Bad Dreams and Other Stories, by Tessa Hadley

This is a collection of ten short stories by English writer Tessa Hadley. The following stories are included in the book:

The Abduction
The Stain
Deeds Not Words
One Saturday Morning
Experience
Bad Dreams
Delight
Under the Sign of the Moon
Her Share of Sorrow
Silk Brocade

 

I’m a fan of the short story form and get that a short story has limited room to do its work. Still, within its limits, a story can be powerful way to convey a time, place, emotion, or to introduce the reader to unusual characters. I don’t want to summarize all the stories but just give a taste of some of the highs and lows.

Hadley’s editor was right to start with “The Abduction”, as it was the most affecting story in the book for me. Set in the 60s in England it deals with a girl in her teens. She’s back from school in a home where she’s barely noticed by her family when a trio of strange boys pick her up for a drive. They talk her into stealing alcohol and head to the home of one of the boys. It’s an interesting cast of characters in an unusual story in which she’s taken almost as a mascot, feels herself competing for the attention of one of the boys with another girl, and eventually makes her way home with her parents barely noticing she was gone. The story ends in an odd way with a brief “what happened” to summary of the characters later in life.

“The Stain” is an interesting story about a housekeeper whose perspective on her employer takes a sudden turn when she learns more about his past.

“One Saturday Night” tells of a girl who watches from overhead as a friend of the family expresses his passion for the girl’s mother.

The story that gives the book its title, “Bad Dreams”, is brief but shows an interesting event in the night, a woman’s misinterpretation, and how that changes her marriage.

These stories are relatively tight with interesting characters, quirky events, and weave in bits of detail that make them a pleasure to read. Other stories don’t hold up as well.

“Deeds Not Words” and “Silk Brocade” are both period pieces that seem to rely more on sentiment than solid storytelling. The first is set before WWI featuring a suffragette teacher and her trysts with a married man while the second story begins before the second world war and follows a piece of brocade into the 70s. The latter story seems more intent on trying to create a tragic atmosphere than to show any change or transition in the characters.

It’s an uneven collection, sometimes relying a great deal on inner monologue to push the story along. But there are interesting human insights in several of the stories and people who often seem to act against type. With fewer popular magazine outlets for short stories the form has tended to lose its way the past few decades, remaining mostly an artifact of MFA programs. This book has several stories that rise above that to actually communicate something between writer and reader making it a step above a lot of the literary quarterly short fiction still being produced.