TagNightjar Press

A Review of Nightjars, part 3

It’s time for the third part of my review of Nightjar Press chapbooks (the first two parts are here and here). As before, these are reviewed in the more-or-less random order that I read them.

Conrad Williams, ‘The Jungle’ (2013)

Our narrator is an artist who’s working on a jungle scene with no animals; he wants the scene itself to suggest their presence, menace and violence just out of sight. When he’s not painting, he likes to take his two-year-old son Fred to the playground or somewhere; though he’s determined that Fred should not be placed in the way of danger. On this particular outing, the pair pass a man who appears to change into a large animal — and then the jungle continues to encroach. 

Conrad Williams is one of my favourite writers working in dark fiction, horror, whatever you prefer to call it. I always feel that he’s in full command of his material, and that’s the case again here. He ramps up the tension, giving ordinary places a sense of looming danger. He also stops in just the right place to cap it off. 


Alison Moore, ‘The Harvestman’ (2015)
 

Earlier this year, I read Alison Moore‘s third novel, Death and the Seaside. As it happens, this story was the foundation for that novel, though it works perfectly well as a piece of fiction in its own right. 

Eliot is living on the south coast of England. He owes some rent to his landlord, Big Pete; and also has eyes for barmaid Abbey, Big Pete’s girlfriend. One day, Abbey invites Eliot to the flat above the pub, that she shares with Big Pete. This isn’t likely to end well.

Moore’s story evokes the atmosphere of an off-season, slightly dingy seaside town; but there’s a vein of symbolism running through ‘The Harvestman’ that really enriches the piece. Eliot has long spindly legs that remind him of harvestmen, creatures that disgust him, that can just detach a leg if they get trapped. For different reasons, both Eliot’s father and grandfather lost the use of their legs; the question becomes, can Eliot escape his situation with himself intact? Reaching the answer to this is an intriguing journey. 

 

Christopher Burns, ‘The Numbers’ (2016)

One morning, Danny arrives unexpectedly at his family’s farm. He’s not particularly welcome, not after trying it on with his sister-in-law (though as far as he’s concerned, he was picking up on her cues). More generally, Danny is seen as the useless appendage of the family, having sold his share in the farm and being unable to get a job (he was never good with numbers, after all). Still, he is taken in and given breakfast — then it’s down to business. 

This is a story of two halves, beginning in a rather subdued fashion (albeit with a definite undercurrent of tension) before turning deftly into something darker, that casts those earlier comments about Danny in a new light. It’s very well done, with such a strong impact. 

Book details 

‘The Jungle’ (2013) by Conrad Williams, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 
‘The Harvestman’ (2015) by Alison Moore, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

‘The Numbers’ (2016) by Christopher Burns, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

A Review of Nightjars, part 2 

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed a trio of chapbooks from Nightjar Press. Now here’s another set, again reviewed in the order that  I read them.

Hilary Scudder, ‘M’ (2013)


Our narrator, Anna, leaves a strongly worded goodbye letter for her husband, then sets out in search of the bar where her lover – referred to only as M – is waiting. She goes into the side entrance of a hotel, and soon finds herself caught up in strange happenings where she clearly doesn’t belong. She is rescued by a young woman named Kristina, who encourages Anna to re-evaluate her life.


I have to be honest that I didn’t grasp this story fully. There are some details suggestive of a particular time and place (perhaps Germany, perhaps the early 20th century) which, if correct, would give me some further context for what happens. But then again, the setting often feels timeless. I am left thinking of the hotel as representing the glamour and danger of a life with M, as opposed to the glum misery of Anna’s current life. Her journey then becomes a kinetic way of resolving the dilemma in front of her.



Tom Fletcher, ‘The Home’ (2015)


I’ve always enjoyed reading Tom Fletcher’s stories; and here is a short, sharp demonstration of why. A man sits in an armchair watching the TV, which shows his wife traversing a blank grey landscape. A caption states that this place is haunted by a predator known as ‘The Home’.

The metaphor of creeping old age is plain to see throughout this story; but the strangeness of the scenario only serves to amplify it. The ending has a double impact, from both what happens literally, and what it represents in real life.



