I first came across Alison Moore in another Nightjar chapbook, ‘When the Door Closed, It Was Dark’ and I’ve been a fan ever since. Having said that, for full disclosure, I should perhaps own up to the fact that the one time I was given a shortlist to judge anonymously that included one of her stories, I somehow managed to pass it over altogether in the year before she was shortlisted for the Booker. The moral is, don’t ask me to judge your competition.
‘Small Animals’ is the story of friends Heather and Marilyn going to visit a third woman, Kath, who lives in a house built into the rock with a sheer cliff edge up one side of the road and a sheer drop on the other. Heather is a child psychologist, and it turns out that Kath has a troubled child, Nina, who seems to have been behaving disruptively. Heather suspects that Kath has invited her there to assess Nina. However, what actually turns out is far more sinister and a hell of a lot weirder.
In the world of Alison Moore, everything would be fine were it not for that brooding sense of unease that pervades everything. The power of her writing, I think, comes from the fact that there is a lot of bad stuff going on, but it’s going on out of shot: to the side of the action or even after the action finishes. It’s left to the reader to fill in the gaps, if they dare.
First published in 2012 as a Nightjar Press chapbook and included in The Pre-War House and Other Stories, Salt 2013
‘Who’s Nina?’ Asked Heather.
‘Nina,’ said Marilyn, shattering the nut’s thin shell, catching the pieces in her hand and tidying them back into the bowl, ‘is Kath’s daughter.’ She ran her eyes around the room – the walls, the sideboard, the shelves – looking, thought Heather, for a photo, but not finding one. ‘She’s five,’ said Marilyn. ‘She’s the spit of Kath.’
Alison Moore broke out with her wonderful novel The Lighthouse, an unsettling, minimal exploration of unease and longing, followed by Death and the Seaside, its equally off-beat sibling. It will be no breach of confidence to say she has been shepherded to her success by Nicholas Royle, commissioning editor at Salt, and the mind behind Nightjar Press – himself the king of haunting brevity in his own short stories, collected in such books as Ornithology and Dummy, as well as novels such as Antwerp and First Novel. I see his influence at work, but that is not to denigrate in any way Moore’s innate skill and talent. Her story ‘Late’ (which also appears in The Pre-War House and Other Stories) is perfection; in its febrile interiority it feels, to me, like a mixture of Guy de Maupassant and Joyce Carol Oates, with an ending that’s an emotional gut-punch. But, for all that, her masterwork, for me, is ‘Small Animals’ in which two women visit a child and imperceptibly growing unease rises to a disturbing, head-spinning revelation.
First published as a chapbook by Nightjar Press 2012; collected in The Pre-War House and Other Stories, Salt 2013
Alison Moore’s stories inhabit a corner of the UK akin to Shirley Jackson‘s and Kit Reed’s own backyard, with their quiet horrors building up until you choke on them, silently, afraid to make a fuss. Eastmouth in particular looks into the mundane horror of meeting your partner’s parents, and the particular pull one’s hometown can have.
First published in The Spectral Book of Horror Stories, Spectral Press, 2014. Included in Best British Short Stories 2015, Salt, 2015