Unnerving and Eerie Tales, Two Shorts That Become Masterclasses

The autumn editions of the now regular Nightjar Press short stories are DB Water’s Fury and Wyl Menmuir’s Rounds, and like its previous entries, they continue the publisher’s tradition of unnerving and eerie tales. But while the two have many similarities, their effects, and the means by which they draw from you a feeling of unavoidable dread, make them both interesting little beasts in their own right.

The Rounds, by Menmuir, whose debut The Many was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, is concerned with Alice Hooper, the new occupant of an empty flat and whose loneliness and barely disguised suffering takes us through a waltz of suspicious intrigue and aching sympathy. The somewhat standard moving to a new house style opening line, ‘On the day of the big move, Alice Hooper sat in the passenger seat and considered asking her dad to turn the car around…’, is given stark new meaning as we discover this big move is not only the move to a new house but from some unexplained trauma not too deep into Alice’s past. Cursed with panic attacks and a humming anxiety, Alice is a passenger to her experience of the world and is only able to control the sudden onset of a constricting throat and a head full of pounding veins by pulling out a small piece of counsellor issued paper that reminds her that she had survived her previous attacks and she would survive this one too.

This prompt is much needed, as Alice seems prone likewise to descriptions of what seems like not only anxiety but paranoia or an obsessive-compulsive disorder. She carries a burden of undue responsibility, believing for instance, when looking out the window of her new home to a young girl on a bicycle, ‘that without her watching, the girl was somehow more unstable than she was when Alice could see her,’ and proceeds to spend the rest of the afternoon looking at the girl to keep her safe.

This tug on our compassion towards Alice could feel cheap or even cruel, were it not for Menmuir’s soft, almost delicate prose. Even the flippant treatment of Alice at the hands of her boyfriend is told to us with understatement: ‘She wanted him to see for himself the girl on the bicycle and perhaps to tell him some of the thoughts she had been having.’ And he will use this tone to betray us in its final lines as it turns on us like a rabid dog, from delicate to mean and unforgiving.

short masterclasses in balancing tone with an effective execution of tension

It is this pull between being welcomed and being rejected that unites the two stories. It is no coincidence that both books have the flat sides of houses on their covers. The welcoming shelter of solid home meets the impenetrability of a brick wall.

Fury, by the author of The Frogmore Papers, DB Waters, seems much more straightforward than Rounds at first. It is the procedural story of an unnamed detective investigating a family murder in a strange house. It opens with first responder Lynn, unable to enter the building, choosing instead to lie on the floor, ‘curled up tight like a foetus.’ Our detective, on the other hand, seems only too keen to not only enter but to remove his crime scene preserving gloves and touch ‘the real essence of the house.’

Bathing in Edgar Allen Poe come Amityville lavishness, Waters keeps the detective at a distance from us, reserving not only his name but his motives also. Where Alice pleaded for our pity, the detective attempts to appal us. At the discovery of a dead woman, stuffed into the walls of the house, he feels the need to touch the mangled body, finding it ‘wonderful, admirable.’

Waters gives no real answers, either to the detective’s possession or the source of this lurking evil, opting instead to relish in the arcane and leaving the reader, like the detective, perversely, wanting to come back for more. Or, to use Water’s wonderful summary: ‘As if he had been frantically fending something off – or embracing it.’

The two stories are short masterclasses in balancing tone with an effective execution of tension and will find their own home in the back of your head, itching to be revisited.

  • Fury by D.B. Water and Rounds by Wyl Menmuir are available from Nightjar Press

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