As I laid this Christ-haunted collection of short stories down, I felt the phantom presence of Flannery O’Connor and was sure that she was smiling with pleasure at the manner in which this later generation of writers had followed so faithfully in her inspired and inspiring footsteps.

Previously in these pages, I highlighted the wealth of contemporary Christian literature being published, focusing on a variety of different novels and novellas that I recommended that readers of The Imaginative Conservative discover for themselves. Today, I’d like to survey some great short stories written by contemporary Christian writers.

Over the past few years, Tuscany Press has been sponsoring the Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction, intending to act as a catalyst for a new Christian literary revival. The best eight short stories submitted last year have been published in a slim volume entitled What World is This? and Other Stories. Having read the whole volume, I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of all the stories.

Since the volume begins with the story judged to be the best and proceeds in descending order, through the second to fourth placed stories and then to four “honorable mentions,” I expected, reasonably enough, that the stories would get worse as I worked my way through the book. I’d half-expected, in fact, that I would abandon the book half way through as the quality deteriorated. I was, therefore, most pleasantly surprised to discover that all eight stories not only warranted publication but were of such high quality that I considered the final essay to be on a par with the first.

One thing that I noticed is that the ghost of the great Flannery O’Connor seemed to glide through most of the stories, casting a spell on those endeavouring to follow in her inspirational footsteps. Many or most of the stories delve into the darkness of modern life, grappling with the grotesque and wrestling with the truths that emerge from the shadows of our selfishness.

The first story in the collection, Gloria Whelan’s “What World is This?”, the one considered by the judges to be the best, tells of the follies of adolescence, examining how a childish fantasy turns into a lie that has increasingly complex and complicated ramifications. Personally, though I admired the quality of the writing, I found the supernatural twist with which it concludes somewhat unsatisfying.

“Lily on the Bus” by Natalia Sarkissian takes the theme of adolescent innocence being affronted and violated by the sordid debauchery of a trusted adult, a bus trip to the hell of sexual abuse. It made me shiver, as it should. The suggestive hints of redemption are handled with the appropriate degree of symbolic subtlety, suggesting that Flannery’s ghost had cast its graceful spell upon the author.

“The Edge of All Things” by Mary Finnegan struggles with the pain caused by adultery and the forgiveness required to rebuild a fractured marriage after the shattering of trust in the presence of betrayal.

“Children of Niobe” by Cynthia Millen is set in Belfast during the Troubles that ripped Northern Ireland apart from the late 1960s till the late 1990s. It examines the psychological impact on the children of Belfast of the everyday violence that surrounds them, the presence of terrorism, death, maiming, bigotry and hatred. It also focuses on a Protestant paediatrician and a Catholic single mother. I enjoyed this story, not least because I have first-hand experience of life in Belfast during the Troubles and could therefore relate to the scenario being presented, but I found the handsome young paediatrician a little too sweet and perhaps too good to be true. Worse, the neat and tidy happy ending betrays a naiveté about the harsh reality of the Belfast ghettoes during the Troubles. Things just couldn’t have ended that way at that time.

“The Hour of Our Death” by Samuel Miller is a ghost story that centers on a priest picking up a mysterious hitch-hiker on a stormy night. Its strength lies in the weakness of the priest in the presence of the powerful penitential spirit who sits beside him.

Barbara Boudon’s “Chimbote” is set in the Peruvian city of that name, painting with harsh and unrestrained realism the penury-stricken life of its people, exemplified in the lives and interactions of a newly-widowed and pious mother, her confused and angry adolescent daughter, and the allure of the mysterious prostitute who visits them.

“The Test” by Reynold Junker is set amid the tension and intensity of an entrance examination for a seminary prep school. It turns on one boy’s well-intentioned decision to cheat in order to help another boy, a problematic moral premise which is not satisfactorily resolved nor even adequately discussed. The cheating fails to bring about its intended outcome but, at the story’s conclusion, we see that all’s well that ends well, a happy ending that scarcely seems justified in the light, or shadow, of the plot’s twilit moral perspective.

The collection ends on a high note, morally and literarily, with “The Appraisal” by Therese M. Jones, a vignette painted in the desolate emotional landscape of a broken marriage, in which a deserted wife surveys the family home, seeing its familiar objects dissolve into fading fragments of fractured memory. As is appropriate for literature inspired by Christianity, the doom-laden clouds of regret are enlightened by the hope that emerges whenever there is the presence of genuine love among the ruins.

For what it’s worth, I think Jones’ snapshot of a soul punctured by another’s sin is the high point of the whole volume. For me, at least, and begging to differ with the judges who felt it warranted only an “honorable mention,” this was the best of a very good bunch. Me judice, the last should have been first.

As I laid this Christ-haunted collection of short stories down, I felt the phantom presence of Flannery O’Connor and was sure that she was smiling with pleasure at the manner in which this later generation of writers had followed so faithfully in her inspired and inspiring footsteps.

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