Nightjar Press have been releasing these short-story limited-editions for a while now – single stories, sold individually, with striking covers – and though, at £3 a pop, they’re kind of expensive if you’re working on a word-per-penny rate, I still like the idea: the solid fact of a single bound story in your hands feels something like an Event. It makes you concentrate. And Claire Massey’s Into The Penny Arcade and Marionettes deserve the concentration. Quietly and carefully sinister, they’re stories that linger.
Of the two, Into The Penny Arcade is less obviously a horror story, but creepy it is, nonetheless. Massey tells us about a girl who notices a strange lorry parked on her route home from school and what happens when the owner of the lorry invites her inside. But it’s not the easy kidnapping-and-abuse tale that you might think: rather, the man rescues the girl from the violence of her schoolmates, and inside the lorry, the girl – grateful, disoriented, bleeding – discovers another world: an itinerant penny arcade of strange vintage machines. The man guides her around his collection; amongst others, he’s got two Catchers, a Trapper, a Shocker, working models of an Iron Maiden, a Guillotine, a device called Buried Alive. And the van itself has been transformed by the machines into a dim and cramped maze, from which the man seems increasingly unwilling to release our girl. So there’s a bed of quiet menace running throughout, as the reader anticipates some moment of horrible violence – but we’re never exactly sure if it’s the man’s actual menace or the girl’s paranoia we’re feeling. It’s a nice feat of authorial skill, this suspension of judgement, and it moves the story away from a conventional child abduction piece into much more interesting and morally ambiguous territory. The ending is perfect, pitching us right back into the body of the story as we’re forced to rethink our assessment of the narrator and examine our ideas of blame and culpability. Massey’s used the tropes of horror (the fairground, the schoolgirl, the solitary man) and created something sad and new.
Marionettes, now, is out-and-out shivery horror. A couple revisit Prague, and while the husband tries to find evidence of their previous trip (the same cafes, their initials carved into a tree), the wife is drawn to an old marionette shop with oddly realistic puppets in the window. I’ll say no more about the plot, except that not a lot happens: this one’s all about atmosphere. The Czech setting is beautiful, and Massey endows it with a Venetian Don’t Look Now vibe (not one for the Republic’s Tourist Board, then), and the twisting alleys of the Old Town quickly become far more sinister than romantic, as the woman is pulled back, again and again, to the window of the marionette shop. And the marionettes are, as you might expect, uncanny. But, scary as it is, it’s more than a frightening story – it’s the tale of a relationship on the brink of collapse. The couple bicker, their holiday is a silent, unhappy disaster; they’re trapped. And the puppets, frozen facsimiles of people, capture this miserable stasis.
Any Cop?: Massey’s a very good writer; I’d recommend these stories. They’re unsettling and haunting – hard to forget, like all the best horror. And I know they’re sold individually, but I really think they work as a pair, so I’d say you should buy both. Six quid well spent. And let’s see what Claire Massey does next.