Four chapbook reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #50:-
Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press published four titles in 2015, their opening brace coming from Nightjar stalwarts Alison Moore and Tom Fletcher, both with their third chapbook release from this publisher.
Fletcher’s THE HOME (Nightjar Press chapbook, 8pp, £3.75) is the story of a man who sits in a room watching a TV screen on which his wife appears. She is wandering through a blasted landscape of sand and rock, with no sign of life. A message appears on the screen warning him that she has wandered into the territory of a monster known as The Home. He bears witness to signs that she is being pursued by something, but then…
This is a strange, surreal tale, one which is open to so many interpretations that you might as well not try to interpret it at all. With its surveillance technology it brings to mind our own world, in which there is no place to hide, while at the same time touching on the perils and pleasures of reality television. That the monster is known as The Home seems to imply that the female character is trying to escape the burden of domesticity, but the blighted landscape through which she runs indicates that this hasn’t been an entirely successful gambit for her. And the final image, with the woman not knowing who the man is, hints at some attempt at control on his part, that he is not the passive observer that he appears to be. But of course I could be wrong on all counts here. What can’t be doubted is the quality of the writing, and the minatory landscape and scenario Fletcher creates on the page. In the end we have to trust that he knows more than we do and that there are explanations to be had, sense to be made of what takes place, even if it remains tantalisingly out of our reach.
In Moore’s THE HARVESTMAN (Nightjar Press chapbook, 12pp, £3.75), Eliot is afraid of harvestman spiders, who can escape a predator by leaving their legs in its mouth. There seems to be a history of accidents involving legs in his family, with both Eliot’s father and grandfather disabled. His mother has done her best to remove all the threats from his life, constantly warning him about what might happen if he does something wrong, or that she doesn’t agree with. Inevitably he has come to expect the worst, and equally inevitably his expectations are realised when he tries to avoid the jealous boyfriend of a young woman who has shown an interest in him.
This is a gentle story, the tale of a placid young man who gets into trouble through no fault of his own. Eliot is a passive character, reacting to others rather than acting, and his destiny is written in the past when his mother shaped him to be the man that he has grown into with her over-protectiveness. Moore’s narrative cleverly plants the seeds of its own resolution, so that we never need to know what ultimately will happen to Eliot, or rather we are already assured of the outcome, just waiting to see how it will play out, the particular circumstances. It is a slight piece, but beautifully constructed and with a satisfying narrative drive, well realised characters, and underlying it all a touch of the blackly comedic.
Heading off our second brace of Nightjars is the topical (at least at the time of writing) LAST CHRISTMAS (Nightjar Press chapbook, 12pp, £3.75). Christmas and the festive family get together can be a trying occasion, and to all the usual problems of the season in John D. Rutter’s story we can add a question of scale. In this reality the young are enormous, but get smaller as they age. And so the grandparents are in constant danger of being sat on or trampled underfoot, while their children consider moving them into a doll house. Contrarily baby Charlotte is a veritable giant and when she fills her nappy loving parents have a serious problem to deal with.
Rutter meticulously works out the implications of this size reversal scenario, and informs his narrative with some very black humour, as when grandfather who lived through two world wars is nearly killed by a flying champagne cork or some wisecracks made at the expense of Legoland. For all of that it’s a story that doesn’t seem to go anywhere much, simply sets up the situation but does very little with it. Given the clue in the story’s title I wonder if it’s actually intended as an allegory, with the real shift being one of perspective, problems growing greater with distance and the benefit of hindsight. Either way it’s a timely antidote to all this festive merriment and good cheer we’ve just had shoved down our throats.
With a resounding declaration of “Bah! Humbug!” we move on to the fourth and final Nightjar, Leone Ross’ THE WOMAN WHO LIVED IN A RESTAURANT (Nightjar Press chapbook, 15pp, £3.75). Exquisitely written, this is a tale of love and obsession, and the point at which the two become indistinguishable. A woman falls in love with a chef and restaurant owner, but the restaurant itself becomes jealous when they try to consummate their feelings, and so she arrives one day and sets up camp at a corner table, willing to stay put until either the restaurant allows their love or the chef falls out of love with her. And so it goes, for years and years, until an entirely apposite resolution is arrived at.
Ross writes with all the elegance and skill, the meticulous attention to detail and the ways in which disparate ingredients interact, of a chef who specialises in fine dining, laying a sumptuous repast before the reader, each line informed with an eye for lyrical beauty and subtle undercurrents of eroticism. There is sadness here, in the plight of the two lovers, but also a kind of joy in the way in which they realise their mutual passion, the feeling of contentment and determination that carries them through. Underneath it all is a subtext about how we allow material things to come between us and the people we care for, but at the same time the restaurant is so intimately a part of the chef’s life, an essential element of how he defines himself, that to do anything other than to prioritise the establishment would be a denial of who he is. More interesting is the attitude of the other characters to the woman, especially the waiter who himself becomes obsessed with her, only to turn vile when his desire is not returned, while others who try to rescue her simply cannot accept that she doesn’t want to be saved, is realising her own true nature in this hopeless vigil. In these aspects of the book Ross shows a rare understanding of human nature, of how some of us must destroy the things we cannot have, or can’t accept the choices of others. This short story is a wise and insightful work of fiction, and without a doubt one of the best stories I read in 2015.
Each chapbook is produced in a signed, limited edition of 200 copies, and the price shown includes UK p&p. For more information and to order check out the Nightjar website at nightjarpress.weebly.com.