Thirty Stories from Thirty Years
The first retrospective collection of Jan Mark’s short stories – available here from janmark.net.
The collection comprises thirty stories – the contents of Nothing to Be Afraid Of (1980, Highly Commended for the Carnegie Medal), In Black and White (1991) and Eyes Wide Open (2003), as well as the two long stories in Hairs in the Palm of the Hand (1981), and four previously uncollected stories.
Many of you will also fondly remember the collections Feet (1983), Enough Is Too Much Already (1988) and A Can of Worms (1990) but I felt these stories are pitched slightly older and deserve to be collected in another book, another day – perhaps even including the pair in Two Stories (1984), published for adults. (There are numerous uncollected teen stories out there which could make a collection on their own.)
I’ve broken up the collections and arranged the stories alphabetically by title – readers can make their own connections across the book. Certainly, there are plenty of ghost stories, some even with elements of horror (such as ‘Who’s a Pretty Boy, Then?’). Numerous feature twins or doubles. Several of the stories are about gardens, though never as lush and vital as Jan’s own garden – for that, you’d have to seek out her non-fiction picture book, This Bowl of Earth. You can see echoes of the novels, too – like the ‘Aunty’ who was ‘the kind of person who couldn’t manage without a handle to her name’ and time and again obsessions take over people’s lives, as they do in The Lady With Iron Bones, Worry Guts and Aquarius.
Readers might be interested to know how the original collections were pitched.
From the blurb on the hardback jacket for Nothing to Be Afraid Of:
‘The title of this collection is Nothing to Be Afraid Of, but this is something of a paradox as in most of the stories there is definitely something frightening, not least some of the rather odd children who appear in them. But then being scared sometimes is one of the things that makes life worth living. Like banging your head against a wall, it’s so nice when you stop.
‘The stories are set in those pre-television days of the early Fifties, when people tended to create their own imaginary worlds of horrors a little more than we do today – horrors that can’t be switched off when you’ve had enough. They follow you upstairs in the dark and slide under the bed and there they stay … There are ten richly textured short stories here, and Jan Mark makes sure that the reader is constantly entertained by the host of characters, some of whom are pretty cunning, who walk through the pages.’
… and for Hairs in the Palm of the Hand:
‘School: everybody has to go there for a part of their lives, but some people manage to get through their school days in a more interesting way than the rest of us … Surprising facts about school life emerge from each story, not the least of which is the amazing realization that teachers talk to each other in the staff room, and know more about what’s going on than any pupil would like to think. The title of the book refers to that well-known method for detecting the first sign of madness.’
In Black and White and Other Stories was a collection of supernatural and ghost stories, both new and old (including ‘Nule’, republished from Nothing to Be Afraid Of):
‘Frightening, poignant and sometimes humorous, these stories all display the skill which singles out Jan Mark as perhaps the most gifted writer of short stories for today’s young.’
Eyes Wide Open brought together six stories that had appeared in anthologies – including a heavily revised ‘Mystery Tour’, updated to accommodate the Jubilee line extension of the London Underground.
Several anthologies were edited by Tony Bradman, who remembers working with Jan: ‘I do think she was a great writer – she had a distinctive way of looking at the world and people and a fine style – and I loved working with her. I remember that she was very direct. I edited themed anthologies, and invited writers to contribute. Her answers would always be a brief but definite yes or no. Then the story would arrive by the deadline, and would be pretty much perfect as it was – any editing was always minimal.’
In an author note for Eyes Wide Open, Jan wrote:
A novel gives a writer plenty of room to operate in. Short stories work the other way round. You haven’t got room for anything that doesn’t matter. So instead of creating strange new worlds you take a few days, or hours, out of a person’s life and show something happening to them. It may not be earth-shattering or dramatic, but afterwards, nothing will ever be quite the same again.
Publication: 6 February 2020
Format: paperback, 198 x 129 mm
Extent: 368 pp
UK Price: £10, plus £3 postage; (US/Can/Australia: £10 + £9.10 postage)