A feature on Nightjar Press that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-
QUOTH THE NIGHTJAR
While they remain part of many publishers’ bill of fare, in theory if not in practice, as far as I’m aware within the speculative field Manchester based Nightjar Press is the only publisher to specialise in chapbooks, releasing new volumes at the steady rate of two every six months. And over the past year and a half they have produced six (you probably figured that out for yourself).
Central to JACKDAWS (Nightjar Press chapbook, 11pp, £3.75) by Neil Campbell is the first person narration describing a rural setting where heavy snow and floodwater have completely transformed the landscape, giving it both a magical and minatory feel. Campbell is superb at capturing this vision of a washed out world, the beauty of nature and also the ways in which it can threaten human life, with vivid descriptive writing that brings it to life on the page. And over it all hangs the shadow of the jackdaws, silent observers of all that takes place, knowing far more than we do, if only they could tell. Woven into this text, by means of throwaway remarks and casual asides by the narrator, is the gist of the story, references to the death of a young girl, who may have drowned or perhaps met a more terrible fate.
There are scenes here that ring true from our nightly news feeds, pictures of floral tributes laid by the bereaved and the intrusive presence of the press, police divers going about their work, all of which the narrator observes with a keen eye, but never giving them too much importance. We suspect, but can never really be sure, that we are inside the mind of a killer, and how mundane it is, almost matter of fact or indifferent to the terrible thing that has been done, as if the character were no more invested in what is happening than the floodwaters or the jackdaws. And it is this monstrous indifference that cuts deepest in a remarkable depiction of outsider psychology.
Christopher Burns’ tale THE NUMBERS (Nightjar Press chapbook, 16pp, £3.75) opens with Danny arriving at the farm worked by his brother Martin and wife Sarah, and it is immediately obvious that his presence is not welcome. Danny is not good with numbers and has squandered the proceeds from his share of the family business. Now unable to get a job of any kind, he looks to his family for support, but they also find him to be of no use, more a hindrance than help, and in the past he has blotted his copy book too many times and in too many ways. Slowly Danny’s feelings of self-pity and being the recipient of an injustice mount, and the stage is set for horror.
Burns shows how Danny’s fragile mental state unravels, the feelings of worthlessness that contribute to the inevitable outcome, though there is no hint of any sympathy for the character; Danny’s ills are entirely of his own making and exacerbated by his unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions. The transformation of a peaceful rural setting into a scene of violence is handled with panache, the shift from family visit to terror taking place almost in an instant and as horrific as it is unexpected. Danny is not good with numbers, but in the end, even though he doesn’t count his victims, it seems that people are only numbers to him, their lives to be ended with a chilling casualness. Like ‘Lexicon’, Burns’ previous Nightjar offering, this chapbook is the story of a killer, but here one who has no real reason for what he does beyond self-pity, and as with ‘Jackdaws’ above given an immediacy and relevance by the things we see on the news and read about in the papers. Burns seems to be saying that everywhere is a killing ground and everyone potentially a murderer.
The unnamed protagonist of FURY (Nightjar Press chapbook, 15pp, £3.75) by D. B. Waters is a crime scene investigator called late at night to a house where a family of four have been killed. From the very start, with his supervisor sitting outside the house and unable to function effectively, he realises that this is not going to be an ordinary case, and what awaits him beyond the splintered front door confirms this premonition. As the investigation continues the man’s sense of dread mounts, with further evidence that demonstrates something outré has taken place, not least the way in which the parents and their children have been killed.
In the early stages of this story we have the conflict between routine procedures, established ways of doing things, and the reality of the house which defies all logic and rationality, showing that this is an occasion in which those methods, tried and true though they are, simply won’t work. As the protagonist moves deeper into the house we see increasing signs that nothing here is abiding by the laws of cause and effect that we know and understand, and the sense of dread mounts as Waters deftly lays on his details, so that we too wonder what has so traumatised supervisor Lynn and fear what we will learn as the final pages approach. It is a bravura performance and one in which Waters doesn’t set a foot wrong, but the resolution he provides, with its hint of the protagonist’s complicity in his own undoing, feels weak and tacked on, rather than throwing any real light on what has gone before. Great journey, but not so good on the destination.
