. Lovell’s treatment of memory and loss, his characters’ sense of disconnection from their presents, their various futile attempts to remove themselves from lives gone wrong, and the hint of supernatural possibility all made for an emotionally rich story with more strength in it than most of its companion pieces in this anthology.
Any Cop?: If one or two very good stories are enough in an anthology, then, sure, go ahead because there are a couple of gems in here. If you want a book to dip in and out of, though, then this isn’t a success. I think this (inconsistent quality) is an issue that plagues the compilers of anthologies, and I think it’s one that’s often ironed out over time as word spreads and submission rates and standards rise. Keep watching The Fiction Desk – they’re on the right path – but this particular volume probably doesn’t represent their best output.