Among my more vivid memories of television as a child was the story of a young man who meets an attractive older woman in Venice and is lured back to her room. They’re already in bed when he realises the light is still on. He’s about to get up, but the woman stops him. Don’t worry, she says, I’ll turn it off. And the young man watches, in horrified fascination, as the woman’s arm slowly extends, insinuating as a snake, until it reaches the light switch on the other side of the room… I can still see the hand of the woman, who might have been Nyree Dawn Porter, as it weaves its way towards the switch, and the horror on the face of the man, who might have been Ian Ogilvy, as the light is about to be extinguished. I can still hear the music, that jangling crescendo so beloved to the makers of classic TV horror on both sides of the Atlantic. But this story, I’m sure, was British. Was it an episode of Mystery and Imagination? Can anyone out there help me identify it? They don’t make them like that any more, whatever it was. And don’t get me started on the frosted glass in Lost Hearts. I’m still chilled.
It’s good to know, though, that the spirit of those days is still alive in the form of Nightjar Press chapbooks. I’ve recently read two of them, Black Country, by Joel Lane, and Marionettes, by Claire Massey, and very fine reads they are, intelligent, assured and, yes, oh yes, creepy. Like my never-to-be-forgotten episode from the 1960s, Marionettes takes its readers out of their comfort zone into somewhere else. Somewhere else is unpredictable on the surface because those who venture there don’t know the rules; half the time, they don’t even know they’re there. And the only way to learn the rules is to play the game. Because every game has its own predictability, and its own pitfalls, and there is no acceptable way out except to go farther in. Venice lends itself to somewhere-elseness, and Daphne Du Maurier wasn’t the first to recognise this, but the world offers other contenders and perhaps nowhere in Old Europe is more elsewhere than Prague, the setting for Massey’s story. The story starts with the classic creepy tales trope of recognising, and not recognising, a place, a trope exploited at length, and to great effect, by Andrés Neuman in Traveller of the Century (see my review here). In Marionettes, a couple of English tourists – Karl and his (unnamed) partner – return to the city after seven years. They’ve been together for at least that time, they have children old enough to be left at home, their relationship appears to have hit a rough patch, any fascination Karl may once have exerted on his partner has receded with his hairline. Waking up their first morning, she leaves Karl in bed with a hangover, thrilled by ‘the thought of wandering the city alone’. She finds herself for the second time since their arrival outside a shop selling marionettes, a shop she remembers – and Karl doesn’t – from their previous visit. She sees two figures, with ‘pale faces and dispirited eyes’, dangling in the window, and recognises them immediately. It’s no surprise that ‘his marionette had hold of the strings just above her marionette’s head.’ Only eight pages long, Marionettes is a powerful story about identity and the loss of it, about need and the gradual, almost unnoticed attrition of love. The ending is chilling and inevitable, as endings must be in stories like this.
Joel Lane’s story travels as well, this time into the different country of the past. It’s particularly poignant for me because, as the title – Black Country – suggests, it’s set in the post-industrial Midlands, where I spent a significant part of my childhood, as well as periods in later life. The landscape of the story is a landscape I recognise, of derelict swimming pools and tower blocks, of chain-link fences and industrial estates. Now living in Walsall, the (once again unnamed) narrator has been called in to investigate what appears to be a series of acts of violence involving children in a part of Dudley once known as Clayheath, where he grew up. These acts, trivial in themselves, are followed by pilfering from local shops, apparently random acts of vandalism, a dead cat with Monopoly tokens found in its throat: ‘a car, a boot, an iron and a dog.’ The pervasive sense of tension – even the local DS is ‘vaguely ill at ease’ – is mirrored in the narrator’s own memories, as the hotel room in which he’s staying segues into the room with the ‘narrow bed’ he slept in as a child while his parents’ marriage fell apart. There’s an undercurrent of violence, both actual and potential, and a feeling that its source is nowhere and everywhere, specific and legion. One of the girls attacked, when asked to draw her attacker, ‘had gone on drawing one face over another until the image was impossible to make out.’ All of them in one. Later, a school caretaker claims to have seen ‘a “scraggy looking” child of nine or so, moving so fast his face was a blur.’ The idea of child as victim and perpetrator is central to the story; the highlight of the blues night in which the narrator takes part is, appropriately enough, ‘when a young woman with red hair sang “God Bless the Child”.’ By this point, the police investigation has been subsumed into something more personal, a private world in which the adjective of the title is more than a merely geographical reference. Lane’s story, when compared with Massey’s, is more mundane in its setting, and – maybe – more elemental in its final image. Both stories, though, in their different ways draw on deep fears: of loss of self, and of how that self is made, and unmade, by the world around it.