April 2005

Clayton Moore

fiction

Nocturnes by John Connolly

John Connolly has been hiding a gift, I think.

The author of several very well-written and convincing Charlie Parker crime novels, Connolly has a distinct talent for horror that is on full display in his new collection of short stories, Nocturnes.

They make even more sense when you find out that Connolly was approached to write something for broadcast on the BBC and emerged with fifteen stories that fall well into the dark and bloodied ground of the supernatural. They are really meant to be heard, not read, and the creepy flow and elegant pace of the stories build them up to be the ghost stories they really aspire to be. They’re damnably frightening, too, with many of them in Connolly’s own distinctive Irish voice and some in the strangely American timbre that informs the Parker novels, set in Portland, Maine.

The most shocking are the shortest, such as “The Ritual of the Bones,” which taps into the deepest of Lovecraft wells with a frightening tale of a boy at an Eton-like British boarding school who comes to face the dark side of the British class system. A ritual, the secrecy, and the thing that scuttles out of the dark all come out to play and although our narrator escapes, he’s warned, “Mark my words, Jenkins: in the end, you can’t escape your destiny. One way or another, we’ll have you because, like all the members of your sturdy, loyal class, you’re full of the stuff that makes Britain great.”

That line still gives me the creeps.

“Some Children Wander By Mistake” finally nails the dark side of the circus that several books I’ve read have tried to hit lately. Like Cirque De Soleil, Connolly figured out what deep down, we all know at heart: clowns are scary and carry a dramatic power that is almost primal.

“The Underbury Witches” wanders a bit closer to Connolly’s more regular narrative territory with a story about two London detectives, Stokes and Burke, battling an exceptionally murderous female spirit. In “The Cancer Cowboy Rides,” Connolly taps into a malignant horror in the American west, mowing down the John Wayne iconography with a nice brutal style reminiscent of his mystery novels.

It’s an interesting line that that author has walked between traditional storytelling and the murky depths of ghost stories and campfire tales. Like the best writers in the genre, he hasn’t gone down the absurd roads of Bigfoot creatures or living cars but has really captured those primal fears that something bad is out there and it’s going to get you. There’s a reason all those ghost stories keep getting passed down from generation to generation.

Yes, there’s a vampire in here somewhere and even a sort of Creature from the Black Lagoon but Connolly plays with those clichés so artfully that you don’t realize that you’re being played. For every horror villain, there’s a shambling Lovecraftian creature that describes description, or a lost lover, an insatiable demon or an unforgiving ghost. There’s almost never a misstep here and the author’s gift for the dark language of ghost stories is so rich that someone might be telling these stories in a hundred years alongside the old stories about hitchhikers, or better still that old chestnut, "The Velvet Collar," where a husband who takes the scissors to the band encircling his wife’s throat. Just don't read these on a dark night. I’ll leave you with the wife’s admonition:

"You’ll be sorry."

Nocturnes by John Connolly
Atria Books
ISBN: 0743270193
416 Pages