I write this on the day after Stroud Short Stories competition held its autumn event for 2015. For those of you not familiar with the event, it was set up by Bill Jones (he of Miserable Malcolm infamy) and is now run by John Holland. Twice a year, two judges select ten stories to be read over the course of an evening. Submissions are many, numerous authors keep re-submitting, and the standard of work is very high.
Last year I was startled to be picked to read, having not entered before. In January I undertook to collect all the previously read stories as an anthology and now this autumn I’ve had the privilege, and challenge, of being one of the judges. I’ve never judged anything before.
That the end goal is an evening of reading of course influences choices. Judges do not know who the authors are, so a piece that depends heavily on performance skill is a bit of a gamble – it might be amazing, but it might also flop. There’s a need for a diversity of voices, different perspectives and different kinds of stories. For me, a few stories leapt out at once as being really amazing pieces of work. However, that left about thirty that were good, engaging, original, likely to work, and whittling that list down to a selection wasn’t easy. There were many good stories, and good authors that didn’t make it to the event.
It would be fair to say that we were blessed with a truly extraordinary set of readers. Each reader brought their tale to life, and in several instances, the quality of the reading was so good that it drew attention to aspects of the story that I hadn’t fully grasped when just reading it from the page. Tone of voice and pacing can make all the difference, and hearing the author’s voice as they read, you also hear their intentions as you never can when reading from a page.
We started with ‘The Woman’s Wraith’, a classic eerie story from the newly published Gloucestershire Ghost Tales collection, written and brilliantly performed by storyteller Kirsty Hartsiotis. Gloucestershire Ghost Tales has its proper launch at the Sub rooms on the 27th November, but copies were available last night and it looks fantastic.
Tony Stowell: The Spirit is Willing
A humorous piece, really pushing the edges of what a short story is. It depended on audience complicity, and our willingness to accept that for the duration of the tale, we were a gathering of the dead thinking about the living. Tony pulled this off with style, and much laughter.
Stephen Connolly: A Winter Wedding
A risky story because there are two lines of events and the audience, on one hearing, was going to have to figure out exactly what it all meant with no room to check back. With careful pacing, Stephen took us into a land of ice and a land of illusions. No one moved. I’m not sure anyone even breathed through much of it. It is a beautiful piece and I’m glad we trusted the author to make it work on the night.
Julie Wiltshire: The Unwanted Visitor
There’s a tradition in gothic writing of an almost tortuous excess of language – think Poe and Lovecraft. It’s a difficult thing to do well, but Julie’s tale captured that note for me perfectly. A first time reader who had never braved a stage before, she nonetheless did a sterling job. I can’t say she ‘brought the tale to life’ because it just wasn’t that sort of an evening. She certainly brought the dead to life.
Daniel Gooding: Point to the Eye
Sadly Daniel wasn’t able to be with us, but a substitute reader was found – actor Ed Holland – who did a great job, with a particularly tricky perspective shift to pull off at the end. A great twist on the idea of the eyes in a painting following you round the room, and a truly unsettling tale.
Simon Piney: The Ghastly Rolling
Simon’s a fantastic performer, and a writer with an eye for local detail. It was a tale that managed to be both amusing and unsettling at the same time, which worked very well indeed. I’ll never think about cheese rolling in quite the same way again!
Elizabeth Murphy: Breathing Exercises
A performance that took the story to whole new levels. It unravelled cleverly, from a seemingly innocent start to a truly disturbing ending. A really innovative way of looking at horror from the inside.
Graham Bruce-Fletcher: Thrown Together
Most of our stories were more psychological than violent in nature, but Graham captured the horrors of the plague pit, with a level of sensuous detail that was creepy all by itself, and then grew from it a tale that for me spoke of class and poverty in some very interesting ways. An all too believable tale of real world horror, delivered with a matter of fact style that packed a punch.
Judith Gunn: The Ghost in the Classroom
This one surprised me because there were humorous notes in the reading that hadn’t come through on the page. Judith did a great job of creating distinctive voices, her dialogue shone, while her ghost in the machine turned out to be as unsettling as you could want for an eerie evening.
Andrew Stevenson: A Good Old Fashioned Copper
We finished with a tale of murder and investigation that had the audience in fits of laughter. (We couldn’t after all, send them out into the cold, dark night in a state of terror!). This was Andrew’s fourth appearance at Stroud Short Stories, and he rounded off the evening perfectly.
Somewhere in the New Year, it all beings again – new deadlines, hopefully lots of new authors, and another evening of fantastic stories to look forward to. I’m very glad to have been a part of this, and greatly looking forward to the next one.
Nimue Brown lives in Stroud, writes fiction and non-fiction, has a compulsive blogging habit and can be found online at www.druidlife.wordpress.com