Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Short Fiction Corner | Three From Nightjar, or, The Corpse Fowl Cometh

I don't know if social media has a bad rap, or I give it a bad rap, but for all that it's a right bloody timesuck - such that I tend to disappear off the face of the Earth in terms of Twitter and Google+ whenever I've deadlines to attend, for fear I spend my allotted hours burbling about #fridayreads or the pitfalls of UHT milk - for all that it is that, as I was saying, and it is, it is too a way to engage with people you otherwise wouldn't, or couldn't.

Case in point: a little while back I was tweeting about what I was reading. One of those books was Regicide by Nicholas Royle, which I reviewed here, and after a little searching it turned out that the gent had a Twitter presence. So I did the decent thing and cordially @ replied Nicholas in.

Momentarily, he and I got chatting. One thing led to another, and before you know it I was introducing him to my---

Wait, what? No no no! That's not what happened at all!

What in fact happened was: Nicholas asked if I'd like to take a look at a few of the latest chapbooks he'd published through the small press he operates. I'll cop to not having heard of Nightjar Press before we talked, but a quick look at the blog, and the array of authors gathered together under the Nightjar banner - among them Michael Marshall Smith, Tom Fletcher and Conrad Williams, to name but a few - was all the impetus I needed to take Nicholas up on his offer.

And that isn't even to speak of the fact that Nightjar Press is named in honour of the most terrifying bird I've ever heard of.

Do yourself a favour: don't follow that link. :/

So. What I did was... I started with what I knew. Namely Tom Fletcher, whose The Leaping I loved last year - see here - though I found, I'm afraid, rather less to like about Fletcher's second novel, The Thing on the Shore, this spring. 'Field' the tale of a Forestry Commission warden called Tony and his assistant Sarah, who are called out one evening by a local pub landlord to move along a group of youths who are camping illegally at the end of the lake. In fact "not only were they camping illegally, but they were partying very loudly, and had dreadlocks and piercings. And it wasn't even dark." (p.5) The horror!

Anyway, when Tony and Sarah find the campgrounds, the youths are nowhere to be found. The wardens split up to find them, and then... well. These are short short stories, folks, and it wouldn't do to ruin them, so forgive me if my synopses are on the slight side.

'Field' is for its part an exercise in measure and suggestion. There are no monsters in Fletcher's short - at least, none that the reader sees - only these two lost souls, Tony and Sarah, and a field full of atmosphere, and implicit, perhaps even Lovecraftian, otherworldliness. Few authors can evoke such unease so effortlessly, juxtapose the natural and the unnatural so very memorably, and though I was a slice of trifle disappointed by The Thing on the Shore, 'Field' is proof positive that Tom Fletcher is a talent to watch like a hawk.

The night after I finished 'Field' I read 'Lexicon' by Christopher Burns, whose work I fear I am not at all familiar with... though from his minibio I gather Quercus Publishing will be putting out his sixth novel, A Division of the Light, in 2012. I may well look for it then.

That said, of the three chapbooks Nicholas was so kind as to send along, I think I enjoyed 'Lexicon' the least. It's about a first date, and the origins of one particular Greek myth. Harry has brought Heather to his home, you see, ostensibly to serve her a delicious meal of olives and fish -- but there's more going on in 'Lexicon' than just that, from the first paragraph on out:

"What survives of past civilisations is more than architecture and earthworks. Whatever we say, whatever we do, has taproots that feed within deep layers of the past. In faraway lands tongues we would not recognise have already expressed our every thought. Other minds have imagined our dreams and traded them amongst people who saw no distinction between fiction, belief, history and myth." (p.5)

Sadly, though Harry at least seems an interesting character, off-kilter and so controlling as to set alarm bells ringing in any sane individual - but not Heather, for altogether too long a time - 'Lexicon' is creepy rather than chilling, disturbing in its ostentatiously mythical way... but alas, a little obvious. I wasn't surprised by 'Lexicon', and in a narrative so inextricable from its twist resolution as this, that's a real problem.

Last but not least, I read 'The Beautiful Room,' from the pen of another author I knew next to nothing about before now: R. B. Russell. 'The Beautiful Room' is about a young couple looking to buy their first flat together. When during a viewing John and Maria come upon a beautiful room with a beautiful view in a beautiful house, they set to discussing how they could wrap this place into their future plans.

But as they chat, John and Maria become aware of an odd noise. Some living, suffering thing seems to be trapped in the walls. Mice, maybe? Or could there be birds stuck in the firmament of this beautiful room? 

Birds... or mice... or something else entirely?

'The Beautiful Room' is a terrific short story, and easily my favourite of the three Nightjar chapbooks addressed in this post. I read it first to myself, as you do, then again, out loud to my partner in crime, who I dare say was as alarmed by R. B. Russell's dialogue-driven narrative as I; nor did I find 'The Beautiful Room' any less alluring a work of fiction the second time out, wrapped up as it is with a wonderfully unspoken ending -- such that a re-read brings to light all sorts of things the reader mightn't have noticed that first time.

On the basis of these three stories alone, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend anyone with an interest in the subtler, more sinister side of short horror seek out the terrific selection of chapbooks on offer from Nightjar Press with all due haste. They're beautifully presented, simply but attractively designed, and artistically very powerful; intimate, insidious little stories fit to work a hole in the hardest hearts.

Not to seem a total shill, they're also strictly limited in the literal sense of the phrase, so oft-abused: there are only 200 copies of each chapbook available - in fact many of Nightjar's earlier efforts have long since sold out - every one of which comes signed and numbered at a nominal cost of £3 plus postage, if you order direct from the publisher. I gather there are still a few copies of 'Field', 'Lexicon' and 'The Beautiful Room' going, as of the time of this writing... but be quick about it, folks, if you're at all interested.

And you should be!

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