I have long been interested in OuLiPian constraints, and used them myself, so was struck by Nicholas Royle’s contribution to the anthology We Were Strangers, which uses all and only the words of the lyrics to Joy Division’s first album Unknown Pleasures.
The technique has been used before, for example by Paul Griffiths, who used all and only the words of Ophelia to generate his novel let me tell you (Reality Street, 2008) but Royle uses a tighter constraint, allowing only repetition of words repeated in the lyrics. This disciplined cut-up technique produces a surreal logic, with a meaning and implied plot hovering just out of reach, and thus acquires the potency of dreams.
First published in We Were Strangers: Stories Inspired by Unknown Pleasures, Confingo Publishing, ed. Richard V. Hirst, and collected in Manchester Uncanny, Confingo Publishing, 2022)
When you know about something, you get picky. Mistakes niggle. It’s tedious, but you can’t stop yourself.
The A437 doesn’t go past that pub.
That plane didn’t enter production until 1957.
String quartets don’t have conductors. (An actual example from the opening pages of a bestselling book in the 1980s).
So when people write about birds, I find myself checking without thinking. It’s a tic.
Waxwings? In England? In July?
Tedious, as I say.
Good news: Nicholas Royle knows his birds.
Even better news: he knows his humans, too. And he has that ability to underpin the normal with a lurking sense of the uncanny, the knowledge that something will be along in a minute to disturb the hell out of you. Everyday life, twisted.
Each of the stories in his collection Ornithology is centred round a species of bird. In this case, a juvenile sparrow brought in by the narrator’s cat. It escalates from there, shining a light not just on the dark behaviour of men in the social media age, but on the dark behaviour of cats in any age.
The kind of story to make you check the front door’s double locked.
First published in British Fantasy Society Yearbook 2009. Collected in Ornithology, Cōnfingō Publishing 2017
This is from an anthology of shorts based on one of my favourite records, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. When I read this story (named for the opening track on the record) for the first time, I struggled to pin it down. The imagery was very much in keeping with the lyrics of the album but much as I liked the vibe, the clashing, fragmentary images and the jarring dissonance of the prose, it was somehow too on-the-nose, a touch too derivative and it frustrated the hell out of me.
Then I got to the end and read the author’s note in which he said the story was written by taking every single word used in the album’s lyrics and rearranging them to form the piece, using each word once and once only, except in cases where a word was repeated on the record – and at that point my mind was blown completely. Such a great idea for a way to assemble a piece on the theme of Disorder, and also very much in line with Ian Curtis’s love for avante-gardists like Ballard and Burroughs and the cut-up techniques they used to experiment with. The whole collection is excellent and has some great writers in it – Jenn Ashworth and Toby Litt being two other notable contributors – but this one is the jewel in the crown for me.
First published in We Were Strangers, Confingo Publishing, 2017