In ROUNDS (Nightjar Press chapbook, 12pp, £3.75) by Wyl Menmuir, Alice Hooper is moving into a new flat, even though she is scared of leaving the bosom of her family. As the story progresses we learn that she suffers from panic attacks and is seeing a counsellor. Her emotions become focused on a young girl on a bicycle who she sees making her rounds down the street, and in her imagination she envisages terrible things happening to the girl. The description of the girl’s smile as “satiated ferocity” has about it a hint of vengeance or the demonic even, though this could just be Alice Hooper’s interpretation.
Rounds is a strange and enigmatic tale, with Alice’s anxiety made very real to the reader and the hint of something terrible in her past as its root cause. We cannot say whether the girl is somebody real on whom Alice has fixated, a figment of her imagination, or possibly a ghost. The suggestion implicit in the material is that in some way, shape or form, a girl just like this has appeared in Alice’s past and was the instrument of her undoing, or perhaps she represents the freedom for which Alice longs but can never achieve, having not learnt to ride a bike. The title of the story and the end line suggest a cyclical quality to the events described, that what goes around comes around to quote the old cliché. The power of the work lies in this ambiguity, the sense of a bigger picture, one that the reader and Alice can only suspect is lurking outside in the wild wood seen from Alice’s window.
PAYMON’S TRIO (Nightjar Press chapbook, 16pp, £3.75) begins with aesthete Greville purchasing an occult book from an antiquarian shop, only to find hidden inside the lining of this Infernal Dictionary a musical composition that is dedicated to Paymon, accompanied by a drawing of an extraordinarily ugly man mounted on a dromedary. With two friends who are also musically inclined, he attempts to play the piece with unfortunate consequences for all concerned.
Published more than sixty years after it was written and the only work of author Colette de Curzon, this is a story of supernatural horror, the kind of thing that Reggie Oliver does so well. De Curzon isn’t quite on a par with Oliver, but the story is well told with some nice touches of detail, striking characterisation, and a growing mood of menace, while the payoff is gratifying if not entirely unexpected. It passes the time in an entertaining enough way and I am glad that it finally saw publication, though it feels very much of its time, and I suspect the moment when such a piece might have made a real splash in genre circles has long gone.
Finally we have THE AUTOMATON (Nightjar Press chapbook, 19pp, £3.75) by David Wheldon. Ostensibly a manuscript found among the effects of a British infantryman who fell in the Third Battle of Aisne, this story is set in 1905 and told from the viewpoint of a young man, the son of the caretaker at the Comedy theatre. To raise funds a chess playing machine fashioned in the form of a beautiful woman is introduced into the theatre, and our protagonist becomes fascinated with her. But eventually the regularity with which the automaton wins its matches means that the stream of gamblers dries up, and so the impresario who owns the machine intends to handicap it.
Inevitably this piece will lead to thoughts of the story ‘Moxon’s Master’ by Bierce and Poe’s exposure of ‘Maelzel’s Chess Player’, but Wheldon is his own man and has produced a many layered story in which the nature of the automaton is almost a side issue. The boy’s relationship with the machine is one of fascination and almost love, with his awareness and growing appreciation of its uniqueness and abilities, while to the impresario it means nothing more than a means to riches. The question of machine intelligence is slightly touched on, but always of secondary concern to the motives of human beings. And overlying everything is a sense of sadness and doom impending, with the suggestion that human beings are every bit as programmed and conditioned in the ways they act as any machine, and so we are inevitably marching towards the horrors of World War One and all that has come since. There is very much a feel of the end of things as we know them; that machines will change the world in ways we can only imagine; that our sense of wonder and ideas of value are on their deathbed; that the old class order and everything it entails is slowly passing away, ready to be reduced to its essentials in the fiery furnace of universal war. Ultimately this is a sad story, a fin de siècle piece, powerful for what is implied as much if not more than for what is actually said. I loved it.
Price shown includes postage within the UK and each chapbook is produced in a signed, limited edition of 200 copies. For more details check out the publisher’s website at nightjarpress.weebly.com