Friday, 16th June 2017.
Penguin’s Little Black Classics are a collection of short books (mostly around 64 pages, although some are longer), originally published in 2015 as a series of eighty volumes, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the founding of Penguin. These first books were priced at 80p each. The volumes cover short stories, poetry, miscellaneous bits and pieces, and the odd slice of non-fiction. All are older works, largely from the 19th century; but with some going much further back, and the odd volume creeping in from the early 20th century.
The first eighty volumes did rather well: within a year combined sales of these little books had comfortably exceeded two million copies, and so in 2016 Penguin added a further 46 volumes (the first Penguin Classic was published in 1946, you see). Now they dropped the 80p business, with the new titles priced at £1, or £2 for a few slightly longer volumes. In 2017 the United States Constitution was published as a sole additional title, making the total number of Little Black Classics in print today 127.
This isn’t the first time that Penguin Classics have bombarded us with tiny little books: the 1995 anniversary was celebrated with Penguin 60s: those cost 60p, and totalled 180 volumes covering a range of subjects including biography, travel, classics, and sixty more modern stories from the likes of Martin Amis and Muriel Spark — perhaps Penguin had more of a budget for licensing and royalties in those heady 1990s. (The full list of Penguin 60s is on Wikipedia.) In 2011 they marked the 50th anniversary of Penguin Modern Classics with fifty ‘Mini Modern Classics’, a series of slightly more recent volumes at £3 each.
Getting back to the current series, when the first volumes came out I took note, vaguely hoped to find a cheap boxed set of all eighty books somewhere, and then forgot all about them. I must admit, I expected them to disappear quickly. Not because they’re not worth buying (they certainly are), but because in the days of online free postage and real bookshops with squeezed margins, small very cheap books didn’t seem particularly practical. But as the list has grown, and been embraced by millions of readers and at least some bookshops (my nearest Blackwell’s has a full bay of them; or did until I got my hands on it), perhaps it bears revisiting.
For writers in particular, the Little Black Classics series is a fantastic resource. It’s vital that writers read as widely as they can, and familiarise themselves with as many authors, styles, and ideas as possible.
Anthologies are one great way to do this, whether they’re specific themed collections of periods or genres, or attempts to take in a wider picture, like the two-volume Penguin Book of the British Short Story that Philip Hensher edited a few years ago (and there are of course still wider pictures than just British short stories). As a quick overview, these anthologies are terrific; and for obvious reasons, The Fiction Desk likes anthologies.
Anthologies generally only contain one story by each author, however, and while these individual stories might bring a writer to your attention, they can only tell you so much about their work. The logical next step, the single-author collection, will take you much deeper into an author’s work, but it’s impractical to read as many of these longer collections as you might want to, particularly when you’re also trying to keep up with more modern writers.
The Little Black Classics come somewhere in between, usually containing two, three, or four stories by the featured author. Having these extra stories on hand gives you just a little of the context and depth that you normally need to go to a collection for, but the price and size makes them much more accessible, much easier to take a chance on.
Here then is an opportunity to find out whether Mark Twain’s humour still hits the spot, and think about why it succeeds or fails in the modern era; to take a look at how Arthur Conan Doyle’s supernatural fiction compares to the Holmes stories (sometimes Conan Doyle is surprisingly good, and sometimes he’s surprisingly bad); to examine HG Wells’ ability to spin a gripping tale with economy and vitality (Wells is one of the few authors to be honoured with two volumes in the series); to finally take a look at the short fiction of Thomas Hardy (another one); or Balzac or Washington Irving or whoever else you’ve not quite got around to yet — or whose work you need to revisit to freshen your memory.
I’m concentrating on the short fiction because that’s what we do here; the poetry and non-fiction volumes in the series offer similar delights and, again, further opportunities for exploration and discovery.
The Little Black Classics are available from some online outlets, but not all: Amazon has them in both paperback and Kindle form; The Book Depository — whose ‘free worldwide delivery’ seems to steer them away from any book costing under about £2 — have only the boxed set of the first eighty volumes. But ideally, you want to find a physical bookshop in your area that has them there on the shelf, where you can browse properly and make a habit of picking out a volume, or a handful, whenever you happen to be passing.
It would be great if the series could be expanded to include slightly more recent work, as was the case with the Penguin 60s, but there’s still plenty here to be getting on with. You’ll find that one of those nasty plastic fivers can be converted into a lot of nice black books.
Thursday, 30th March 2017.
Today I’m very pleased to be announcing the winners and shortlist of our 2017 Ghost Story Competition.
