Filler content with birds

A feature on the work of writer and publisher Nicholas Royle that originally appeared in Black Static #64:-

NICK AND THE NIGHTJARS

As you’d possibly expect of somebody who named his press after the Nightjar, author Nicholas Royle is more than a tad interested in our feathered friends, and birds feature to a greater or lesser degree in many of his stories. Some of these stories are gathered in his third collection which is aptly titled ORNITHOLOGY: SIXTEEN SHORT STORIES (Configo Publishing pb, 194pp, £9.99). Two of the stories are original to this collection, while ‘The Obscure Bird’ was previously published in Black Static #18 (we like birds too).

The collection opens with ‘Unfollow’, in which a lonely man acquires raw material for a taxidermist he meets online and becomes obsessed with, his efforts steadily escalating with the help of the mysterious Max (a cat perhaps, but we never really know). It’s a fine story of obsession in the age of social media, one that disturbs with the way in which reader expectations are constantly undercut, and the final act raising questions as to the identity of Max while disturbing with its matter of fact pronouncements. Next story ‘Murder’ is full of subtle touches of detail and allusions out of left field that make you wonder what is really going on in this story of two couples sharing a holiday let. The human world and nature, red in tooth and claw, intimately intertwine. The male protagonist of ‘The Obscure Bird’ becomes a little too engaged with the behaviour of owls, resulting in dire consequences. It’s a story that gradually accumulates tiny but significant details, culminating in a horrific final twist and revelation.

‘Jizz’ presents us with an abusive husband on holiday with his wife and her sister, the story contrasting the idyllic foreign setting in all its natural beauty with the brutality of the leading man. It’s a piece that starts out grim and rapidly gets much worse, with a horrific ending that pins the story down as a modern day rendition of a tale from the Greek myths. It’s one of the best stories in a generally excellent collection. A man obsessed with books is confronted with a mirror image of himself in ‘Stuffed’, this short story making us question the relationship between literature and life, and the ways in which we can marginalise our very existence through sweating the small stuff. In ‘Pink’ a man whose life is collapsing around him finds his troubles embodied in the form of the bullfinch, a bird he has never seen before but which now permeates his world to the exclusion of virtually everything and everyone else.

The protagonist of ‘The Bee-Eater’ finds that bird emblematic of the fears of illness and all the other problems in his life, the story gradually building until it climaxes in a horrific overthrowing of the natural order. Another especially subtle tale, ‘Gannets’ gives us a lover’s triangle with a backdrop of bird watching and astronomy. It is all the more effective for what is not spoken, the assumptions made about each of the characters and how they will react, with an ending that seems to leave open the possibility of something far more portentous than what might otherwise pass as soap opera fodder. ‘The Larder’ could very well be a variation on the story of Bluebeard, with a man wondering what the woman he is involved with hides behind a door in her apartment, and her obsession with birds, particularly the shrike, providing some unsettling clues. Once again Royle doesn’t so much end the story as hit pause at the moment calculated to be the most unsettling.

‘The Goldfinch’ is perhaps one of the more puzzling stories, set in a world where “dead” people are visited by children for life lessons, and the protagonist of the story has visions of somebody from his past, a person he believed dead. There’s a dreamlike quality to the story, the narrative punctuated by images of random violence and self-harm, the occasional whiffs of surrealism, while a mood of bleakness and despair permeates the whole of the text. ‘The Kestrel and the Hawk’ is a short story in which the reader is left to fill in the gaps, regarding the motives of the story’s protagonist and the relationship between the two birds of the title. It is as fascinating as it is straightforward in the telling, and totally compelling, with an end that leaves everything open to interpretation. One of the longest stories and one of the best, ‘The Lure’ is the account of an English teacher in Paris, his relationship with one of the other teachers at his school and his fear of a blind man on the subway, except nothing here is quite what it seems, the story delighting in its misdirection and the sinister suggestions latent in the text, embodied in the image of a bird of prey and the lure of the title.

The ways in which a failed relationship can poison future romance is central to ‘The Nightingale’, but what makes it interesting is the way in which Royle casually drops science fictional references into what might otherwise be a simple tale of hearts and flowers. People have hard drives (possibly a metaphor for memory) and reality appears programmable, raising Dickian questions about the nature of existence, who is human and who is machine, while showing how past experience mediates future expectations in our psyche and emotions. A man who wishes to be a writer and who records his bird sightings in ‘The Blue Notebooks’ comes to question whether his memories and the things that he is seeing are genuine or not thanks to illness. Again this is a story built on shifting sand, with oblique techniques used to undermine the reader’s confidence in the narrator, just as his own self-belief is shattered. ‘Lovebites’ takes a novel approach to the theme of vampirism, developing its central conceit with a rigorous logic, touches of detail adding to the overall effect of this charming black comedy.

Finally we have ‘The Children’ which is set in an exotic holiday resort where tragedy strikes, though this is only a backdrop to the emotional and psychological problems of the story’s narrator. Again it is a clever piece, deftly tying together the personal and the societal, major and minor chords, and using each to illuminate the other. And, as in all of these stories, birds feature quite heavily, even if I haven’t mentioned them in this review.

