Let me start at the end: The Night Visitors is a very good book. By the time I’d finished it, on a train, no less (the relevance of that will become apparent when you finish it, too), I found myself occupying a world of mixed feelings. On one side there was complete satisfaction. On the other, devastation. And somewhere between the two, jealousy. Because this wasn’t something I’d written myself.
The Night Visitors, Saboteur Awards Best Novella 2017 and published by Dead Ink Books, was written by Jenn Ashworth and Richard V. Hirst. It’s a short, sharp shock to the system centred round co-protagonists Alice Wells and Orla Nelson, a bored, recently unemployed amateur writer, and a washed up, once-bestselling author.
The entire narrative is based on an exchange of emails between both characters, beginning with Alice’s first contact (“I’m Kenny and Barbara’s daughter and Barbara is your cousin’s daughter so that makes us family, sort of”), through Orla’s emergence from self-inflicted exile and social ineptitude as Alice tries to ply her for information about the mysterious disappearance of Hattie Soak, a long-dead relative about whom Alice is trying to write a book.
Hirst and Ashworth took a character each, and began drafting the story remotely. I can’t say that they never met while doing so, but the fact that Alice and Orla don’t actually meet each other in person is crucial to what makes the story so compelling: its restraint. The Night Visitors is a blank-space novella: as satisfying to look at as it is to read, and what’s not said in the emails but which exists in Ashworth and Hirst’s use of discretion, is as important to the progression of the narrative as the characters themselves.
Both authors employ a subtlety so severe and fundamental that it almost betrays a sense of longing within them, you might imagine, to say more, to do more telling. The fact that both abstain from this is critical to the development of Alice and Orla, who start off as polar opposites but who transform into each other as their trajectory changes course.
So who was Hattie Soak? All we know is that she was an actress, reasonably famous towards the beginning of the 20th Century, who disappeared after her family, with the exception of one child, was brutally murdered in their home. Did she do it? Was she murdered too, but her body taken by the perpetrator and dumped, rather than left to stain the living room carpet like those of her husband and children?
Well, Alice, recently unemployed, estranged from her husband and anxious about the prospect of her son leaving home, wants to know. She wants new validation. She wants to leave a mark. She wants Orla to help her, because Orla is more closely related to Hattie than she is, and Orla, of course, is a famous author. But Orla doesn’t give a fuck. She doesn’t talk to people. She can barely see. She uses voice-recognition software to write her emails. She says no.
With little else to do Alice contacts a researcher named Aaron Plainwater, possibly the only other person in the world as interested in finding out what happened to Hattie as she is. And this is where Orla’s power over Alice begins to shift: she no longer needs Orla to validate her quest. This unsettles Orla, and as tension between the two mounts, Orla begins to see Aaron as a threat.
To Alice, it seems like Aaron and his son Finlay are the planet around which the satellite of her obsession orbits, since Aaron possesses a copy of Hattie’s last film. But this is wrong. Alice and Orla together are two halves of a sun, and the men, whilst posing a threat, not only to their investigations but [potentially] to their lives, revolve around them at a speed that increases, and a proximity that narrows, the closer both women get to discovering a truth they’re not prepared for. That is, The Night Visitors is a revenge story.
The collaborative effort put in to writing The Night Visitors parallels the collaborative effort put in by the publishing house and their readers to actually make it, since, like many independent publishers, Dead Ink use crowdfunding to make releasing their books viable.
Contrast the level of public ownership that this creates with Alice, Orla, Aaron and Finlay’s refusal to share information about their mission with each other, and you’ve got a book based on contradiction. A story which requires collaboration of characters, as well as its two authors, to reach a resolve. Hirst says that they wanted to create an undercurrent of opposing sides in the form of class distinction: Alice, who initially inhabits the ‘cap-in-hand, “I know my place” role’, is more extroverted and ‘worldly than she lets on’, while Orla, educated, esteemed, ‘is ruled by provincialism and self-enforced isolation.
Sound familiar? You wouldn’t be far off to identify Alice and Orla as allegorical representatives of the opposing sides of Brexit.
Hirst says that ‘the big gothic theme of the book is how the past can assail the present’ and British national identity is undeniably, and by no means healthily, wrapped around nostalgia’s little finger. And it’s nostalgia that pushes the characters forward, predictably, into a dark and dangerous future populated by unsettling visions and characterised by sleep paralysis.
In The Night Visitors, Ashworth and Hirst have built a world of research and reason with foundations in the supernatural. Orla initiates a progressive stance against nostalgia which is subverted by Alice as quickly as their potential to be reliable narrators diminishes. The prose is economic. It flows with the current of an underwater river bearing psychosis and impending old age downstream. Stylish and profound, this book’s jeopardy is slow burning, but like the old film footage of Hattie they’ve been chasing, it develops its own oxygen and the rate of combustion becomes unstoppable. The reader, ascending, feels as close to discovering the truth as Alice and Orla. You want it. You need it. And achieving it brings you into a state of confused, weightless euphoria. But you’re not floating, you’re just falling so fast you can’t see it. And when you hit the ground, it’s crushing.
Harry Gallon’s work features in numerous publications and has won (and almost won), several competitions. His debut novel, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes (Dead Ink Books), was first runner up for Best Novella at the 2016 Saboteur Awards, and was longlisted for Not the Booker Prize 2016. His second, Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, was published in July. He lives in London. @hcagallon.
Jenn Ashworth’s first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) is published by Sceptre. She lives in Lancashire and teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University. Her latest novel, Fell (Sceptre, 2016), is out now.
Richard V. Hirst is a writer based in Manchester. His writing has appeared in the Big Issue, the Guardian and Time Out, among others.