Outside The Asylum: The Grist Anthology Of The Best Short Fiction Of 2012
Edited by Michael Stewart Grist Books, £9.45

Some of the 26 short stories in this, the second Grist collection edited by Bradford writer Michael Stewart for Huddersfield University since 2009, read like scripts for short films.

Melvin Burgess’s The Double Devil, only a page-and-a-half, is a snappy take on the Faustus story. When Mephistopheles thinks he has encountered another victim soul, the young girl turns on him to reveal her true identity.

The Tops Of Cupboards, by Glenis Burgess, is another example. An unnamed man with monomaniacal tendencies lives in a house with his unnamed wife, who never leaves the kitchen. Less than three pages later we find out why.

Louis Malloy’s two-page Elvis And The Neighbours is a a one-trick pony too. A young Elvis Presley moves into an empty house in a suburban neighbourhood. Sings a few songs, charms a lot of people, then packs up and drives away.

“When we got back home, my mother was doing no sewing or ironing, just sitting and listening to the silence. She was still looking at the corner of the room where Elvis had been standing ten minutes earlier and where she would one day keep her boxes, filled with every record he ever made.”

But stories as short as these, no matter how well they satisfy the modern expectation that short stories should be pithy epiphanies and no more, are snacks without much food for thought. I got through ten of them between other jobs in the newsroom, wondering if I had given them sufficient attention.

Among them were the three winners of the 2010 Grist Short Story competition: Chloe, by Jenny Oliver, a brief episolatory story which failed to make an impression; Wes Lee’s Alexander McQueen On Your Birthday, an edgy meditation on celebrity suicides; and William Thirsk-Gaskill’s Slow Dance With A Skeleton, at eight-and-a-half pages, to me the longest and the most interesting of the three.

A man on his way to a blind date in Liverpool meets an arresting-looking woman on the train and ends up with her in Edinburgh. He thinks his dreams have come true, only to discover that the dream contains a nightmare.

Something similar happens in Towards The Visceral, Jack Moss’s engrossing 14-page story about a famous artist, something of a con-artist too, whose conceit leads him into a life-changing encounter with some fans in the gallery where his latest works are hanging.

This is like one of those cautionary tales recounted by Valentine Dyall – the Man In Black – on BBC radio, or that used to feature in the TV series The Twilight Zone.

The fictions we make up to extricate ourselves from embarrassing situations sometimes come back at us. Truth borders on becoming stranger than fiction in Alexi Sayle’s Imitating Catherine Walker, in which an executive resorts to inventing a lodger to put off a tiresome friend. But instead of taking you somewhere unexpected or dangerous, the story abruptly stops.

Ben Cheetham’s A Perfectly Ordinary Man successfully appears to be yet another story about a mismatched couple in which both husband and wife feel unappreciated. But when you discover what the man designs for a living, and what those incessant flecks of white dust really are, the story takes quite another turn.

The book ends brilliantly with Toby Litt’s witty, clever but thoroughly engaging Leaving Home, Bye-Bye, involving John, Paul, George and Ringo and a hapless reporter at the time of Sergeant Pepper. Paul doesn’t come out of it well either.

Outside The Asylum is available from hud.ac.uk/grist.