NR: An Absence of Natural Light

I’d never heard of F. G. Cottam until I picked up this novella for a bargain price on Amazon, which is surprising as when I look at his back catalogue he seems like just the sort of writer who would be celebrated in genre circles. Go figure.

Forced to retire owing to an injury, footballer Tom Harper buys a luxury flat where he can begin a new life without his token wife. He also starts to date estate agent Rebecca Green. But the property at Absalom Court has a few problems. At night Tom is woken by the sound of jazz music emanating from the basement and he smells perfume and cigarettes, while the sketch of a cat has appeared on his laptop as screensaver, signed with the initials RG. Tom and Rebecca investigate and discover that the flat was once occupied by Rachel Gaunt, a femme fatale obsessed with the occult who committed suicide. Talks with her former professor and an old boyfriend who suffered a mental breakdown help to flesh out the picture. They come to realise that Rachel Gaunt isn’t finished with life yet, even if life has finished with her.

While it may be the first work I’ve read by Cottam, I hope this short work won’t be the last. It is an excellent supernatural story in the tradition of M. R. James, but with a thoroughly modern feel to the material. I loved the characters, with the interplay between Tom, who is not a typical footballer*, and Rebecca a delight, banter that sounds genuine and both of them gratifyingly self-deprecatory. The other characters are just as engaging, from Professor Fleetwood, with his besotted reminiscences of Rachel Gaunt and adulation of Tom, to ex-boyfriend and Arsenal fan Archie, from archivist Simon with his personal agenda and pomposity, to the absentee WAG Melody. Though not present in body, dominating the proceedings is Rachel Gaunt, whose machinations are at back of everything else, a character who is completely ruthless when it comes to getting her own way, prepared to sacrifice others to succeed. The supernatural effects mount gradually, with the music barely heard at first, and then smells and visions that crank up the unease, with everything we learn about Rachel Gaunt making her all the more threatening, but at the same time with an undeniable sexual allure and charisma. Cottam builds assuredly, each detail neatly slotted in and adding to the whole, setting us up for the inevitable climax, which he resolves with an enviable lightness of touch. My only quibble is that I could have done with a bit more information about the mysterious Jericho Society, Rachel’s sponsors and the prompt for her suicide.

This small book is a perfect demonstration of what can be achieved in only seventy pages, and at only 49p for the kindle edition on Amazon it’s an ideal way to sample Cottam’s oeuvre if you haven’t as yet encountered his work.

*To be fair, my idea of a typical footballer owes more to sensationalist tabloid press headlines than any actual experience

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