Judging this competition is one of the great pleasures of working with The Fiction Desk, and this year’s entries have been very strong indeed, possibly the strongest to date.
As usual we’ll start with the shortlist. All of these authors will receive a three-volume subscription to our anthology series:
- Richard Agemo: The House Friends
- Jacqueline Burgoyne: Borrowed
- Alastair Chisholm: Exhalation
- Amanda Crum: The Body Farm
- Will Dunn: Des Nuits Blanches
- Philippa East: The Archivist
- Randi Berg Ferstad: Benjamin
- Amanda Mason: When the Dark Comes Down
- Henry Peplow: Take Me Home
- Victoria Richards: The Camera
- Darren Todd: What Meets in the Dark and Rain
- Christopher Youds: The Reclaiming
And now the winners:
- In first place (£500 prize): Will Dunn: Des Nuits Blanches
- In second place (£250 prize): Philippa East: The Archivist
- In third place (£100 prize): Richard Agemo: The House Friends
Congratulations to all of the above writers. Again, it’s been a particularly strong year for entries. We’ll be putting the winners of this year’s competition together with the 2016 winners and a selection of other stories in our next anthology, New Ghost Stories III.
The next edition of our ghost story competition will open for entries in November 2017. Keep an eye on the competition page for more details closer to the time.
Wednesday, 23rd November 2016.
It’s time to announce the winner of the Fiction Desk Writer’s Award for our tenth anthology, Separations.
The Writer’s Award is a prize of £100, presented to the author of the best story in each of our anthologies, and voted for by the contributors to that volume. This makes it a genuinely peer-judged prize, and a great way of recognising talent.
Separations featured some tough competition for the award, as it contained some superb work, including two stories by previous winners: S R Mastrantone and Alex Clark. In the end our authors decided that the Writer’s Award should go to Fiction Desk newcomer Hannah Mathewson, for her story ‘Two Pounds, Six Ounces’, which tells of a hospital visitor’s crisis when a power cut knocks out the lights in the building.
Friday, 28th October 2016.
Our occasional ‘Stories behind Stories‘ series features our writers talking about the inspiration and ideas behind their work. Here, Alex Clark tell us how she came to write ‘Poor Billy’, which is featured in our current anthology Separations.Ghosts, it seems, are usually attached to places. The haunted house, the haunted graveyard, the haunted wood: as Halloween approaches, you’ll see them adorning everything from boxes of biscuits to babygrows. A thousand horror films have at their centre the Bad Place, where no-one should go but we know they will: the place where the unquiet spirit waits, seeking justice or vengeance.
Give this a moment’s thought, and it’s a bit odd. Why don’t the ghosts go out wandering? Why don’t they go looking for the people who’ve done them wrong? Or try to correct whatever terrible mistake led them to be stuck in the real world? Of course, in some stories and in some other cultures, they do. The ghost in Western culture, though, is usually stuck on its home turf, acting out the same horrors over and over again.
With the dawn of spiritualism, in the Victorian and Edwardian period, it was inevitable that people would start investigating why this might be. Intelligent, rational people set out to investigate hauntings, feats of mediumship and black magic. For a glimpse of the true weirdness of this time I strongly recommend a visit to the Wikipedia page for Harry Price, amateur magician and psychical researcher of the early twentieth century, which features tales of talking mongooses, egg-white ectoplasm and boys transforming into goats.
The idea of seriously investigating these kinds of phenomena seems ludicrous to us now, yet many of the investigators were not fools. They knew that most of the supernatural claims were hoaxes, but they believed that it was possible they might find a tiny core of genuine paranormal activity. This activity could then be investigated, to find the mechanisms by which apparitions might appear to people in the everyday world.
New theories sprung up, theories distinct from previous religious, moral or superstitious understandings of what ‘ghosts’ might be. Victorian psychical researchers William Fletcher Barrett and Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, for instance, suggested that strong psychical energy could become imprinted upon materials such as wood or stone, remaining there and disturbing the minds of later visitors. In the mid twentieth century, Welsh philosopher H.H. Price expanded on this and suggested that ghosts might not be unquiet souls, but some kind of memory or recording, held in the matrix of the physical world. His theory of ‘place memory’ suggested that a strand of memory from a person’s mind might attach itself to the physical environment and lodge there, experienced by others as hallucination.
Later, in the 1960s, all these theories were gathered by parapsychologist Thomas Lethbridge to argue for ‘stone tape theory’, the idea that ghostly phenomena are recordings of historical events, stored in the stone and wood that witnessed those events. Ghosts, in this theory, are inanimate shadows, acting out a short loop of the past over and over and over.
