In July, I reviewed three chapbooks I'd received from Nightjar Press, who publish short stories individually in signed, limited editions. These two stories are the first new chapbooks they've issued since then, and having enjoyed the three I read, I was keen to snap them up.
Nightjar focus on strange, uncanny tales, but these two additions to the series have something of a different take on that theme. The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant by Leone Ross initially presents a fantastical scenario, related in a deceptively straightforward manner. True to the title, a woman walks into a restaurant and 'stays there forever'. Literally, as it turns out. She washes in the restroom, she puts socks on her feet in winter, and otherwise, she simply stays in her seat at the 'worst table'. She dispenses enigmatic advice to other diners, pointing skyward, 'as if offering an architectural suggestion'.
There is a slow and sensual feel to this story, which ramps up the erotic atmosphere; the woman is 'gleaming, honeyed'; when the chef meets her in a market she is buying 'a creamy goat's cheese and several wild mangoes'. Ross has a beautiful way with words, and sumptuous language such as this creates an atmosphere so rich it belies the story's brevity. There's a slow build-up, creating a world and a relationship, and an ending that wraps everything up perfectly. The inscrutable figure of the woman may dominate the narrative, but the restaurant, a character in itself, is equally important.
John D. Rutter's Last Christmas takes a more farcical approach, though with its tale of a family who are born colossal and grow smaller as they age, the premise borders on body horror. I say a family; it's impossible to know whether or not the story takes place in a world where everyone shrinks in this way. The characters' attitude of resignation towards this phenomenon says it's likely; their attempts to create workarounds to accommodate relatives both large and small - a dolls' house for the grandparents, a tarpaulin in the living room for the baby - might suggest otherwise. Either way, these four generations of the same family, gathering for Christmas dinner, are all we see. Ordinary preparations are made bizarre, warped through a surreal lens.
Where The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant fashions a fecund world of its own, Last Christmas is more of a snapshot. Ordinary details, like the 'flowery sofa and old-fashioned TV', are jarringly placed next to the bizarre imagery of a giant baby and elderly relatives so tiny it's near-impossible to hear them talk; the players in this absurd scene speak mostly in banalities. It's a clever portrait, relating the chaos of a family Christmas in a very creative way, but we also know these people have to go on making their way through life outside this particular day, and it ends on a poignant note.
I can see how each of these tales fit neatly into the Nightjar stable, but I was surprised by them both. They move away from the traditional image of an uncanny tale and are stronger for it. If you're looking for an original Christmas gift for someone who loves books, you could do a lot worse than picking up one (or both) of these...