In this follow-up to his award-winning debut collection, Monstrous Affections, David Nickle stretches the boundaries of horror into a sphere of “uncertainty, of helplessness, of traditions and change. . . . The stories are sui generis in presentation, veering from the discombobulating nightmare that is ‘Basements’ to the squid-laden eco-satire ‘Wylde’s Kingdom’ to the sci-fi love of ‘Love Means Forever.’ When it comes to this book, only two things are certain; the stories never travel where you expect, and David Nickle is a monumental talent” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
“Don’t make the mistake of overlooking the talent based on preconceptions of what horror might be—read one of these stories and see if you aren’t hooked. . . . Believe the hype. David Nickle is very good.” —The Globe and Mail
“Anyone even vaguely interested in horror or weird fiction owes it to themselves to give David Nickle a look, and Knife Fight and Other Struggles is a great place to start.” —The Winnipeg Free Press
“Knife Fight and Other Struggles is a remarkable collection that drops some hi-fidelity weirdness on the scene. Nickle’s prose has gorgeous lines of symmetry and a steel spine.” —Laird Barron, Shirley Jackson Award–winning author
“Dynamic imagination, masterful writing of both the everyday and the nightmare, characters that breathe, and a dark sense of humor make [Knife Fight and Other Struggles] a keeper.” —Jeffrey Ford, World Fantasy Award–winning author
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About the Author
David Nickle is an award-winning Toronto-based author and journalist. He has written several novels and numerous short stories. Nickle’s most recent book is Volk: A Novel of Radiant Abomination (2017).
Read an Excerpt
I met her on the beach.
It was one of Len's parties — one of the last he threw, before he had to stop. You were there too. But we didn't speak. I remember watching you talking with Jonathan on the deck, an absurdly large tumbler for such a small splash of Merlot wedged at your elbow as you nodded, eyes fixed on his so as not to meet mine. If you noticed me, I hope you also noticed I didn't linger.
Instead, I took my own wine glass, filled it up properly, climbed down that treacherous wooden staircase, and kicked off my shoes. It was early enough that the sand was still warm from the sun — late enough that the sun was just dabs of pink on the dark ocean and I could imagine I had the beach to myself.
She was, I'm sure, telling herself the same thing. She had brought a pipe and a lighter with her in her jeans, and was perched on a picnic table, surreptitiously puffing away. The pipe disappeared as I neared her. It came back soon enough, when she saw my wineglass, maybe recognized me from the party.
I didn't recognize her. She was a small woman, but wide across the shoulders and the tiniest bit chubby. Hair was dark, pulled back into a ponytail. Pretty, but not pretty enough; she would fade at a party like Len's.
"Yeah, I agree," she said to me and I paused on my slow gambol to the surf.
"It's too bright," she said, and as I took a long pull from my wine, watching her curiously, she added, "Look at him."
"Look at me," I said, and she laughed.
"You on the phone?" I asked, and she dropped her head in extravagant mea culpa.
"No," she said. "Just...."
"Don't fret. What's the point of insanity if you can't enjoy a little conversation?"
Oh, I am smooth. She laughed again, and motioned me over, and waved the pipe and asked if I'd like to share.
"Sure," I said, and she scooted aside to make room on the table. Her name was Lucy. Lucille, actually, was how she introduced herself but she said Lucy was fine.
I introduced myself. "Tom's a nice name," she said.
The night grew. Lungs filled with smoke and mouths with wine; questions asked, questions answered. How do you know Len? What do you do? What brings you to the beach when so much is going on inside? It went both ways.
Lucy knew Len scarcely at all. They'd met through a friend who worked at Len's firm. Through the usual convolutions of dinners and pubs and excursions, she'd insinuated herself onto the cc list of the ur-mail by which Len advertised his parties. She worked cash at a bookstore chain in town and didn't really have a lot of ambition past that right now. Which tended to make her feel seriously out of her weight class at Len's parties, or so she said; the beach, therefore, was an attractive option.
She finished my wine for me, and we walked. I'd been on my way to the water's edge and Lucy thought that was a fine idea. The sun was all gone by now and stars were peeking out. One of the things I liked about Len's place — it was just far enough away from town you could make out stars at night. Not like the deep woods, or the mountains. But constellations weren't just theoretical there.