Whilst I love the idea of stone tape theory, there are some big problems with it. The first of my objections is: why no happy ghosts? Or ghosts who have strong emotions, but about ridiculous things? If stone tape theory held true, then maternity units the world over would be plagued by endless replays of new-baby bliss, registry offices would be impossible to work in and the M25 would be infested by apparitions with road rage. Furthermore, why are almost all supposed ghosts dead people? Wouldn’t there be lots of recordings of living people?
And this is where Poor Billy started to take shape. Rather than wood or stone, concrete seemed the natural material on which to store a psychical recording. There are very few stone castles and timber-framed houses knocking around nowadays, but an awful lot of concrete tower blocks. Concrete has all of those properties that Billy talks about in the story: it’s great at absorbing sound and heat, so why not memory too? Why not a happy memory? When Maggie’s mum describes the ghost as ‘just a snatch of him,’ this is what I had in mind: a fragment of the past, like a radio station caught and lost again, or a TV channel flicked over.
I’ve written here before about my former career as an archaeologist, and it amuses me to note that many of the early psychical researchers were archaeologists before becoming paranormal investigators. Perhaps there’s something about studying the past, about wanting to know what life was like there, that draws the mind towards ghosts. I know myself that to pull an object out of the ground, to know that the human being who last touched it walked the world of the 1570s, is extraordinary. It is easy to think that the present is the only real time that there has ever been, and that the past looked like a film, or a tapestry, or an illuminated manuscript. It didn’t. The sun shone, the wind blew. 1570 was the only reality, and it was happening just where you’re sitting, reading this. Hundreds of millions of dramas and revelations and deaths have been acted out on every patch of this earth, and all of them are vanished. It seems inconceivable that those emotions left no trace. How appealing it is to imagine that they might have done, and that we might be able to replay those memories and see the past for ourselves.
It was perhaps because of my archaeologist’s training that I was unable to stop myself planting a small artefact in the story, an in-joke of my own. The architecture firm for which Billy works is named Sidgwick Barrett Price, a nod to the people whose ideas birthed stone tape theory. I think they would find it funny. If they don’t, I do hope they won’t come visiting.
— Alex Clark
Wednesday, 21st September 2016.
Fiction Desk contributor Richard Smyth is in the process of crowdfunding his new novel Quays through publishing platform Unbound. Here he tells us about the novel, and its connections to his Fiction Desk story, Crying Just Like Anybody:
Richard has now added a new reward for supporters on his Unbound page. For £35, pledgers can choose to receive both a signed copy of Quays and a signed paperback of Crying Just Like Anybody. Visit his Unbound page and scroll down for details.
I had this map of Manhattan tacked up over my desk for a couple of years. It shows Manhattan Island in 1916, a century ago, just before the US entered the war. The Battery, on the tip of the island, is at the bottom; 110th street, north of Central Park and south of Harlem, is at the top. In the middle – “way out of the way in midtown”, to be exact – is where I set my story ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’. And it’s where Tom Quays, the hero of my new novel Quays, grew up.
Around here no-one calls anyone by their right name. There’s little Tomas Quis who’s Spanish but he’s called Tom Keys, and there’s my sister Jesca and the boys call her ‘Yes’ and make dirty jokes about it. At the repair shop Mr White is really Mr Weiss and then there’s Si Portman who works for the grocer and wears braces on his legs, and he’s just called Dumdum. Johnny ought to be Gianni really but everyone calls him Johnny. He doesn’t mind.
I’m not sure which Tom Quays – or Tom Keys, or Tomás Quis – came first; I have an idea that the Tom of Quays (then barely even a work in progress) strolled into the New York of ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’, but it could have been the other way around, and in any case these things are seldom clear-cut – all these little worlds bleed into one another.
Why New York? Why midtown Manhattan? Why there, and why then? In one sense, there’s a straightforward answer: books. In my early twenties I was led through urban America by a succession of library paperbacks: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, and, from after the war, John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer most of all. Non-fiction fleshed out the picture: Luc Sante’s Low Life, Anne Douglas’s Terrible Honesty.
