A dropped map showing streets that don't exist. Label-less LPs that play nothing—but might be silenced messages from elsewhere. Trains carrying revenant political prisoners across the borders of reality. Regicide is a slight book, populated with ideas that run from the softly disquieting to the all-out grisly. It's the kind of novel that promises to leave you puzzling, not to mention spooked—which is what makes its ultimate lack of direction so frustrating.
Regicide is the story of a man and a map. While trying to avoid fixating on a girl he met at a party, Carl comes across a page from a street atlas. A bit of a map fan, he fixates instead on trying to identify the city it depicts, but can't. As he moves between Manchester and London, the familiarity of both cities becomes infected by the third, unknown city. The more obsessed Carl becomes, the stranger the world around him turns: familiar streets lead him astray, telephones summon him into empty houses, murderous dogs chase trains. Interstitial features of the urban landscape, such as canals and gasholders, become intersections with this slowly encroaching otherworld: the City, where Carl is a fugitive sharing streets with his own dreams and nightmares.
I was attracted to this book because of this premise, and because I've enjoyed Royle's work as an editor. His taste for the unsettling has resulted in some wonderful anthologies: recently, Murmurations: An anthology of uncanny stories about birds (2011) demonstrated a keen eye for the uncanny as Freud identified it—that which is heimlich, homely, known, and not-so at the same time. Like birds. Or, in the case of Regicide, dogs. Or cities. Royle has an evident knack for taking things so familiar that they have become unremarkable to us, and making them sinister. He does this by drawing attention to them early in the narrative, giving them a heightened significance without telling the reader why, and then recasting them in a stark and frightening light later on. An example: Carl receives several blank telephone calls, and an anonymous figure gives him a blank LP—he becomes "in thrall" to such silences (p. 50); later, a prisoner in the City, he demands a phone call back to the real world and is told:
You can hear them but they can't hear you. That's how it works. All those wrong numbers you used to get, picking up the phone and there's no one there, that's people calling out of the City. (p. 155)
Such reconfiguration of seemingly mundane things is one of several tricks Royle uses to plant the world of the City in the reader's mind. The tone is another. Matter of fact description and lateral jumps of logic—for example, Carl's certain knowledge that if he could just work out what the woman he sees bopping along to her car stereo is listening to, "then I'd share her secret and perhaps I'd know the way to drive to the streets on the map" (p. 45)—mean that we're ready to accept things the way one does in a dream, doing away with the need for overwrought exposition. By the time Carl reaches the City we are, like him, ready for it to find us; ready to accept it on its own terms. Neat. The narrative structure also borrows from dreams, presenting a seemingly disjointed series of ordinary events, strange occurrences and distant flashbacks that add to the story from different angles. This structure turns out to be a series of well-laid stepping stones that lead the reader to realise things at the same time that Carl does, again without having to belabour the point. In this way, nightmarish appearances of dogs in the first section of the book mean that when Carl notices the prevalence of dogs in the City, it seems natural to infer that this world is fed at least in part by his nightmares. And then it gets complicated.
The City, like the book, is a puzzle. Is it an extension of Carl's psyche, a twisted alternate reality trying to take over ours, or an amalgamation of both? This question is never resolved. Life in the City revolves around the search for its King's killer: every official is on the hunt and every citizen is a potential suspect. Statues of the King depict "a tall, broad-shouldered figure wearing either a trench coat or a double-breasted suit with a trilby-style hat" (p. 96)—which is how Carl's father, when he appears in memories, is also described. Carl's escapades in the City are spliced with flashbacks that gradually unveil the traumatic circumstances surrounding his father's death, suggesting that the whole place is a manifestation of Carl's own feelings of guilt. But when he comes face to face with his pursuers they reveal a plan to infiltrate our world in which Carl is just a bit-player:
Our agents of darkness are slipping through into your world via the gap you so conveniently left in the side of the City when you walked in . . . now we can put more ambitious plans into action. (p. 155)
Other actions performed by the City—the kidnapping of people who achieve extraordinary things, the cross-breeding of human children with dogs, the deportation of executed living-dead bodies to hide in gasholders throughout Britain—also suggest a heftier plot, in which the "brownfield sites, interzones, edgelands" (p. 167) of the urban landscape are instilled with real menace. Uncanny fiction has a strong tradition of exposing the anxieties of modernity, picking at the seams of systems that are taken for granted—late nineteenth century Gothic novels like The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) characterise the supposedly progressive bustle of Victorian London as something supernatural or animalistic. In the passages where it treats the City as a real threat, just-present in our own urban interstices, Regicide participates in this tradition, suggesting that cities are frightening because they are systems we don't question, full of objects and processes we accept but don't quite understand. They are, perhaps, the ultimate uncanny entity.
