Readers of Ghosts & Scholars will be familiar with Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press, which publishes individual short stories in a uniform and very attractive signed and numbered chapbook format. Its authors frequently explore the territory of the unsettling and the uneasy, the nightjar being, of course, a bird of supernatural repute.
The cover photograph of Andrew Humphrey’s Trick of the Light features a 1970s era Penguin paperback of M. R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary lying atop an Ordnance Survey Landranger map—number 156, covering Saxmundham, Aldeburgh and Southwold. They might have spilled out from the glovebox of a car, and the front of the paperback is partly obscured, its cover image limited to a blaze of blurred light. And so, before the reader even has a chance to open Humphrey’s slim volume and step into its pages, she is offered a signpost to a familiar Jamesian territory which the tale might occupy. But does it?
At first blush, there are only a few parallels with “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, the story alluded to in the cover’s combination of map and browning paperback. This tale’s context is modern, mundanely so: a couple, on the brink of a breaking point in their relationship, spend a few days away at a cottage in Southwold. Gayle is an amateur digital photographer, while Dan is guilty of having an affair and responsible, it seems, for their drift apart. Humphrey alludes to the difficulties between them, and that very fact sets this quite far from the typical Jamesian set-up. The couple even clashes over the TV adaptations of the original story: Dan prefers Jonathan Miller’s 1968 version.
The prose is carefully honed and devoid of unnecessary ornamentation; its angularity heightens the tension across every page. “It’s after dark that the world switches off.” The couple’s clipped dialogue does little to defuse the oppressive mood of the piece. Within just a few pages, the reader begins to sense that this couple may be doomed, either in their future together or in any future altogether.
The story plays with the waymarkers of ‘Whistle’, too: Gayle translates “Who is this who is coming?” from the Latin, and Dan responds:
“’Indeed.’ I think of MR James’ quiet, unsparing prose. The words crawl across the flesh on my hands, my arms and up to the base of my neck. ‘Should be good,’ I say.”
That throwaway “Should be good” is a curious line, and one wonders if it’s Dan’s admonition of himself against straying further in their relationship (you really should be good—should be better—Dan) or merely his approval of Gayle’s intention to infuse her photography with some authentic Jamesian chill on a windswept and lonely beach. Or it could be something darker – that whatever approaches should be—for their sakes—something truly momentous, something to break the cycle one way or another.
Back at the cottage, the radio is playing a song by The Fall. The late Mark E. Smith, that group’s famously contrary svengali, was an aficionado of James, as well as writers like Machen and Lovecraft. There is a sense that Humphrey is toying with us, giving glimpses of reality through fractured glass: a traditional ghost story filtered through the prism of late twentieth and early twenty-first century angst and the trappings of supernatural literature that post-dates James.
Trick is not overly self-referential in Jamesian terms, but it is undoubtedly a homage and there are obvious nods to the master and in particular to aspects of one of his most celebrated, and most adapted, tales. Humphrey plays with the reader, hinting that for Gayle and Dan their fate might be to be trapped in a story within an older story: “They built the church inside the ruins of the old one.”
Trick of the Light appears at first to be a straightforward narrative, a story of a break- up and a possible redemption—until its closing paragraphs, at least—but it has deeper tendrils that run through the soil of James’s earlier story and take its ideas in radically different directions. In James, Parkins is saved, physically at least; for Gayle and Dan, the outcome is much less certain, and the story’s conclusion is deliciously Aickmanesque in all its possibilities. This is a fine tale to add to the canon of modern supernatural fiction, and Humphrey achieves a pleasing synthesis of the best visual and literary markers of the two TV adaptations, too, creating something that reaches the delightfully unexpected in its tone and ending. I will be looking out for more of his work on the strength of this one.
This review first appeared in Ghosts & Scholars,