The Dummy: An Interview with Nicholas Royle

The DummyConducted by James Pardey, © May 2018

Nicholas Royle is the author of two previous collections, Mortality and Ornithology, as well as In Camera (with David Gledhill). His seven novels include The Director’s Cut, Antwerp, and First Novel. Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, he is head judge of the annual Manchester Fiction Prize and series editor of Best British Short Stories. He also runs Nightjar Press, publishing original short stories in chapbook format.


James Pardey: Hi Nicholas. First of all I want to say that I really enjoyed The Dummy & Other Uncanny Stories, which are scarier than I’d expected, though not like horror stories, so perhaps unsettling is a better word. You’ve called them uncanny stories, which is an interesting word to use. Can you explain what you mean by uncanny?

Nicholas Royle: Thank you. My friend Conrad Williams has asked me a similar question. He asks why I don’t call them horror stories and adds that I’m using “uncanny” as a “fig leaf”. I’ve been writing horror stories for over thirty years. Sometimes they’re described as such, sometimes they’re not. It’s interesting that you wouldn’t describe these stories as horror, and yet you find them scary, which makes me happy. They make use of, or are influenced by, certain elements that we associate with the Uncanny, and with Freud’s essay on the Uncanny, in particular. Elements such as doppelgängers, and other aspects of doubling, blindness, dummies, dolls and mannequins, masks, ghosts, hauntings, invisibility, etc. At the heart of what makes the Uncanny so appealing to me is that these disparate elements all seem to create a particular mood, one of unease, or, as you say, unsettlement. It’s the feeling you get from encountering something familiar in an unfamiliar context, or, perhaps more to the point, vice versa. There’s a German word for it – unheimlich, which translates, a little uneasily, as unhomely. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Uncanny. That’s the territory of my namesake, author of The Uncanny and many other works.

JP: This is your third collection of stories, though you’ve had numerous other short stories published and you’ve edited over twenty anthologies, so what is it about the short story that appeals to you?

Royle-PhotoNR: It’s the perfect form. It’s short. They are likely to be read in one sitting. Just the author and the reader. I love the intimacy of that. Or, in the context of a public reading, the author and any numbers of “readers” all experiencing the story together, and experiencing the whole of it, in one go, assuming it’s not too long. I’m not very interested in long short stories, which I think kind of miss the point, or most so-called flash fiction, because I think most of them aren’t very good. There are some notable exceptions to this rule. David Gaffney has published lots of excellent stories that are just 150 words long (and longer), but his secret is he writes them longer and then works at them like a sculptor or topiarist. Also, I recently read some excellent stories judging the Weaver Words Flash Fiction Competition.

JP: Two of these stories are written in the second person and one alternates between the first and second person. The effect is surprisingly powerful and yet very little fiction is in the second person. Why do you think that is, and what are your reasons for using it?

NR: I first encountered it in Ron Butlin’s first novel, The Sound of My Voice (1987), where it had a powerful effect on me. I used it myself in my 2004 novel Antwerp. I had a particular reason for using it on that occasion, to do with the plot. Sometimes you use the second person in the way I’ve just used it there, to mean “one”, and sometimes you use it to engage your listener, or reader, maybe directly asking them a question, as I do at the start of “The Family Room”, and then, having engaged them, you effectively cast them as the protagonist of the story. In another story, “The Blind Man”, one of two, actually, I think, in which first and second person are interchanged, although in different ways, I use first person to tell the story but the narrator is addressing a particular individual and so addresses them as “you”. In the other story, “The Dummy”, in which first person alternates with second person, I chose to do that specifically to create an atmosphere of unease or, if you like, uncanniness.

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JP: The doppelgänger has become a recurring theme in your fiction, from your first novel, Counterparts, in 1993 to several stories in this collection. You use it to explore questions of identity and existential uncertainty, through mirror images, body doubles, simulacra, and in one story a tailor’s dummy. It is evidently a subject which fascinates you, so how did this interest come about, and what keeps bringing you back to it?

NR: The 1968 Huckleberry Hound Annual had a picture story, “The Frightful Night”, with regular characters Pixie, Dixie and Mr. Jinks, who were two mice and a cat. Mr. Jinks dressed up as a monster to frighten the cats, but the cats, one step ahead, made their own monster, using a dressmaker’s dummy, to frighten Mr. Jinks. They also frightened me, aged five. It’s one of my earliest memories. I’ve had a thing for tailor’s dummies ever since. I started collecting them – and shop-window mannequins and other dummies – in the 1980s. Going back a decade, there was a man my sisters and I used to see around sometimes when we were children who looked so much like our Uncle Fred, we used to call him the Uncle Fred Man. This was probably my first encounter with a doppelgänger. I’m strongly drawn to things that are the same but different. They appear the same but are subtly different. Books in uniform covers with different titles. Definitive postage stamps with the same image but a different value. Jackets that are the same cut but a different colour or fabric. People who look the same but have different names and personalities. The earliest story in The Dummy & Other Uncanny Stories is “Moving Out”, written in the late 1980s and first published in 1991; that’s the story you’re referring to that features a tailor’s dummy. Then there’s “The Dummy” (2008), “The Reunion” (2009) and “The Other Man” (2012). I do keep coming back to these motifs; I find them innately fascinating.

