Review of Nightjar Press Short Stories

Posted by lizgrand on March 12, 2013 in Blog, Liz Grand tagged with , , , , ,

Sullom Hill by Christopher Kenworthy (2011), Field by Tom Fletcher (2011) and Remains by G.A. Pickin (2011) are just three of the tales that make up the vast collection of short story chapbooks published by the independent Nightjar press (publisher: Nicholas Royle, designer: John Oakley). With minimalist, artistic book covers exhibiting pictures of desolate and dark landscapes the short stories in this selection immediately possess an air of mystery and intrigue.

Each of the three stories I read immediately gripped me as a reader and produced shivers down my spine. Each presented an intimate focus on the position of the outsider within various situations and landscapes. In Sullom Hill Christopher Kenworthy cleverly explores themes of “otherness”, victimisation and abuse, presenting a narrative of childhood experience told retrospectively by the protagonist’s adult self. This interplay between child and adult perspectives render the themes harrowing and moving. Kenworthy takes three very different children and reveals the dark truths and pains of each of them through the innocence of childhood described by a knowledgeable grown-up narrator.

Whilst Sullom Hill was emotionally engaging – with its focus on human emotions and fears – both Remains, written by G.A. Pickin, and Field, by Tom Fletcher were thrilling in terms of physicality and setting. For me, the texts recall the haunting and chilling atmospheres of the Gothic tradition. The stories’ focus on moorlands and natural landscapes and their ability to shift from the picturesque and the beautiful to the harrowing and dangerous reminded me of the Brontë novels Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, as well as Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. These powerful texts use the breadth and isolation of natural landscapes to trap and threaten their protagonists, placing them in a nightmarish reality of the sublime terror of nature. Like these past Gothic texts, Remains and Field play with light and dark within natural landscapes. Both protagonists rely on torchlight but recognise the increasing danger of darkness which, in the case of Field, appears to be manipulated and ostensibly supernatural. Whilst Field and Remains use these same techniques of setting and location, I was impressed by their ability to remain original in their appropriation of these, somewhat overused, Gothic tropes.

I asked Nicholas Royle whether he felt there were any overarching themes throughout this collection of short stories. Nicholas responded, saying that “If there’s a connecting thread through all the stories it’s Freud’s theory of the Uncanny. I don’t have a checklist for submissions – it’s not like they have to reference Freud or the Uncanny – but the effect that Freud was describing is one I always enjoy when I come across it in fiction.” I recognised the presence of the Uncanny in each of the short stories, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The stories possess an eerie quality and characters are placed in familiar situations, but are faced with unfamiliar changes or events. I felt the best, and arguably the clearest, manifestation of the uncanny was in Tom Fletcher’s Field, coincidently the story I found most chilling. The story’s protagonist Tony, a park warden, is called out to move a group of campers from illegally camping in the park. Tony, who knows the park like the back of his hand, begins to lose himself as the surroundings change and warp to trap him within the walls of this liminal space. Tony’s familiar natural environment changes before his eyes causing the familiar to become unfamiliar in a powerfully sinister and threatening way.

There is a particular atmosphere that surrounds these three stories as well as Nightjar press as a publishing house. They are each sleek and artistic as well as minimal and enigmatic. I became immediately intrigued both by the opening lines of each story and by the image and name of the nightjar bird. On asking Nicholas about his choice of the nightjar as the face of his publishing house he told me more about the bird: it is “supposed to fly on wings of witch-cloth (according to Sylvia Plath), which emits a ghostly clicking call (…) when you hear a nightjar, you never forget it.” The mysterious, spectral atmosphere surrounding the nightjar is completely in tune with these three short stories. The bird is even mentioned in G.A. Pickin’s Remains and successfully imbues this ghostly, unsettling feeling of the bird’s song into the story’s eerie narrative.

This enigmatic atmosphere continues throughout the stories as each of them end inconclusively at the narrative’s denouement. The sudden ending of each story is at first frustrating especially for a reader who had become increasingly gripped as the tension built, yet paradoxically this is what gives the stories such power and impact. Each story ends without telling you the fate of its characters leaving you to wonder and fear and, most cleverly, to imagine the horror yourself.

These stories are each excellent reads and I urge readers to pick them up and experience the fantastic atmosphere of gothic mystery and terror. For stories of around twelve pages, they are each rich with characterisation, themes and gothic moods. I will definitely be reading more from the collection!

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