All the King’s Horses – Anthology of Historical Short Stories

ISBN: 0-9542586-4-9

From the Foreword, by Michel Faber

Most writers can identify the pitfalls of historical fiction wonderfully well. They can give you a list of temptations that must be resisted; indeed, some give lectures and produce manuals on the subject. Then, blind to their own advice, they fall head-first into the pit themselves.
The problem is, it’s not easy to write fiction set in bygone ages without doing all the things that good narrative sense tells us not to. Those who learn too much from the past are condemned to repeat it. That is, those who have carefully studied, eg, 17th century Flemish butchers as “background research” for their story are often condemned to tell us every little thing they’ve learned about butchery, the Flemings, and the 17th century in general. They may flatter themselves that this is precisely what they’ve avoided. They may assure us that what they show in the narrative is only the tip of the iceberg, and that the vast bulk of their research is actually submerged, unstated, implicit. They may speak disparagingly of those other historical writers who just can’t help pointing out period details twenty times per page. But then you start reading, and before you know it, you are inundated with information that the characters themselves would never remark upon. Illiterate peasants mention, in the course of unlikely conversations, what year it is and which king is on the throne. Pampered ladies who, in real life, would have regarded their servants the way we regard the electrical cord behind the fridge, feel honour-bound to describe everything their maids are doing. Everyone seems bizarrely compelled to analyse every aspect of their daily lives: the composition of their clothing, the contents of their food, the manufacture of virtually every object they touch. And, of course, every sentence spoken by everyone is stuffed with archaisms. Even Babylonian slaves and Vikings orate like pompous Victorians.

When writers of historical fiction do this, it’s not because they’ve gone mad. It’s because they fear – quite reasonably – that if they don’t keep reminding you of the past, you will get lazy and see the present. The present is our default setting. It is what we picture in the absence of specific information to the contrary. “A young man kissed his girlfriend in the street”: we see a modern man, a modern girl, a modern street, even a modern manner of kissing. Ancientness needs to be added, and kept topped up.

What, then, is the secret of a good historical story – a story that keeps us securely inside a bygone world, while not annoying us with constant reminders of where we’re supposed to be?  How can an author recreate a past era in such a way that it isn’t a theme park?

For answers, I invite you to turn to ‘All The King’s Horses’, Jo Campbell’s winning story in the Short Histories Prize. In transporting us to a famous late-medieval battle and keeping us there, it does as much as it needs to, never more, never less. The beginning of the first line, “We came over the downs at dusk on the third day”, establishes a great deal in eleven simple words. The triple alliteration is reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon poetry, planting a subliminal suggestion of where we are in time. The use of “we” alerts us to the fact that this tale will convey the experience of more people than just an individual. The down-to-earth language (ten of the eleven words are monosyllables) signals that these are common folk. “On the third day” alludes to two previous days which we’ll never know about, because life moves on and the narrator is disinclined to waste time reminiscing. As the sentence opens up to acknowledge “the straggling lines of men coming from all directions to join in one long column”, we join the throng. We don’t know what’s going on and why we’re here, but then, neither do many of the soldiers. We’ve missed the start of this story, but if we fall into step, we’re expected to catch on.

Having established the tone and the pace, Campbell recognises the reader’s urgent need to see and hear the scene. “Around us on every side were points of light where soldiers already had their fires, and below us in the valley the flares of the shipyards and bonfires on the quays. We could hear the ring of the shipwrights’ hammers and the shouts of the sailors, and could see the masts, still bare, standing like saplings against the evening sky. Beyond the masts stretched a great darkness, with the evening star hanging above it. Now and then one or other of the fires would burn up for an instant, and by its light we could see the wrinkled surface of the water moving, moving.” Though only four sentences, it is the longest description in the story, if we define description as sensory scene-setting that is separate from character and action. Yet there is nothing gratuitous about it. Each of its components works very hard and very economically. It’s not just a vivid picture: we can divine quite a lot about what is going on. And it makes sense that our narrator would note all these things: he has never seen them before.