JP: Another doppelgänger story in this collection, “Jayne Anne Phillips”, features you and your real-life counterpart whose name is also Nicholas Royle. He is a writer and lecturer, like you, and the author of a book called The Uncanny. Then last year you both published books that are ostensibly about birds. Reviewers, critics, conference organisers, even publishers, frequently mix the two of you up and I’ve been confused more than once in the past. The Nicholas Royle on Wikipedia and Twitter is you, which is, I think, quite canny, but the similarities are uncanny. I’m not sure if this is life imitating art or a strange case of nominative determinism, so what is your take on it?

NR: Ah, I mentioned him in an earlier response. I suppose the weirdest aspect to it is not simply that we are both writers and lecturers, but that we are both drawn to the Uncanny. Nick published his non-fiction study, The Uncanny, in 2003, but it was not until 2008, when Ra Page invited me to contribute a story to The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease, an anthology he was editing with Sarah Eyre for Comma Press, that I started using the word “uncanny” occasionally to describe my work. That story was “The Dummy”. I’d always been scared by and consequently attracted to features associated with the Uncanny, but it was Ra’s invitation that got me reading Freud on the subject. Nick and I have done readings together and collaborated on a couple of pieces for Neil Coombs’ Patricide journal, which surely would never had happened had we been two writers with different names and some interests in common, but it remains a fact and a weird coincidence that we do share a name. I say “share a name”. Of course, we don’t actually share a name. We each have our own name, but it happens to be the same one (middle names excluded).

JP: The hallway in your home is lined with bookcases housing what is probably the largest private collection in the world of white-spined Picador paperbacks. To say it’s impressive is an understatement, but why Picador? When did you start collecting them, how many do you have, and the all-important question, which is your favourite?

PPC CopyNR: I have about 800. The first one I owned was Black Water: The Anthology of Fantastic Literature (1983) edited by Alberto Manguel, which was given to me by my parents for Christmas the year it was published. Some time after that I bought Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967), basically for the cover on the 1973 Picador edition – a painting by Paul Delvaux. Then I was off. Why Picador? They were distinctive. That white spine seemed like a badge of quality. I feel that I could take any one of those 800 books down off the shelf and it would be worth reading. My favourite is probably Black Water but I’m also very fond of two anthologies edited by Frederick R. Karl and Leo Hamalian, The Naked I and The Existential Imagination, published by Picador in 1972 and 1973 respectively. The Naked I was one of the first eight titles published by Picador when they launched in 1972 (and it contains a story by James Purdy, only two characters away from your name). I know you know this, because I know you have your own collection of Picadors. There’s something about them. They spawned many imitators, with Paladin, King Penguin, Sceptre, Abacus and Black Swan all copying the look – B format paperbacks, white spines. Retired publisher Patrick Janson-Smith suggested to me recently that Paladin came first, but they had a different format (same height as B format, but narrower) and their list was exclusively non-fiction. They only started doing fiction (in B format) some time later, after Picador had shown the way.

JP: Okay, I thought we might finish with some quick-fire questions, so here goes: London or Manchester?

NR: Both. Sorry. I mean please. If that’s okay.

JP: Pint glass or champagne saucer?

NR: Neither. Belgian beer glass.

JP: Five-a-side or eleven-a-side?

NR: Five-a-side (playing).

JP: Star Trek or The Twilight Zone?

NR: Twin Peaks.

JP: Lark or owl?

NR: Owl turning into lark.

JP: Canny or uncanny?

NR: 🙂

JP: Thank you, Nicholas, for taking the time to talk to me.

NR: My pleasure.

Nicholas Royle The Dummy & Other Uncanny Stories is available here.

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James Pardey is a freelance coder based in London. He has a PhD from Bristol University and was a postdoctoral sleep researcher at Oxford University. He has written for art, graphic design, and poetry magazines, Ballardian, and academic journals. He edits the Fontana Modern Masters and Art of Penguin Science Fiction websites, and his interests include London urbex and the tidal Thames, psychogeography, and collecting white-spined Picadors.

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The Dummy: An Interview with Nicholas Royle

The Anniversary of Never by Joel Lane

The Anniversary of NeverAt a certain point while writing the jacket copy for Joel Lane’s The Anniversary of Never, it seemed inevitable that the phrase “posthumous collection” had to be used. A few versions of the text went back and forth between myself and Nicholas Royle (Nick also wrote the introduction), and nothing else sounded quite right. The Anniversary of Never is a posthumous collection. Needless to say, the publication of this volume suffered one major setbackthe sudden loss of its author. But despite this loss, the book, to me, doesn’t feel posthumous at all. I suppose I should start with the book’s genesis.

