NR: Nocturnes

Originally published in 2004, when Charlie Parker was only four books old, Nocturnes is John Connolly’s first collection of short stories. The Parker books, the work for which Connolly is best known, have a supernatural element but get marketed under the crime fiction or thriller label. There’s little to none of that blurring of the boundaries with the stories in Nocturnes which are situated firmly in the horror and ghost story tradition, with references to the inspiration of M. R. James and Stephen King on the book’s back cover entirely apposite.

The collection opens with a novella, “The Cancer Cowboy Rides”. In a grotesquely memorable opening scene the disease ridden bodies of a family are discovered at an isolated farm. A man by the name of Buddy Carson books into a motel in the small town of Easton and manages to raise the hackles of Sheriff Lloyd Hopkins, but the lawman can’t begin to envisage the threat Carson represents as the town’s inhabitants fall victim to cancer. We’re firmly in Stephen King territory here, with the same laid back prose style and solid characterisation, the pitch perfect evocation of a small town where everybody knows everybody else, and then into this mix the injection of something terrible, something that simply doesn’t make sense. Connolly delivers his story with incredible panache and energy, along the way making us care about these people and what is happening to them, and the use of cancer, which is a reality in so many lives, makes the whole thing feel close to home and yet more horrific. Even his portrayal of Buddy Carson has that extra dimension of credibility, showing us that the guy isn’t simply a monster, that at some point he had qualms about what he is required to do, even if he has put them far behind him. It’s a solid curtain raiser for what follows, and from this point on readers know they’re in safe hands.

Second story “Mr Pettinger’s Daemon” has more than a touch of the Jamesian about it, with a clergyman sent to an isolated parish where he learns rather more than he needed to know about the activities of his predecessor, who is literally digging into the past. The story builds deftly with an almost wry note to the protagonist’s character, his contempt for the bishop and hatred of war coming over especially strongly, and you can see why both he and Mr Fell stuck their noses into the wrong places, with a chilling end note to the story, the sense that what has occurred is an interruption rather than a resolution, a stopgap and nothing more. Haunted by memories of his younger brother’s abduction, a man takes steps to protect his family from “The Erlking”. There’s a fairy tale feel to this story, with the isolated wood in which the family live and the demonic nature of the evil they confront, but at the same time something very modern, a sense that the monstrous Erlking is just another paedophile. It’s a story that operates on several levels. There’s a similar sensibility to “The New Daughter”, a variation on the changeling trope. A father and his children move to an old rectory with a suspicious past and nearby is a mound or fairy fort. Connolly is superb at building the feel of menace, with hints in the text as to what is going on and a truly sinister note struck at the story’s conclusion.

There are echoes of the Bullingdon Club in the next story. A scholarship student at a prestigious private school bears witness to “The Ritual of the Bones” with horrifying consequences. It’s a story that captures perfectly the feel of the outsider, the underdog who will never have his day, and in its final revelations confirms all the rest of us have feared about the true nature of the upper classes. The nightwatchman at an abandoned train factory discovers that something outré is taking place in “The Furnace Room” at night, but the nature of the haunting ties in to events in his past. This was another solid tale, with a mounting atmosphere of dread and revelations that give the story an entirely different and more rewarding spin than if it had been a simple haunting. Two police officers down from London to investigate an inexplicable murder in the sticks find themselves at the mercy of “The Underbury Witches”. There’s some great characterisation here, especially of Inspector Burke and Sergeant Stokes, while it is possible to feel some sympathy for the witches, with their first victim a deserving bully and abuser. Running along in the background is a strong feminist subtext, with the historical witches and then the women in the present day each the victims of misogyny.

To a blocked writer “The Inkpot Monkey” is a blessing, but as Mr Edgerton discovers to his cost such things come with a high price. This was a delightful story that pitches its idea and runs, leaving the reader to applaud Connolly’s conceptual audacity and the verve of its telling, and possibly in the case of some of us to wish for a monkey of our own. Another cleric is sent to an isolated parish in “The Shifting of the Sands”, but at the coastal settlement of Black Sands he is far from welcome and his congregation worship other gods. In part this story reminded me of MRJ classic “The Casting of the Runes”, but Connolly brings a marked invention to the narrative and manages to capture the sense of old gods that predate Christianity and will linger long after it has left these shores.