"Hey, Tom," she said as the surf touched our toes, "want to go for a swim? I know we don't have suits, but. ..."
Why not? As you might remember, I've a weakness for the midnight dunk. We both did, as I recall.
I stepped back a few yards to where the sand was dry, set down my glass and stripped off my shirt, my trousers. Lucy unbuttoned her blouse, the top button of her jeans. I cast off my briefs. "Well?" I said, standing in flagrante delicto in front of her.
"Get in," she said, "I'll be right behind you."
It didn't occur to me that this might be a trick until I was well out at sea. Wouldn't it be the simplest thing, I thought, as I dove under a breaking wave, to wait until I was out far enough, gather my trousers, find the wallet and the mobile phone, toss the clothes into the surf and run to a waiting car? I'm developing my suspicious mind, really, my dearest — but it still has a time delay on it, even after everything....
I came up, broke my stroke, and turned to look back at the beach.
She waved at me. I was pleased — and relieved — to see that she was naked too. My valuables were safe as they could be. And Lucy had quite a nice figure, as it turned out: fine full breasts — wide, muscular hips — a small bulge at the tummy, true ... but taken with the whole, far from offensive.
I waved back, took a deep breath and dove again, this time deep enough to touch bottom. My fingers brushed sea-rounded rock and stirred up sand, and I turned and kicked and broke out to the moonless night, and only then it occurred to me — how clearly I'd seen her on the beach, two dozen yards off, maybe farther.
There lay the problem. There wasn't enough light. I shouldn't have seen anything.
I treaded water, thinking back at how I'd seen her ... glistening, flickering, with tiny points of red, of green ... winking in and out ... like stars themselves? Spread across not sky, but flesh?
I began to wonder: Had I seen her at all?
There was no sign of her now. The beach was a line of black, crowned with the lights from Len's place, and above that ... the stars.
How much had I smoked? I wondered. What had I smoked, for that matter? I hadn't had a lot of wine — I'd quaffed a glass at Len's before venturing outside, and I'd shared the second glass with Lucy. Not even two glasses....
But it was Len's wine.
I'd made up my mind to start back in when she emerged from the waves — literally in front of my face.
"You look lost," Lucy said, and splashed me, and dove again. Two feet came up, and scissored, and vanished. Some part of her brushed against my hip.
I took it as my cue and ducked.
The ocean was nearly a perfect black. I dove and turned and dove again, reaching wide in my strokes, fingers spreading in a curious, and yes, hungry grasp. I turned, and came near enough the surface that I felt my foot break it, splashing down again, and spun —
— and I saw her.
Or better, I saw the constellation of Lucy — a dusting of brilliant red points of light, defining her thighs — and then turning, and more along her midriff; a burst of blue stipple, shaping her breasts, the backs of her arms. I kicked toward her as she turned in the water, my own arms held straight ahead, to lay hold of that fine, if I may say, celestial body.
But she anticipated me, and kicked deeper, and I'd reached my lungs' limits so I broke surface, gasping at the night air. She was beside me an instant later, spitting and laughing. No funny lights this time; just Lucy, soaking wet and treading water beside me.
"We don't have towels," she said. "I just thought of that. We're going to freeze."
"We won't freeze," I said.
"It's colder than you think."
"Oh, I know it's cold. We just won't freeze."
She splashed me and laughed again and wondered what I meant by that, but we both knew what I meant by that, and after we'd not-quite tired ourselves out in the surf, we made back for the shore.
I wonder how things went for you, right then? I know that you always fancied Jonathan; I know what happened later. I hope you don't think I'm being bitter or ironic when I say I hope you had a good time with him. If he misbehaved — well, I trust you did too.
Shall I tell you how we misbehaved?
In some ways, it was as you might expect; nothing you haven't seen, nothing you haven't felt, my dear.
In others. ...
* * *
Through the whole of it, Lucy muttered.
"He is," she would say as I pressed against her breasts and nibbled on her earlobe; and "Quiet!" as I ran my tongue along the rim of her aureole ... "I said no," as I thrust into her, and I paused, and then she continued: "Why are you stopping, Tommy?"
This went on through the whole of it. As I buried my face between her legs, and she commented, "Isn't he, though?" I thought again of Lucy on the shore, under the water. "Too bright," she moaned, and I remembered my visions of the sky, on her skin.
