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Book Review: Ornithology by Nicholas Royle

“These stories are compelling, artful, and hypnotic; they are stories which tread the line between the literary and genre with absolute ease, mixing in the surreal, the ambiguous.”

 

Nicholas Royle is a name which has long been associated with genre writing, having been published in various horror anthologies such as The End of the Line and House of Fear, or the periodical Black Static, to name only a few. He is active within the community, enjoying the friendship of many horror, science fiction, and crime writers, and runs his own publication venture, Nightjar Press, which puts out limited edition chapbooks of dark fiction and literary horror. He is a renowned editor, having worked on—at least—two books by authors nominated for the Booker Prize. And this is only scratching the surface. His own work though, is difficult to pin down; it belongs as much to the introspective literary tradition as it does to quiet horror; it is surreal, beguiling, and ambiguous. His latest collection, Ornithology, contains sixteen shorts stories of varying length and theme, yet all are tied together with the overarching imagery of birds, in one guise or another.

The stories also share recurring themes and intent, a sense of disquiet and unease, the insidious and subtle insertion of unreality into perceived normality.

Opening with ‘Unfollow’, a rather offbeat slice of weirdness, the book sets its intent out early. It builds—in a subtle, gentle way—a narrative of increasing dread and expectation. ‘Murder’ continues this tone, with its academic couple joining another at a remote, Irish cottage, spending the days watching the local birds. There’s a sense of “keeping up with the Joneses” buried within, as well as almost invisible passages of real terror; manifesting in the description of a look, or a slice of dialogue, causing the reader to question what’s really going on.

‘The Obscure Bird’ peeks inside the mind of a housewife who slowly begins to believe her husband might not be entirely human. The imagery and set-pieces are delivered with quiet frankness, serving to make them all the more chilling. ‘Jizz’ makes use of that word’s multiple meanings to effect a story with desperate humour and sickening, human awfulness, before culminating in a stylistic shift of perspective into countryside horror. Then there’s ‘Stuffed’ wherein a paperback collector becomes mildly obsessed with a man who lives in the block of flats across from him, who seems to have a similar hobby. Revolving around a central motif of dialogue lifted from the film Blade Runner (“Do you like our owl?”), it’s typical of the stories herein, which demand a measure of effort from the reader. Nothing is spoon-fed, nothing is simple. ‘Pink’ is a very short piece concerning a man’s descent into quiet madness; or it may be something else altogether. Stemming from its protagonist’s desire—need?—to see a bullfinch (having never viewed one in real life before), the narrative twists tension until he sees the bird everywhere. Nebulous, nightmarish, yet delivered with straightforward prose, it tease with hints of buried meaning.

‘The Bee Eater’ begins with a foray into the dread of illness, dovetailing through a kind of hypochondria-induced anxiety, before culminating in an utterly unexpected and visceral final image. Again, it showcases a trait common to many of the stories within; that of seemingly normal, almost mundane, domestic life becoming invaded by the unexplainable, the repulsive, though always without the prose being overly-dramatic or hyperbolic. There is a level of controlled restraint, even in the most outlandish of concepts. In ‘Gannets’, the reader is wrong-footed time and again by their own preconceptions of the story’s outcomes, while it manages to deliver one of the most heartbreaking final passages in the book. Absolutely beautiful and deeply affecting.

The next story, ‘The Larder’ could be a counterpart of ‘The Obscure Bird’, though this time it is a man’s girlfriend who may or may not be hiding a monstrous secret about herself. Thematically similar, it nevertheless manages to unfold in a completely fresh manner, offering different ways of conveying a similar concept to that earlier story. ‘The Goldfinch’ is another story of intense yet quiet emotion, which uses its language to keep the reader on shifting ground; it could be the hallucinations of a man stricken with a terminal illness; it could be set in a near future where the dead linger on as lessons to children; it may even be that it takes place entirely within the mind of someone lying on an operating table. It could be all these things and more. Regardless, it’s another powerful meditation on fear and hope, on the fragility of humanity, both physical and emotional.

What becomes apparent when reading this collection is that Royle is a writer with absolute control and mastery over his art. In ‘The Kestrel and the Hawk’ (the shortest story here), we are given a simple story of a man who seems to desire going off the beaten track to bird watch near an RAF base. It’s only with a few choice lines throughout and the final paragraphs that we begin to wonder just what this person’s motives actually are. Conversely, ‘The Lure’ is the longest piece, and is a wonderful meditation on themes of obsession, desire, loneliness, and a kind of detachment felt by its main character. The horror here is extremely subtle, manifesting almost unnoticed, for example, in the image of eyes painted on a mask (something which will not leave this reviewer’s mind for a long time). The final paragraphs feel at once inevitable and unpredictable, delivered with a mix of anticipation and expectation which feels less like an abandoning of the story at a specific point, and more the perfect place to end.

‘The Nightingales’ takes a look at obsession, desire and dark love, by way of David Cronenberg. Its trappings of science fiction are subtly inserted, and provide a metaphor for the ways in which people can “infect” each other. The way illness can affect the mind rears its head again in ‘The Blue Notebooks’, a mix of literary reference and hallucinatory imagery, connecting both in a rather lovely manner. In ‘Lovebites’, the spectre of vampirism is utilised as a metaphor for, perhaps, for any number of perceived dangerous activities with which pre-teen and teen children (not to mention adults themselves) might be tempted, drugs being the most obvious. Yet no simple allegory is this, for it conveys all the pain, ache and hardship which goes with both trying to steer one’s offspring down the right path, and struggling to deal with desire, addiction and the forbidden. Short, yet masterful. Finally, ‘The Children’ offers a typical family holiday in the sun; typical, that is, until the strange quickly infects the narrative. Already slightly off-kilter, the last scene is one of mounting horror which we are—mercifully—spared from witnessing fully (or perhaps it’s worse to have to imagine …).

These stories are compelling, artful, and hypnotic; they are stories which tread the line between the literary and genre with absolute ease, mixing in the surreal, the ambiguous. These are stories for those who want to participate in the reading, who want to work for meaning and explanation. There is not one dud here, not one story which feels lesser than its companions; each piece works on its own merits, and delivers exactly what it intends, whilst also leaving room for questions, interpretations, ever-shifting meaning. This is a collection which shows Royle as a master craftsman, and anyone who considers themselves an aficionado of serious, literary fiction absolutely needs this book in their possession. Purchase, absorb, enjoy … and contemplate.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Confingo Publishing
Paperback: (193pp).
Release Date: 2 June 2017

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