Leone Ross, ‘The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’ (2015)


A woman walks into a local restaurant, sits down at the table, and stays there – for days, weeks, years. She is served meals, and washes in the restroom. Any member of staff who takes against her is promptly sacked. The maître d’ tells the story to one new recruit: the woman had fallen in love with the chef-proprietor; but he was already tied to his restaurant. When the chef and the woman made love, the restaurant caused a small earth tremor in protest. The restaurant would not be left out of its owner’s affections, so the woman stays there to appease it.


All of this is told in the most delightfully measured prose, as carefully placed as the elements of a fine restaurant dish. That prose style creates its own world for the story, so that everything within it seems quite logical and natural. By the end, I was reluctant to leave.


Book details


‘M’ (2013) by Hilary Scudder, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy).


‘The Home’ (2015) by Tom Fletcher, Nightjar Press, 8 pages, chapbook (review copy).


‘The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’ (2015) by Leone Ross, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

A Review of Nightjars, part 1

Nightjar Press, run by the writer and editor Nicholas Royle, publishes individual short stories as limited-edition chapbooks. It has been some time since I last covered any on the blog, but I’ve always enjoyed the Nightjar stories that I’ve read.


Last year, Nick sent me a batch of Nightjar titles, which I’ll be reviewing here in three batches of three. I regret that it has taken me so long to get around to these; not all of the books reviewed are still in print. (I mention all this in a spirit of openness and completeness.)


I’m reviewing the books in the order I read them, which was more-or-less random. 

Neil Campbell, ‘Jackdaws’ (2016)


This story begins with a wooden cross attached to a rock; stapled to the cross is a sheet of paper “with black type on it and a photograph of the girl.” Most of the rest consists of the narrator walking around the High Peak in all weathers. There are few people; jackdaws are the main constant.


It’s all in the detail. Our narrator’s account is full of specific geographical details, which mean little in practice (especially if you don’t know the area), but gain their own intensity from repetition and the sense that these locations mean a lot to the individual addressing us.


Then comes the ending, where Campbell fills in some context, and suddenly these places that we’ve been encouraged to imagine take on a new cast, as we realise the implications. It’s quite a moment to experience. 



Elizabeth Stott, ‘Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers’ (2013)


From the countryside, we go to the town. Maureen arrives at her boyfriend Tony’s flat for their regular Saturday night together. Though he has been rather a philanderer in the past, Maureen is convinced that she has put an end to that. But tonight she finds Tony in the ‘company’ of a remarkably lifelike female mannequin. He can’t remember where it came from – a souvenir from yesterday’s night out with the lads? – but there’s something uncanny about it.

This story moves deftly through several different moods: from ordinary to odd, to downright creepy as we start to appreciate just what the mannequin might be. Again (though in a rather different way), it’s a case of mundane details at the beginning coming back again towards the end, but seen by the reader in a new light – and the story ends on a perfectly sinister note. 


John D. Rutter, ‘Last Christmas’ (2015)


Four generations of a family gather together for Christmas. But the members of this family shrink in height as they grow older, so that baby Charlotte is ten feet high, while her great-grandparents are merely a few inches. Rutter gets plenty of comic mileage out of this premise, in scenes such as the family’s struggle to get the baby through the door of her grandparents’ house.


But it’s not all about comedy. As with Stott’s story, there’s a metaphor running through ‘Last Christmas’, one that poses urgent questions. This piece is particularly concerned with how we treat older people in society, with the result that its central images are as troubling as they are charming.


Book details


‘Jackdaws’ (2016) by Neil Campbell, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy).


‘Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers’ (2013) by Elizabeth Stott, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy).


‘Last Christmas’ (2015) by John D. Rutter, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

Book and story notes: Claire Massey and Pascal Garnier

Claire Massey, ‘Into the Penny Arcade’ and ‘Marionettes’ (2012)

Time for some new Nightjar Press chapbooks, and this year both their spring titles are by the same author – Claire Massey. The cover quotations from Robert Shearman and Liz Jensen talk about ‘making the ordinary something very sinister’ and ‘quiet disturbance’; I’ll go with that, as both these stories reveal something dark at the heart of the mundane, and do so in a restrained, subtle fashion.

