The past forever present;Reviews;English

29th May 1998 at 01:00
Robert Dunbar on twists in the tale ofshort story anthologies

Twisters: Stories before 1900. Edited by Erik Wilcock. Longman pound;4.50. Tales from Times Past. Edited by Mary Berry and Alex Madina. Cambridge pound;5.25.

Stories Old and New. Edited by Geoff Barton. Longman pound;4.99.

The New Windmill Book of Stories from Different Genres. Edited by Mike Hamlin, Christine Hall and Jane Browne. Heinemann (New Windmills) pound;5.75.

War Stories. Edited by Jane Christopher. Longman pound;4.99. My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories. By Frank O'Connor. Heinemann (New Windmills) pound;5.99Age range: 11+.

The modern short story," wrote William Trevor, "may be defined as the distillation of an essence." The definition points to the subtlety and suggestiveness of the genre. In prescribing short stories for study in our schools, the national curriculum requires teachers and students to engage with succinct and sophisticated texts. Publishers, as always, rush to their aid with attractive anthologies containing more activity ideas than are ever likely to be needed in a secondary classroom setting.

But what of the stories themselves? Twisters offers the most eclectic grouping, interpreting Stories before 1900 to include ancient traditional tales from various cultures as well as the biblical David and Goliath story (in contrasting versions) and - unexpectedly perhaps - Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale", in the original 14th-century form and modern translation.

If, predictably, such popular stories as "The Monkey's Paw", "The Necklace" and "The Gift of the Magi" must be incorporated in a selection dominated by "twists in the tale", the presence of Mary Wilkins Freeman's much less well-known "A New England Nun" is all the more welcome. There is variety in plenty here, with some sense of the genre's versatility.

The sub-title of Tales from Times Past - "Sinister Stories of the 19th Century" - prepares us for a selection that emphasises frissons rather than twists, even if it too has space for "The Monkey's Paw" and "The Necklace". Dickens, Doyle, Poe and Wells are here also, and it is particularly good to see Elizabeth Gaskell and E Nesbit, included, although the extent to which such writers speak to today's young is unclear.

The novelty of presentation is that the very detailed suggested activities, instead of featuring as prefatory or concluding pages, break up the text. It is unclear how this device might most productively be used in class.

With a remit that allows it to range from the mid-19th century to our own day, Stories Old and New offers 13 tales that provide, in the sub-title, "contrasts from two centuries". While Dickens, Gaskell and Poe again supply the principal historical interest, later and distinguished writing from, among others, Jane Gardam, Graham Greene and Penelope Lively, is strongly represented. Story groupings are thoughtful and imaginative, the whole enterprise informed by a desire to take young readers into the heart of the events and to encourage debate and creativity.

In Stories from Different Genres the groupings are more conventional, centring on five narrative forms - ghost, crime, love, science fiction and horror, each represented by three or four examples. Doyle, Hardy, Nesbit, Stevenson, Trollope, Wells and Woolf rub shoulders with, among others, Margery Allingham, Patricia Highsmith, Catherine Storr and Kurt Vonnegut. Suggested activities focus on "wide reading" and, with much ingenuity, on "original writing". As an introduction to a genre-based investigation of the short story, this is a demanding and ambitious venture.

While the 12 War Stories cover many conflicts, they are united, according to their editor, by their concentration on those features all wars share - destruction, death, grief and hope. It is an awesome catalogue but one that a reading of these fictions should go some way towards addressing.

In a geographical sweep that includes Britain, France, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Nigeria and the United States, much here is likely to be new to most readers, even when accompanied by the inevitable "compare and contrast" exercises. No teacher or student will have the time to do this material justice, but a thorough initial reading may ensure that these are stories to be revisited.

Finally, a word of unreserved recommendation for the Frank O'Connor stories, some of them unsurpassed incursions into the world of childhood - and not merely of the Irish variety.

Robert Dunbar lectures in English at the Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin

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