And as I thought of these things, my hands went exploring: along her thighs, across her breasts — along her belly. ...
She gasped and giggled as I ran my thumb across her navel ... and she said, "Tommy?" as my forefinger touched her navel again ... and "What are you doing?" as the palm of my hand, making its way along the ridge of her hip-bone ... found her navel once more.
I lifted my head and moved my hand slowly aside. For an instant, there was a flash of dim red light — reflecting off my palm like a candle-flame. But only an instant. I moved my hand aside and ran the edge of my thumb over the flesh there. It was smooth.
"Tom?" she said sharply, and started on about unfinished business.
"Shh," I said, and lowered my face — to the ridge of her hip-bone, or rather the smooth flesh inward of it. And slowly, paying minute attention, I licked her salted skin.
I would not have found it with my crude, calloused fingertips; my tongue was better attuned to the task. I came upon it first as a small bump in the smooth flesh: like a pimple, a cyst. As I circled it, I sensed movement, as though a hard thing were rolling inside. Running across the tiny peak of it, I sensed a line — like a slit in the flesh, pushed tightly closed. Encouraged, I surrounded it with my lips and began to suck, as I kept probing it with my tongue.
"I'm sorry," she said, and then, "Oh!" as my tongue pushed through. It touched a cool, wet thing — rolling on my tongue like an unripened berry.
And then ... I was airborne ... it was as though I were flying up, and falling deep. And I landed hard on my side and it all resolved, the world once more. Icy water lapped against me. And Lucy was swearing at me.
I looked at her, unbelieving. She looked back.
She, and a multitude.
For now I could see that what I'd first thought were starpoints, were nothing of the sort. Her flesh was pocked with eyes. They were small, and reflective, like a cat's.
In her shoulders — the swell of her breasts — along the line of her throat ... They blinked — some individually, some in pairs, and on her belly, six points of cobalt blue, formed into a nearly perfect hexagon. Tiny slits of pupils widened to take in the sight of me. The whole of her flesh seemed to writhe with their squinting.
It didn't seem to cause her discomfort. Far from it; Lucy's own eyes — the ones in her head — narrowed to slits, and her mouth perked in a little smile. "He is that," she said, "yes, you're right." And it struck me then: those strange things she was saying weren't intended for me or anyone else.
She was talking to the eyes.
"He can't have known," she continued, her hand creeping down to her groin, "and if he did, well now he knows better."
I drew my legs to my chest and my own hands moved instinctively to my privates, as the implications of all those eyes, of her words, came together.
These weren't her eyes; they were from another creature, or many creatures. And they were all looking upon me: naked, sea-shrivelled, crouching in the dirt.
Turning away from her, I got to my feet, ran up the beach and gathered my shirt and trousers, and clutching them to my chest, fairly bolted for the stairs. I pulled on my clothes, hunted around for my shoes, and made my way up the stairs. At the top, I looked back for the glow of Lucy. But the beach was dark.
The eyes were shut.
* * *
You and Jonathan were gone by the time I came back to the house.
I wasn't surprised; Len had switched to his Sarah Vaughan/Etta James playlist, and I remember how fond you are of those two. And it was late. The party had waxed and waned during my excursion with Lucy on the beach and those who remained were the die-hards: Ben and Dru, sprawled on the sectional, finishing off a bottle of shiraz; Dennis, holding court in the kitchen with Emile and Prabh and the dates they'd not thought to introduce — at least not to me; maybe a half-dozen others that neither of us would recognize if we met them on the street. Len's party had proceeded without me.
I wasn't surprised, and I wasn't unhappy about it. Skinny dipping in the ocean and fucking on the beach are two activities that hardly leave one presentable to polite company. Best then to wait until the polite company had moved along, leaving only the depraved ones.
I made for the bathroom — the second floor bath, which yes, I know, was a faux pas at Len's parties, particularly late into the evening. But there was a small crowd around the two-piece off the kitchen, and I needed to tidy up sooner. So I slipped upstairs and made for the master bath. Which, happily, was vacant. The lights flickered on as I stepped inside and I slid the pocket door shut, and confronted myself in the long mirror opposite the showers.
