Tag: Tom Fletcher

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). 

Tom Fletcher, The Leaping (2010)

Reading Tom Fletcher’s short story ‘The Safe Children’ was all it took for me to place his novel The Leaping on my to-read list. Now that novel is here, and it was worth the wait.

The Leaping centres on a group of twenty-something housemates who all work in the same call centre in Manchester, and particularly on Jack, who also has a sideline in writing articles about the paranormal. One day at work, Jack meets – and falls in love with – the beautiful and enigmatic Jennifer, though she warns him that it’ll be an open relationship, as she believes in the free-love ideals of the Sixties. This leads to certain complications involving Jack’s housemate, Francis (who shares the book’s narration with Jack).

Jennifer has recently come into some money after her mother died, and uses it to buy Fell House, a creaking old mansion in Cumbria, where she moves in with Jack. Back in Manchester, the remaining housemates plan a surprise birthday party for Jack – but some uninvited guests turn up, and everyone discovers that there’s some truth to the old tales of werewolves, after all.

One of the first things I noticed about The Leaping is how good a writer of voice Fletcher is. I like the narrative voices to be differentiated in stories with multiple first-person narrators, and Fletcher does this very well indeed.  Francis’s voice is particularly striking, revealing an earnest  personality and an obsessive eye for detail (he lists all his friends’ favourite books, films and music because, he says, ‘the only way of working out the true personality of a person, their true soul, is by their taste’ [42]). Those same character traits are used to brilliant effect later in the novel, when events take a horrific turn.

And it’s the horror where Fletcher’s prose shines its brightest.  The best of his passages about the werewolves are as good as one could wish horror writing to be, as Fletcher captures both the profound horror of having one’s very self undermined and transformed, and the primal attraction of the lycanthropes’ existence. He also gives his werewolves an air of genuine strangeness, which makes even this hoary old staple feel fresh – no mean feat.

Where I think The Leaping is less successful is in its treatment of the larger dichotomy it seemingly aims to dramatise – broadly speaking, that of modern life versus nature. Jack expresses disillusionment with urban life – and, with what he and his colleagues have to put up with at the call centre, it’s no wonder – but the ‘push’ of this doesn’t seem to me to be as strongly felt by the novel as the ‘pull’ towards the wildness of nature. When Jack talks about wanting to run with the werewolves, he does so with a deep yearning that’s woven into the very fabric of his words. But Jack’s comments about city life don’t come close to that, and this imbalance dilutes the impact of the theme.

Even taking this into account, though, The Leaping is still a very good piece of horror fiction. That puts an interesting spin on a venerable motif. After years in the wilderness, horror currently seems to be undergoing something of a resurgence; as long as there are writers like Tom Fletcher working in it, the field is in good hands.

Tom Fletcher’s blog
Kamvision interview with Fletcher

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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