Freud talked about the uncanny, the unheimlich, as that which is concealed or out of sight. It’s a subtle, creeping kind of horror. We might not feel the intense strangeness of a place or object right away – it’s the thrill of recognition that startles us, the realisation that things are not as they supposed to be here. Understandably, this has always made the uncanny a fertile ground for literature (most notably in the weird fictions of Robert Aickman) and arguably nobody is doing contemporary stories of the uncanny better than Nightjar Press, the publisher of “Living Together”.
“Living Together” is only sixteen pages, but Matt Thomas uses those sixteen pages carefully to build an steadily escalating disquiet. The story concerns an unnamed narrator whose nephew Thomas has recently had treatment for cancer, and who soon ends up taking care of the boy – but all the details in the story are somehow wrong. Thomas’s wounds don’t heal properly, for one thing:
The wounds gave off a smell, we hear early in the story. It was, according to my sister, part of the healing process. The doctors had told her to expect it. The first time she peeled back the dressings I flinched. It smelled of rot.
Later on, the smell gets strong enough that the narrator is on the verge of retching – and yet nobody but the narrator seems to notice. There’s a “slick surface” to Thomas’s skin and “the lines running down his arms and into his chest looking red against the pallid greasy core of his body”, and whenever the narrator tries to bring it up she’s brushed off. Not to mention that there’s something distinctly un-NHS about Thomas’s medical treatment.
Then there’s the narrator’s sister and her friend Gail, whose relationship always skirts the edge of normality. Even Gail’s first appearance feels wrong, where she somehow, “despite wearing a thick wool coat, was managing to show off an impressive amount of her bony but attractive chest.” Gail bonds with Thomas in a way the narrator can’t, Gail is afforded privileges the narrator isn’t, Gail’s hair is always changing colour but she won’t acknowledge it: so what’s the deal with Gail? If all of these sound like tropes that wouldn’t be out of place in a psychological thriller, be assured that Matt Thomas brilliantly subverts them throughout, turning them into something much more discomfiting.
Most bizarre are the interactions between the narrator and everyone around her, all of whom seem to be consistently dismissive. When she offers to spend more time looking after Thomas, the narrator’s sister claims “this is intolerable… you have to realise, surely, that we can’t be held hostage by your requirements. Why can’t you think of other people?” And when she rings home in search of her sister, the narrator’s mother snaps at her, “why should your sister be here? What have you done now?” It’s all very blackly comic and strange, like Beckett when he was playing for laughs.
To say more would be to spoil the way it all plays out. Suffice to say, little is resolved, but that doesn’t matter one bit: it’s atmospheric and disconcerting, shining a harsh light onto how we relate to illness, and to our families and friends, and the everyday strangeness of these things. It’s a hilarious, troubling, profound, baffling, uncanny, wonderful piece of fiction, and I loved it. For £3 it’s little more than the price of a cup of coffee. It might not be as comforting, but its effect upon you will last far longer.
“Living Together” is published by Nightjar Press for £3.75 inc P&P. It’s a limited edition of 200 signed copies, as are most of Nightjar’s output.
You can also follow Matt Thomas on Twitter here.
Thanks to Nightjar Press for providing a free copy of this story for review