Suspense and chills galore await in Binocular, a tightly controlled, claustrophobic double bill of menace.
Nick Sidhu and Kelly Smith have joined forces in what’s described as “One very unpleasant story. Then another one” – and they are quite right (in a good way), though there are moments of beauty too.
“Six”, by Sidhu, introduces us to happy couple Jack and Miranda, who have moved into a tall Victorian terrace in Bristol and are enjoying doing it up, until the ancient pipes start playing up and the noise becomes too much to bear. Against Jack’s instinct to “best leave it sleeping,” Miranda engages a handyman to fix the problem. Enter George Snile – a slithery surname matching his creepy, lecherous nature – who materialises in front of Jack when he comes home from work one day.
Sidhu’s vivid descriptions immediately put us on edge in Snile’s presence. His gravelly voice and wiry body, and the way he openly leers at Miranda made my skin crawl. And Jack’s uncomfortable displacement is immediate from the off too; not only does Jack come home to find a strange man in his house, this strange man is making moves on his partner and, worst of all, Miranda seems to like the attention. Needless to say, the job takes longer than planned and Snile’s constant presence is a palpable weight throughout the narrative. From the off, poor Jack doesn’t stand a chance and can’t understand why. “What was George Snile about?” he muses. “Fucking man.”
We all know how painful and frustrating having workers in our private spaces can be. These are, on the whole, strangers, invading our home lives in the most intimate of ways; the stress alone of having to be polite and on kettle-boiling duty is enough to make me scream. Sidhu has tapped into this to create a heightened version of what could happen if an unsavoury someone managed to get their feet under your table. Six is a claustrophobic read and I found myself yelling at Jack to take control and boot Snile’s miserable self out of the front door. As he grows increasingly exhausted by the situation, the boundaries between what’s real and what’s not are blurred. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if Jeremy Beadle walked into the room, microphone in hand, a jester’s smile on his face?” Jack asks himself. Any story that references the legendary Beadle gets a thumbs-up from me. There are moments of comedy – shaded black, naturally – but it’s impossible to shake off the pervading dread. “Six” is a sharp, stinging descent into a madness which could happen to any one of us.
Smith’s “Selkie”, as the title suggests, draws on the Scottish lore of the seal folk who shed their skins to become human. We meet Ross, an awkward, sullen teenager struggling to come to terms with the unexpected death of his father. School is torture until a new girl, Anne, starts mid-way through term. They strike up a friendship so strong that it enters spiritual realms, and it lasts into adulthood. Even when their lives take different routes, Ross never forgets their magical connection and when Anne re-enters his life a very different person to who he remembers, he is determined to help her rediscover herself – a convenient distraction to his loveless marriage. There is one obstacle standing in the way: his bullish oaf of a brother-in-law, Neil.
Smith has neatly (although whether intentionally, I don’t know) mirrored Sidhu in bringing to life a character we love to hate. Neil is gross all-around; uncouth, rude and every other such adjective you can think of. The detail in the characterisation is so sharp it pricks like a pin. Put it this way, I wouldn’t want that guy slobbing around in my front room. And, like Sidhu’s Jeremy Beadle reference, I applaud Smith for resurrecting another cultural icon, Mystic Meg. In both stories, these tiny nods to the generation their characters are from made me smile. It’s a nice touch. There’s not too much more I can say about “Selkie” without giving away plot points, but Smith handles the blend of mystical lore and harsh reality very well indeed. Where he excels is in dialogue, and Neil’s voice is executed so vividly he was speaking off the page.
Considering we know full well that we’re letting ourselves in for a ride on the black side, Binocular is twisty and grim, and surprising. Thankfully we are viewing it through a remote lens: close up to see the gory bits but distant enough to say, “thank goodness that isn’t me.” These sorry people are in sorry messes who end up being even sorrier than before – a stark lesson in what happens if we let our darker side take control.
Binocular by Nick Sidhu and Kelly Smith is published by Mutant Hoof. It’s available to purchase on Lulu.