‘Into the Penny Arcade’ is a great story, whose schoolgirl protagonist is attacked by a group of other girls, then rescued by the driver of a lorry which contains a number of old, and rather strange, penny arcade machines. Massey uses spare details and short, sharp sentences to build up the atmosphere – the run-down street, the lorry parked there day after day – and the tension only increases once we’re inside the arcade. The machines themselves are cast in a deliciously sinister light; and the ending has the same subtlety as the rest of the tale, as it suggests a chilling turn of events without being definitive.

‘Marionettes’ takes us toPrague, where Massey’s (unnamed) protagonist has travelled with her partner Karl. The pair come across a shop selling remarkably detailed marionettes, though Karl has little time for that. As the tale progresses, the couple’s relationship comes under increasing strain; and the marionette shop gains some familiar-looking puppets in its window.

As with ‘Into the Penny Arcade’, Massey here creates a sense of unease from some fairly ordinary things – in this case, the strange puppets and the disorientingPraguestreets. The link made between the protagonist’s relationship and the marionettes is effective, but the ending doesn’t quite work for me; I think it takes an imaginative leap further than the build-up can support, whereas in Massey’s other Nightjar story, the conclusion flows more naturally from the tale’s main body. Still, these are a fine duo of stories, and I will be looking out for more of Claire Massey’s work in the future.

Pascal Garnier, The Panda Theory (2008/12)

Gabriel arrives in a small Breton town, finds a restaurant, and strikes up a friendship with the owner, José, whose wife is ill in hospital. Gabriel is a good cook and a friendly face, and presently attracts a small circle of friends, including Madeleine, the receptionist of his hotel; and Marco and Rita, a couple also staying there. But he’s also carrying baggage from his past…

The Panda Theory is one of three books by the late Pascal Garnier which will be published by Gallic Books (who also provide the translation). Particularly effective is the contrast between the ordinariness of the novel’s present and the darkness of the flashbacks to Gabriel’s past – the details of which only gradually emerge. All the people Gabriel meets have holes in their lives, and – as his name suggests – the protagonist is something of an angel, in that he comes into their lives and changes them. But the question of exactly how he does so is one that remains open right up to the tense finale.

Book and story notes: Gordon, Kenworthy, Pickin

Helen Gordon, Landfall (2011)

London-based arts critic Alice Robinson is thirty-four, unsure about her place in the world, and haunted by the disappearance of her sister Janey seventeen years previously, when her magazine ‘suspends operations’; taking advantage of her parents’ offer to house-sit for them, she moves back to the suburbs to take stock. Alice’s existence there is enlivened by the arrival of her sixteen-year-old American cousin Emily (who’s been sent over for an improving visit, though she’d rather not be there), and a large dog named Selkirk, whom Alice’s old flatmate Isabel has talked her into looking after (despite Alice’s dislike of dogs). Alice is mostly drifting through life in suburbia when her former editor holds out the possibility of an interview with one of her favourite artists, Karin Ericsson, a recluse who lives on the south coast – could this be the key to Alice’s getting her life back on track?

Helen Gordon’s debut novel is a nicely observed character study, ranging from pithy observations about minor characters (for example, Alice’s artist ex-boyfriend is described as “one of those men of a certain haircut who gravitated towards the east of the city” [pp. 8-9]) to more sustained portrayals of the main players. Alice’s neighbours’ boy, Danny, is a conflicted figure: saved from drowning as a young boy, that piece of great fortune has also made it hard for him to relate to other people (though one senses he ultimately means well), which in turn has led him to dabble in crime. Emily begins as something of a grotesque, obsessed with her body-image to an alarming degree, but, by novel’s end, she is moving towards a more positive view of life; she and Danny come together in a halting, and very real, fashion.

And Alice? She spends a lot of time thinking, but also falls back on instinct, reciting maxims from her Girl Guide and London days. Those recitations may feel forced when she’s at her parents’ house, but Alice’s practical instincts come into their own when she has travelled to the coast. She, like Emily and Danny, makes not so much peace with life, as a kind of messy truce.

