Review by Amy Stewart
In his 1973 paper, The Uncanny, Freud writes that the unheimlich is “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once familiar.”
The uncanny is not merely creepy, it’s creepy because it shouldn’t be, because it’s rooted in something that is otherwise safe and typical. Cities are inherently uncanny things, especially those we return to after a time away. They’re the same and yet, they’re not – they’re pockmarked with unfamiliar details sitting side by side with those we know and often treasure. Whether we want them to or not, cities mutate, grow, shrink, build up and decay. A city will always be a ghost of itself. What better subject, then, for a collection of short stories handcrafted to unsettle, to pull up the hairs on your forearms, to make your skin prickle?
Manchester Uncanny is the second in Nicholas Royle’s city-based short story offerings (the first was based in London, and the third will take place in Paris). The collection roams the multi-layered streets of Manchester, comprising sixteen pieces composed over the last two decades.
Between these pages, you’ll find stories written in an experimental style – one is made up entirely of song lyrics, another can be read in hundreds of thousands of different ways depending on how the paragraphs are ordered – as well as more narratively obedient stories channelling the uncanny through their content. In ‘The Apartment’, a man becomes agitated by voices from the floor above (so far so normal, until we discover he lives on the top floor). In the surreal ‘Maths Tower’, we see “long strings of figures” erupting from the demolished building. And all the way through the collection, Manchester hulks like a soot-covered spectre in the background. Street names and specific landmarks, as well as prominent figures (such as police chief James Anderton and Joy Division singer Ian Curtis), pop up often, grounding the abstract and making things all the spookier for feeling so real.
As with all the best uncanny stories, the often-sinister feeling here arises not from what is said, but what isn’t – what lurks in between the lines, creeping up on you. Take ‘Safe’, in which a recent divorcee views a flat. The story starts and restarts, stuttering between points of view and entry points to the action, disorientating the reader from the off. There are ominous mentions of ‘what has been left in one of the bedrooms’, which we soon find out is a safe. While it concerns our narrator, it compels her, too:
“As soon as she sees it, she wants it. Not the flat, the safe. The flat has a few problems […] but she thinks she can live with that risk for this. This old safe. About three feet high. Three feet square. Three feet cubed, in fact. Like the last shot of a low-budget remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The empty flat and the big black safe. It’s locked, of course.”
She sets herself the task of finding the right combination to unlock it, and by the end of the story, the real reason for her wanting the safe so much is made clear by another discombobulating shift in perspective. The narrator’s obsession with the safe is never explicitly explained, and yet the clues are always there, lurking between the lines.
Another hallmark of the uncanny, the double, is touched upon in the brilliant ‘Simister’, which follows Adam as he feeds his ex’s cats for her while she’s away. This is a story of mirrors, of doubles, or ‘almosts’ – subtle differences only made apparent on further inspection. The part of Manchester where Adam’s ex lives, Simister, sounds almost like sinister. Barry, Adam’s elderly neighbour who he visits in hospital, is like an uncle, but not an uncle. Adam’s route to Simister is subtly abridged upon repetition, so that each time it appears, it’s slightly unfamiliar. Royle uses this concept of ‘almost’ to draw a chilling parallel between two unconnected events in the story, as if to say, “it’s almost the same – but then again, it’s not at all is it?”
In many of these stories, Royle uses the relationships between reality, fiction and film to create overlapping worlds that speak to, and interfere with, each other. What is real and what isn’t? This question is surely at the heart of the uncanny, and ‘Someone Take These Dreams Away’ taps into this effectively. Our narrator wonders about the disappearance of his colleague, Nick, a film professor with a profound interest in the 1968 British film, ‘If….’. As the story unfolds, the distinctions between the film and the story become flimsier, the particulars of the movie seeping into the action as it unfolds: “When I get back home, I pour myself a large glass of wine and watch the film again. Every shot of the school reminds me of the one both Nick and I attended.” Towards the end, we find ourselves somewhere that feels both real and filmic, and also neither. What could be more unsettling than the rules of the world we know beginning to bend and break?
In Dead Ink Books’ Writing the Uncanny, an excellent collection of essays on crafting ‘weird fiction’ (which also includes a piece by Nicholas Royle), editors Dan Coxon and Richard V. Hirst warn in the introduction that “if you like your fiction to be safe and familiar, this is no place for you.” I would say the same of this collection, which never allows the reader to settle into a predictable chain of events. Rather, it takes glee in pulling the rug, seamlessly combining subtle humour with a creeping sense of dread.
Manchester Uncanny is a rich and exciting collection of stories from a master of the genre. While often complex, these stories are never overly cerebral or opaque, making this collection accessible enough for those new to uncanny fiction.
“In its sense of disquiet and unease,” write Coxon and Hirst, “the uncanny may be the perfect genre for the modern era”. Here, Royle proves how it’s also an effective vehicle for exploring contemporary Manchester; its shining exterior, yes, but far more interestingly, the secrets lurking beneath its surface.
Amy Stewart is a writer living in the Scottish Borders. Her work appears in Test Signal, an anthology of new northern writing from Dead Ink Books and Bloomsbury, and a number of journals including Ellipsis Zine and Visual Verse. In 2021, she won the New Writing North & Word Factory Northern Apprentice Award and in 2022, she won the Mairtín Crawford Prize for Short Story. Amy is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Sheffield and working on her debut short story collection. She is represented by Marilia Savvides at 42.