Toward the end of 2012 I got an email from Joel. He wanted to know if I’d be game to look at a submission, a collection of stories he called The Anniversary of Never. Officially Swan River Press is closed to submissions, but Joel wrote anyway. I liked that. And of course I didn’t have to think too long before I said yes. But I did ask Joel for one small favour: could he please limit his selection to forty thousand words or so? He agreed. Although Joel, being far too polite, never asked why I imposed this limitation, I feel my request could probably here use some explanation.

I believe I first came across Joel’s work in Acquainted with the Night (Ash Tree Press, 2004; which was, I’m pretty sure, my introduction to a number of modern ghost story writers). I continued to encounter Joel’s work in various anthologies and magazines, and always looked forward to reading themI enjoyed them, though “enjoy” is possibly not quite the right word for a Joel Lane story. Eventually I did a capsule interview with Joel in the now defunct and sadly missed All Hallows (October 2005), and on the heels of that we struck up a casual 69931777_e36fd14dee_bcorrespondence. Joel’s comments on weird fiction were always considered and insightful. For example, I was delighted to learn that he also felt Neil Marshall’s The Descent to be essentially Lovecraftian. Perhaps not an overtly obvious assertionno tentacles to be found anywhere in that filmbut for Joel the weird tale was never about the superficial. And maybe that’s why I enjoy his stories so much. There’s always something startlingly real under the surface.

So why that limitation I mentioned earlier? Bear with me here, I’ll get to it. For whatever reason, I never sought out The Earth Wire (Egerton Press, 1994; in fact, I still haven’t read it). My first encounter with a Joel Lane collection was Night Shade’s The Lost District, which came out in 2006. It was after reading that collection that I realised what makes Joel’s stories so good: each one demands an investment from the reader. Sometimes emotional, sometimes intellectual, sometimes spiritualfrequently this demand is a potent mixture of all three. But it is always a demand, and each reader must give something of themselves before reaching the final page.

Up until then I’d only ever encountered Joel’s stories in anthologies one at a time. But The Lost District was different, it was a collection, each story relentlessly illuminating the darker corners of the human condition. And they kept coming, one after the other. By the end I felt exhausted, drained. The same thing happened when I read The Terrible Changes (Ex Occidente, 2009). Joel’s stories truly engage and address questions and states of being that are often difficult to face. So when I asked Joel to limit his selection to forty thousand words, it was really a plea for mercy. My own shortcoming as a reader of weird tales. Always the gentleman, Joel obliged. The Anniversary of Never, not including Nick’s introduction or the acknowledgements, is 39,760 words long. But, my god, each word counts. If it is the duty of the weird tale writer to challenge and unsettle the reader, then Joel Lane works overtime. And he doesn’t punch out until long after everyone else has left the office.

Photo by Nicholas Royle
World Horror 2010, Photo by Nicholas Royle

I only met Joel once. It was at the World Horror Convention 2010 in Brighton. I introduced myself and asked him if he would sign my copy of The Terrible Changes. He did. I remember him in person as kind, but sort of intense. Maybe a little ill at ease (or maybe that was me). Later I found myself sitting beside Joel at one of the panel discussions that weekend. I recall him perched at the edge of his seat taking notes. That intensity I had noted earlier was in fact a razor-sharp focus, and the questions he asked the panel participants were thoughtful and carefully worded. They were smart. This man’s consideration of weird fiction, I thought, is nothing short of reverent.

So back to late 2012, when Joel submitted to me what would eventually become The Anniversary of Never. During the course of the next few months, he sent over a number of different versions of the collection. Each time there were subtle alterations to the contents. One story added, another subtracted, a new story written, the order subtly changed. Look over a list of Joel’s published stories. You’ll see there are a lot to choose from, a number of forms The Anniversary of Never could have taken. I watched as Joel shifted the stories about. He was keen on shaping a collection that was focused, one that delivered the desired cumulative effect.

where-furnaces-burn-signed-jhc-joel-lane-out-of-print--[2]-1416-pOf course I was as shocked as anyone when I heard that Joel had passed away on 25 November 2013. I was hoping to see him a few weeks earlier at the World Fantasy Convention, but due to ill health he couldn’t attend. I did buy there a copy of Where Furnaces Burn (PS Publishing, 2013), for which Joel won the World Fantasy award for best collection that year. I didn’t read the book until after Joel had died. As always, so many of his stories at once delivered that familiar emotional impact, though perhaps because of the recent loss, their bleak ruminations affected me just a little more than they might have otherwise.

I never wrote a memorial for Joel when he passed away, but there are many out there to be found. Those who knew him better than me can more eloquently give shape to the gap he left behind. But I am proud to publish The Anniversary of Never, and I hope it stands as a suitable tribute. Even though the front flap of the dust jacket declares the book a posthumous collection, it just doesn’t feel that way to me. The book as it stands is the collection that Joel put together himself, and I’d like to think he is happy with it.

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The Anniversary of Never by Joel Lane will be published as a limited edition, dust jacketed hardback in early August 2015, featuring an introduction by Nicholas Royle and cover art by Polly Rose Morris. The book is currently available for pre-order from Swan River Press.

Order a copy here.

The Anniversary of Never by Joel Lane