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Black Static


The Late Review: The Niche/Jack Squat

1st Mar, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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According to the cover copy he is 'the master of the new Gothic' and one of his other books has been blurbed by Owen King, though not by his more famous dad, but until I read The Niche/Jack Squat (Aardvark Bureau tpb) I'd never heard of Charles Lambert. The book consists of 'Two Dark Tales', each of novella length, published back to back in the same format used by the old Ace doubles back in the day, so that you finish reading one story and then flip the book round to read the other.

"The Niche" is the story of Billy Lender, a pupil who is ruthlessly bullied by a gang of four boys at the school he attends. Billy finds the niche, a secret place where he can hide from his tormentors; inside the niche he hears a voice that offers to help him be revenged on them. But there is a poison chalice element to what follows. Lambert gives us a powerful and disturbing novella, particularly in his depiction of the bullying Billy undergoes, with violence and intimidation part of the package, and fear of what will happen if he seeks adult help. In the circumstances it's easy to see why Billy is so tempted by what the niche appears to offer. Similarly the atmosphere of the school is vividly realised on the page, the teachers with their nicknames and forceful manner, who seem like intimidating figures, though they are the only ones who can really help Billy, while his family are sympathetic but don't really know what is going on with Billy, think he is just acting out. And also Lambert offers plenty of hints that Billy is just coming into his sexuality, with his idolisation of a golden haired prefect and attraction to magazines depicting men being tortured. This latter aspect seems to veer over into real life, with the suggestion that chief bully Sharples and deputy Horton suffer fates similar to those of men in the magazines, so that there is always the possibility that the whole thing is just a dying fantasy experienced by Billy.

"Jack Squat" is the longer work, weighing in at nearly a hundred pages. Gordon and Omar live in the Italian countryside, but when the former loses his well paid job the balance of power in their relationship shifts. To make a little money by way of commission they help facilitate the sale of an unusual house to the affluent Cees. The house, the property of four brothers, has four different sections, with doors to the outside in each one, but no internal connecting doors. There's a back story involving a shot down pilot, referred to as Jack Squat by Omar, who lived in a cave on the nearby hill, and a curse on the building which affects all those involved. I'm not sure that I completely appreciated all the subtleties of this novella, but it is a wonderfully atmospheric and unsettling work of fiction. The relationship between Gordon and Omar is perfectly characterised, so that you don't doubt for a minute their love, but also share Gordon's misgivings, the feeling that he has become an unequal partner in their relationship, with Omar dictating terms and conditions. Similarly the other characters, such as the rather full of himself Cees, and the very full of herself American lady who features later in the tale, are beautifully realised, so that you hate them a little and can't help feeling there's a bit of poetic justice playing out here, however horrendous the end results. The sense of the English living abroad is put over well, so that you can appreciate why Gordon and Omar love the country in which they have landed, the laid back feel of it all, the slower pace of life, but at the same time find other elements to be frustrating. And then there is the house itself, a very strange building, made all the more minatory by the presence of snakes in the cistern, and a dead dog stuck in a wall that Gordon and Omar discover. I could wish that we were told a bit more about the inside of the house; as is the description is minimalist, with little or no detail. The deterioration of Cees is convincingly rendered, the way in which he gives in to the madness that was, perhaps, always part of his nature, with a similar fate awaiting others. In the abstract, it feels as if the more certain they are of themselves, the more susceptible the characters are to Jack Squat's malign influence. Overall this is a beautifully written work, with a measured pace and engaging characters, subtle and disturbing, not least for what is not revealed and all the more effective for being so.

I picked up two more books by Charles Lambert after reading this volume, which must go to show something.




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