Ana Kai Tangata by Scott Nicolay. Book review

Ana Kai Tangata, Tales of the Outer, the Other, the Damned and the Doomed by Scott Nicolay, Publishers Fedogan and Bremer. Price £18.02, Website

Reviewed by Rebecca Lloyd

I like to think there really is a movement to bring about intelligent literary work in the old horror genre which for far too long now has been flooded with imitation ideas and stock characters. I would be glad to see the back of the zombie, the werewolf and the vampire in their classical forms. Nothing could be more tedious than these fanged, clawed and half-dead hairy things. And I don’t at all mind if it’s called something else like the new weird or the new black, just as long as we can begin to see good writing, as these days – with the changes in the publishing world perhaps – there seems to be an ocean full of books written by people whose use of language is flat and one dimensional.

I stumbled upon ‘Ana Kai Tangata’ by Scott Nicolay purely by chance and I only had to read a couple of pages before I knew that he was a real find. Nicolay’s writing is original, acerbic, witty and energetic, and full of depth and grit, [or bone and gristle]. Firstly, as a reader and a writer, I need authors to impress me with their use of language; I want to see dexterity, skill and humour. And poetry – such as this from Nicolay’s story ‘Geschafte’:- ‘Now here was a whore close enough to touch, metallic fuchsia wig against a complexion more Mississippi mud than mocha, sloppy no-bra boob roll flopping over sloppier tummy roll bulging out from under too short too tight leopard print top above waistband of neon pink leather miniskirt at least three sizes larger than any miniskirt had a right to be and still two sizes too small.’

When you think about it, if you don’t have the control of language that Nicolay has, how can you thrill, intrigue or terrify the reader however good your story idea is? Because it isn’t the hideousness of any monster we might invent that does the trick, but the use of agile and imaginative language about that creature.

I have the book in front of me now, a very handsome hardback with a beautiful red- coloured book jacket and published by Fedogan and Bremer. A further pleasure is that the book has a sprinkling of mysterious black and white curious illustrations by David Verba that could be paintings, etchings or drawings.

Sex or thoughts of sex are common for the main characters in the these eight long short stories, but one story in particular, ‘Soft Frogs,’ has sex at its centre and the rawness and celebratory quality of Nicolay’s writing here makes you think that all writers before him were slightly restrained when it came to describing the sex act. This is one of my favourite stories, as, being a lover of things amphibian, I’m familiar with the particular toad mentioned; I saw pictures of it as a child, and have always thought it wonderfully repulsive. Nothing goes drastically wrong in the beginning of this very creepy and intense story, but Nicolay’s descriptions are so beautifully written and in such dreadful detail that the atmosphere is well established and the tension palpable before the final revelation. ‘No stream ran below, just a narrow ditch, purple black mud lining its shallow V. A few foul pools spotted the depths of the dead trench and a nasty silver sheen marked the mud of both banks and the scattered scummy puddles.’

Nicolay is just as masterful at creating inside settings that give you the creeps in much the same way as his fantastic outdoor descriptions do, as in this about a motel room in his story ‘Phragmites’:- ‘Big holes in the dirty curtain pinched closed with safety pins. Cobwebs. No TV, but the useless cable lay coiled on the carpet. No door on the bathroom, just forlorn hinges hanging in the stale air…. Seven dead roaches on their backs in the shower, garnished with a scatter of brittle moths and flies.’ This story begins in a bone factory beneath a museum of anthropology, and as in maybe all of his other stories, the author from time to time, gives small and interesting side stories as remembered through his characters about landscape or history or sociological matters. Again in ‘Phragamites’ there is fantastic attention to the physical details of the landscape. I’ve always thought we don’t need to create ‘fantasy’ settings for our dark stories as things monstrous are all around us in our real life, and stories set in believable settings are far more terrifying. Nicolay’s settings are evidently actual, or built from memories of the actual. He introduces the reader to archaeology, geology and anthropology – jungles and caves come into his stories so that sometimes it’s like reading half ‘gothic’ half adventure.

Another of the stories that really inhabited me was ‘The Bad Outer Space’ spoken through the pure strong voice of a young boy who is making observations about extraordinary events without being aware of it. He has a friend Sari who is a little older:- ‘the black parts of her eyes are extra big, and the sky always shows in them, even when she is not looking up.’ This story, set against the grittier stories, shows how dextrous Nicolay is in his ability to create characters of very different kinds. Another pleasing aspect of his work is that he makes references to other writers from time to time. Occasionally, they are slightly more than references such as here about Hemmingway – and this made me smile:- ‘Worst was the way the girl whose name he couldn’t even recall kept talking about this stupid Hemmingway story the whole time they were waiting, some shit about lumpy white elephants.’

This book is not a throw-away paperback, but a handsome volume, and although, like me, you may not be in the habit of collecting hard-backs, in the case of Scott Nicolay’s ‘Ana Kai Tangata,’ it is more than worth the investment by a long shot.