Cities of Night review

did this for Phil Nutman a few years ago.

Cities of Night limited edition HC review by Jason Foster

Cities of Night
By Philip Nutman

“Oh, the passenger,
How, how he rides
Oh, the passenger,
He rides and he rides
He looks through his window
What does he see?”

The Passenger, Iggy Pop

I first discovered the work of Phil Nutman while I was in high school in a Skipp & Spector edited anthology called Book of the Dead. The conceit of this collection is that it was a collection of zombie stories by different authors based on the Dead films of George Romero (and it includes a foreword by Romero himself). This same collection also introduced me to the works of Joe R. Lansdale, a topic for another time.

Phil’s tale in this book was only about eight pages long (a forerunner of the current zombie apocalypse craze), but it’s one of the most riveting in the collection. Fast forward just a couple of years and Phil had expanded those eight pages into a full length novel, Wet Work, amidst writing screenplays, journalism, and a foray into the world of comics, as well. (Sadly, in the era of zombies dominating the zeitgeist, Wet Work remains unadapted for the big screen.)

You can obtain copies of Wet Work here:

Phil continued shedding literary blood with his own prose work and as one of Chaos! Comics’ Architects of Armageddon, bringing his own sensibilities to Evil Ernie, Chastity, Suspira, and my own favorite of his comic work, The Omen: Save The Chosen, in addition to several graphic novels based on the Halloween film series. Last year, he became a brand of coffee.

But our focus here is on several collected short tales, each one featuring a different city in different parts of the world. The author takes us from his original homeland, Bath, in England, to the streets of Rome, Italy, to New York City, his current home in Atlanta, Georgia, in the US and more. As readers, we are able to walk these streets with Phil, because he knows them. He’s walked them all in his life and brings them all back with severe clarity.

Phil’s fictional counterpart, Jamie Hurst, bookends the series under the heading Unearthly Powers, and also stars in two other tales: Full Throttle and Blackpool Rock. In the Unearthly Powers intro, Prelude to a Nocturne, we meet Hurst as he’s nearing the end of his life. Hurst is preparing for a big event, and this enigmatic being sets the stage for the first story proper.

Full Throttle is an introduction to Jamie and his nascent precognitive abilities, as well as his doomed brother, Alex. The tale caroms along differing vectors as Alex and his thrill seeking friend race towards their destiny while Jamie deals with his emerging powers. You know going into the story what Alex’s fate will be. That’s not the tale. The tale is in how he gets there and the effect this has on Jamie’s life. Nutman pulls you along, giving you just enough of each to build the anticipation in your mind as you follow the path each brother is taking towards destiny.

The feeling of doom hovers over many of Nutman’s protagonists in the early sections of the book. Pavlov’s Wristwatch features a savant who feels shadowed by a character from a children’s book, and who is mentally incapable of escaping the fate he’s been born into.

In Churches of Desire, the journalist seeking an interview with an Italian film director, turns to the streets of Rome to fulfill his sexual desires and discovers his own end. Truthfully, this one ends just as it’s beginning to get really interesting. At his best tales, Nutman is the master showman, leaving the stage while the audience asks for more.

Memories of Lydia, Leaving is the bleakest tale in Nutman’s treasure trove here. As a man seeks to deal with the aftermath of a tragic love affair and fails. Nutman really sticks the knife in your heart here and twists it. Memories hurts to read for anyone who’s been through such an ordeal (and was no doubt extremely painful to write, as Nutman explains in the afterword that it was in part, based on a failed relationship of his own).

Writing is many things for many people, including catharsis, and the author takes us through some of his own pains in his work. This is one of the things that gives writing it’s power when it’s done right. Nutman does everything right on the page. He hits all the right notes and pulls all the right strings to make you feel what he wants you to feel. Memories is bleak, and it’s meant to be. I almost put the book down here (and some of you may feel the same), but I soldiered on, and you don’t do so as well, you’re doing yourself and the author a tremendous disservice.

You would deny yourself the privilege of watching Jamie Hurst come into his own as a man in Blackpool Rock, as he investigates the disappearance of an Elvis impersonator while learning to use his unique abilities. Truthfully, if there is a weakness in the book, in my opinion it is that it seems to be lacking another tale of Hurst, at some point in his life before the events of the prologue and epilogue.

Not to mention the intrigue of Ponce De Leon Avenue, where a struggling writer attempts to escape his financial woes and finds himself drawn into the web of mystery surrounding a vanished screen actress.

Or the darkly comic Still Life With Peckerwood (co-written with Nutman’s wife, Anya Martin, an excellent writer and journalist in her own right), in which the soul of a poet who claims to have inspired the best works of Poe contemplates his existence trapped inside a portrait.

You would also be denying yourself two great tales near the end of the book. The first of which is Love Sells the Proud Heart’s Citadel To Fate, in which Nutman gives us a glimpse at an early adventure of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, the enigmatic figure from Stoker’s Dracula, set some years before the events of the famous novel. By the time of Dracula, Van Helsing is already experienced in matters of a vampiric nature, and Nutman takes us along on one such early adventure. Hopefully, Nutman has more Van Helsing adventures in him.

The second is A Mother Cries At Midnight, from the first Hellboy: Odd Jobs compilation, and is one of my personal favorites of the author’s work. Here, Nutman sends “The World’s Greatest Paranormal Investigator” into the search for a missing child, and explores the myth of Lla Llorona, the Weeping Woman.

The limited edition version of the book contains some extra features. The first of which is Dorothy Dreams, in which Dorothy Neville attempts to deal with the loss of everyone she’s known by indulging in her favorite pastime: comparing life to the movies (who among us hasn’t played this game at some point in our lives?). It’s an intentional nod of the head towards Richard Matheson and his seminal novel, I Am Legend (even namechecked in the short), which is the progenitor of all zombie apocalypse fiction (even being one of the main inspirations for Romero’s Night of the Living Dead).

Other special features are an interview with the author, and a final afterword from him as well, where Nutman pulls back the curtain to give us biographical information of his life and the events which inspired certain stories within the collection.

Horror writers are always asked: “Why do you write what you do?” The answers to this question are varied, but Nutman’s response has always been: “To explore the darkness in order to better understand the light.” That includes the darkness within ourselves as well as the darkness without. All of Nutman’s characters are one their own journeys exploring their own particular darkness. If Philip Nutman, the man, had never moved beyond the soul crushing darkness that informs elements of his work (especially Memories), Philip Nutman, the author, would never have been able to engage in the lighter moments that make his work more fully rounded in the latter half of Cities.

As readers of horror fiction, we explore the darkness along the author and his characters, always aware that the dawn is just around the corner for us, even when some of our fictional companions do not finish the journey. This is our catharsis, one only made possible by the best in the field, among the numbers of which Nutman certainly counts.

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