Published by ChiZine Publications on October 21st, 2014
A young man at loose ends finds he cannot look away from his new lover's alien gaze. A young woman out of time seeks her old lover in the cold spaces between the stars. The fleeing worshippers of an ancient and jealous deity seek solace in an unsuspecting New World congregation. In a suburban nursery, a demon with a grudge and a lonely exorcist face off for what could be the last time. And when a big city mayor who delineates his mandate by the slash of a blade faces an unexpected challenger, it turns into a struggle that threatens to consume everything. In Knife Fight and Other Struggles, David Nickle follows his award-winning debut collection Monstrous Affections with a new set of dark tales that span space, time, and genre.
Since the remarkable Irregular Verbs and Other Stories by Matthew Johnson, I’ve been eager to read more short stories. I was lucky enough to find Knife Fight and Other Struggles by David Nickle, already known for several horror books such as Eutopia, The ‘Geisters and Monstrous Affections. Knife Struggles and Other Stories is a collection of twelve short stories that will creep you out. Some of them flirt with supernatural or science-fiction, all are definitely in the horror range. However, no effusion of blood, guts, or anything gory in these stories. This is what makes this collection so special: the horror is subtly crafted, evil goes inconspicuous till the situation tips over and there! you find yourself trapped. “How could this go so wrong?” I have asked myself repeatedly while reading this book. Indeed, most of David Nickle’s stories begin in the most innocent, familiar manner… till it takes an unexpected terrifying turn.
But let’s start with the most astonishing of those stories. David Nickle is a journalist, a city-hall reporter to be exact, in Toronto. This has to get you worried when you read the story Knife Fight, which depicts the struggle for power in politics. In this story, the Mayor is a knife master: he’s the ever-victorious organizer of somewhat tribal duels set in the city-hall garage (I knew it!). It’s hardly surprising that when his nemesis shows up, it’s a journalist. A bit of an allegory, isn’t it?
Another critical story is Wylde’s Kingdom, a violent satire of entertainment and greed for fame. It portrays the producer of the trashiest show in which an enhanced human performs shocking feats, such as killing the last specimen of a soon-extinct specie. The show is being broadcasted even though the world is about to end: cataclysms are ravaging Earth. The story shows a humanity so totally engrossed in entertainment, so utterly passive in front of the screen, that it’s not able to actually worry and act for its own survival:
For those fleeting moments in front of your screen, you morons actually start to give at least a vicarious fuck about someone’s survival, if not your own.
Failing yourself is actually a recurrent theme through Knife Fight and Other Struggles, and my favourite one in the book: people losing their soul or their life, as the unintended result of their own action. In Looker, the protagonist only wanted to relieve his loneliness, right? In Drakeela must die, the kids only wanted to play, didn’t they? In Knife Fight and Other Struggles, many times the horror comes from a poor decision with disproportionate consequences. This is how the book gets really, really creepy: it often sounds so plausible.
Even more so when you realize that many times, poor decisions are triggered by love. “Love is a trap. When it appears, we see only its light, not its shadows.” says Paulo Coelho. Well, David Nicke will open your eyes: in his stories, most characters’ tragic fate is sealed by love. Love Mean Forever questions if you should depart from the ability to love, if in some twisted way this allowed you to conform to your ideal of love. In the excellent Summer Worms (an absolute must-read if you liked The Troop by Nick Cutter), a man gets so blinded by love – or hope to be loved – that he won’t acknowledge danger. Or sometimes, love is a tool through which evil reaches you: in The Exorcist, love is almost a means of transportation. Evil is not even required, actually: love is enough to create disaster, like in the (hilarious) Nothing Book of the Dead in which a Granny is desperate to help her grandson before and after death.
I found the stories of Knife Fight and Other Struggles truly scary because of their simplicity. There are no gory scenes, disgusting monsters, lurking ghosts or sadistic psychopaths or any other common tropes of horror stories. The horror rises from our being human: our need to love and to be loved, our will to help and unfortunately our short-sighted judgements. It also comes from the sheer disproportion there sometimes is between our mistakes and their consequences. Many stories made me feel really uneasy only because they were so easy to believe, like Drakeela must die. Others took me by surprise, like The Summer Worms, my second favourite, which artfully sinks into horror after beginning almost like a naive pastoral love story. David Nickle takes you off-guard again and again: luring you into the most trivial settings – a friendly picnic, a casual discussion on the beach, a Christmas gift to encourage your grandson’s creativity – and very soon close the trap on you. Snap! you lost your body. Or your soul. Or both.
Knife Fight and Other Struggles is a must-read for all horror fans out there who want to read something truly original. Scaredy-cats: stay away!