According to the blurb writer on my Penguin Classics copy, Hans Christian Andersen was the “first writer to create timeless universal fairytales from his own imagination”. (Edad de oro islámica: "Está seguro?")
It’s actually harder to find magical stories beyond the 19th century, outside children’s literature and fantasy, or the deliberately circumscribed forms of fable, parable and fairytale.
I think they still exist, in stories that don’t announce themselves as fantasy or even as magical realism, but they have become better at camouflaging themselves amid ordinary life, especially when the magic is the legacy of an older culture that has been suppressed but not quite extinguished.
So The Little Match Girl (the heartwarming story of an abused child-labourer hallucinating as she dies of hypothermia – Merry Christmas one and all!) might become, down the generations, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess.
Witches, healers and sorcerers feature in the stories I’ve chosen, but in a few of my Top 10 the enchantment comes from elsewhere – as it often does in my own stories – ineffable and mysterious. Magic is a resort of the dispossessed as much as of the powerful, a rival to the established orthodoxy, and some of these stories also show that precept in action.
1. Arrival of the Snake-Woman by Olive Senior
“She was enchanted when I took an Atlas I had borrowed from Parson and showed her first the world where our tiny island and India were located so far apart and then a map of India itself, like our island colored red.”
This story is full of delicate irony and of all kinds of surprising magic. There’s much fun to be had in watching the islanders’ diplomatic handling of the missionaries, who are fine as far as education and healthcare and food parcels go, but “no use at all” when it comes to spiritual ills. And the help these incomers offer is very much conditional.
2. The Fisherman and His Soul by Oscar Wilde
More pricing-up of the soul, albeit for different motives. This strange and metaphysical story, inspired by Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and The Shadow, was my favourite as a child (I owned the beautiful edition illustrated by Harold Jones). I couldn’t have understood it fully but I loved it for its language and imagery and for its genuine spookiness. The cutting-off of the immortal part – by moonlight, with a green-handled knife on wet sand – is particularly arresting, as is the shivery final paragraph. And then we have sentences such as this: “The other kept munching scented pastilles, which he took with an affected gesture out of an oval box of lilac enamel.” Delicious.
3. What You Pawn I Will Redeem by Sherman Alexie
The narrator attempts to reclaim a source of power that has been stolen, while we enjoy a running gag about mental arithmetic. Probably my favourite contemporary short story. I love everything about it, from the affirmation of the title to the final image. Colonialism 101.
4. Five Leaves and a Stranger byJacob Ross
Ross is such a subtle writer, and I love the mordancy found in his work. With echoes of Senior, this story follows a stranger who arrives in the narrator’s close-knit community during a time of sickness, sets up house with one of the women and has a child with her. There ensues a quest in the wilderness, redemption and a cure.
5. The Standard of Living by Dorothy Parker
Another shop-based redemption narrative featuring two modern-day Match Girls. Clever, sencillo, funny and charming. I love the magic trick it pulls off.
6. Bind Your Hair by Robert Aickman
Poor old Clarinda has found herself engaged to Dudley, who has never missed a train in his life. She goes to spend a weekend with his family “in one of the remote parts of a county where the remote parts are surprisingly many and extensive”, and where a rather eccentric soiree guest seizes on her as a kindred spirit. And then – surely the most horrifying thing about going to stay with people: “Every Sunday evening, Clarinda understood, Mr Carstairs read aloud from about half past six until they had supper at eight.” Understandably, Clarinda has to escape. And then it all gets very odd indeed.
7. The Magic Shop by HG Wells
"Por supuesto, it’s cheaper.”
“In a way,” the shopman said. “Though we pay in the end. But not so heavily – as people suppose …”
Something anarchic and alarming – possibly evil – erupts into the delightfully ordered and middle-class world of this story, in which every street is known and money is ready for the granting of wishes, and birthdays are counted down to exactly and well in advance. Or does it? It’s so difficult to tell.
8. The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen
As with so many of Andersen’s tales, there’s almost nothing to this – a few pages, and even the telling is simple. How is it so powerful? It’s partly the psychological acuity – Karen’s obsession with red shoes is of manifold origin and convincingly drawn – and partly imagery: the shoe shop, the various shoes themselves, the coffins, the graveyard, the spiteful and perhaps jealous old soldier (spiteful and jealous old world, even). The inability to stop – the whirling faster and faster – is genuinely the stuff of nightmares and taps directly into our sympathies.
Even without its famous adaptation, the story has an especial glamour lent by the beauty, the repeated visual accent of red (which stands out in life more than any other colour, and I think in literature too), the dancing, the riches and expensive objects, and even by the possession/obsession – everything is thrilling for Karen (and us).
9. This Blessed House by Jhumpa Lahiri
The tale of a modern arranged marriage between Sanjeev, who likes alphabetising his engineering manuals, and Twinkle (sí, Twinkle), who likes reading love poetry in the bath, this one earns a special category nomination for best use of a kaolin blue facepack in a short story.
10. Al-Addin, or the Wonderful Lamp – attributed to Hanna Diyab
New lamps for old! Apparently there’s now evidence to suggest that “Al-Addin” is largely autobiographical, which would explain a lot. I love its sudden reversals and indelible central imagery, and the memorably lo-fi scamming of the unwitting spouse (by someone who presumably has all sorcery at his disposal).
The hundreds of adaptations in as many forms, genres and languages testify to its power and vast cultural reach (Andersen wrote his own excellent version, The Tinderbox, and used its motifs in other stories). A recent example, la 2019 Disney live-action remake is a lot of fun – the showstopping Prince Ali alone being worth the price of admission, and surprisingly true to the original text.