TagNicholas Royle

Still: ‘The Blind Man’ by Nicholas Royle

The photograph: a box of crumpled strong-room bags, with numbered labels attached.

The story: Royle’s narrator tells how he became interested in buses as a boy, and stole some destination blinds and bus Fleetbooks. There’s a great rhythm to this piece, helped along by the short lists of bus destinations that punctuate it. And Royle tops it off with a dark twist at the end.

Link: Nicholas Royle’s website / interview with Royle on his story

This is one of a series of posts on the anthology StillClick here to read the rest.

A trio of shorts

Mark Valentine, ‘A Revelation of Cormorants’ (2010)
R.B. Russell, ‘The Beautiful Room’ (2010)
Gary McMahon, ‘What They Hear in the Dark’ (2011)

A triple-decker of single-story chapbooks, today: the latest two from Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press, and the launch title from Simon Marshall-Jones’s Spectral Press.

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The first of our new Nightjar titles is ‘A Revelation of Cormorants’ by Mark Valentine. It’s not long since last I read a story one of his stories, and, when I did, I was very impressed with Valentine’s control of voice; the same quality impressed me again on reading this piece. William Utter is a writer who has rented a cottage on the Galloway coast to work on a book about the lore of birds. Today, he heads out intro the bay to see some cormorants, and it’s an open question whether inspiration or the tide will strike first. Valentine builds Utter’s mental world very well, with imagery largely built around birds and books, and a slightly dusty mode of expression. He also creates a strong atmosphere in the story; and yet… I think something about the whole isn’t quite satisfactory. I can appreciate intellectually what the ending is doing, but I find that it doesn’t have the deeper emotional impact which would lift the piece to the next level.

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Birds appear again, though in a rather different context, in Nightjar’s other new chapbook. R.B. Russell‘s ‘The Beautiful Room’ is the tale of Maria and John, a couple looking for a house in a foreign country to where John is moving for work. As we join them, they’re looking around a place in the countryside, with which Maria has fallen in love, thanks to one room in particular; John is much less keen, and would prefer to live in the city. Their initial argument over this reveals deeper tensions in their relationship: Maria has sacrificed her work to make this move possible, and resents John’s not putting her wishes first in the house choice. Russell depicts these rising tensions elegantly, and they carry over into the second half of the story, when the couple investigate a mysterious scrabbling sound coming from behind the walls. The unexpected final moment comes as a beautiful image of release.

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Coincidentally, there’s a couple with a new house and a relationship under strain in Spectral Press’s first title, ‘What They Hear in the Dark’ by Gary McMahon. Rob and Becky are renovating a house whilst still coming to terms with the death of their son Eddie, and find a strange room which, according to the plans, shouldn’t be there. They call it the Quiet Room, because it seems to absorb all sound.

There is, of course, something mysterious about the Quiet Room, but McMahon’s ultimate focus is less that than the characters of Rob  and Becky. What impresses me most about the story is what’s going on beneath the words and imagery, the way that the Quiet Room comes to embody the couple’s different responses to Eddie’s death — for Becky, the silence is comforting, as she feels it brings her closer to Eddie; for Rob, the Quiet Room is a place of fear, caused by his search for a deeper explanation for his son’s death than the one Becky has accepted. These conflicting views come to reflect the wider tensions in the couple’s relationship, making for a nice balance between character and atmosphere. McMahon’s story is a good start for Spectral Press; I’ll be keeping an eye on what they do in the future.

Two Stories: Nightjar Press

‘What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night’ (2009) by Michael Marshall Smith
‘The Safe Children’ (2009) by Tom Fletcher

Nightjar Press is a new venture by the writer Nicholas Royle, specialising in individually-bound short stories. They’ve launched with two titles, one by a well-known writer, the other by a newcomer. Very handsome volumes they are — and, more importantly, the stories are also very good.

The well-known writer is Michael Marshall Smith, whose name is pretty much a guarantee of a good read, and ‘What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night’ is no exception. It’s narrated by a little girl named Maddy who hates the dark, so (she tells us) made a deal with her mummy that she could keep the light on all night, as long as she didn’t disturb her parents. But tonight, Maddy has woken up in darkness; what’s happened to her light?

The first thing to say about this story is that Smith gets Maddy’s voice pitch-perfect: with all the breathless sentences and repetitive structures, it feels as though this is a small child addressing us. And it’s the naiveté of Maddy’s viewpoint which is key to the success of the story. It becomes clear as the tale progresses that something strange is happening — and, all credit to Smith, it was something I didn’t see coming.  But we get some idea of what’s going on, even though Maddy doesn’t; the gap between her knowledge and ours generates great poignancy. It was with something of a wry smile that I closed the book, having read Maddy’s final words: ‘Mummy and Daddy do not talk much any more, and this is why, if you wake up in the night, you should never ever get up out of bed.’ There’s a lot going on behind that sentence which I can’t reveal without spoiling the story — and I’d hate to deprive anyone of the superb reading experience I had with Smith’s tale.

Nightjar’s second launch title is the beautifully harsh ‘The Safe Children’ by a young new writer named Tom Fletcher. Set in western Cumbria, it follows James Thwaite as he travels to his new job as overnight security guard at a factory which makes… well, that’s a secret. The plot leads towards the revelation of the factory’s purposde, which is appropriately nasty — but that revelation isn’t enough, by itself, to make the story stand out.

What does make this tale stand out for me is Fletcher’s prose, the way he captures the fundamental bleakness of his setting. The story is set in the near future, and perhaps its main theme  is that of the promise of a shiny new tomorrow versus the failure of reality to deliver. Here, for example, is how James describes his train to work:

All of the seats are ripped; all of the tables are black with cigarette burns. Somebody is playing music on some portable device and it sounds like an insect trapped behind glass. The train moves slowly. I just stare out at the sea. Some things haven’t changed at all.

There are flashy, hi-tech trains and suchlike in this future world, but only in rich areas; where James lives, a couple are lucky if they can afford for both to eat at the same time — and the only hint of that shiny tomorrow is the shimmer of wet sand on the beach. The real horror of ‘The Safe Children’ is not the factory itself, but the socio-economic conditions that allowed it to come into being, and made people desperate enough to take jobs there.

Fletcher’s story is not without its flaws: the background details aren’t always integrated as naturally as perhaps they ought to be; they end up feeling ‘crammed in’, as though the story doesn’t give them enough space. Overall, however, ‘The Safe Children’ is an effective piece that marks Fletcher out as a writer for whom it’s worth keeping an eye out; he has a novel due to be published next year, which is now on my to-read list.

Also on my to-read list is anything that comes from Nightjar Press; if all its publications are going to be as good as these, they’ll need reading.

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