Then someone speaks. “Is that the sea?” asked young Wat; he had been longing to see it, but now he was almost too weary to look. I had been carrying him on my shoulders for the last few miles.” Here, so near to the outset of her story, Campbell manoeuvres the crucial emotions and themes into place: the vulnerable boy, the narrator who cares for him, the pitiless harshness of the endeavour, the ominous sense that no amount of promised glory can justify the sacrifice. All this, we absorb without fully knowing that we’ve taken it in. The story has us. We already understand it instinctively, even though we’ve barely entered its action.

I could write an in-depth analysis of what follows, every paragraph of it, and thus compose an introduction longer than the story itself. But the important thing to note, and to admire, is Campbell’s sound instincts for what needs saying and what should be left unsaid. Too often in historical fiction, characters seem aware of the momentousness of the events they’re embroiled in. Real life is seldom like that. People cope as best they can, living from minute to minute, performing the small tasks they’re given, trying to get along with whoever is closest. For many writers, in thrall to history books, the story of this battle is the story of King Henry V. But in Jo Campbell’s account, the king is never given a name, and the narrator hears of his prowess only second-hand. The battle as we experience it is fought by ordinary men – credible individuals whose ongoing concerns are food, warmth, a comfortable place to sleep. The name of a nearby village – Agincourt – is mentioned only once, in passing. That casual mention has power precisely because no particular import is placed on it.

Like all good stories about war, ‘All The King’s Men’ applies to all wars. Matter-of-fact references to bowmen and falchions remind us at judicious intervals of the medieval setting, but mainly we are enveloped in the perennial realities of soldiers killing and suffering as soldiers always do. This is an Iraq story as much as it is an Agincourt one. It is a passionate indictment of the damage that is done to men’s bodies, minds and morals by war, but there is no polemical posturing in it. The narrator fights well, and does what he must. At the end, he displays what he has become with no self-pity. He can’t change things now: his pain is History.

Not all of the stories in this anthology are quite as finely judged as ‘All The King’s Men’. A few display their research more than they need to. It’s no crime; some of the most celebrated, and best-selling, historical novels ever written might have benefited from more restraint. But each of the pieces here has been chosen for its excellence. And they are a delightfully varied assortment, ranging from deadpan simplicity to Baroque complication, raw horror to sophisticated humour, slice of life to clever artifice. More than usual for an anthology, this is a compendium of all the different ways that fiction can succeed.

Take Imogen Robertson’s ‘The Monkey’. It could scarcely be more different from ‘All The King’s Horses’ – except in its quality. Reading this wicked little tale of a dastardly Regency rake and his ill-fated purchase of a supernatural statuette, we never lose our awareness of being manipulated by an artificial construct, a neat device. Yet Robertson’s relish in screwing the plot tighter and tighter against her protesting villain is obvious; ‘The Monkey’ is the equal of Roald Dahl’s best revenge tales. And, crucially, Robertson takes care with her characterisation and her dialogue: the plot may be rigid as a steel trap, but there is nothing mechanical about the way these people behave and speak. This story has life. We suspend our disbelief for the sheer thrill of it and, more importantly, we care.

One of the mainstays of historical fiction is filling in the gaps of ill-documented lives of famous figures. Phil Jell slyly plays with this narrative tradition in his vividly evocative ‘Altarpiece’. A boy, known only as M, works as a lowly apprentice in the studio of a Renaissance painter. To the mingled alarm and wonder of the master, this “naïve, gangling, simple” lad produces work of sublime beauty, far superior to those of his employer. Thus, a murky drama of encouragement and abuse begins. And, up until the thought-provoking climax, the reader cannot help speculating on the true identity of the young genius … Similar territory is explored by Clare Girvan in ‘Titian’s Rose’, in which the painter recalls the infamous “Pietro Aretino, Tuscan, Venetian, writer, pornographer, poet, dramatist, womaniser, blackmailer and flatterer, libel-monger and man of letters, as unscrupulous as a stoat; my dearest friend.” This tale of lust, love and cuckoldry is narrated in old age, when memories of lost companionship and the nearness of death grant Titian the ability to forgive long-ago betrayals. Forgiveness is often portrayed as an act of grace, but Girvan shows us that it can be a matter of weary pragmatism, a conservation of energy by a battered old soul.

