Crooked Houses Hide Secrets

Nicholas Royle, London Gothic: Short Stories

Confingo, 197pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780995596665

reviewed by Lydia Bunt

There is a moment in Nicholas Royle’s story ‘L0nd0n’ where the narrator, an editor at a small publishing house, does his job rather sloppily, allowing three different spellings for one term: ‘ghost writer, ghost-writer and, finally, the correct term, ghostwriter.’ Funnily enough, the narrator never actually meets the author of this brilliant new novel, one nondescript Ian, in person. Does he exist at all? He appears, rather, the literal embodiment of that misspelt term, its repetition in different guises underscoring the unwitting authorship of the editing process and the eerie uncertainty of the modern gothic world in Royle’s fictions.

London Gothic is Royle’s fourth collection of short stories. In it he blends his more usual typical gothic macabre with a nuanced portrayal of artsy, gentrified London and the cracks beneath. Certainly, he draws on some recognisable gothic tropes, but renders them contemporary. In ‘The Neighbours’, Simon cannot relax with his new girlfriend Anna while at her house because, over her shoulder, he sees the couple next door re-enacting their movements, hears the doppelgängers sharing the same moments and having the same fights. The double act only ends when Simon and Anna break up, Anna saying Simon is too insecure for her. More than a typical gothic tale of two selves, this taps into feelings of inauthenticity in a relationship — the notion of losing the self when coupled up with someone else.

Relationships in these stories are often fraught and fleeting anyway. Women are characterised by long, glossy hair and unattainability. In ‘L0nd0n’, the narrator’s partner, Jane, is referred to interchangeably alongside ‘a glass-eyed mannequin with a red wig balanced on a stand’, also called Jane. By the end of the story we are unsure whether Jane the person exists at all. ‘Standard Gauge’ is perhaps the most typically Gothic of all the fictions, dealing in explicit gruesomeness and objectification of the female body. And in ‘Inside/Out’, a mysterious scratching in a house belonging to the mysterious woman of the narrator’s dreams recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, where a beating organ concealed beneath the floorboards gives a murderer away, or ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, where the symbol of a house amalgamates with its owners and residents. When Royle writes, ‘They kiss. Finally, he is inside’, the spooky house and woman coalesce into one.

This is not the only building that contains eerie cracks in its façade. In ‘Guys’, a tour guide shows a bunch of people around serial killer Denis Nilsen’s old flat, noting places where bodies were stored with a little too much enthusiasm. And in ‘Welcome’, the old owners of a house write to the new occupants, their cheery letter containing underhand references to near-literal bodies in the basement (only ‘there aren’t any’ floorboards). ‘We don’t want you going out of your mind looking for the source of the smell,’ they expostulate chirpily. Crooked houses hide secrets, and behind the bougie ‘cream-painted wooden-slatted shutters’ and frosted glass of gentrified London, there are some nasty horrors to be found. The reference to Nilsen literalises this, but elsewhere Royle perhaps references the less tangible fallbacks of said gentrification and its imposition of a neat façade on an ever-messier metropolis.

Royle’s obsession with the hidden in plain sight extends to a confusion of the real and the imaginary. In ‘L0nd0n’, the narrator hangs a colour print of a red vase in his girlfriend’s home behind the actual vase: ‘I don’t know if you can picture that: a picture of a thing, in situ, behind the thing itself.’ The ‘thing itself’ in the Kantian sense, then the picture of the thing seems to invalidate the actual object. Much like the façade of a house in ‘Trompe l’oeil’ or a video box with nothing inside in ‘Empty Boxes’, appearances are often more impressive than reality in Royle’s collection. Or else, the clandestine is hidden in plain sight and made a joke of, like the bodies in the attic in ‘Welcome’. The implication, perhaps, is that the deliberately false is somehow better than the unashamedly real.

In his focus on contemporary art and literary culture, Royle maintains this sense of falsity. His stories are populated with jaded arts writers and magazine editors who, though they occasionally take pleasure in their work, often seem bored with it. In ‘Empty Boxes’, Simon voices ‘his belief that all of the old cinema spaces had been saved . . . like enormous Rachel Whiteread sculptures in gaseous form.’ Again, like in many of Royle’s stories, the thing that is absent becomes the main feature, these artistic spaces now like Whiteread’s sculptural casts, near-ghosts of the places they mimic. Copycat artworks can never be as good as the real deal, and there is a sense of this in the critic, editor or subeditor’s work in these stories.

But in ‘Trompe l’oeil’ there is also a naffness to the façade houses which clashes with the sophisticated contemporary art Royle’s characters work on. According to Toby, trompe l’oeil is ‘the essence of all great art’. Is blatant trickery, unsubtle, showy deceit, then better than the banality of everyday objects as art? When contemporary art becomes commercialised to the extent that things cycle back around, the new sophisticated is that which deliberately deceives. This meshes well with Royle’s deliberate, self-consciously amusing horror. We usually know what is happening in these stories — they are not particularly mysterious – and in this sense they appear a sly antidote to the commercialisation of everyday subtleties by the art and literature industries.

In ‘The Old Bakery’, a frustrated sub-editor ends up imposing his own bitter perspective on the text rather than merely conducting the usual spate of edits. His notes encroach on the original writing; the text is turned inside out and the subbed text — ‘sub’-text — becomes the text. This is characteristic of London Gothic as a whole. Royle works predominantly with the unspoken horrors of the contemporary city – architecture, art, relationships. He leaves gaps, dealing in the rewritten or underwritten. The result is an unflashy collection that subtly probes the urban cracks. These metafictions, like their characters, come unpicked at the seams.

Lydia Bunt is a freelance writer based in South London. Her reviews have been published in The Arts Desk and the i paper.