Okay. So. We know that there are people in the world who have a problem with short stories. We also know that, from time to time, publishers such as Picador do their best to invite readers to ‘try out’ short stories by packaging individual stories as one-shots. ‘Here is a short story’, the one-shot proclaims. ‘The fact that I’m dressed up as a book means you don’t have to call me a short story if that wrong foots you – you can call me a little book, instead.’ Nightjar – a new publishing venture from novelist and short story champion par excellence Nicholas Royle – is looking to do a similar thing to that Picador one-shot, with the wee difference being Nightjar’s stories are leap off the page, kick you in the balls, flat out fantastic.
We’ll take Michael Marshall Smith’s What Happens When You Wake Up At Night first. When you start reading, the narrator’s sweet, chirpy sing-song small child repetition suggests the story is going to be Where the Wild Things Are meets Harold & The Purple Crayon. A little girl, Maddy, wakes up and, as she fumbles around looking for her nightlight’s switch, the reader is brought up to speed with all of the things that her parents have done to try and get her to sleep at night. There is something creepy to the tale from the get-go (Maddy wakes up and her night light isn’t on, and then she notices it’s cold – ‘My light was not on and it was cold.’) – a creepiness that inches up, notch by notch, word by word. Calling the girl Maddy had me wondering whether we were talking about that Maddy, the famous Maddy, waking up somewhere strange (which gave me the old hair on the back of the neck shiver) – but Michael Marshall Smith’s Maddy isn’t that Maddy. Michael Marshall Smith’s Maddy – and Maddy’s Mum and Dad – are actually caught up in the kind of a nightmare straight out of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. I read this story in the bright light of day and it honestly scared the bejesus out of me. I don’t recommend you read it before you go to sleep. But I do recommend you read it. As a matter of no small urgency. (I should also say – in the few days since I’ve read the story and written this review, each time I’ve woken in the night, this story is the first thing that has popped into my skull. If you like being frightened to the marrow of your bones, this is for you…)
Tom Fletcher’s The Safe Children is equally unsettling but in a different way. Where What Happens When You Wake Up At Night has immediate and visceral thrills, The Safe Children has an offset, out of view quality. As a reader, you try to peer over the narrator’s shoulder to try and make out more than what we’re being allowed to see. There are similarities, though. Both stories happen at night. Both stories are afraid of the dark. Both stories involve children – children who may or may not be in peril. Fletcher’s narrator is a gentleman called James Thwaite, on his way to start work as a nightwatchman in a factory. James has left his missus Polly at home on the anniversary of his son’s death – but he has to be pragmatic, in the times we live in, ‘a job is a job is a job’. After the factory manager Zachary Tyler departs (having told him quite curtly not to look around the factory), he hears the voice of a small child through the wall – a small child who may be trapped in the mysterious factory… Fletcher writes in a tone of northern ennui that is, at first, reminiscent of Magnus Mills, but this northern ennui gives way, quite unexpectedly, to a staggering sexual horror that floors you, as a reader. By the climax, as James walks past ‘the old enclosure that used to be a boatyard’ and stares into the water of a harbour ‘that used to be nice’ but is now home to ‘shopping trolleys and a couple of cars’ you can’t help but feel pity for a character – a real, human, pitiable character – stuck between a tragedy and necessity. The Safe Children really runs the gamut – beautiful writing, complex characterisation, out and out horror, affecting human drama. It’s highly recommended and really whets the appetite for the release of Fletcher’s novel The Leaping in 2010.
All told the first offerings from the Nightjar imprint come highly recommended. If Royle can keep this quality of showmanship in future outings, Nightjar is going to become an essential imprint.
Any Cop?: All you need to know is that copies of these books can be purchased from http://nightjarpress.wordpress.com and that numbers are strictly limited. Go buy!