Feminist scholars have pointed out that history is often “his” story. Men have traditionally used the Law, social structures and business practice to disempower women. Sheila MacAvoy and Janette Walkinshaw explore these infuriating inequalities in contexts hundreds of years apart. MacAvoy’s ‘In The Valley of the Trinity’ takes us to the gold prospecting days of America’s wild west, where prostitutes struggle to survive in a society which, for all its frontier newness, is already rigged against them. This patiently crafted piece has the feel of well-documented, reconstructed fact, enlivened by prose of laconic eccentricity: “He had black eyes and whiskers the same.” Walkinshaw’s ‘Refugees’ is set many centuries earlier, when the Lord of Galloway dissolves a Dumfries priory and then casts the nuns out into the harshness of the workaday world. Here, too – as always when women are rendered destitute – prostitution enters the picture, but Walkinshaw handles her characters’ plight with tact and subtlety. Despite its medieval setting, this tale describes an ever-recurring journey; the nuns are refugees not just from the house of stone which they’d imagined “would stand forever”, but also from their former value systems and ideas of selfhood. History, as seen by most of the writers in this anthology, is not the building up of a dream, but its dissolution; not a journey to an exotic clime, but a diaspora from a disintegrating homeland.

Two pieces with the same title, ‘Russian Tea’, reached the competition’s final selection. Emma Darwin’s story, ‘Russian Tea’, is a bittersweet, understated portrait of Russian émigrés sleepwalking through a new life in London after their enforced flight from post-Tsarist Russia. Mikhael, groom to the aristocracy, dreams of noble St. Petersburg horses and, upon waking, takes the Piccadilly tube to the street pitch where he sells pencils, shoe polish and dominoes. His fall from the ranks of the exploiters to the exploited is sketched insightfully but without judgement, and his melancholy encounter with a fellow lost soul has just the right frisson of sexual tension. The opening lines of Mary Woodward’s ‘Russian Tea’ eloquently encapsulate the way memoir shades into fiction: “I remember the story. I think I remember the story.” The narrator toys with the idea of phoning her elderly aunt. After all, “she was there. It may have been more than sixty years ago but she has a good memory. She just might have the one or two details which will make it live. But then I pull back. No. She could say it wasn’t like that. Not the way you heard. It was this. It was so. And what she says might not help.” What follows is a self-confessedly unreliable but wholly convincing recreation of a World War II encounter, in which the tea of the title symbolises human potentials not often seen in this collection: generosity, honour, promises kept.

In tale after tale, the characters’ nobler instincts are undermined by the cruelty of larger forces they’re caught up in. And nowhere more so than in Hugo Kelly’s chilling tale of the Soviet gulag, ‘Vanishing Point’, in which Comrade Lesin from the Cultural-Educational Institute is given the task of motivating malnourished prisoners to dig a canal from the Baltic to the White Seas. Hiding his compassion under a veneer of cold indifference, he manages to achieve results while saving lives. But this is a world where any moral stand is fatally risky, so it’s entirely appropriate that Kelly’s narrator keeps us in the dark, maintaining an emotionally blank tone that only makes the horror of the scenario more potent. Like Jo Campbell, Hugo Kelly trusts his reader’s intelligence enough to let the story speak for itself, without trying to pump up the pathos.

All the tales I’ve discussed up till now, different as they are, are examples of conventional storytelling. Not so Judy Crozier’s ‘Dreamed A Dream’, a hallucinogenic vision of Lord Franklin’s expedition trapped in ice floes. Essentially plotless, as befits the marooned crew, it grips us solely with the poetry of its prose and the atmosphere of long-simmered madness. The lonely grandeur of frozen seas, and the unravelling morale of doomed sailors, have rarely inspired a meditation as sustained as Crozier’s, a vision of glacial delirium, full of remarkable lines like: “Our names are written with the finest of nibs on a map drawn in ice-white and blue.”

This is just one of the ways a story can succeed. This anthology offers ten. The past is here. Begin.