With his Nightjar Press hat on, Royle continues to release two chapbooks every six months. The latest pair dropped in May, but first let’s take a look at last November’s duo, both of which were written by Claire Dean.

The protagonist of BREMEN (Nightjar Press chapbook, 14pp, £3.75) is a life-size mannequin created by an old woman at the behest of a tourist mourning her deceased lover. Now abandoned he wanders the streets and back alleys of Bremen seeking a purpose for his shadow existence, and trying to cajole the old woman to create a mannequin of the woman he loved.

This is a story of loss and grief, one in which attempts to externalise the pain have failed completely. The central idea of the old woman with her strange abilities and ways in which she profits from her gift is intriguing, but the real emphasis of the story is in the suffering of the protagonist, who has no reason to live and yet must continue on all the same. The backdrop of Bremen, with its ancient buildings and hidden ways, is brought to vivid life on the page, while the characters are drawn with a canny eye for detail. Ultimately what we have here is a tale of golems, stripped of religious intent and the protector role, themselves becoming victims in a world that simply doesn’t care. The “monster” does not terrify, but becomes a cause for pity in a tale where human needs power and channel the supernatural elements.

In THE UNWISH (Nightjar Press chapbook, 16pp, £3.75) Amy joins her family on a retreat to an isolated cottage where they enjoyed holidays over twenty years ago, but her father is showing signs of onset dementia and sister Sara is being nasty to her, while his absence gives cause for doubt about the intentions of boyfriend Aiden. But the discovery of the ruins of an old book of fairy tales and the feeling that something is missing, makes her wonder if there was once another sister, one who has been unwished.

This is a subtle and creepy story, one that is rooted in very real human issues – sibling rivalry, fear of old age, doubt regarding a lover – but then turns everything on its head with the intrusion of the outré. It is existential horror, and we can’t really know if Amy’s fears are justified, or simply the creation of an overactive imagination and the problems of her everyday life. While her sanity may be debatable, there is no doubt that she has a lot on her plate emotionally and these assorted worries and the feelings of worthlessness they engender are what drive the story to its conclusion. Underlying this is an intriguing concept, the idea that fantasy can alter reality; that people can be wished out of existence. And then there is the opposite possibility: that they can be created through wishing also and the missing sister is simply an imaginary friend who didn’t make it into adulthood. It’s a clever story, one where the fantastic elements are grounded firmly in the everyday.

Moving on to May and we have THE HOOK (Nightjar Press chapbook, 18pp, £3.75) by Florence Sunnen. The narrator of this story is haunted by childhood memories of a cartoon with dancing skeletons. Home from university, she and her two year older brother “haunt” the family flat, while their parents pursue vague work projects in their separate rooms. Her brother begins to consume himself, starting with a toe and going on to larger body parts, with only the narrator concerned by what is happening; their parents seem entirely indifferent, in fact welcome their son’s taking on a “project”, and wish that their daughter would find something similar to call her own, which eventually she does.

A case could be made for this story standing as a metaphor for the problems of lack of direction and the self-destructive urges that confront our young people (the boy has an eating disorder, the girl finds another mode of self-harm), and the apparent indifference of the adult world. Taken at face value however, it is a surreal and disturbing excursion into the realms of body horror, with each step of the boy’s undoing minutely catalogued and filed away for later examination. While the reader shares the narrator’s low key horror and confusion at what is happening, it is perhaps the reaction of the parents, who seem entirely oblivious to the implications of what is taking place under their roof, events which they actually seem to encourage, that is the most unnerving aspect of the whole thing. Sunnen has created a work which can be approached on two levels, both the metaphorical and the literal, with the matter of fact telling an exercise in obliqueness that brings home the true horror of what is taking place better than any more sensational rendition could have done.

There’s a feel of the liminal to LIVING TOGETHER (Nightjar Press chapbook, 20pp, £3.75) by Matt Thomas, that the characters exist in a world that is tangential to rather than a part of our own, with vivid descriptions of a rundown cityscape and people living in abandoned cars, surviving out of the contents of carrier bags. Poverty is implicit in the text. The narrator, who has no name or gender, moves from one such squat to live with their sister and help care for her son Thomas, who is recovering from surgery, but soon after the narrator is pressured into seeking gainful employment, which they find helping Ben develop apps and websites for his new start up business, the specifics of which, like just about everything else here, are left vague. We stumble from one event to another, with the sister going missing for days at a time, the doctors at the hospital suspicious about what is happening with Thomas.

It is an oblique narrative, one that works through the creation of a mood rather than simply telling a story. And that mood, possibly a reflection of the zeitgeist of post-Brexit Britain, is one of quiet despair, a case of not so much travelling in hope as praying we never actually arrive, with my abiding memory from the book that of how Thomas’ flesh smells of rot and corruption, with any signs of a recovery simply misdirection on the part of the Almighty. These are snapshots of life on the front line in a rapidly decaying modern world, one where all the old values, the things we once cherished and were able to take for granted, have been swept away by a new system that enriches the few while making the rest internal refugees of the soul. Ultimately it is not a horror story so much as the very thing itself that is presented here on these pages.

Each chapbook is published in a signed edition limited to 200 copies, and the price shown includes UK p&p when ordering from the publisher (nightjarpress.weebly.com).

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