Philip Nutman is one of the more frustrating horror authors out there, largely because the quality of his output makes the reader wish there were a lot more of it. His novel Wetworks still stands up as one of the best exemplars of the zombie oeuvre, two decades-plus on. His screenplay for the film adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door (co-written with Daniel Farrands) stands out as genuinely thought-provoking as well as horrifying, a standout in the sea of torture porn currently drowning horror cinema. And now, ChiZine Publications has gathered together the bulk of his published short fiction – as well as a few original pieces – in the collection Cities of Night.
The subtitle of the collection is “A Smorgasbord of Stories,” and that’s about right. In terms of mood and tone, this one has everything but the kitchen sink. One end of the spectrum is held down by the graphic and emotionally brutal “Churches of Desire,” the other by the droll heist caper “Still Life With Peckerwood” (cowritten with Anya Martin), which features a painting as its narrator.
What loose framework there is comes from stories featuring the character of Jamie Rivers, an intermittently psychic writer-cum-reporter whose last hours are intercut with the adventures of his youth. What starts out looking brash and over-the-top – the aged writer frolicking with his comely, youthful assistant in what looks to be a nod to the last days of the biblical David – morphs abruptly into what appears to be a detective story, then something else entirely, with the flashback stories (“Full Throttle” and “Blackpool Rock”) providing both context and emotional grounding. And so sure is Nutman’s touch that what could have been jarring changes in mood and tone instead feel absolutely natural and appropriate.
Perhaps the least successful story in the collection is the one where Nutman gets away from his own voice and instead inhabits another writer’s creation. The Van Helsing pastiche “Love Sells the Proud Heart’s Citadel to Fate,” which suggests some interesting backstory for the notorious vampire hunter but ultimately fizzles. Much more powerful is “Ponce De Leon Avenue,” a story of faded celebrity and dying dreams that explodes into unexpected violence. “Memories of Lydia, Leaving” is another story of love and loss, albeit a much quieter one. And “Pavlov’s Wristwatch” is a quick trip into a very scary man’s head, made all the more disturbing for the ease with which Nutman conveys his reader to that unpleasant place.
The collection wraps up at the same time that Rivers’ story does, in a way that’s both grandiose and appropriate. The relationship Nutman’s protagonists have with the cities of the title is an uncomfortable one; they’re lost souls in big lonely places full of people, and the night that enfolds them is more psychological than astronomical. Blackpool, Atlanta, Rome – these are places Nutman’s characters go to get lost, to be alone, to falter and fall and be swallowed by the cities’ insatiable appetite for inhabitants and victims. Only at the end is a balance struck, and city and man find themselves on a level playing field.
Cities of Night isn’t a long collection, featuring less than a dozen stories. It is, however, a handsome one, with a striking cover and a frontis from Mark Maddox that lays out the central theme with looming elegance. The stories are mostly quick reads, but they’re mostly not easy ones; the emotional and (occasional) physical violence the characters suffer makes sure of that. Still, the visit to Nutman’s Cities is a rewarding one, and a journey that may be profitably undertaken more than once.