London Gothic, Nicholas Royle’s fifth collection of short stories is also the first of a proposed trilogy intended to give Gothic a good kick up the behind and drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century (and so Manchester Gothic and Paris Gothic are set to follow over the course of the next couple of years). The stories contained herein span the last twenty years, with the oldest (‘Trompe l’oeil’) written in 2000, and more than a half dozen (‘Welcome’, ‘L NDON’, ‘The Old Bakery’, ‘Constraints’, ‘Artefact’, ‘Guys’ and ‘The Vote’) written especially for this book.
What do you think when you think Gothic literature? You probably think fear, horror, death, and gloom, as well as more Romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion. If you have a little Gothic checklist about your person you can relax and rest easy: all of those constituent elements are present and correct in London Gothic, albeit refracted through a modern, alienated world of galleries and cinemas, rented accommodation and long walks that conjure up the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair. There is a loose thread of erudition that connects each of the stories (Royle is nothing if not a clever so and so), knowledge that works its way into the stories like train lines that once existed but don’t now or cinemas that once upon a time dotted the capital but have long gone the way of all flesh.
There are chills, as you’d expect, creepy goings on (notes from the previous owners of residences alluding to dark goings on and locked rooms you should steer clear of, suicides filmed from a distance, mop cupboards with axes in, that kind of thing), but also interesting stylistic effects (‘Constraints’, for example, appears to be a list of all of the different kinds of constraints one might see on a fairly long walk across London town) and (probably as you’d expect) and much in the way of what you might call contemporary dissonance (such as in ‘The Vote’ where hotel guests are encouraged to share their opinions on whether the hotel in question should be independent or part of a larger chain of… er… hotels). There are stories that you might call straightforward (or at least straightforwardly creepy – like ‘The Neighbours’, which seems to find a man ever so slightly haunted by echoes of what might be himself in adjoining rooms) and stories that have a dream-like (or should that be nightmare-like) quality – ‘Inside/Out’ we are very definitely looking at you!
These are stories that will challenge you, that operate at a level of both complexity and ingenuity such that you know they will reward repeated readings, stories that (perhaps unfortunately) will get under your skin and worry your dreams if you let them. It’s also worth saying that, in decades to come, when Royle is rightly lauded as the great chronicler of disenfranchised modern life, there will, no doubt, be guided tours about the streets of London as marked out in story after story here, London Gothic as much a product of the ground beneath the author’s feet as Dublin was for Joyce. If you’re a Londoner, these stories are as rooted in the city as you are (so says a fellow “chippy Northerner”).
“It was about London, he said. That was the first and most important thing. It was also about despair. And it was about holes in the fabric of reality that may or may not exist. And maps, he said. And spies. Spies? Yes, spies, but they weren’t that important. Ok, I said. I was hooked.”
Any Cop?: Obviously we think Royle is something of a national treasure and if London Gothic is anything to go by, then we have a couple of splendid short story collections to look forward to in the coming years (if nothing else!).