I found that there was room in this world for the stories I wanted to tell. Of course, some of these stories – stories about love, death, war, sex – could have been told in any place at any time, but others played on themes that I picked out most clearly in the madly symphonic Manhattan of the early 20th century. These were stories of immigration and identity, of political radicalism, of literary fame, of escape, ambition and opportunity.The Fiction Desk chose to publish ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’ as the title story in its fourth short-fiction anthology in 2012. It remains one of the stories I’m most proud of; it’s certainly one of the stories I’m most fond of. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these streets: sending Tom Quays stumbling drunk along Broadway, or putting Dorothy Parker on Pearl Street at midnight, or letting Anna Moller look up at the stars from Coenties Slip. I know this place better than anywhere else I’ve never been.
If it’s possible to escape from the places you grew up (and I’m not at all sure that it is) then Tom, in Quays, does escape the crowding alleys of midtown: he goes to war, first of all, and then is plunged into the smoke and glitter of the Jazz Age literary scene. But his past – the grimy Manhattan of ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’ – won’t ever really let him be. He finds its shadows in an upstate mental asylum, in the offices of Metropolitan magazine, in the history of his city, in his own books and stories.
It’s been kind of like that for me. I spent a lot of time in this place – pretty much all of it without leaving my office chair – and it probably won’t ever really let me be, either.
People seemed to connect with ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’, with Anna and Johnny and the sorry-looking Martian they find in midtown Manhattan. I think they’ll connect with Quays, too: I think anyone who ever feels lost in a big city, or who has ever wanted to escape without quite knowing where from or where to, will get along with the novel (as will anyone who wants to read about Damon Runyon reporting from a WW1 shell-hole or a drunk novelist applying Freudian theory to the Dempsey-Tunney fight – it has something for everyone).
The Manhattan of Quays is my Manhattan; Unbound’s crowdfunding model means that it can stay like that, just as I dreamed it up, without creative compromises or focus-grouped revisions, all the way to the bookshop shelf. It’s a terrific place, and it’d be wonderful if you could read the excerpt, pledge to the book, and maybe (cue clink of cocktail shaker, hum of passing El train, opening bars of Rhapsody In Blue) join me there.
Richard Smyth’s prize-winning stories have been published in The Fiction Desk, Structo, The Stinging Fly, Riptide, Minor Literature[s], The Stockholm Review, Foxhole, The Lonely Crowd, Haverthorn, Firewords Quarterly, Vintage Script, The Nightwatchman, Cent and anthologies from Arachne Press and Ink Lines.
His first novel, ‘Wild Ink’, was published in 2014; he also writes for the TLS, The Guardian, The New Statesman and a few others.
You can pledge to buy his new novel ‘Quays’ – and pick up rewards including one-to-one writing mentorship – at: https://unbound.com/books/quays.
Friday, 2nd September 2016.
Our tenth anthology, titled Separations, is out on September 19th.
Copies will be sent out to subscribers and pre-orderers as soon as they’re back from the printers, usually a few days earlier.
Speaking of which, to pre-order your copy, or to read full details of the new anthology, go over here.
Tuesday, 31st May 2016.
It’s time to announce the winners of the 2016 Ghost Story Competition.
Since our ghost story competition first launched in 2013, it has become an increasingly important part of our anthology series. As well as providing much of the material for two volumes of ghost stories, it has introduced us (and our readers) to some great new voices in short fiction. Perhaps it has also helped us to find our editorial identity, which might be said to lie somewhere in the curious territory between supernatural fiction and realism. (It might also be said to lie entirely elsewhere, of course: like readers, publishers shouldn’t try to define their tastes too rigidly.)
Today, though, we’re dealing firmly with the supernatural, and we have first, second, and third prizes to be awarded within a shortlist of fifteen stories. The three winners will receive £500, £250, or £100, while all fifteen shortlistees will receive a three-volume subscription to our anthology series.
Let’s start then with the shortlisted stories, whose authors will be receiving our next three anthologies in the mail:
- Sean Baker: Grantchester Meadows in the Summer at Dawn
- Kate van der Borgh: For Those Who Love
- Bethan Hutt: Jack and Me
- Jerry Ibbotson: The Intruder
- Seth Marlin: The Dead Lie Dreaming
- Amanda Mason: Apotropaic
- David McVey: Last Bus to Carnshee
- Karyn Millar: The Key to all Mythologies
- Dan Purdue: A Simple Favour
- Guy Russell: Beneath the Skin
- Andrea Stephenson: The Last Bus Home
- Ailsa Thom: A Rational Explanation
- Josie Turner: 27 Exposures
- Barney Walsh: The Crypt beneath the Library
- David Webb: The Charm
And now the winners:
- In first place (£500 prize): Barney Walsh: The Crypt beneath the Library
- In second place (£250 prize): Jerry Ibbotson: The Intruder
- In third place (£100 prize): Seth Marlin: The Dead Lie Dreaming
Congratulations to all of the above writers. I’ll be getting in touch with you over the next week or so to arrange prizes and discuss publication of the three winning entries, which will appear in our autumn anthology, the third volume in our New Ghost Stories series.
