Alison Moore, ‘When the Door Closed, it Was Dark’ (2010)
Joel Lane, ‘Black Country’ (2010)
A short story is, by its nature, generally more tightly focused than a novel – after all, it has fewer words in which to make its point. This can make some things easier for the shorter form to accomplish: for example, there’s less pressure for a short story to illuminate a wide area of the space it occupies; it can focus more intensely on doing a smaller number of things, and perhaps have a greater impact in doing so.
These thoughts came to my mind when reading the latest chapbooks from Nightjar Press, which are both short, intense bursts of story. ‘When the Door Closed, it Was Dark’ by Alison Moore tells of Tina, a British girl who has travelled to another country to work as an au pair, and finds it hard to adjust to her new surroundings. There’s a palpable sense of menace about this piece, which comes less from images and individual word choices (though it has its share of striking examples; I love this image from when Tina is trying to understand her host family’s rapid conversation: ‘her formal phrases were like wallflowers at a wild party’), than from details of the broader structure. Tina never learns the family members’ names – they’re just ‘Uncle’ or ‘Grandmother’, and so on – which itself makes them more unknowable to her; but, more than this, the whole piece feels like a closed system. We discover barely anything about Tina’s life before the moment of the story; and the accretion of repeated details – the monotonous food, the outside staircase – heightens the feeling that there’s no escape. Moore’s tale is excellent.
‘Black Country’ by Joel Lane is narrated by a police officer who travels back to what was Clayheath (his birthplace, now subsumed into the broader urban landscape of the West Midlands) to investigate a series of strange incidents – the local children are apparently turning violent all of a sudden. Our man is reluctant to return, as he thought he’d left his old life behind; but he seems discontent with even his current circumstances. ‘Black Country’ is a story built on shifting sands, as the actual investigation recedes into the background somewhat (though an answer to what’s going on is provided by the end), and the focus is more on the narrator’s emotional state. Lane’s main theme, I would say, is loss – loss of place, and loss of self. There’s a parallel, I think, between the protagonist’s difficulty in getting a handle on his life, and the social and geographical changes being depicted. I feel that those parallels don’t quite have all the breathing-space they need to establish themselves fully, but it’s a very good story and portrait nonetheless.