Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
A Tuesday or ten ago, I remarked on the proliferation of science fiction featured in the Spotlight so far. In the weeks since I’ve taken steps to address that imbalance by selecting stories after the more fantastical part of my heart. But let’s not forget: speculative fiction is made up of more than just sci-fi and fantasy. There’s the spooky stuff too—the uncanny class of narrative that Nightjar Press traffic in.
Nightjar is a specialist publisher named after “a nocturnal bird with an uncanny, supernatural reputation [for flying] silently at dusk or dawn as it hunts for food. The nightjar,” also known as the corpse fowl or, auspiciously, the goatsucker, “is more often heard than seen, its song a series of ghostly clicks known as a churring.” A perfect representation of this delectably dark small press, then.
Today on the Short Fiction Spotlight, we’re going to take a look at the two newest chapbooks out of Nightjar: “The Jungle” by Conrad Williams and “Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers” by Elizabeth Stott. Williams’ work I was familiar with—One won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2010—but Elizabeth Stott’s I was not.
A Cumbrian-based scientist currently at work on her first novel, she’s published a collection of short fiction called Familiar Possessions, which I’ll almost certainly search out subsequently, because “Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers” is just desperately unsettling.
At the outset, Maureen is returning home to spend “a cosy night in” with her partner Tony. She’s a little late for their stock Saturday date, but she’s brought pizza to make amends for her mistake. So far, so standard... but that’s exactly what Maureen wants from her man: a bit of stability.
Tony had been something of a womaniser, but Maureen has changed him. Now, she is his one and only. Now, she has the key to his flat. No woman has ever been given the key to his flat. It’s only a matter of time before she moves in.
These are Maureen’s meagre dreams; of sharing a space and putting down roots, with a view to having a family, if it seems feasible. Then she walks through the door. Afterwards, everything will be different. Tony, she sees, has some unexpected company: not another woman, as Maureen thinks initially, but an extraordinarily realistic mannequin.
A proper quarrel follows while the pizza grows cold, and with it the hopes Maureen had nurtured only moments ago. Tony can’t explain how he ended up with this unconscionably gorgeous model, only that he woke up with it in bed beside him after having a few beers with the boys. He promises to get rid of it, in any event. He says and does a number of things that night; whatever he can come up with to make Maureen stay.
And as sickened as she is, she stands by her man:
She [knows she] could leave now and spare herself the uncertainty. The thought of leaving spears her with an unexpected sense of hope, but she has invested a lot in Tony, she can’t run away now. She stands in the bathroom doorway and thinks of her car parked safely under the streetlight, how easy it would be to get her key and drive away.
Instead, she stays. She stays the night and the next day. And the longer she remains there, the more like the mannequin she feels.
Dullness settles over her; her breathing slows. Dimly, she senses her awareness shrinking. It is something like fainting, but this is happening so slowly, she feels the infinite path to oblivion stretch out before her. The ticking of the clock slows until she is stuck between ticks, suspended in forever, as if her consciousness has been stretched out to a thread so thin she can no longer grasp it. A fragment of her mind tells her to pull back, but the desire, with her awareness, has all but vanished.
All told, “Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers” is a distinctly disquieting short story. Maureen’s incremental descent is as insidious as anything I’ve read recently, and Stott does a great job of not just creating but also sustaining the sense of wrongness that elevates this fiction above and beyond the ordinary.
Her prose isn’t in itself particularly pretty, and as a lover of lovely language, I admit to wishing Stott’s sentences were a little more lyrically considered, yet there’s a certain directness to them that I admired, actually; an earnestness that made Maureen seem sincere and sympathetic rather than simply a sap.
But let’s leave this “bizarre domestic tableau” behind for a time. In the second of the Nightjar chapbooks we’re going to talk about today, Conrad Williams welcomes a father and his son to “The Jungle,” which is the subject of the painting the tale’s nervous narrator is working on currently.
Nervous might not be the right word to describe Fred’s dad, in fact; let’s call him compulsively cautious.
I see accident potential everywhere. I see the lorry parked near an area of road I want to cross and I think: is your handbrake on properly? When I cross that road, I look left, I look right, I look left again. Then I look up. Windy day equals loose slates. Rainy day equals longer stopping distances. The dog on a long lead without a muzzle. I’ll cross the road. I’ll hang back if there’s an old van at the lights because there’s every chance it’ll pull away with a belch of black, oily smoke and I won’t have Fred alongside it, sucking it into his perfect, pink lungs.
But just because our narrator is “acutely aware of danger” doesn’t mean it isn’t everywhere.
“The Jungle” chronicles a terrible day in the life of a dad whose responsibilities as a parent have helped him see the world with fresh eyes, for the mess of accidents waiting to happen that it is. His guarded character rings true from the first—I wasn’t surprised to learn that Williams is the father of three sons himself—which is as well, because this is his story solely; Fred is merely motivation.
Anyway, to give mum a moment’s peace one morning, they go walkabout around London, but almost immediately, Dad sees something outlandish: a stranger at a café whose face suddenly changes. He makes sure his son is safely away from this potential threat before looking back, but whatever it was is already gone.
Later in the day, rain stops play, so Dad and his darling charge take refuge in a soft playroom—jungle-themed, indeed—where it all goes wrong again. Our man makes the mistake of drifting off, if only for a moment. But a moment is all it takes. Isn’t that what they say?
The suggestive shape this terrible danger takes is one of the most winning things about Williams’ story. In the following passage, Dad is describing his art, however his principles are evidently the author’s also:
I wanted to suggest content, rather than render it explicit. I didn’t want any animals in the picture, but I wanted the viewer to be absolutely in no doubt that they were there: muscular, hungry, vibrating with bloody potential just behind that swathe of ferns or the bough of that moss-infested banyan. I wanted there to be the suggestion of violence without any recourse to fangs or talons or red.
From the adorable baby affairs it begins with right through to its dreadful yet dreamlike dénouement, “The Jungle” impressed me immensely. It’s a superbly well-observed short from an author who’s won all sorts of awards for fiction not dissimilar in imagination and impact to this.
To be sure, I preferred “The Jungle” to “Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers” but both stories are well and truly worthwhile as sinister depictions of the ties that bind us all to others.
Till death do us part, perhaps...
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.