The release of a new book by Adam Nevill is always cause for celebration. For over ten years now, he has consistently produced novels and short fiction which has terrified and disturbed readers – myself, very much, included. Not many authors have written books which I’ve had to stop reading because they were creeping me out too much but Adam is one of them.
It’s a rare skill. To produce such an extreme emotional response in a person simply through words on a page is amazing. Dark arts may be involved but a more likely explanation is a remarkable dedication to the craft of writing, something Adam talks about in his book Cries from the Crypt and which is apparent in everything he writes.
Breaking a run of novel releases, this year’s book is a collection of short stories called Some Will Not Sleep – a title which, on reflection, could refer either to the characters within or the readers once they’ve finished it. It’s published by Adam’s own Ritual Ltd.
There are eleven stories in the book, eight of which are written in first person narrative, and each and every one is a cracker – here you’ll find monsters (including those of the human variety), ghosts, arcane rituals and some of the most disturbing imagery ever put on paper… Those familiar with Adam’s novels will also find here the seeds from which some of those epics grew.
Children, and childhood fears, feature prominently in the collection – indeed, the book opens with one such story, Where Angels Come In. It takes the Spooky Old House On The Hill That No-one Dare Enter trope and runs with it, describing the break-in by the story’s narrator and his friend Pickering into such an establishment. It’s a familiar set-up and readers will have a warm glow of anticipation as they begin the story, relishing the thought of spooky goings-on, perhaps a half-glimpsed shadowy figure scaring the boys so much that they run home, tails between their legs… Except, of course, this is an Adam Nevill story. The horrors are not so much hinted at here as pushed centre stage. Beginning with the bizarre statues the boys discover in the grounds of the house, the terrifying images come one after the other as the house’s residents reveal themselves to the boys. And then attack…
It’s an incredibly strong opening tom the book, utterly terrifying – that terror intensified by a wonderful closing paragraph which acts as a book-end – and dredging up all those childhood nightmares, tapping into the images that scared us as kids and proving, most effectively, that they’re just as terrifying to adults.
Children also feature in two other stories, both set outside the UK. Pig Thing takes place in New Zealand and is in essence a siege story, with children in a remote house terrorised by the titular monster. One of the many strengths of the story – along with the description of the Pig Thing itself – is the acceptance, from the outset, that the monster is real. No time is wasted here attempting to suspend the reader’s disbelief, no effort made to rationalise – the Pig Thing exists, and it’s bloody terrifying.
Japan is the setting for The Ancestors. Told in first person from a child’s perspective, it’s a potent mix of imaginary friends (or not…) and haunted toys. Anyone who has read Adam’s House of Small Shadows will know just how scary the latter can be and that’s put to very effective use here in a story which gradually builds up the tension to a truly disturbing climax.
The imagery and imagination employed throughout this collection are typical - if not quintessential – Nevill but the most direct references to his longer works are to be found in two stories in particular: To Forget and be Forgotten has, as its central character a night-watchman in an apartment block (here in Antwerp), a job Adam himself endured and which also features in his novel Apartment 16. Our first-person narrator takes the job in order to fulfil his wish to be anonymous, to hide from society but finds himself embroiled in very strange goings-on indeed. There’s a hint of Rosemary’s Baby here I guess but this story is very much its ow beast – and proof that old people can be just as scary as children.
Readers of Adam’s novel The Ritual will recognise many of the references in The Original Occupant with much of the story taking place in sub—arctic Scandinavia. It’s a semi-epistolary account of a friend of the narrator’s disappearance in that region. It’s an odd little story, in that for much of it I was unsure of which time period it was set in. The language, the gentlemen’s clubs which feature and the fact that much communication is done by letter had the story placed somewhere in the twenties or thirties in my mind but then, late in the tale, a helicopter appears. It’s a minor criticism of a story that relies less on disturbing imagery and overt terror than on implied, suggestive horror. It’s an entertaining companion piece to The Ritual but is set in a different enough world that its enjoyment won’t be diminished if the novel hasn’t already been read.
