Unpacked Boxes

Nicholas Royle, Manchester Uncanny: Short Stories

Confingo Publishing, 188pp, £12.99, ISBN 978-1739961473

reviewed by Lydia Bunt

Nicholas Royle’s Manchester Uncanny tells us more about people than places. What makes this short story collection most interesting are its unreliable, humdrum narrators and eerie changes of perspective, reflecting the historical-urban splice of the city behind them. The collection contains three new stories along with a compilation of previously published work. Though a few stories do not fit in as well, a general malaise pervades the work as a whole.

Royle’s narrators are usually men, often lonely and on the margins, even when with others. Though many work in academia, wandering faculty corridors and perusing books and films, most do not seem to have thrilling lives outside of this. And some seem subject to mental disturbances not fully explained to the reader. In ‘Simister’, a man wraps his ex-girlfriend’s dead cat in clingfilm and buries it in the garden of her home, later exploring the application of this procedure to larger beings when an elderly neighbour passes away in his house. In ‘Insufficient Data for an Image’, the narrator’s grief at losing a partner results in a pixelated experience of reality. Royle does not present these characters’ traits and experiences as unordinary. His narrators clearly do not experience their own lives as odd — so why do we? Their psychologies are unpacked boxes.

Certainly, Royle’s characters are often unhappy and their actions, odd and even perverse, betray this. In ‘Zulu Pond’, the narrator’s bland existence extends into a slightly uncomfortable trip with his daughter to a childhood haunt. And in ‘Salt’, the narrator is invited to his creative writing teacher’s house, where he sees large sacks of salt in the cellar and a trio of dummies framed by the upstairs window. Royle does not push these moments of perversion to their logical conclusions. One gets the sense that he is afraid to break taboos and prefers merely to hint at the horrible where a writer like Ian McEwan might go all out.

This may stem from a general malaise around political correctness from which Royle draws comic potential. In ‘Welcome Back’, the narrator is shunned at the university where he works for treating ‘dead’ colleagues with less respect than alive ones. It’s a parody of cancel culture that leaves us questioning, though perhaps a little too much — nothing is explained and the world of the story feels curiously incomplete. ‘Strange Times’, equally, is a parodic compilation of phrases lamenting the era of COVID-19 that one might have seen in a marketing email or a message from a distant friend. Whether this is so eerily familiar as to constitute the uncanny is debatable, but such platitudes certainly are resonant with our own experiences of oddness and emptiness, and Royle turns them into witticisms.

One way Royle does achieve an uncanny effect is through odd switches in perspective. In ‘Safe’, a woman speaking in the first person is flat-hunting and falls in love with a particular property despite the mysterious locked safe in the centre of one of the rooms. Only at the end of the story does the first-person plural narrator emerge, creating a way to view the woman’s flat from the outside. This spawns the eerie impression that there has been someone else there, in the story, the whole time. Such narrative devices work well to create uncanny gaps in the narrative — spaces where secret narrators can hide and where the reader doesn’t quite know what’s going on with the story. Similarly, in ‘Full on Night’, which follows the narrator’s seemingly solo night-time drive around the outskirts of not-so-pretty urban Manchester, we are unaware, until the very end of the story, that there is another passenger in the car. In ‘Nothing Else Matters’, the narrator is at once overlooking and part of the story. He is a split individual, trying to obtain some literary perspective on his own life and his relationship with his son. Though sometimes such switches in perspective prevent the stories feeling holistic, mostly they are astute and experimental, bringing the tales to life.

This is not the only interesting structural element of stories whose construction often reflects their fragmented urban surround. ‘The Dark Heart’ is a story containing nine sections which can be rearranged and read in different orders. This alternative approach to world-building is interesting because revelations about characters come at different moments, and because cities like London and Manchester, about which Royle chooses to write, are not organised either, always to be discovered and experienced in fragments.

Manchester, I confess, is not a city I’m familiar with. With fresh eyes, through Royle’s collection, it seems industrial, yet also suburban, with a rich history filled with music, film and writing. Historical narratives are woven in, such as police officer James Anderton’s drive against pornography and prostitution in the 1980s and its impact on film culture in the city. ‘Disorder’ is comprised solely of lyrics from Salford band Joy Division’s first album and creates a collage-style effect. Royle’s third volume of this trilogy will be devoted to Paris. Though in his second volume it is the characters that have stood out, it will be interesting to see whether, below the French capital’s Hausmannised streets, similar histories lurk.

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