-Reviewed by Cath Barton-
Nightjar Press publishes single-story chapbooks in limited editions of 200 copies. Elusive, like the bird of the press’s name, and many of them are now sold out. The press’s publisher and editor Nicholas Royle writes of the nightjar that it is:
“… a nocturnal bird with an uncanny, supernatural reputation…. more often heard than seen, its song a series of ghostly clicks known as a churring.”
Note the word uncanny. It refers to something which is mysterious in a strange and yet oddly familiar way. Freud wrote about the paradox inherent in the uncanny, something which attracts and repulses at the same time. It is a quality exploited in horror films, most notably by Hitchcock. Having seen his film The Birds can you ever again watch birds gathering on a wire without a shiver of discomfort? Nicholas Royle has also written about the uncanny and its history extensively and it is a quality which evidently guides his choice of stories to feature in this series. Although the stories are published and can be purchased individually, they are chosen to appear two at a time, the most recent of which is the pairing of The Numbers and Jackdaws.
Although very different in style, these two stories certainly share a quality of engrossing disquiet which creeps up on you as you read.
In The Numbers by Christopher Burns Danny arrives in the early morning at the farmhouse where his brother Martin lives. It is clear from the opening lines that something is amiss. Crows are “shiny and black as blotches of spilled ink” and as the farm collies run up to him:
“Danny scratched their ears contently: they had made no judgement of him.”
We learn that something has happened – or nearly happened – between Danny and Martin’s wife Sarah on a previous occasion. The men are not easy in one another’s company. There is the heaviness of something unspoken between them. When Martin drives off to check his lambing flock Martin goes into the house, through an untidy room. The straightforward description of the everyday objects in the room is strangely – uncannily – disquieting, as if there must be more to this. And so the tension is ratcheted up. Danny’s emotions are fast-moving, the content he feels scratching the dogs’ ears replaced in succession by shame induced by his brother’s words, annoyance at the untidy room and discomfort in Sarah’s presence as she cooks him breakfast. A remark from Sarah about his incompetence hits him “like a slap” and his mood darkens, turning to self-pity. He feels that he is, and has always been misunderstood, hunted like the fox which he sees at the beginning of the story.
In the short story there is never room for padding, but what makes the excellent short story writer stand out from the merely competent is an ability to make every word and every image contribute to the span of the story without being obtrusive or self-conscious. Christopher Burns most certainly does this in The Numbers. When he, and Danny, shift into present-tense action it is a shock, but the action follows inexorably from what has gone below, both told and untold. And all the time the commonplace is present alongside the extraordinary – Danny is annoyed by a hole in his sock as he about to do something utterly momentous. It makes for a truly compelling story.
Jackdaws by Neil Campbell is a story which gives up its secrets slowly, perhaps only on a second or third reading. Told in the first person, this story appears at first a series of disconnected scenes, of which the narrator is a dispassionate observer, a man who walks alone and seemingly without purpose. The narrative is littered with place names, a litany of streets and hills, seen in different seasons. But what connects them is water. The ‘I’ of the story watches as rain water freezes in winter, thaws, flows, floods, pools and deepens. It has some kind of fascination for him, but the workings of his mind remain mysterious, closed to us. There is a disconnect, a disquieting absence of emotion.
At the very beginning of the story we learn that a girl has gone missing. The link between the narrator and the girl is like a polaroid photo, completely blank at first and then coming into focus in
a single sentence:
“I thought I was through it, and I watched a grey heron flapping past the garden shed on its way over the pond where the frogmen had been.”
There are other people in the story but the community appears at best fragmented. The narrator does not interact with other people, although there are clues as to how he is perceived. A man living in a caravan ‘smiled knowingly as I passed’. His neighbour Sheila, the girl’s mother, ‘scowled’ at him. And the jackdaws? Like the hills, they are neutral and offer no threat, a constant in a world where people are perhaps mischievous. Until the end.
As in The Numbers, everyday objects, such as ‘a tennis ball half sheared’ resonate with meaning in this story. And yet, contrariwise, the story is all about the absence of meaning in someone’s life. Hence the uncanny nature of it. Another extraordinary exploration of the human condition.
Stylishly published in a design by John Oakey, with matched cover illustrations by Jen Orpin, both these stories carry considerable heft and linger long in the mind.