There’s a sinister enchantment to “Some Children Wander by Mistake” as William’s desire to visit the circus and see the clowns takes a macabre turn. The story has a fablesque feel to it, while the visions of the clowns and the way they speak among themselves is truly unnerving and will remain with me long after the story has been forgotten in its finer details. The sense of loss is almost palpable in “Deep Dark Green” as young lovers swim in the shunned waters of Baal’s Pond and one of them survives to forever regret their mistake. Connolly gives us an underwater world, sinister and unforgiving, with an eerie feel to what transpires and intertwined with that, for the narrator at least, a sense of longing tinged with regret. Elegiac is the word I am looking for.

“Miss Froom, Vampire” is proud of the flowers and vegetables she grows in her garden, but they serve a purpose other than winning rosettes at the county fair. This is a vampire story with a difference, told in a tone that is studiously cultured and urbane, one might almost say Wodehousian, and playing its cards close to its chest until the last minute. For all that she is a monster you can’t help but like the eponymous Miss Froom. We’re back to traditional ghost stories with “Nocturne”, in which a man and his young son move into a house that previously belonged to a child killer. Connolly’s execution is perfect, drip feeding the reader information and then plunging us full on into the nightmare that is waiting for his protagonist. It works splendidly as a ghost story. Two climbers go against local warnings to plumb the depths of “The Wakeford Abyss”, but what they find is too terrible to contemplate in this variation on The Descent. Despite the horror of the end, there is an almost amiable feel to this story, the characters revelling in their craft and each of them fully drawn examples of the gentleman adventurer, so that you feel for them and want them to survive even if the logistics of the plot might come to dictate otherwise.

Having opened with a novella, the book closes with another, one that will delight Connolly aficionados. In “The Reflecting Eye: A Charlie Parker Novella” our hero is called on to investigate an isolated house in the woods, the former home of a man who killed multiple children, the case bringing him into contact with the Collector. This is a story that slips down a treat, a reminder of how good Connolly can be with his Charlie Parker hat on. What makes it so special are the steps he takes to establish both the character and the setting, the joys of Portland, the sleaze of souvenir hunters who specialise in death, small and big time criminals, the sinister nature of the house of mirrors at the story’s centre and the entity that lives there and demands sacrifice. Parker is fully drawn, a man who has known loss and does his best to bring some justice into the world, yet can’t stop himself from wisecracking even when it costs him dear. Add in the dynamic duo of Louis and Angel, former assassins for hire and now dear friends and righteous allies in Parker’s crusade, and the sinister figure of the Collector, whose motives are unknown and whose shabby appearance is in counterpoint to the menace that he represents, and you end up with a thoroughly entertaining read that doesn’t set a foot wrong, which is pretty much par for the course where Parker is concerned.

But this isn’t the end of the collection. Connolly gives us three more stories as extras, tales previously available only through the author’s website. A man’s wife to be is murdered before their wedding, but she returns to share “The Bridal Bed” in a tale that is eminently readable, albeit most readers will realise where the narrative is going long before the end is reached. His car broken down at night in an isolated spot, “The Man from the Second Fifteen” falls victim to monsters lurking in the undergrowth, but at the same time he has a feeling that somehow it might all be his own fault. This is a story that is gratifying for seeing a rather bumptious character get his comeuppance, though you can’t help feeling that he doesn’t really deserve what happens to him, but I guess if you’re a character in a horror story it goes with the territory. Finally there’s “The Inn at Shillingford” where an insurance salesman books in to his cost. Again this is another traditional ghost story, a variation on the haunted house template, with the requisite shocks and dark history, a tad predictable but still entertaining, as are all the stories in this wonderful collection, which I recommend unreservedly.

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