The Casual Electrocution of Strangers


Literary Salmon, comprising Bernie Deehan, Françoise Harvey and Jane Roberts, is a collaborative group of writers who met at the Word Factory, and it is quite easy to imagine how ‘literary salon’ became ‘literary salmon’ after a few glasses of wine. The inspiration for the name of their first collection of short stories, The Casual Electrocution of Strangers, came from a tweet by Val McDermid, and each of the editors subsequently invited three other writers to submit a story with this same title. When Fran (who I also met at the Word Factory) contacted me and asked if I would be interested in contributing a story with this very specific and evocative title, I jumped at the opportunity.

There is one particular school teacher I can think of who inspired my writing. I was about fifteen at the time and her name was Miss Jacoby, I can still picture her now. Apart for earning my undying adoration by being kind about my awful, angsty poetry, I particularly recall her giving us a creative writing assignment with very specific parameters:

Write a story that begins with ‘Do you like macaroni?’ and ends with ‘You fool’.

It was ridiculously specific but somehow these unlikely lines inspired me and I wrote a piece of rambling memoir about my childhood that somehow convincingly utilised this beginning and ending. She loved it and gave me full marks. It was not a perfect story but somehow the fulfilment of her very specific brief elevated it to something beyond the sum of its parts and her enthusiasm led me to imagine that perhaps, just maybe, I might make a writer one day.

Since then I’ve believed that a very specific brief is a help not a hindrance. But was The Casual Electrocution of Strangers too specific?

My first idea was inspired by an article written by Philip Meyer titled If Hitler Asked You to Electrocute a Stranger, Would You? Probably. It was about a study conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale in the 1960s during which test subjects were brought in and instructed to literally electrocute strangers with a series of shocks of increasing intensity—a test of obedience vs. personal responsibility. The study was intended to prove that Germans are intrinsically more obedient which is why they followed Hitler and helped him to implement the Holocaust. But instead the study proved the opposite—that every single one of us have the potential to commit horrific acts when required to by an authority figure. It suggested that most people are far too willing to abdicate personal responsibility and let someone else do the thinking—a terrifying realisation but a great inspiration for a short story.

But then I thought this was probably too obvious a solution, surely someone else would write this story. Annoyingly, of course, no one else did. But I decided that my ‘electrocution’ would need to be metaphorical rather than literal.

Since moving to London in 2010 I’ve been obsessed with trains and the Underground—the arteries of the city—and many of my short stories involve train journeys. It seemed a perfect setting for an encounter between strangers, so I imagined a moment when a bit of strategic eavesdropping might create a scenario in which a perfect stranger could intervene in the life of another with electrifying results. I needed a hero who was unremarkable and so Alexei was born—a character who is so irredeemably bland that his only distinguishing factor is his name, inspired by his mother’s love of Russian fiction. After his first electrifying experience Alexei attempts to recreate the scenario with increasingly disastrous consequences. And of course the literary references are a clue to the outcome of the story.

In the process of putting the collection together we got to read each other’s work in progress and make editing suggestions for three other stories—it’s always so helpful to get this kind of input. Leading up to the publication date the Literary Salmon team did an amazing job of gathering some wonderful feedback about the collection and creating buzz on social media. I particularly love the retro steampunk-inspired book cover design they commissioned by Harry Milburn AKA Prints Harry and the logo by Kate Townsend.

And after all that, it was wonderful to read the final finished product. I particularly enjoyed Françoise Harvey’s ominous birds (being a Daphne Du Maurier fan) and Laura Windley’s sinister village tale—reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. But every story had something interesting to offer and there was such a fascinatingly wide variety of responses to this very specific title—definitive proof that tight parameters are not always restrictive. Quite frequently they are liberating and give the writer a clearly delineated imaginative space within which to frolic.

You can read or download The Casual Electrocution of Strangers for free here.

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