by Nicolas Royle
Review by Sarah Johnson
As an occasional visitor to London, I spent much of my time reading London Gothic, Nicholas Royle’s collection of short stories, with my old copy of London A-Z at hand. Tracking the movement of characters as they travel through the city was a pleasant addition to the reading experience; I have a fondness for maps, as do several of the haunted protagonists that populate these stories. They know London – it is familiar to them – but there is an underlying tension in their lives that relates to the environment. The psychogeography of the city skews perceptions, resulting in paranoia and the questioning of what is real.
The joy of London Gothic is that questions are posed with few easy answers offered. The stories are disturbing, at times humorous, and an intellectual exercise in exploring the experience of contemporary urban life.
Simulacra abound in London Gothic: the fake house of ‘Trompe l’oeil’, the reconstructed parlour from Henrietta Street in ‘Necklines Through the Ages’. These representations of the real are integral to creating the feeling of unease present in each story. Royle questions not only the reality of places, but also people. Who are the people living next door to Anna in ‘The Neighbours’? Who does Nick see at Dalston Kingsland railway station in ‘L0ND0N’? Characters see themselves reflected, spy doppelgängers, and can’t distinguish between people. It puts into doubt the veracity of their experience and thus Royle creates uncertainties. More than once I checked the existence of locations – even events. I’ve certainly learned more about London since reading London Gothic.
Combining the real with the represented, Royle renders the familiar unfamiliar. Objects, places, and people are slightly out of place. As if watching a scene unfold through a crown glass window, all is distorted. The effect is eerie, uncanny, and often bleak. More than once, disturbing events are recorded on video tape, as in ‘Artefact’ and ‘Train, Night’. In ‘Empty Boxes’, the illuminated windows of a passing train transform into a strip of film. Some stories are more experimental in form, such as ‘Constraints’, which uses found text to effectively build an impression of an attitude, a mode of life. In London Gothic it is possible to perceive references to modernists and postmodernism: an intriguing combination that adds an unexpected level of interest to the collection.
Not to forget the Gothic element of the stories; there is a pervasive sense of dread that is common to all them all. Foreboding permeates the environment, even in the humorous ‘Welcome’. There are murders, suicides, mutilations and hauntings throughout. None are graphic in their descriptions, but the necessary detail is present – and your imagination will fill in the blanks. In this London, the city is a threat to the mind and spirit as much as the body. It might be portrayed as a modern, busy place, but it is to be feared as much as any isolated, crumbling manor house atop a crimson peak. As such, London Gothic offers the reader much that is associated with the gothic, in addition to detail that encourages us to delve deep into London.
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