For the sake of argument, let’s agree that the short stories in an anthology are like the running order of a set list. They should engage the audience from the outset, quelling their conversation, stopping them in their tracks, and, while showcasing some variety of approach, retain their attention sufficiently during the slow ones to prevent them drifting away to the bar.

It’s an analogy that seems particularly resonant for this collection by Nicholas Royle, the mid-point in a series which, having already taken in London, has its sights set on Paris. Scratching below the surface of Royle’s Manchester, you find that it’s rarely necessary to get dirt beneath one’s fingernails to reach the decaying topsoil of popular culture.

Or, for that matter, the past. A number of these fictions have an almost archaeological quality, excavating the exterior-facing melancholy of the present, disinterring the darker secrets that feed it from the shallow moorland graves in which they’ve not quite been laid to rest. For all their mention of familiar Manchester touchstones, the shades of the departed, from Joy Division’s Ian Curtis to bifurcated art house cinema the Cornerhouse, the cumulative effect is the opposite of nostalgia. It may be miserable now, but in the words filched from the film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and etched into the vinyl of The Queen Is Dead, ‘them was rotten days’.

Manchester Uncanny front cover. Credit: Confingo

Royle, by the by, appears to be no ardent admirer of Morrissey, although he seems more favourably inclined to the now-overlooked synthetic abrasions of Fad Gadget, who makes a cameo appearance along with a mirror universe version of Manchester’s similarly marginalised and ironically underperforming performance in one of the collection’s more affecting vignettes, Zulu Pond.

Like the majority of Royle’s narrators, the protagonist of Zulu Pond is set apart by a certain opacity, as though he is obscure even to himself. Adrift in the changed Manchester to which he has returned, but no longer quite belongs, the past comes into sharper focus as his ability to imagine the future begins to narrow to the finality of a full stop. He is haunted as much by a secret he has kept for decades as by its irresolution, but horror lies, it seems, in whichever fork in the road he takes. The tale’s tension arises in the space between what is withheld and what is prefigured, and the disquiet associated with both. He is damned if he doesn’t, and damned if he does.

Royle demonstrates a certain predilection for such ambiguity, the lesser effects leaving the reader with an aftertaste that can linger in the expanse of an empty page beyond the final sentence. The technique bears greater effects in Someone Take These Dreams Away, in which one of the collection’s recurrent Nicks, each an ambiguous authorial double, finds himself directed by a colleague in his film studies department to return to the scene of a shared secret from their schooldays, a Chekhovian gun planted in his pocket. That the tale ends before it is discharged only enhances the white silence off screen, the implied violence itself the most final of full stops.

As though to justify the slightly forced metaphor in my opening paragraph, Royle closes his set with perhaps his most memorable composition. The Apartment occupies the Mancunian equivalent of the rooms cut adrift from the ordinary rules of time and space that would require the attention of Sapphire & Steel in the eponymous 1970s science fiction series. Like Kafka with a view of the iconic Toast Rack building in Manchester’s Fallowfield, as the protagonist becomes unmoored from himself, so the buildings around him become unreliable, places of surveillance, with no one on the other side of the two-way mirror. Except, perhaps, the reader.

It deserves an encore. Next stop, Paris?

By Desmond Bullen

 

Manchester Uncanny is published by Confingo and is available to buy here.

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