Thursday 16 July 2015

Recommendation: Ana Kai Tangata by Scott Nicolay

I’ve been wanting to read more by Scott Nicolay since I came across Eyes Exchange Bank, his story of lost friendships in a winter-gripped American town in The Year’s Best Weird Fiction (which I reviewed for This Is Horror). Given the quality of that anthology, it’s a testament to how good Nicolay’s piece was that it stood out; indeed I included it on my 2014 Short Story list. Recently I finally got round to reading his debut collection Ana Kai Tangata, from which Eyes Exchange Bank was taken. The book contains eight stories, the majority of which are longer than average, with the concluding Tuckahoe being a complete novella. (A limited edition of the collection contained an ninth story, Do You Like To Look At Monsters, which is now available as a standalone ebook. I haven’t read that one as yet, but given the quality of Ana Kai Tangata I will be doing so soon.)

The reasons that Eyes Exchange Bank impressed me so–a strong use of location, a skilfully escalating atmosphere of dread and a subtle ambiguity–are all present to a greater or lesser extent in the other stories here. The horror starts off being built up from small details that prey on the your mind–a liquefying arm, the vanishing of a room-mate’s room, the movements of insects on a cave wall– but typically proceed to moment of sudden, visceral horror.

A couple of tales, Phragmites and the title story especially, did seem too long, with the sense of unity creaking slightly, the tension suffering unfortunate lulls. But even these weaker stories are compelling reads, always stylistically and thematically interesting. As I said, Nicolay is very good at using setting to his advantage; not just the brute effect of the landscape but also the cultures and sub-cultures living there. Ana Kai Tangata itself is set on (and underneath) Easter Island whereas Phragmites involves the search for a cave sacred to the Navajo. Caves and confined places in general feature in a number of stories here, although what’s lurking in them varies. In the superb Geschäfte, this space is the confined shaft behind the walls of an apartment bathroom, a supposedly mundane space that is in fact both shifting and unstable. As, perhaps, is the narrator's psyche, in this tale that recalls Polanski and Lynch.

To my mind, the standout stories in the book were the previous mentioned Eyes Exchange Bank, plus The Bad Outer Space; The Soft Frogs and TuckahoeThe Bad Outer Space  use the same technique as Arthur Machen’s The White People, in which a child narrates a story of witchcraft and cosmic horror whose significance they barely understand. The use of childish analogies and shifts in timeframe is pitch-perfect, and the weird element is tantalisingly out of the corner of our eye throughout. There have been a number of attempts at updating The White People over the years, but few so successful as this.

The Soft Frogs is more conventional story, but it succeeds in discomforting the reader due to its use of an original (and genuinely hideous) monster and a good dose of body-horror. Tuckahoe, meanwhile, combines noir and police procedural elements to tell a tale of backwoods weirdness. Tuckahoe uses its longer length to deliver the twists and turns of a thriller-esque plot, punctuated with several set pieces of unbridled terror. (It makes you hope Nicolay will write a novel one day.) There’s a pleasing unity to the piece as well, despite its length, with its final scene circling back to where we came in: a morgue where an autopsy is taking place. Seeming to take influences not just from Lovecraft but TED Klein and even True Detective (given the timings, probably a coincidence) it’s masterfully done.

Overall, a fine debut collection, and one well worthy of your time.

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