London Gothic by Nicholas Royle ( Confingo Press, £12.99)

As well as a novelist and film aficionado, Nicolas Royle is one of the foremost practitioners of the short story form. As editor  and publisher of  his own Nightjar publications, he has been a doughty champion of other writers, often well off the beaten track. The most recent chapbooks included Vlatka Horvat’s amazing story House Calls which has many of the features of the best Royle stories, the mundane, the disturbing, mixed with astringent comedy. 

During this year of Covid he has seen several new chapbooks into print, seen the stories of his friend,Joel Lane, that he published with Egerton Press, re-published by one of London’s finest publishers, the Influx Press. He has presented an update of his trawl of second hand bookshops, and has been busy delivering books throughout London and Manchester, usually on foot. A busy year  has passed and this doesn’t include his teaching responsibilities.

These stories cover the last few years and are full of pleasures. As with the photographs for his Nightjar Press, Royle likes to show buildings that are steeped in shadows or reveal secret histories. Part of a trilogy, London Gothic, to be followed by Manchester and Paris volumes, is steeped in local geography from the deadly Standard Gauge to the aspirational The Old Bakery.

My favourite stories are two of the newer ones. Constraints follows a walk between two places, the former homes of Giles Gordon and B S Johnson, two writers admired by Royle. This is the world of the new enclosures when public space seems to have evaporated. It reminded me of its opposite, the pastoral-industrial film, Finisterre, which depicts an East End of London where nature survives,if briefly,  in the post-industrial gaps of the city. Here the world is enchained, left to the reader to interpret. Read in the context of Johnson’s impending suicide, this is a very dark world of possession, control, and command:

“No junk mail. Danger keep out. Speak enter call cancel. No dog fouling. Danger keep out…No dumping. No war on Northern Syria.”  Royle’s story leaves us in a No Man’s land of questions where even the origins of the writers and speakers are in doubt.

In The Old Bakery Royle has much lighter touches, as the copy editor rips to shreds the Sunday supplement pretensions of the DFLs (Down From Londons). Most of the story bounces between the text and the parallel text of the editor as he undermines the text speak nonsense and curated lives of the living dead. It is hard to think of another writer who could use an experimental form in such an accessible way. The phrasing is impeccable, “a live-work space,” “another eBay find, in the form of a 1960s red-and-black leather chequerboard footstool attests to the couple’s love of colour,” and more besides. It would spoil the story’s ending to add more here.

Within and beneath the stories there are filmic references  to Hitchcock and the darkest noir, the characters have the nimbleness of the fleet-footed author, connecting the apparent to the looming, the actual to the historical. He delights in the humdrum , “the next office in this warren of tiny spaces and interconnecting staircases with worn lino,” framed by the portentous:

“His first day. They gave him the tour. Three floors at the top of a building on the edge of Covent Garden. Hitchcock had shot scenes from Frenzy  in a similar building close by, a little over ten years earlier.” This from the second story, Inside/Out.  

And then there is the mastery of voice and point of view. If you like stories that combine cleverness with direction, this collection reads as a masterclass of the form. If the remaining volumes of the trilogy are as exhilarating as this, Royle will have renewed the short story and taken it in novel directions, not for the first time.

Richard Clegg

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