The Crucian Pit

Nicholas Royle – Manchester Uncanny (Confingo, 2023)

In 2021, Nicholas Royle took us to the stranger side London with his collection London Gothic. Now, he returns to Manchester with its sequel: Manchester Uncanny.

The collection of sixteen short stories range from the realist to the experimental, with a journey through what horror-genre aficionados might label “weird fiction” along the way.

In one story, a young woman is shown around an expensive flat with bars on the windows and a “private garden” that may or may not be fire escape. In the centre of the room in a giant, immovable safe.  

When asked about it, the estate agent shrugs and suggests it’s a kind of quirky “feature”.

I’ve heard that before. Anyone who lives around the Southern crescent (Chorlton, Withington, Didsbury, the Heatons) has done. What happens next is what surprises.

There are house viewings in Withington, flats in Fallowfield, a secret pond near the Airport. The landscapes in Manchester Uncanny are familiar, which adds much to the subtle disruptions that Royle introduces into the surface of their realities.

The “Crucian Pit” – the aforementioned secret fishing pond – is a particularly compelling image. I have no idea if it’s real or not, but I’m tempted to head straight out to the airport to look for it. Perhaps I’ll be disappointed? Perhaps surprised?

Royle’s stories leave you with a sense of a world not-quite-stable. Dark hints, glimpses, unresolved ambiguities abound around a city all too quick to bury its pasts.

One of the collection’s most abiding images is of a man kept constantly awake by the sound of the upstairs neighbours. The only thing is; he lives on the top floor. Sure enough, he soon discovers that plans are afoot to extend his tower block, outwards and upwards, giving him new upstairs neighbours and stealing away the last frail sunshine to reach his window.

Not only is this a deeply unsettling image, but it’s one that captures the alienating power of the New Manchester of glass and steel being elevated all around us. Not only are the new buildings, going up at a rate matched only by places like Dubai or China, changing streets and communities beyond recognition (some of these communities being almost new themselves), but even the old, familiar, unchanging places seem to be shrouded in these new shadows.

Nothing is stable and nowhere is safe. We are being brushed along the surface of the tarmac like so many discarded facemasks.

The ghosts of an older image of Manchester abide here as well. The “depressing 80s music”, as one character’s wife describes it (cf/ Joy Division, The Fall, The Smiths, and other lesser-known acts), make regular appearances; both true to these characters, but also unsettling, not-quite-fitting with the new Manchester of property and coffee shops.

One particular experimental piece, “Disorder”, is made up entirely of lyrics from Unknown Pleasures. Its staccato style works perfectly as an interlude between longer pieces.

The whole collection, in fact, works as one extended piece, moving seamlessly from story to story until we reach a final end. It’s extremely readable, and very difficult to put down once you’ve got started.

Royle continues to be Manchester’s premier purveyor of unsettling scenes. Manchester Uncanny is a worthy successor to London Gothic, and is an essential read for our Mancunian readers. The places are familiar, and perhaps some of the people too. You may have even been in attendance at the same events as Royle’s protagonists.

Just don’t expect a restful night after reading!

  • Joe Darlington

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