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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Night Music: Nocturnes Volume 2

22nd Mar, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Nocturnes (2004), John Connolly's first collection of short fiction, was a book in which ghost stories and tales of the supernatural took centre stage. Published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2015, Night Music: Nocturnes Volume 2 is a collection of stories that, while still rooted in the speculative genres in general and horror in particular, comes with a quirkiness that is all its own.

Case in point, the opening story. When Mr Berger observes a young woman jump in front of a speeding train on repeated nights, with no trace of a body afterwards, he realises that he is seeing an enactment of Anna Karenina and follows the woman to "The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository", a mysterious place where fictional characters congregate. Beautifully written and paced, this is a story that celebrates literature and the power of the imagination, showing how our belief in them can give life to characters from the books we read. It is an elegant and fascinating story, one that the book worm will delight in for the exuberance and invention displayed on the page.

In "The Blood of the Lamb" three priests come from Rome to visit a young woman who appears to be able to cure others by eating their illnesses. The bulk of the story consists of the priests' discussion with the girl's parents, and as it all progresses we have an increasing feeling that something is terribly wrong. With sparkling dialogue and characterisation and an ending as mysterious as it is subtle, this was a powerful and unsettling tale, even if we don't quite know why we should feel so disturbed by what appears to have taken place. The shortest story in the book, "A Dream of Winter" is a wonderful and atmospheric evocation of loss, packing an emotional punch that strikes to the heart of what it means to be human, to live and die. We're back on more familiar territory with revenge piece "The Lamia", which pretty much pans out as you'd expect it to, but Connolly's understated prose and the sheer satisfaction of seeing a bad piece of work get what's coming to him more than compensates for any predictability in the narrative.

Next story "The Hollow King" comes with a note that it's 'From the Universe of The Book of Lost Things', a Connolly novel that I'm not familiar with (to my shame, I haven't read everything by him, but give me time). It's a fairy tale or fable of sorts, the story of a king who is possessed by a terrible entity, and what his queen was prepared to do to save him, or at least make the situation palatable. The set-up is eerie and disturbing, like a gloomier version of Neil Gaiman, but then Connolly pitches at us a wry and bitterly ironic ending, one that elevates the story. Set in the aftermath of World War 2, "The Children of Dr Lyall" has criminals deciding to burgle the wrong house, one in which an old lady with a terrible secret dwells. There is much to like about this story - Connolly's characterisation of his criminals, making them almost sympathetic, and the inventive way in which Quantum physics is woven into the plot - but the thing that will remain with me is the horrific image of the children themselves, a twist that pushes this story firmly into the realms of horror.

Next up we have "The Fractured Atlas - Five Fragments", a suite of stories that fill in some of the background to the Atlas, which has come to feature in the more recent of Connolly's Charlie Parker novels. Set in the time of Huguenots fleeing to England, "i. The Dread and Fear of Kings" introduces us to the book and the creature that follows it. In "ii. The Djinn" we are taken into the world of rogue book dealers, especially those who traffic in occult volumes, with the unsavoury Maggs encountering a volume that undoes his whole life. Short piece "iii. Mud" doesn't obviously fit into the greater design, but offers us a tale of revenant revenge on a criminally incompetent general writing his memoirs and attempting to show himself in a better light. The next and longest piece ties together much of what has gone before, with the lawyer Quayle hiring former soldier Soter to find a missing collector of occult books. "iv. The Wanderer in Unknown Realms" is a heady brew of murder and magic, book learning and quantum physics, with the evil of men pitted against something arcane that is bent on transforming our world in unfathomable ways. In final story "v. And In Darkness Shall We Dwell" we learn more of the lawyer Quayle and his role in proceedings. Taken as a whole, these stories form a fascinating adjunct to the Parker novels, filling in details of the back story to those books and creating a wholly alien and unique cosmology as backdrop to what Parker is doing. I loved them, and was totally absorbed by the writing and gripped by the narrative.

Previously published in Black Static #47, "Razorshins" is a moody and atmospheric piece on the theme of revenge, set in the world of backwoods bootleggers and organised crime at the time of Prohibition, and with a monster that is all the more effective for existing on the peripheries of the story. Connolly is superb at capturing the ways in which his characters speak and act, and describing the isolated setting of the story, with the bleak weather only adding an extra chill to the proceedings. Next up we have a clever, almost Borgesian story, "On The Antomization of an Unknown Man (1637) by Frans Mier" in which a man's comments on this painting lead to a confession. It is an unsettling piece, one in which the reader can feel the ground shifting beneath his feet, as we move both further away and closer to our goal.

In "A Haunting" a man visiting the places he previously went with his now deceased wife realises that all those years ago she had a premonition of his death. Beautifully written, there is about this story a feel of the elegiac, and a keen sense of what love can accomplish, bending time, even when in extremis, in fact especially then. "Lazarus" is a zombie tale of sorts, with the Biblical character having to negotiate the resentment of his family and others, and the traps and snares of Jewish politics in an engaging story that doesn't outstay its welcome, along the way telling us something true about human nature. We're back to the setting of the very first story in the book for "Holmes on the Range: A Tale of the Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository". When Conan Doyle first kills off Holmes and then revives him, problems are caused for the Caxton which can only be solved through an act of intervention. This is a delightful, one might almost say whimsical, exercise in metafiction, with a wealth of in-jokes and literary frills and a narrative that touches on the nature of existence and possibilities of an afterlife, blending fact and fiction with admirable skill.

Finally we have "I Live Here", based on true events with only the names changed. Bracketed by accounts of a house that might be haunted, we have a history of Connolly's relationship with supernatural fiction, the books and TV shows and films that helped to make him the writer he is today. It's a lively and fascinating discussion of the genre, shot through with humour and illuminated by intelligence and insight into where the genre has been and why it appeals. A very personal reminiscence that made me feel I knew the writer better than before, and knowing his history could appreciate his work all the more. In conclusion, it was a fine way to bring this book to an end, while the whole thing with the house added yet another shudder to the mix.

If you like the Charlie Parker novels then this is an opportunity to sample the other delights Connolly's oeuvre has to offer. And if Parker is not your bag but supernatural horror and the like is, then that's even more reason to check out Night Music. Recommended.





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