In his engaging Introduction to Simon Strantzas’ Nightingale Songs, John Langan strategically invokes the names of both Ramsey Campbell and Robert Aickman, the former anecdotally because both Langan and Strantzas are big fans of Campbell, and the latter for comparison to Strantzas. If you’ve read and admired the work of either of those two authors, you’re liable to find quite a bit to your liking in this 12-story collection (four original) published by Dark Regions Press.
The opening story, “Out of Touch,” is a perfect example of what’s on offer here, as a man recollects a summer from his youth, when he and his ailing, infirm friend Mitch investigate a seemingly long-abandoned house that is strangely an object of obsession for Mitch. When the two boys visit the house, there are dire consequences , but it’s unlikely that the specific nature of those consequences are what you expect. Looking back from his adult vantagepoint, the protagonist muses:
“Maybe the answer to everyone’s problems was staring us right in the face, and though we were all too blind to see it, I was the only one foolish enough to ruin it. Or, perhaps there are some things that will come for you no matter what you do, no matter where you hide. Some things are inevitable, and you can only hide from them for so long. Eventually they’ll find you.”
In “The Deafening Sound of Slumber,” the employees of a sleep-disorder clinic are kept in the dark about the true nature of the experiments being conducted by the clinic’s reclusive Director, and as a result allow two particular patients to come in contact with one another, with disastrous results, as alluded to here: “Fisher screamed, afraid to turn and face what was coming for him. It sounded of storms and mistakes and regrets.”
“Tend Your Own Garden” is rich in symbolism, focusing on a divorced man who returns to his former house, where his ex-wife lives with her new mate, in search of some items left behind in the basement, only to find that the layout of his former abode, in fact its very foundations, have shifted on him. “When Sorrows Come” involves a couple that’s still together, but in a clearly doomed relationship, on a vacation that’s not going well, when one of the pair chooses to take the path less traveled through the woods. The enigmatic “Mr. Kneale,” meanwhile, effectively utilizes the backdrop of horror conventions and fandom in relating the story of an author who abandons his literary approach and sells out, but at a rather stiff price.
Aickman preferred the term “strange stories” to describe his tales, and that’s an apt descriptor for Strantzas’ work as well, even if sometimes the point is somewhat elusive. A prime example is the impenetrable “Her Father’s Daughter,” in which a student on her way home from school to visit her father experiences car problems and calls upon the nearby home of two eccentric old sisters. Ambiguity follows, and I’m at a loss to say what else.
More often than not, though, even Strantzas’ overly-opaque efforts, like the somewhat meandering “An Indelible Stain Upon the Sky,” can offer up resonant passage of mystery and beauty such as this:
“I carry that image of her in my head still, and sometimes it amazes me it’s there at all when so many other things I wish I could recall have been forgotten. Memories are strange and elusive, yet they can return at a moment’s notice and from out of nowhere, appearing so vividly it feels as though time has not passed. But time has passed, and those memories that return most often have crashed just off the shore of my life, and the dark sweep of destruction continues to move toward me over the churning water’s surface.”
Best absorbed in small, potent doses, Nightingale Songs is a strong collection that shows Strantzas growing into the role of prime purveyor of strange stories for his generation.