Michel Faber


All the King’s Horses – Jo Campbell
Vanishing Point – Hugo Kelly
Altarpiece – Phil Jell
Russian Tea – Emma Darwin
Dreamed a Dream – Judy Crozier
Titian’s Rose – Clare Girvan
In the Valley of the Trinity – Sheila MacAvoy
The Monkey – Imogen Robertson
Refugees – Janette Walkinshaw
Russian Tea – Mary Woodward

N.B. The list doesn’t include a typographical error. Curiously, two very different stories with exactly the same title made it through to the final winning entries.

Fish Books

Fish Anthology 2023

Fish Anthology 2023

… a showcase of disquiet, tension, subversion and surprise …
so many skilled pieces … gem-like, compressed and glinting, little worlds in entirety that refracted life and ideas … What a joy!
– Sarah Hall

… memoirs pinpointing precise
feelings of loss and longing and desire.
– Sean Lusk

What a pleasure to watch these poets’ minds at work, guiding us this way and that.
– Billy Collins


Fish Anthology 2022

‘… delightful, lively send-up … A vivid imagination is at play here, and a fine frenzy is the result.’ – Billy Collins
‘… laying frames of scenic detail to compose a lyric collage … enticing … resonates compellingly. … explosive off-screen drama arises through subtly-selected detail. Sharp, clever, economical, tongue-in-cheek.’ – Tracey Slaughter

Fish Anthology 2021

Fish Anthology 2021

Brave stories of danger and heart and sincerity.
Some risk everything outright, some are desperately quiet, but their intensity lies in what is unsaid and off the page.
These are brilliant pieces from bright, new voices.
A thrill to read.
~ Emily Ruskovich

Fish Anthology 2020

Fish Anthology 2020

I could see great stretches of imagination. I saw experimentation. I saw novelty with voice and style. I saw sentences that embraced both meaning and music. ~ Colum McCann


Fish Anthology 2019

These glorious pieces have spun across the globe – pit-stopping in Japan, the Aussie outback, Vancouver, Paris, Amsterdam and our own Hibernian shores – traversing times past, present and imagined future as deftly as they mine the secret tunnels of the human heart. Enjoy the cavalcade. – Mia Gallagher

Fish Anthology 2019

Fish Anthology 2018

The standard is high, in terms of the emotional impact these writers managed to wring from just a few pages. – Billy O’Callaghan

Loop-de-loopy, fizz, and dazzle … unique and compelling—compressed, expansive, and surprising. – Sherrie Flick

Every page oozes with a sense of place and time. – Marti Leimbach

Energetic, dense with detail … engages us in the act of seeing, reminds us that attention is itself a form of praise. – Ellen Bass

Fish Anthology 2017

Fish Anthology 2017

Dead Souls has the magic surplus of meaning that characterises fine examples of the form – Neel Mukherjee
I was looking for terrific writing of course – something Fish attracts in spades, and I was richly rewarded right across the spectrum – Vanessa Gebbie
Really excellent – skilfully woven – Chris Stewart
Remarkable – Jo Shapcott


Fish Anthology 2016

The practitioners of the art of brevity and super-brevity whose work is in this book have mastered the skills and distilled and double-distilled their work like the finest whiskey.

Sunrise Sunset by Tina Pisco

Sunrise Sunset

€12  (incl. p&p)   Sunrise Sunset by Tina Pisco Read Irish Times review by Claire Looby Surreal, sad, zany, funny, Tina Pisco’s stories are drawn from gritty experience as much as the swirling clouds of the imagination.  An astute, empathetic, sometimes savage observer, she brings her characters to life. They dance themselves onto the pages, […]

Fish Anthology 2015

Fish Anthology 2015

How do we transform personal experience of pain into literature? How do we create and then chisel away at those images of others, of loss, of suffering, of unspeakable helplessness so that they become works of art that aim for a shared humanity? The pieces selected here seem to prompt all these questions and the best of them offer some great answers.
– Carmen Bugan.

