Filler content with regicides and birds

A couple of reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #29:-

MAKING A FUSS ABOUT STORIES: NICHOLAS ROYLE

Nicholas Royle is a name that will be familiar to readers of Black Static; one of the UK’s leading exponents of the short form, his stories have appeared in the magazine and its predecessor, The Third Alternative. Royle novels are a somewhat rarer occurrence, and REGICIDE (Solaris paperback, 189pp, £7.99) is the first we have seen from his pen since 2004’s Antwerp, though as Royle himself reveals in the interview section of this feature its chronology is somewhat more convoluted, and that’s entirely appropriate given the tangled web the novel weaves and the games that the author plays with the nature of reality itself. Also appropriate that I should be writing this on Father’s Day, given that the protagonist’s father dominates the novel, his brooding present constantly peering out from between the beams and bars of Royle’s narrative.

That protagonist’s name is Carl. He lives in London and owns a second-hand record shop, and in the past he has been a bicycle courier. Carl is a man who knows his way around, and obsessed with maps. The book kick starts shortly after Carl meets Annie Risk and falls for her, but she has been hurt in the past and won’t commit to anything more substantial than friendship, though Carl is a man who travels in hope. Distraction comes with the discovery of a map, one whose city streets he simply cannot recognise. And then on a trip back from Annie’s Manchester base, Carl takes a wrong turn and drives off the map completely, winding up in some unnamed metropolis where a totalitarian regime holds sway and the citizenry are obsessed with the search for a regicide, and any stranger is a source of suspicion. Carl finds himself a fugitive with a price on his head, but there are hints of something else going on beyond the reality in which he is ensnared, the sense of a psycho-drama playing out.

Initially I read this book just after finishing Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land, with which it possibly shares an enabling device or two, and while Regicide impressed me as an engaging and cleverly constructed work it lacked the emotional power of the Joyce. With the passage of time and a second reading, I’m prepared to concede that my initial assessment was unfair and there is a lot more substance to the Royle novel.

Yes, it is undeniably a clever and artfully constructed story, Royle building the narrative with a deceptive ease, so that elements that seem off kilter or irrelevant at first eventually come into their own. His prose is as elegant as ever, with each word carefully chosen to convey some subtle nuance of emotion or philosophy. A particular delight is the way in which the author fills in details of Carl’s life, both past and present, the childhood years, his current position as the owner of a second-hand record shop and the time he was employed as a bicycle courier. At first Carl’s emotional life is defined and circumscribed by his borderline obsessive attraction to Annie Risk, but as the book unfolds we learn of his love of old records and maps, his admiration for French novels and ice skating, so that a picture emerges of a fully rounded individual, one whose various foibles and character traits neatly dovetail to form a unique person, somebody we can identify with and believe in. And Royle is equally adept at portraying the early stages of a love affair, two people finding common ground and reaching out to each other, overcoming the initial doubts and obstacles that stand in their way.

Having grounded us in reality, albeit one that at times seems a bit tenuous, Royle moves the action to a never named city, a place where magic is possible, as established in the opening shots when Carl witnesses a display of virtuosity at ice skating that exceeds anything he has seen before, but also a place of nightmares, with a brutally enforced curfew after dark and government officials standing on every street corner during the day, a world of secret police snatch squads and informers ready to betray others simply to save themselves. Carl finds himself a fugitive in this city, suspected of being the regicide for whom everyone is searching. It is a place that has battened onto our world and feeds off it, devouring all that is best, taking the gifted people and replacing them with soulless functionaries, disposing off the dead bodies in gasholders that dominate the urban landscape. And woven into the narrative are images of horror, as Carl visits a sinister hospital where bodies are being experimented on, bears witness to scenes of torture, and escapes on a train filled with corpses that stagger to unnatural life.

So what is going on here? Royle offers us clues in the text, such as Carl’s interest in maps and the spiral pattern that recurs throughout the story (the pattern left on the palm of his hand in childhood when Carl placed it on the rings of an oven hob), omnipresent images of gasholders, which also feature in the photographs of his best friend Jaz. And there’s the Alain Robbe-Grillet novel Un regicide from which this book takes its title and which Carl happens to be reading, a tale of a man who apparently exists in two worlds, providing counterpoint of a sort, though I think you’d need knowledge of that text to appreciate the juxtapositions more fully. In a similar vein, someone more familiar than I with the discography of Manchester band The Passage could probably make something of the references to them in the text. In a sense the city is a picture of Carl’s mind, an externalisation of his psyche.