The next edition of our ghost story competition will open for entries on 1st November 2016. Keep an eye on the competition page for more details over the next few months.
Friday, 25th March 2016.
It’s time to present the Fiction Desk Writer’s Award for our latest anthology, Long Grey Beard and Glittering Eye.
If you’re not familiar with the Writer’s Award, this is a a special £100 prize awarded to the best story in each of our anthologies, as judged by our contributors. Each writer with a story in the volume casts two equally weighted votes, which are then totalled up to reveal the winner.
This time, we had two stories tie for the award: Mark Newman’s ‘Before There Were Houses, This Was All Fields’, and Adam Blampied’s ‘The Cobble Boys’. In cases like this, we invite a guest judge to break the tie. As both stories have something to do with our relationship with the built environment, the obvious choice was Alex Clark, whose own story ’The Stamp Works’ won the Writer’s Award for There Was Once a Place.
Here’s what Alex had to say:
“I was gripped by ‘Before There Were Houses…’, and I loved the analogy between the construction of landscape and the construction of the human heart. The writing is multi-layered and packed with elegant metaphors. It’s such an engaging read. In the end, though, I’ve chosen ‘The Cobble Boys’. It’s so assured that I believed completely in its world. It’s vivid, brutal and authentic, and has some important things to say about the weight of history. It’s left a lasting impression on my mind.”
So it’s congratulations to Adam Blampied for winning the Fiction Desk Writer’s Award for his story ‘The Cobble Boys’, and to Mark Newman for giving him such a close race.
Look out for Alex Clark’s new story, ‘Poor Billy’, coming in our next anthology.
Friday, 29th January 2016.
It’s time to reveal the winners and shortlist of the 2016 Fiction Desk Newcomer Prize.
This year, there’s a shortlist of twelve stories, including the two winners. All shortlisted writers will receive a year’s subscription to our anthology series, and there’s £500 for the first place, and £250 for the second. Let’s start with the shortlist:
- Positional Asphyxia by Lucy Apps
- The History Lesson by Kate van der Borgh
- Gardening Leave by Dan Brotzel
- Stay by David Frankel
- An Internship by Todd Van Horn
- The Song of Stephen by Frances Knight
- Watching a Girl You Might Have Loved Get Dressed to Work the Bars by Elias Lindert
- Two Pounds, Six Ounces by Hannah Mathewson
- Renaissance Man by James Mitchell
- Memento Mori by Richard Newton
- Splitting Miles by Claire Parkin
- Slice by Imogen West-Knights
And the winners are:
- In first place: Renaissance Man by James Mitchell
- In second place: Splitting Miles by Claire Parkin
Congratulations to all of the above winners, and thank you again to everybody who took part in the competition. I’ll be contacting the winners and shortlistees over the next two weeks to arrange prizes, and the two winning stories will appear in the next Fiction Desk anthology.
The Newcomer Prize will open again for entries towards the end of the year. Our annual ghost story competition is open now, and you’ll find more details of that one here.
Friday, 31st July 2015.
It’s time to announce the winners of our 2015 Flash Fiction Competition.
Once again, the high standard of entries means that we’re announcing a shortlist. All shortlisted authors will receive a three-volume subscription to our anthology series, starting with volume 9 (coming in August).
The three winners will also receive cash prizes, and their stories will appear in an anthology later this year.
Let’s start with the complete shortlist. There are ten stories, presented here in alphabetical order by author:
- The Last Day – S E Craythorne
- Wood – Tracy Fells
- Nuclear Family – Jenny Harding
- Two-Timer – F J Morris
- Five Toes, and So On – Dan Purdue
- The Trouble With Men – Andy Shearer
- Memories – Ian Shine
- Beat the Brainbox – Mike Scott Thomson
- That Buzzing Inside My Head – Ren Watson
- Youth – Liz Xifaras
And now for the winners…
The third prize (£50) goes to:
- Freya Morris, for Two-Timer
The second prize (£100) goes to:
- Mike Scott Thomson, for Beat the Brainbox
And the first prize (£300) goes to:
- Ren Watson, for That Buzzing Inside My Head
Congratulations to all of the authors listed above, and thank you to all of you who took part in our flash fiction competition this year. I’ll be getting in touch in the next couple of weeks to arrange subscriptions and prizes.