Fish Anthology 2014

Fish Anthology 2014

What a high standard all round – of craft, imagination and originality: and what a wide range of feeling and vision.
Ruth Padel

I was struck by how funny many of the stories are, several of them joyously so – they are madcap and eccentric and great fun. Others – despite restrained and elegant prose – managed to be devastating. All of them are the work of writers with talent.
Claire Kilroy

Fish Anthology 2013

Fish Anthology 2013

The writing comes first, the bottom line comes last. And sandwiched between is an eye for the innovative, the inventive and the extraordinary.


Fish Anthology 2012

A new collection from around the globe: innovative, exciting, invigorating work from the writers and poets who will be making waves for some time to come. David Mitchell, Michael Collins, David Shields and Billy Collins selected the stories, flash fiction, memoirs and poems in this anthology.


Fish Anthology 2011

Reading the one page stories I was a little dazzled, and disappointed that I couldn’t give the prize to everybody. It’s such a tight format, every word must count, every punctuation mark. ‘The Long Wet Grass’ is a masterly bit of story telling … I still can’t get it out of my mind.
– Chris Stewart


Fish Anthology 2010

The perfectly achieved story transcends the limitations of space with profundity and insight. What I look for in fiction, of whatever length, is authenticity and intensity of feeling. I demand to be moved, to be transported, to be introduced into other lives. The stories I have selected for this anthology have managed this. – Ronan Bennett, Short Story Judge.


Fish Anthology 2009 – Ten Pint Ted

I sing those who are published here – they have done a very fine job. It is difficult to create from dust, which is what writers do. It is an honour to have read your work. – Colum McCann


Fish Anthology 2008 – Harlem River Blues

The entries into this year’s Fish Short Story Prize were universally strong. From these the judges have selected winners, we believe, of exceptional virtue. – Carlo Gebler


Fish Anthology 2007

I was amazed and delighted at the range and quality of these stories. Every one of them was interesting, well-written, beautifully crafted and, as a short-story must, every one of them focused my attention on that very curtailed tableau which a short-story necessarily sets before us. – Michael Collins


Fish Anthology 2006 – Grandmother, Girl, Wolf and Other Stories

These stories voice all that is vibrant about the form. – Gerard Donovan. Very short stories pack a poetic punch. Each of these holds its own surprise, or two. Dive into these seemingly small worlds. You’ll come up anew. – Angela Jane Fountas


All the King’s Horses – Anthology of Historical Short Stories

Each of the pieces here has been chosen for its excellence. They are a delightfully varied assortment. More than usual for an anthology, this is a compendium of all the different ways that fiction can succeed. I invite you to turn to ‘All the King’s Horses’. The past is here. Begin.
– Michel Faber


Fish Anthology 2005 – The Mountains of Mars and Other Stories

Literary anthologies, especially of new work, act as a kind of indicator to a society’s concerns. This Short Story collection, such a sharp and useful enterprise, goes beyond that. Its internationality demonstrates how our concerns are held in common across the globe. – Frank Delaney


Fish Anthology 2004 – Spoonface and Other Stories

From the daily routine of a career in ‘Spoonface’, to the powerful, recurring image of a freezer in ‘Shadow Lives’. It was the remarkable focus on the ordinary that made these Fish short stories such a pleasure to read. – Hugo Hamilton


Feathers & Cigarettes

In a world where twenty screens of bullshit seem to be revolving without respite … there is nothing that can surpass the ‘explosion of art’ and its obstinate insistence on making sense of things. These dedicated scribes, as though some secret society, heroically, humbly, are espousing a noble cause.
– Pat McCabe


Franklin’s Grace

It’s supposed to be a short form, the good story, but it has about it a largeness I love. There is something to admire in all these tales, these strange, insistent invention. They take place in a rich and satisfying mixture of places, countries of the mind and heart. – Christopher Hope


Asylum 1928

There are fine stories in this new anthology, some small and intimate, some reaching out through the personal for a wider, more universal perspective, wishing to tell a story – grand, simple, complex or everyday, wishing to engage you the reader. – Kate O’Riodan


Five O’Clock Shadow

I feel like issuing a health warning with this Fish Anthology ­ these stories may seriously damage your outlook – Here the writers view the world in their unique way, and have the imagination, talent, and the courage to refine it into that most surprising of all art forms ­ the short story. – Clem Cairns.


