In Haunt

Short stories that draw the reader into the stranger sides of modern London and delve into the depths of place comprise Nicholas Royle’s highly-anticipated fourth collection: 'London Gothic'. The book is out now and published by the independent Manchester-based press Cōnfingō. 

London Gothic

Nicholas Royle is no stranger to exploring the darker side within his work – not only through short stories, but also novels and his Gothic-inspired independent publishing house Nightjar Press. Currently Reader in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, Nicholas previously spoke to Haunt Manchester about his fascination with The Uncanny, which has informed his urban explorations of the likes of London, Manchester and Paris – all three of which will eventually feature in what is to be a series of short story collections. 

London however marks the first collection – the city of sprawling streets, a myriad of mysteries and urban intrigue a-plenty. In London Gothic Nicholas sets out to shake up the definition of ‘Urban Gothic’ for the twenty first century, with 15 short stories set between the year 2000 and the present day. Through a range of styles, techniques and experimental forms, these tales take on the streets of Shepherds Bush, South Tottenham, Hackney and more, revealing the Uncanny aspects of England’s capital city from a fresh perspective. Unusual encounters, urban menace and unease stand out within this innovative collection, which contains seven brand-new pieces alongside Nicholas’ previously published work. 

Here at Haunt Manchester, we decided to speak to Nicholas about 'London Gothic' and why short stories considering the cityscape may have more capacity to shock us than ever before… 

Hello Nicholas. Congratulations on the collection! What inspired you to explore the Gothic side of London through the short story form in particular?

“Thank you, Emily. I’ve always been drawn to the dark side of wherever I’ve lived. I left Manchester when I was 19 to go to university in London and stayed there for about twenty years. Not at university – I mean in London. So, I spent my 20s and 30s in London. I tend to write about wherever I am, not temporarily, but wherever I’m living. And I’m not really interested in writing stuff with neutral or bland settings. A lot of my ideas come directly out of place. In that sense, perhaps, I’m a place writer, but whereas most of what gets called place writing is non-fiction, I write mostly fiction. And most of my ideas, increasingly, are for stories rather than novels. In fact, some of my novels came about when certain stories, either already written or in the embryonic stages, were allowed to hang out and before I knew it, they’d kind of organised themselves into a novel.”

By Nicholas Royle

Many of us may be familiar with the Gothic aspects of London’s past, its histories and mysteries. However, in London Gothic your focus in on the modern day, from the year 2000 to the present. Why this focus? Do you think London’s modern Gothic is a somewhat under-explored area?

“I’m less interested in history than I feel I ought to be, but there it is. I explore London on foot. My walks have been getting longer and longer. This summer I was walking up to 25, 26 miles a day. Probably only doing that once or twice a week, though, with shorter walks on the other days. So I’m responding to what’s around me. I always have done. I think the Gothic is the Gothic. I thought I should get a definition of the Gothic to prepare for a question like this and I found these words of Patrick Kennedy’s: ‘In the most general terms, ​Gothic literature can be defined as writing that employs dark and picturesque scenery, startling and melodramatic narrative devices, and an overall atmosphere of exoticism, mystery, fear, and dread.’ I think I do all of that and there’s no mention there of the past, but there is a tendency, I think, to associate the term mostly with literature of the past, whereas, yes, I write about the present. Did we need to describe what I’m doing as Modern Gothic? I don’t know. Maybe it could be a talking point? That’s always a good thing.”

By Nicholas Royle

Has the collection been informed by your own recent visits to the city? And has it been written on location, or away from it?

“The reprinted stories in the book were first published between 2000 and 2020. They appeared in magazines and anthologies and online. So those earlier ones would have been written in the late 90s. In 2003 I moved back to Manchester, but would find myself back in London on occasion. From 2011 I was spending more time in London. In fact I became one of those people who rather annoyingly say they divide their time between X and Y. Except they tend to say it of New York and the Hamptons, or Paris and Tuscany. So, the stories were mostly written in London and they were all informed by time spent in London.”

By Nicholas Royle

What are some of the factors that come into play when considering a city through the ‘Gothic’ lens? In the case of London, do you think it is the physicality of the city that has a particularly Gothic quality – or is it more a case of the characters and events we encounter within it? 

“A surprising number of these stories did arise from the architecture of the city. I don’t mean gothic architecture, but the way in a city like London most people live in such close proximity with their neighbours. Stand at your kitchen window and you’re likely to be facing directly into the kitchen of the house or flat next door, which is no more than a few yards away. This is not peculiar to London, of course. But, still, I realised I had become very interested in the way in which the built environment impinges on our lives. Architectural design might have an influence on the way we live. But, equally, how do we affect those interior spaces? Is there something different about the interior space of a cinema, or former cinema – all those films shown there over so many years, watched by so many people – or about the former home of a serial killer? I wanted to write about my emotional response to the phenomenon of Jack the Ripper walks in Whitechapel, but was I being any less ghoulish than Ripper tourists when I viewed the former flat of Dennis Nilsen when it came on the market in the 1990s?”

By Nicholas Royle

In the age of the Covid-19 pandemic and a changing relationship with urban space, do you think exploring the Gothic aspects of cities has the capacity to be more eerie than ever? I certainly have heard Manchester described as a ‘ghost town’ on multiple occasions in recent months… 

“I spent the first lockdown in Manchester, and the second lockdown, for that matter, but just before the second lockdown I was in London. I noticed, walking at dusk down the street where my wife’s flat is located, the number of windows in which you would see a lone figure sitting at a desk working on a laptop. It’s not like no one’s worked at home before, but the sheer numbers of people who are doing it now, many of whom may not go back to an office in a city centre. The increase in isolation is a concern. It may have been a consolation that the people took over the golf courses in the summer, wandering across these vast spaces normally forbidden to us, but that option is less attractive in winter.”

Pictured below: Nicholas Royle in the 1980s, shortly after moving to London photograph by Adèle Fielding

By Adèle Fielding

Can you tell us a little more about the upcoming series – will it be Manchester next? 

​ “London, Manchester and Paris are the three cities I’ve lived in. I’ve found I can only really write about places where I live or spend time getting to know a place, being on holiday or through repeated visits. I tried to write a story about somewhere I had never been and it didn’t work. The story had no meaning for me. There was no emotional connection. It felt inauthentic. Yes, Manchester will be next, next year, then Paris the year after. I only lived in Paris for a year, when I was a student, but it had a profound effect on me and I’ve returned many times. I’ll definitely need to go back again once we can travel freely – although, of course, we will have lost freedom of movement thanks to Brexit. I can’t tell you how that makes me feel, the freedom I enjoyed as a young person denied to my children and other young people. There’s a Brexit story in London Gothic. And one story – only one story – written since the first lockdown. It’s one of the more experimental stories in the collection. I’ve become very interested in the possibility that there is a link between dark fiction – gothic, uncanny, weird, macabre – and taking an experimental approach, applying constraints, being innovative.

“One of my favourite writers is the late Giles Gordon, who wrote a lot of experimental fiction but was also very much drawn to the dark side and wrote a lot of ghost and horror stories and edited anthologies of horror stories, as well as co-editing the Best Short Stories series for many years. He has been a big influence on my writing and editing.”

Pictured below: Nicholas Royle today 

By Nicholas Royle

For more information about Nicholas Royle, visit his website: http://www.nicholasroyle.com/ 

All photographs by Nicholas Royle, except the second to last photograph which was taken by Adèle Fielding

By Emily Oldfield 

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