Within the horror pantheon, the most popular subgenres are those that your big screen was made for: think of the shaky camera ‘found-footage’ of The Blair Witch Project, special effects-heavy supernatural movies, teen horror, slasher horror and that richest of rich veins – the teen-slasher horror.
Film, being a more passive consumable than fiction, makes it more orthodox – more likely to reach no further than the lowest-hanging fruit. (In horror terms: achingly lovely twenty year-olds on college vacation get cut down in their prime). The written word, however, can liberate – through engaging the reader’s imagination, getting them to work a little, the writer can be more subtle and explore unconventional themes.
In his new collection of short stories, Ornithology, the lecturer and writer Nicholas Royle reboots a classic but near-forgotten trope in psychological horror: the goings-on behind twitching suburban curtains. But Royle’s protagonists don’t draw their curtains to don a funny hat and worship Sun-Ra, or to sacrifice the new kid in town. There are no ‘spectaculars’ here; no picking of that low-hanging fruit. Rather, Royle’s grist is to prod the veneer of respectability worn by sober, suburban professionals – the middle-aged and middle-class – to reveal some form / degree of rot.
Royle’s characters exhibit all that’s meritorious: here you’ll find intellectuals and enthusiasts of the avant garde; refined couples with discerning tastes. But then their masks slip: couples holidaying together, academics, have murderous intent; a book collector, a purist, morphs into an obsessive-compulsive. A social media enthusiast, assisting a taxidermist with his cat’s kills, is in fact a rapidly-escalating online stalker. And a man debating with his wife on having the ‘drink and drugs’ conversation with their twelve year-old son, has sex with a complete stranger in a train lavatory.
In keeping with the identity shift of his characters, Royle’s stories are dark and often surreal. Stories that appear grounded, immersed in all that is familiar and safe, end up hovering just an inch above terra firma. And dovetailed into each one, is a bird – sometimes centrally, at other times obliquely, but in Ornithology, you’ll find out how many crows make a ‘murder’; or when you might see a plunging of gannets. It doesn’t always make sense but then it’s never nonsense either – the author’s motivations for running this thread through the collection are not clear, but somehow it does work; it adds a certain je ne sais quoi.
Any Cop?: ‘Let’s take a ride, and run with the dogs tonight…’ sang the Pet Shop Boys, in their ode to suburban hell. But in Royle’s reboot of the same idea, we instead fly with the birds – silent witnesses in a perfect, natural world, to all manner of human chaos.