From the Bering Strait

Every story in this book makes its own original way in the world. knowing which are the telling moments, and showing them to us. And as the narrator of the winning story casually remarks, ‘Sometimes its the small things that amaze me’ – Molly McCloskey


Scrap Magic

The stories here possess the difference, the quirkiness and the spark. They follow their own road and their own ideas their own way. It is a valuable quality which makes this collection a varied one. Read it, I hope you say to yourself like I did on many occasions, ‘That’s deadly. How did they think of that?’ – Eamonn Sweeney


Dog Day

Really good short stories like these, don’t read like they were written. They read like they simply grew on the page. – Joseph O’Connor


The Stranger

The writers in this collection can write short stories . . . their quality is the only thing they have in common. – Roddy Doyle


The Fish Garden

This is the first volume of short stories from Ireland’s newest publishing house. We are proud that fish has enabled 15 budding new writers be published in this anthology, and I look forward to seeing many of them in print again.


12 Miles Out – a novel by Nick Wright

12 Miles Out was selected by David Mitchell as the winner of the Fish Unpublished Novel Award.
A love story, thriller and historical novel; funny and sad, uplifting and enlightening.


Altergeist – a novel by Tim Booth

You only know who you can’t trust. You can’t trust the law, because there’s none in New Ireland. You can’t trust the Church, because they think they’re the law. And you can’t trust the State, because they think they’re the Church And most of all, you can’t trust your friends, because you can’t remember who they were anymore.


Small City Blues numbers 1 to 51 – a novel by Martin Kelleher

A memoir of urban life, chronicled through its central character, Mackey. From momentary reflections to stories about his break with childhood and adolescence, the early introduction to the Big World, the discovery of romance and then love, the powerlessness of ordinary people, the weaknesses that end in disappointment and the strengths that help them seek redemption and belonging.


The Woman Who Swallowed the Book of Kells – Collection of Short Stories by Ian Wild

Ian Wild’s stories mix Monty Python with Hammer Horror, and the Beatles with Shakespeare, but his anarchic style and sense of humour remain very much his own in this collection of tall tales from another planet. Where else would you find vengeful organs, the inside story of Eleanor Rigby, mobile moustaches, and Vikings looting a Cork City branch of Abracababra?


News & Articles

Fish Anthology 2024

Fish Anthology 2024 LAUNCH

11th June 2024
Monday 15th July at 6:30 Marino (Old Methodist) Church Bantry, West Cork, Ireland FREE ENTRY   The Launch of the Fish Anthology 2024 is being held in this charming old methodist church. Many of the authors published in the Anthology will be reading from their work, so come along to get a sample of  the […]

Poetry Prize 2024: Results

15th May 2024
  Winners Short-list Long-list     Here are the winners of the Fish Poetry Prize 2024, selected by Billy Collins, to be published in the Fish Anthology 2024. Below you will find short biographies of the winners and the Long and Short Lists. From all of us at Fish we congratulate the poets whose poems […]

Short Story Prize 2023/24: RESULTS

10th April 2024
Winners Short-list Long-list   On behalf of all of us at Fish, congratulations to all of you who made the long and the short-lists.  Apologies for the delay in this announcement. The 10 winners will be published in the Fish Anthology 2024. The launch will be during the West Cork Literary Festival, Bantry, Ireland – […]

Flash Fiction Prize 2024: RESULTS

10th April 2024
Winners Short-list Long-list   From all of us at Fish, thank you for entering your flashes. Congratulations to the writers who  were short or long-listed, and in particular to the 11 winners whose flash stories will be published in the Fish Anthology 2024. The launch will be during the West Cork Literary Festival, Bantry, Ireland […]

Short Memoir Prize 2024: RESULTS

1st April 2024
Winners Short-list Long-list   On behalf of all of us at Fish, we congratulate the 10 winners who’s memoir made it into the Fish Anthology 2024 (due to be launched in July ’24 at the West Cork Literary Festival), and to those writers who made the long and short-lists, well done too.  Thank you to Sean […]

Find us and Follow Us

Fish Publishing, Durrus, Bantry, Co. Cork, Ireland