I wanted to read a novel that went somewhere with that.
Instead, I was stuck with a novel about the inside of its protagonist's head. In the end, the question of how much of the action in the City is "real" and how much an exploration of Carl's damaged psyche becomes moot, because there is only one character in this book. Which is fine, if you find everyman drifter characters interesting; like Billy Harrow in Kraken (2010) and Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere (1996) before him, Carl is the latest in a grand tradition of dull Englishmen who find their way into alternate realities. There are other figures that come and go: the love interest, Annie Risk, is given a little flesh, but is only relevant in terms of what she means to and does for Carl; the rest of the cast don’t feel like people at all. They are symbols, mutable and sometimes interchangeable in appearance and significance—another dreamlike device, but one that left me cold. In the City, Carl is aided by Stella, a figure skater who says she was brought there from our world because "I went too far. I did a quintuple salchow one day at the local rink. It's not supposed to be possible" (p. 120). But this backstory places her firmly in Carl's fantasy world: he's always been fascinated by ice skaters because of the way they seem to make the impossible possible. The fact that an earlier episode showed Carl half-dreaming while watching a skater on TV make it quite clear: Stella is nothing but an embodiment of this fascination.
Later comes a scene that could have been the novel's most chilling and turned out to be a close contender for its most maddening. Carl has stowed away on a train carrying executed prisoners out of the City and into our world—death doesn't work in dreams, so the dead don't lie down until they're sent out into reality. Carl describes the dead:
It was the details—the shaving scar, the mole on one woman's cheek, the pierced ears, dark roots amid dyed blonde hair—that affirmed the humanity of the train's cargo. Otherwise they could be sides of meat destined to hang on hooks in the market. (pp. 171-2)
Then the dead begin to turn on him, and he says:
It dawned on me that I was the cause of these deaths. Or that was what the City would want me to think, anyway. (p. 172)
So, in the same breath, Carl takes pains to affirm the reality of the people around him, and alleges that they are little more than a part of an elaborate mind-game he's playing with himself. The lack of internal consistency is more than just baffling: it's a sign that this might not be going anywhere at all.
As the novel draws to a close, it becomes increasingly fitful, swinging back and forth between "it was never real!" and "it was always real!" in a way that is probably supposed to keep the reader guessing—but that depends largely on the reader caring. And all the clever tricks that Royle plays with structure and motifs and tone can't quite distract from the fact that here, in the final section, he has dropped all promise of narrative resolution. I don't demand a straightforward linear thrust, and a story that asks a lot of me is more interesting than one that lays everything out blandly, but if a book is going to lay such a deliberate path only to walk me into a wall I'm going to get a little disgruntled. This is exactly what happens on the last page, which offers not one but two twist endings. The first of these is actually quite an effective flip in the novel's reality, but the final paragraph tries to reconfigure it again in a way that left me wondering why I'd bothered. The last line is one of the oldest noncommittal "surprise" endings in the book:
And then came the knock on the door. (p. 188)
I can't even say that at least it's better than and then he woke up and it was all a dream, because the book has already pulled that one—twice.
Despite my limited interest in Carl, despite my growing suspicion that I was being led on, I was intrigued enough by the City and the intricate narrative layering to play along, but as last lines go that one stone-cold killed my willingness to ponder it any further. I imagine that readers who identify with Carl may get more out of Regicide; for me, it held great potential as a novel of the urban uncanny, but ultimately failed to make a lasting impression.
Tori Truslow grew up in Bangkok and is a graduate of the Warwick MA in Writing. She currently lives in the UK where she writes and runs workshops for young people and adults. Her fiction has sold to Polluto, Clockwork Phoenix 3, Paraxis, and the Speculative Ramayana Anthology, and she has reviewed for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Sabotage Reviews, and the New York Review of Science Fiction.