The Nightmare Chronicles is a fantastic, weird and transgressive collection of horror short stories.
Clegg is a master of characterization – there are no cardboard tropes here. Each setting is fully realized, seemingly authentic and feeling very lived in. He doesn’t bog his monsters down with much in the way of explanations and spares his readers clumsy exposition. A nightmare dream logic pervades throughout. Clegg reminds me of Clive Barker with his mixture of terror and sensuality and transformative otherness.
A frame story, about a group of far-left radicals who have kidnapped a child who, it turns out, is more of a monster than a normal child, bookends the collection and intrudes as interludes here and there, as well. The framing device is what I assume to be One Thousand and One Nights-inspired but unfortunately I haven’t actually read that. It’s decent but the stories themselves are much, much better.
Highlights among the collection include:
“O, Rare and Most Exquisite” – A fully realized period piece and character study of a cad of a gardener having an affair with his boss’ wife and his finding the perfect, and very strange, flowers to give her. The revelation of where the flowers come from will be revisited in some form or fashion throughout much of the rest of these stories. Clegg is fascinated with body transfiguration and sex.
“The Fruit of Her Womb” – An older couple move into a house that was once the site of a brutal mass family murder. The husband becomes more and more obsessed with the crime and the occultism that lead to that crime. A work of folk horror here, tied up heavily with Greek myth, and a finely tuned spin on a ghost story.
“The Ripening Sweetness of Late Afternoon” – A work of true bizarro. A faithless preacher returns to his hometown to atone for a horrible crime he committed in his youth. I won’t give away the weird element of this one but only say that it is superbly introduced and brilliant.
“Damned If You Do” – A truly fucked and excellent story that drops us right into the mind of an retired schoolteacher and serial killer. A disturbing tale. Probably the most horrific in the book.
“I Am Infinite; I Contain Multitudes” – In an asylum for the criminally insane, a new convict navigates his psychopathic lover and the old timer who claims he’s God and says he knows the way out. One part suspenseful crime story and one part sci-fi weirdness with an ending of mystic body horror madness.
There are seven more stories in the book and all of them are good. (Years ago I read Clegg’s The Hour Before the Dark and Red Angel and enjoyed them.) The Nightmare Chronicles has impressed me and entertained me and challenged me in a way that makes me want to seek out more of his work very soon.