In the introduction by Michael Rowe, I learned that Nickle is a Canadian writer, and that he writes fiction that is not only horror, but which, in Rowe's view, also can be categorized as "Canadian Gothic" (which Rowe claims is an "overused term", though I'll have to take his word for that one). "Canadian Gothic", I have to assume, has a definition that is similar to the US's "Southern Gothic", which is often weird, black, bleak, and occasionally morally rigorous. Having read a few of Nickle's stories now, I can say that he certainly writes horror stories, though any Gothic-ness, outside of what might be considered a natural element of the horror genre, seemed missing. Which is in no way the fault of Nickle, of course -- I just wanted some sense of what we're getting into here.
The first story I read is the first in the book, and it's called "The Sloan Men". One common trope of modern horror fiction is to take an every day event, one that is naturally bursting with discomfort and tension -- like, say, a job interview -- and injecting a shot of the otherworldly, or possibly the unexpectedly violent. Part of the idea, I think, is to allow the reader an identifiable way in to a fantastical premise (if that's the case, I would say that's unnecessary), but more to the point is a desire to highlight the strange and unpleasant aspects of our daily existence. In "The Sloan Men", Nickle chooses as his inciting incident the moment when you first meet the parents of your best gal or, in this case, best fellah. Nickle does not let the unsettling elements build gradually here, beginning the story with the line:
Mrs. Sloan had only three fingers on her left hand, but when she drummed them against the countertop, the tiny polished bones at the end of the fourth and fifth stumps clattered like fingernails.
So right out of the gate we, like Judith, our heroine, are off-kilter. Judith is engaged to Herman Sloan, the son of, obviously, Mr. and Mrs. Sloan. As Judith and Mrs. Sloan sit down to get acquainted, Herman and his father are departing the Sloan's home, to run an errand. In their solitude, we will see that Mrs. Sloan -- subtly abrasive towards Judith at first -- has much on her mind she needs to unload, and much she needs to ask of Judith. Those missing fingers, for instance, were cut off by Mrs. Sloan herself, intentionally. The photo album she gives to Judith to browse through has, on its first page, photos of Mr. Sloan and three young women, sleeping post-orgy. Judith's shock and outrage begins to recede when she feels a certain memory-obscuring mist lift, and she comes to realize how phsyically unpleasant Herman is, and how her lust for him not only makes no sense, and not only has essentially rendered her his slave, but causes her to attempt to rut with him publicly, including a scene in front of her own parents.
Mrs. Sloan has lived most of her life like this -- before meeting Mr. Sloan, she was a lesbian, in a relationship -- and the absence of both Mr. Sloan and Herman has cleared the cobwebs enough, both from her and from Judith, that she's encouraged to finally act, to try, with Judith's help, to escape. As her own hideous memories flood back, Judith finally agrees.For better or worse, Nickle doesn't get caught up in his inciting incident, because he does have a story to tell, and an ending that, while not off-the-charts original, is still based more in human behavior than in paying off a gag. I remember Stephen King once talking about trying to write a story, one also based on every day discomfort, in this case the impatience mixed with worry one feels when your spouse goes into an airport restroom, and, as the minutes tick by, seemingly disappears within. King said that he kept ramping up the absurdity (the Army is called in at one point) but he had to eventually abandon the story because he couldn't figure out what the hell was going on in that bathroom. Well, Nickle did figure it out, and "The Sloan Men" is a full story, not a one-joke premise.
The other story I read, “The Delilah Party”, is much harder to pin down than “The Sloan Men”. While “The Sloan Men” gave the reader a universal situation to keep things at least somewhat grounded before cutting it all adrift, “The Delilah Party” begins with three characters – Mitchell, Stefan and Trudy – about whom we’re told almost nothing, who are in a situation the vast majority of people will have never experienced themselves. Specifically, one of them, Mitchell, has just been released from police custody, and his laptop has been confiscated. Why he was in police custody, and why his laptop was confiscated, we don’t know, and, in fact, we’ll never know, not precisely, though by the end of the story it will be safe to make certain assumptions.
Mitchell is our main character, a seventeen-year-old boy, who we gather has been recruited, in some vague sense, by whatever group Stefan and Trudy belong to. This group has some connection with a teenage girl names Delilah, whose disappearance is all over the news. When we met said group, they’re all gathered, rather convivially, together in one house watching news updates on Delilah’s case. Outside of Mitchell, who everyone is pleased to see, and who they treat as something of a mascot, albeit one with an important job (what that is, we’re never told, but again, by the end, certain assumptions…) the other members of this odd club are adults, and they’re all waiting for something, or somebody.
Bits of dialogue, and shreds of information, lead the reader to understand that these people are behind Delilah’s disappearance, but as I believe I’ve indicated, Nickle plays most of his cards pretty close to his vest right through the story’s suddenly violent climax. We do know that Mitchell was recruited partly because he knows Delilah (though if Delilah was chosen because she knows Mitchell, or vice versa, is never said) and partly because he’s fucked up. This last aspect of his personality is very important, apparently, and Stefan is quite keen on making note of it, although Mitchell doesn’t do much that’s particular fucked up until the end. And why or how he’s needed, why it’s important that he’s fucked up, and so on so forth, Nickle doesn’t etc.
It’s a strange story, is “The Delilah Party”. The kind of club, or cult, we’re dealing with is stated outright at one point, but given the source of the information we can’t be sure it’s entirely accurate. If it is accurate, then the revelation is a bit of a “That’s it?” moment, but there’s also the sense that Nickle doesn’t want or expect you to make too much out of that anyway. “The Delilah Party” is more about Mitchell, who basically seems like a sweet boy who it would behoove you not to let get too close to you, which turns out to be a problem for the people who recruited him. But not, ultimately, the problem, because they have another one, too, which is either that they’re all monumentally incompetent, or their intended target shares certain skills with Mitchell.
If you don’t know quite what to make of my description of “The Delilah Party”, that’s because I don’t quite know what to make of “The Delilah Party”. It’s an engrossing story, at least on a surface level, but I don’t know what it all adds up to. It doesn’t work as a cautionary tale – information about internet chatrooms might indicate that’s the direction Nickle is going to take things – nor does it seem to care to be. It would function more as a portrait of a deranged personality, or personalities, if we had a clearer picture of those personalities, and what they were up to. But oddly, Nickle doesn’t seem to want that. Is it a good story? Yeah, I guess. Maybe. I think so. It’s certainly not bad. I just don’t know what it wants from me.
Still and all, though, Nickle strikes me as a writer to remember. Monstrous Affections is his first book, and he strikes me as a guy who has more polish and imagination than most.