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London Incognita by Gary Budden review – a modern masterpiece of the urban wyrd

Our introduction to the tenebrous, haunted streets of London Incognita is the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated “Judderman”. Set in 1972, it sees two brothers, Gary and Daniel Eider, explore the city’s dark corners and “thin places” as they attempt to catalogue its hidden stories, those that belong to the forgotten, dispossessed and abused.

Daniel disappears; Gary comes to believe even more fervently that “he had to become London, to enter its arteries and dissolve into the bloodstream of the city”. The Eiders’ London seethes with barely contained malice. It is a place of threat and violence, where the angular spectre of the story’s title peels itself from dank walls with a leering grin.

“Judderman” started life as part of the Eden Book Society series, a set of horror novellas published under pseudonyms (in this case D.A. Northwood), ostensibly lost 1970s gems from an obscure horror imprint. It’s a fitting detail for a collection in which features of the real London frequently collide with invention; real myths are entwined with new ones invented by the author. The Judderman, the Commare, the emperor worm, “we pass under”, landscape punk, Michael Ashman and the Malachite Press… Names, phrases and visions run through the stories like whispered incantations.

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Central to the collection is the idea of a shadow-London, one visible only to people on the fringes. In “The Scorched Music of the Emperor Worm”, it’s a “hellish and parasitic place” dubbed “Nematoda”. In “Sky City”, Mick glimpses an idealised London, “a shimmering city high above this one”. For the Eider brothers, it’s “London Incognita” – a term originating from an Arthur Machen story, and a phrase repeated by other characters throughout the book. The narrator of “A Constellation of Wondrous Places” describes it not as a place but a “method and a genre”, one that “searched for the stories hiding in the suburbs, the mystical revelations contained in backstreets, slip roads, underpasses and shopping centres”.

London Incognita is composed of such stories. In “I Precede Myself”, PK chases his own shadow as he tries to get hold of a cherished record on rare green vinyl. “We Pass Under” introduces a female counterpart to the Judderman: the Commare, an indifferent goddess for lost women. “Sky City” reimagines a real London story, showing how truth becomes legend, is rewritten again and again. The haunting “What Never Was” follows a woman attempting to mourn a man she barely knew, but could have loved. “My Queen” is a delightfully grotesque tale of urban explorers traversing an underground world of fatbergs, monstrous rats, and something more beguiling yet much more dangerous.

Finally, there’s a new novella-length story, “You’re Already Dead”. It brings the book full circle, returning to the Eider family: Melissa, a modern-day cousin of Gary and Danny, is its protagonist. It’s a feminine inversion of the corrupted masculinity of “Judderman”, and a way of unravelling some of the book’s tangled threads. More than any of the other stories, it offers hope. What, in the end, sustains the people of London Incognita? Community, friendship and love; maybe, sometimes, just a great piece of music, or a good memory to hold on to. And hold on to something they must. Stories like “Judderman”, “Sky City” and “My Queen” are cautionary tales, showing us what becomes of those who allow themselves to be beckoned into the murk of the shadow city.

Over the course of fourteen stories, London Incognita builds its own distinct mythology, one that owes as much to zine culture, punk music and pulp fiction as it does to classic weird tales and psychogeography. Its stories map onto one another and build layer over layer, much as the many conflicting stories of a place or an event come together to create a patchwork history – one that will always be slightly different for each individual. This is a book for anyone who’s lived in a city, loved and hated it, walked down all its strange alleyways in search of something undefined. It is a modern masterpiece of the urban wyrd.

London Incognita by Gary Budden is published by Dead Ink Books.

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