I’ve left to last the two most telling points. Carl prides himself on knowing where he is, and yet when we first meet him he is lost on familiar streets, unable to guide Annie Risk back to her hotel, despite claims of knowing London like the back of his hand. Love with its attendant needs and vulnerabilities leaves him lost and cast adrift, reinventing the mundane aspects of his life and making them seem strange. And, by way of back story, we learn of Carl’s history with his father and the baggage of guilt that he carries, a feeling that ties into the person of the regicide, with every hand against him.

The book’s ending is its weak point, Royle giving in to the temptation to retain some ambiguity, with a coda that seems to hint Carl isn’t out of the woods just yet, one that echoes the horror movie cliché where the monster comes back to life in the final reel. It felt anticlimactic. And yet, as Regicide demonstrates, sometimes it is better to travel than arrive and the map really is the landscape.

As well as being a writer, Royle is an anthologist of note with some fourteen previous titles under his editor’s belt, and his fifteenth is MURMURATIONS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF UNCANNY STORIES ABOUT BIRDS (Two Ravens Press paperback, 264pp, £9.99), with an unsettlingly nebulous image of a bird/flock on the front and a note on the back cover that ‘Contributors’ royalties and editor’s fee to be donated to The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’. Between the covers we get an introduction by academic Angelica Michelis in which she attempts to pin down the ‘uncanny’ nature of birds and a selection of thirty stories, most taking to the sky for the first time but with a few reprints to add ballast and gravitas.

Leading off is the beautifully written and obliquely menacing ‘Swallows Sleep in Winter’ by Adam Marek, in which a man is gifted a family secret, one that will enable him to learn the future with regard to the health of the child he and his wife are contemplating. It offers a novel twist on the idea of bird divination, with the outré elements of the story almost taken for granted in the face of the protagonist’s need for reassurance, the whole striking both for its grotesqueness and the depth of emotional underpinning.

With its hints of secret knowledge and a ‘missing link’ between man and bird, Claire Massey’s ‘For the True Anatomy’ suggests far more than is actually conveyed, with sibling rivalry firmly in the foreground as we ponder what is actually taking place here, courtesy of cryptic notes and zoologically challenging sketches. Massey is the first to feature of several authors Royle has published with his Nightjar Press hat on. Alison Moore is another, and there’s a quietly elegiac feel to her story ‘The Egg’, with the feeling that collector William has himself become an egg, that his life is frozen in a cold and bitter moment, all its potential lost through failure to hatch and leave the nest, to finally take wing. G. A. Pickin’s ‘Flight of Fancy’ ably catches the feelings of desperation and betrayal, as a woman realises that the heron she has fixated on is to be killed and mounted by her taxidermist partner, with the resolution hinting at other, never revealed, states of unhappiness and a subtext that rails against commercialism.

Tom Fletcher provides one of the undoubted highlights of the anthology with ‘Huginn and Muninn’, an eerie tale set in Iceland, and capturing perfectly the bleakly beautiful landscape and the sense that this is a place where the barriers between worlds are especially thin. Tourists have an encounter with the Hidden People of legend and Odin’s ravens, their savage fate as inexplicable as it is undeserved, and yet with the suggestion of some judgement rendered all the same. The story owes much to the work of Machen and Blackwood, but at the same time remains uniquely Fletcher’s own. Also appearing are Mark Valentine’s ‘A Revelation of Cormorants’ and ‘The Beautiful Room’ by R. B. Russell, both of which were previously published as Nightjar chapbooks and reviewed by me back in Black Static #20.

Joel Lane has the distinction of being published by Nightjar and also appearing regularly in Black Static. His story ‘Birds of Prey’ features a band of that name, a raptor exhibition in a museum and a predatory motorcycle gang. First person narrator Paul is a young man attending university and discovering his sexuality, finding solace and pleasure in the arms of musician Robert, but the latter has unresolved issues from his past that blight any hope of happiness. Lane is as perceptive as ever, his story taking on themes of prejudice and guilt, isolation and emotional disconnection, and at its heart the idea that, no matter how much we love them, we cannot save another unless they first wish to save themselves.