I didn't think I took that long; just splashed water in my face, ran a wet comb through my hair, shook the sand out of my shirt and tucked it in properly before giving myself another inspection. By my own reckoning, it couldn't have been more than five minutes. But the hammering on the door said otherwise.
It was Kimi, Len's Kimi.
In a week, she'd be on a plane back to New York, done with all of us, gone from Len's circle for good. That party, she was on the verge of it. I slid open the door and apologized. "You shouldn't be up here," she said, "not this time of night," and I agreed.
"Ask forgiveness not permission? That it, Tommy?" she said and brushed past me. She had been spending time in Len's rooms, and it had gone about as badly as it did toward the end. You could tell. Do you remember that time Len had us all on that boat he'd hired for the summer? And she came hammering on our cabin door — with that fishhook stuck in just below the collarbone? And when you opened it, she was so quiet, asking if you knew where they kept the first-aid kit on the boat because "Len isn't sure." You knew something awful had happened, I knew something awful had happened.
We talked about it after we got the hook out and the wound cleaned and bandaged and Kimi, smiling brightly, had excused herself and skipped back to the cabin she and Len were sharing. What did you say? "One day, that armour of hers is going to crack. When it does, she'll either leave or she'll die."
It was a good line; I laughed as hard as you did.
Well, there in the upstairs bath, the armour was cracking. And Kimi wasn't dead. But she wasn't leaving either. She leaned against the vanity, arms crossed over her chest. She was wearing a short black skirt. Her shoulders, arms, and legs were bare. There were no visible bruises. No fishhooks either. She studied me, maybe looking for the same things.
"You go for a swim?" she said finally. "You look like you went for a swim in the ocean."
Her eyes flickered away a moment as she waved a hand. "Nobody's guilty of taking a fucking swim. And it's a good look for you." Then she looked again, reassessing. "But you didn't just go for a swim."
"You were right. I took a fucking swim," I said, and started to laugh, and she got it and laughed too.
"How's your night going?" I asked. She made a little sneer with her lips — as if she was trying to fish a piece of food out of her teeth. Put her bare feet together on the slate tile floor, made a show of inspecting the nails.
"Len's very tired," she said.
I raised my eyebrows. "Oh dear. That doesn't sound good."
"It's not as bad as that."
"If you say so."
She looked at me. "Are you hitting on me, Tommy?" I said I wasn't.
"Then why the fuck are you still here?"
There was an answer to that question, but not one I could really articulate — not the way she was looking at me then. I wanted to talk to her about Lucy, about the eyes. ... I thought — hoped — that she would be able to help me parse the experience somehow. Or failing that, help me put it away, someplace quiet.
But her armour was cracked. She had nothing to offer me. And although I wouldn't know for sure until a week later — she wasn't leaving that night, she stayed the whole time — she was almost certainly planning her escape.
So I left her to it. "I'm very tired too," I said, and stepped into the hall.
That one didn't get a laugh. The bathroom door slid shut behind me, hitting the doorjamb hard enough to quiver in its track.
"You're still thinking about her," said Kimi through the wood. "Well, give it up, Tommy. It's obvious to everybody. She's done with you."
* * *
Oh, don't worry. I know you're done with me. I'm done with you too.
* * *
I joined the conversation in the kitchen, or rather hovered at its edge. Dennis had stepped away, and now Emile was talking about Dubai, which was hardly a new topic for him. But the girls he and Prabh had brought were new. They hung on every word. I leaned against the stove, poured myself the dregs of a Chardonnay into a little plastic cup and swallowed the whole thing. Prabh found me a Malbec from Portugal and poured a refill.
"Yeah, you look like shit," he said. "Bad night?"
"Not exactly bad," I said. "Strange. Not exactly bad."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Knife Fight and Other Struggles"
Copyright © 2014 David Nickle.
Excerpted by permission of ChiZine Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Praise for David Nickle,
Other CZP Books by David Nickle,
Introduction: Death Threats and Love Letters by Peter Watts,
The Exorcist: A Love Story,
The Summer Worms,
Love Means Forever,
The Nothing Book of the Dead,
Drakeela Must Die,
Black Hen à la Ford,
Orlok (a prelude to Volk),
About the Author,
DEATH THREATS AND LOVE LETTERS,