As mentioned previously, all the Nevill trademarks are to be found within the covers of Some Will Not Sleep but it also contains one of the least Nevillesque stories I’ve had the pleasure of reading too. The Age of Entitlement is a subtle, psychological slow-burner of a tale with two pretty much unlikable protagonists. There are hints at some possible supernatural elements but these are simply there to add to the slowly growing sense of unease which builds as tensions between the protagonists increases. No clacking trotters here, no withered hands or yellow fangs - but this is definitely a story about a monster.
A human monster also takes centre stage in Yellow Teeth, telling, as it does, of the lodger from Hell – uninvited and unwilling to move on. Add in that this also happens to be the most unhygienic person in the world and the scene is set for much glorious description of disgust which, come its conclusion, verges on body horror. It’s a potent (but definitely not fragrant) blend of psychological and physical horror which then becomes something else again when the reason for the lodger’s bizarre behaviour becomes clear, turning into a story of a descent – or possibly ascent – into Hell.
Florrie is the last story in the collection and is Adam’s take on a haunted house story. What sets this apart from other such tales is the idea that the house itself may be doing the haunting rather than its previous occupants. Haunting shifts almost imperceptibly into possession as the protagonist’s world alters around him and the story – and therefore the book – ends on one of the most chilling lines I’ve ever read.
The spirit of Cormac McCarthy haunts What God Hath Wrought? – in particular his masterpiece Blood Meridian. It’s a superb weird western, and – like McCarthy’s novel – has, as one of its characters, a malevolent preacher making his way through the wilderness of the American West. I do love a good weird western and this is up there with the best of them (I loved the story when I first read it in the Gutshot anthology and enjoyed it just as much second time around). The story’s main set-piece is a battle with the preacher’s followers, the vampiric Nephites, and this is handled with great aplomb, written as skilfully as the earlier passages of dialogue which drip with authenticity. It’s one of the longer stories in the book but deserving of its length and I was gripped from start to finish. And what a finish… the story ends with a revelation of epic proportions, leaving the reader with an image upon which to ponder. It’s a stunning end to a stunning story.
The remaining two stories in the book are Doll Hands and Mother’s Milk. Often, when structuring reviews, the last few paragraphs are a quick round-up of the stories which didn’t work so well, a kind of “also included were…” Not so here. These two stories, in my opinion, were the stand-outs of the collection. I’ve (somewhat unfairly perhaps) lumped them together because I regard them as coming from the same stock; I believe both are incredibly stylishly written, almost surreal, celebrations of the grotesque.
Of the two, Doll Hands provides more context for the bizarre happenings described, set as it is in a post-apocalyptic landscape where the majority of survivors are horribly disfigured and the processing of human flesh for consumption is the norm. The story is narrated in a naïve, almost child-like style which only serves to intensify the horror being described.
Mother’s Milk is a vignette, a brief – and nightmarish - glimpse into the life of a family of grotesque creatures. Possibly human, or at least once human – the story does not reveal. In fact, very little is revealed about why or how these creatures have come about; the narrator of the tale holds down a job but the family home is isolated and secluded, allowing their bizarre life to continue. This lack of information may be troublesome to some readers but I loved the fact that I was simply dropped into the middle of this surreal existence with no context or reason.
The imagery, so much a feature of Adam’s work, is incredible. It’s not an easy read – at least with a film you can look away from the screen when the worst bits come on but that’s not so easy with a book… I’m still not sure exactly what Mother’s Milk is about but I loved it. This is pretty much how I feel about Eraserhead and the emotions evoked by that film are the same ones I had when I finished reading this story. This isn’t just a case of style over substance either, this is an amazing reading experience, truly the stuff of nightmares.
I feel I can’t recommend Some Will Not Sleep highly enough. All of the stories within of are of the highest quality and those already familiar with Adam’s novels will have the added pleasure of seeing where some of the ideas for those great works came from.
Here is evidence of great talent, of a writer embracing and expanding a genre. The imagination on display is second to none and is matched by a prose style many would kill for. Adam Nevill is a great ambassador for horror and the genre is lucky to have him.
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