Other Black Static alumni include Conrad Williams, whose ‘All Our Dead Heavens’ is a sensitive and evocative account of a relationship unravelling in a tropical paradise setting, with the appearance of a bird at the end coming almost as an afterthought but also providing the perfect coda. ‘The Wounded Bird’ by Michael Kelly is among the saddest of what Murmurations has to offer, with a lonely man reaching out to an injured creature, only his love takes the form of imprisonment, so that it ultimately causes more harm than good, the story marking the fact that so often we are our own worst enemies and, with hindsight, the title assuming an anthropomorphic quality. ‘Husks’ by Stephen Bacon is another exercise in the key of grief, a moving threnody on the theme of suicide pacts gone wrong and the search for peace of a kind, ghosts of the past and guilt generated phantoms haunting its protagonist, with the birds in the text providing hints of the numinous.

Familiar names in the Table of Contents include Anna Kavan, whose 1945 tale ‘The Gannets’ is the oldest of what’s on offer, un cri du coeur against cruelty in the world, embodied in the narrator’s overwhelming vision of gannets attacking a defenceless child with the collusion of its playmates. ‘The Raven’ by Russell Hoban opens with a man seeking wisdom by talking to a bird at the zoo, but while outwardly comedic and filled with vibrant wordplay, dark currents flow beneath the surface of the narrative, so that ‘the black’ becomes emblematic both of personal despair and a cosmic nullity, the smile on the face of the story lingering to the very end by which point we wonder if in fact it is a death’s head grin. In a lighter vein is ‘A Nestling’ by Jack Trevor Story, in which a young boy intent on stealing the eggs from a bird nest comes to identify with a stranded bird when he ends up stuck in a tree himself, the story engaging and with a nice moral.

In a neat trick, the anthology features a story by Nicholas Royle, but a Nicholas Royle other than the editor. ‘Gulls’ has something of Roald Dahl about it, painting a compelling picture of madness, with the narrator driven insane by the constant sound of the gulls, all of it deftly leading into the final reveal, a last touch of horror that compels us to reevaluate all that we have read.  There’s a similar Dahlesque feel, laced with a touch of Saki, to Bill Broady’s black comedy ‘The Brids’, as a friend helps a woman deal with her boyfriend’s fear of birds, the problem demanding gleefully drastic action with hilarious results and a deliciously tongue in cheek ending, the story pure delight from first word to last.

‘The Candling’ by Deborah Kermode is another highlight of the anthology, as a woman tries to connect with a man obsessed with peacocks and transcendental states, her attention unbalancing him with disastrous consequences, some elements of the story bringing to mind Shaffer’s Equus, the sense that if we take away what makes a person special in their own eyes then we risk destroying them. Underlying it all is a sharp critique of machismo and its flaws, one that would be funny if not for the tragic events in the story. In ‘Dead Bird’ by Socrates Adams-Florou we follow the journey of a bird’s carcass, from plaything for the ignorant through to its absorption back into the universe itself, the story then turning everything on its head with a final, chilling image. ‘Corbeaux Bay’ by Geeta Roopnarine is a ‘just desserts’ story, with a man who is cruel to the birds suffering a terrible retribution, undone by his own pride and sense of security.

Bringing down the curtain on Murmurations is perhaps the most famous avian story of them all, Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 novella ‘The Birds’, made into a seminal ‘creature feature’ by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitch transplanted the story to the sunny climes of California’s Bodega Bay, but du Maurier originally placed her tale in Cornwall during a chilly December, with the isolation of the characters in the rural landscape further heightened by the attacks of the birds. It is a harrowing and grim account of a struggle for survival, with a family slowly realizing that something has gone terribly awry with their world, and that leading into an utterly downbeat ending, one that reeks with the hopelessness of their situation. Reminiscent of Machen’s ‘The Terror’, it marks the fragility of our eco-system and man’s hegemony on the earth, providing a bleak but creatively triumphant end to a fine collection of stories, one that in an age of zombies and vampires, ghosts and ghouls, takes an unusual theme and runs with it, much to editor Royle’s credit.

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