Spent some of my Christmas break catching up on my reading. I made time to read the wonderfully chilling and complex His Bloody Project (should have won the Booker IMHO), I spent New Year’s Day and the day or two after finally giving Chris Ware’s beautiful Building Stories the time and attention it deserves, and I caught up with the four latest offerings from Nightjar Press. As you may know, the Nightjar titles are all single short stories lovingly published as signed limited edition chapbooks with cracking design and great cover art. They are selected by short fiction editor extraordinaire Nicholas Royle and each story is never less than interesting.
The four latest titles arrived, as Nightjars always do, in pairs, but I was late ordering and so had the pleasure of losing myself in four successive titles. Conforming to the obsessive-compulsive author stereotype, I read them in the order of publication and I’m glad I did as it seems to me that, at Nightjar Towers, a great deal of though always goes into which stories to pair up for publication.
The first pair (published in 2015; I did say I was a little slack ordering them) are comprised of two playful tales that present a surreal twist on familiar themes and settings. John D Rutter’s Last Christmas is, as the title suggests, a Christmas story, one depicting the chaos and jollity of the season in equal measure, while at the same time messing with the reader’s perception with a beautiful twist to how this fictional world operates. I won’t spoil the story’s big idea by explaining it here, but the absurd whimsy of the story’s central conceit had me chuckling at and thinking deeply about the nature of family relationships and how they are strained to breaking point during the festive season. The other story in the pair, Leone Ross’ The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant, is equally playful, just as the title suggests, even as it examines both the heights and depths of love. There are moments of intense emotion that run shoulder to shoulder with the absurd and the shocking and the spare but beautiful prose creates an intimacy that both draws the reader in and, in the end, excludes them. A rare gem of a story this one.
Where the 2015 offerings from Nightjar were playful and surreal, the 2016 duo present a much darker, bleaker world. The Numbers by Christopher Burns shifts gears and mood on sixpence, transforming from its early tone of disappointment and frustration surrounding the strained family relationships of the main characters into something much darker. This change happens in the space between one sentence’s full stop and the next sentence’s capital letter and thrusts both reader and character into a world transformed. The third person narration forces the reader into the role of complicit witness to events, as unable to effect change or save anyone from the story’s tragic, disturbing end as the characters within it. It is a story that will leave you shaken. Which is something it has in common with Neil Campbell’s Jackdaws, which opens as a rural ramble down streets and up hills as the reader follows the first person narrator as he describes his surroundings in beautifully wrought descriptive detail. The path the narrator leads the reader along is winding and meandering, seeming to double back around at times, sometimes tripping with memories of other times, perhaps intending to confuse us, perhaps in an attempt to reveal the story’s secret without truly revealing anything, that is until the stories chilling conclusion. Again, this is a story that turns on a sentence, this time one tucked away towards the end of the story, a sentence that becomes a lense through which all else can be reviewed and refocused.
So there you have it. Two pairs of Nightjars, a playful pair and a darker, chilling pair. Like all Nightjars though, they are worthy of your time and money. If you have any love for the short form, head over to the Nightjar website and avail yourself of those titles from the last few years that are still available. While adding the links to this post I’ve just seen two new Nightjars have been added to the list. I’m off to order those now.