Christopher Kenworthy, ‘Sullom Hill’ (2011)

Our narrator recalls his childhood in western Lancashire, in particular his period of friendship with John Stack (“You’d never see him in a group: it was John and one friend for a few weeks and then he’d move on” [p. 6]) and his ambivalent attitude towards learning-disabled Neil Kingsley. The protagonist admires John for his cheek and ability to stand up to his reprimanding teachers – but John’s bravado hides a violent home life, and now he’s picking on Neil.

This is one of the latest chapbooks to be published by Nightjar Press, who specialise in dark fiction at (or beyond) the edges of the supernatural. I make a point of mentioning this here because Kenworthy’s story takes a particularly striking approach to the subgenre. There’s nothing overtly (or even necessarily covertly) fantastical about ‘Sullom Hill’, but Kenworthy portrays John’s behaviour as being rooted in a bargain – maybe not one made with a supernatural agency, but a bargain of a similar kind. Neil’s response to John can be read in an analogous way. The effect of these is to imply a different way of looking at the world, and thereby to disturb the world’s equilibrium – creating a very subtle kind of horror.

Christopher Kenworthy’s website

G.A. Pickin, ‘Remains’ (2011)

The second new title from Nightjar Press takes us to a Scottish moor, where an ill-prepared walker (who is experienced enough that he shouldn’t be in his current predicament, and knows it) leaves behind an abandoned church and the remains of its surrounding settlement, and tries to find his way to the holiday cottage where he’s due to catch up with some friends from an old volunteering project – but the dark and the weather are closing in.

As a story, ‘Remains’ is very much focused on its landscape; Pickin effectively turns what is at first, if not exactly a friendly environment then at least one open to exploration, into somewhere more threatening. The ending is both nicely open and a neat closure.

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

A pair of Nightjars

Alison Moore, ‘When the Door Closed, it Was Dark’ (2010)
Joel Lane, ‘Black Country’ (2010)

A short story is, by its nature, generally more tightly focused than a novel – after all, it has fewer words in which to make its point. This can make some things easier for the shorter form to accomplish: for example, there’s less pressure for a short story to illuminate a wide area of the space it occupies; it can focus more intensely on doing a smaller number of things, and perhaps have a greater impact in doing so.

These thoughts came to my mind when reading the latest chapbooks from Nightjar Press, which are both short, intense bursts of story. ‘When the Door Closed, it Was Dark’ by Alison Moore tells of Tina, a British girl who has travelled to another country to work as an au pair, and finds it hard to adjust to her new surroundings. There’s a palpable sense of menace about this piece, which comes less from images and individual word choices (though it has its share of striking examples; I love this image from when Tina is trying to understand her host family’s rapid conversation: ‘her formal phrases were like wallflowers at a wild party’), than from details of the broader structure. Tina never learns the family members’ names – they’re just ‘Uncle’ or ‘Grandmother’, and so on – which itself makes them more unknowable to her; but, more than this, the whole piece feels like a closed system. We discover barely anything about Tina’s life before the moment of the story; and the accretion of repeated details – the monotonous food, the outside staircase – heightens the feeling that there’s no escape. Moore’s tale is excellent.

‘Black Country’ by Joel Lane is narrated by a police officer who travels back to what was Clayheath (his birthplace, now subsumed into the broader urban landscape of the West Midlands) to investigate a series of strange incidents – the local children are apparently turning violent all of a sudden. Our man is reluctant to return, as he thought he’d left his old life behind; but he seems discontent with even his current circumstances. ‘Black Country’ is a story built on shifting sands, as the actual investigation recedes into the background somewhat (though an answer to what’s going on is provided by the end), and the focus is more on the narrator’s emotional state. Lane’s main theme, I would say, is loss – loss of place, and loss of self. There’s a parallel, I think, between the protagonist’s difficulty in getting a handle on his life, and the social and geographical changes being depicted. I feel that those parallels don’t quite have all the breathing-space they need to establish themselves fully, but it’s a very good story and portrait nonetheless.

Links
Alison Moore’s website
Nightjar Press

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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