– Reviewed by Sam Pryce –
Seagulls adorn the covers of these two pamphlets recently published by Nightjar Press — the independent Manchester-based publisher who specialise in releasing single short stories as signed, limited edition chapbooks. The seagulls also feature in the stories in oddly similar ways, appearing as sinister, threatening creatures, symbols of seaside grotesquerie.
It is clear that each story from Nightjar has been carefully chosen and meticulously refined in order to be strong enough to be published on its own. And there is always a flavour of present-day gothic horror in this publisher’s output, like Conrad Williams’ The Jungle or Elizabeth Stott’s Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers. These stories are no exception.
Lucie McKnight Hardy is an emerging writer (and an exciting one at that), with her debut novel Water Shall Refuse Them arriving in July 2019 from Dead Ink Books. The novel has been described as ‘reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’, which could certainly be applied to this story too. In her Nightjar story ‘Jutland’, the promise of peace offered by the Scandinavian landscape is not enough for a mother pushed to the limits of sanity. A frustrated novelist, Ana, is on a turbulent ferry journey, travelling from Gothenburg to Jutland, a small fishing village in Denmark (where they plan to move), with her self-important artist-husband Eric, their young son Isaac, and their inconsolable newborn baby.
Over the course of the journey, Ana’s mind gradually unravels, as she reveals that her creative impulses have been put on hold by the demands of parenthood, despite the fact that her aloof painter-husband is still able to exercise his.
“The decision to move to Jutland had been easy. Eric’s obsession with the Skagen painters—Ancher, Krøyer, Johansen—had fuelled his insistence that they needed to get away so he could concentrate on his art. His last exhibition had been deemed a great success, with enthusiastic reviews appearing in the national as well as the local press. This was his time, he’d said, his time to shine.”
The decline of Ana’s affection for Eric is apparent in even the most mundane of gestures, as she’s woken one morning by his ‘snoring gently in that way that used to be endearing.’ The full extent of Ana’s turmoil is finally realised when she becomes transfixed by the sight of a seagull eating a chick, ‘a nub of flesh and sodden grey down that it holds beneath the claws of one foot while its bright orange beak inspects the carcass.’ The gull’s casual brutality bleakly foreshadows the story’s gut-wrenching climax. ‘Jutland’ is a finely crafted story of motherhood and anguish, with shades of Medean menace.
Alison Moore is the more established writer of the pair, having been shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize for her brilliant and beguiling debut The Lighthouse, as well as being the author of three other novels, numerous short stories and, more recently, a book for children. Moore’s story ‘Broad Moor’ manages to remain controlled and believable, yet punctuated by all the tropes of a horror film — a wrong turn, a radio gone to static, a dead telephone line. Moore maintains a balance between the ordinary and the strange, as our protagonist Drew drives alone to a spa in Mere where she will meet her friends. She has only been advised to ‘take the second turn-off to Mere’, and specifically not to take ‘the first turn-off to Mere via Broad’. But when she finds she is in desperate need of petrol, a woman on the side of the road informs her that there is a petrol station between Broad and Mere, instructing her to take the first turn-off. Though the story’s title is enough of a clue, the omen is embedded within the first page of the text:
“Drew thanked her, pulled back onto the road and took the left turn towards Broad. Moorland reached in every direction, as far as the eye could see.”
Already, wordplay is used to suspenseful and enigmatic effect. And as Drew drives along the dirt road she was previously warned not to take, she is led on a seemingly never-ending track across a literal ‘broad moor’, populated only by a few seagulls and a lone phonebox.
As she makes her way over the barren hills, we learn of the wayward path that her own life has recently taken — her mother’s dementia, her sister’s coma, and the mysterious Sapphic affair that preceded it. Meanwhile, the identity of the woman on the road remains a mystery to Drew, until their climactic encounter. Rich with symbolism and expert ambiguity, ‘Broad Moor’ provides an intriguing taster of this writer’s boundlessly original imagination.
Nightjar’s stamp of quality, then, can be exemplified by this pair of pamphlets. Lucie McKnight Hardy’s ‘Jutland’ and Alison Moore’s ‘Broad Moor’ are two understated, chilling tales of psychological torment, set against the melancholic backdrop of secluded coastal landscapes.