Friday 25 October 2019

The Reddening.

The Reddening is the new novel from Adam Nevill. It’s the first to be published by the author’s own Ritual Limited (the company’s previous two books being collections of short fiction) and the author’s ninth novel, arriving some two and a half years after the last one, Under a Watchful Eye. Within that time, of course, the film version of Adam’s third novel, The Ritual, has been released to huge acclaim.
It’s little surprise that The Ritual was such an effective film as Adam’s writing has a true cinematic feel to it. This is not a case of damning with faint praise - cinema is an art form in itself and when done well can evoke the strongest of emotions - rather a huge compliment to the skill of the writing itself. That writing is so assured and precise that the images it seeks to convey are delivered straight into readers’ imaginations, the scenes playing out in their minds’ eyes as they follow the words on the page.
The cinematic feel to The Reddening is perhaps enhanced by its differences to Under a Watchful Eye. Whilst the latter was a slow burner of a novel, preying on psychological rather than visceral fears, The Reddening pelts along at a cracking pace, employing multiple points of view and short chapters both of which lend a real urgency to proceedings. A few of the chapters start with a startling image or piece of action – the literary equivalent, I guess, of a jump scare – and the author even manages to use sound effectively (again testament to the skill of the writing) to unsettle and terrify the reader. There’s a scene in Adam’s novel Last Days which really freaked me out at the time, and which still gives me a shiver to think about, involving strange sounds on a recording and that effect is recreated in a scene in The Reddening with equally impressive results. The power of suggestion created by “noises off” is not to be underestimated (think movie versions of The Exorcist or even The Ritual – the scene where Luke can hear whatever is happening to Dom in another room inside the cabin…) and it’s used to brilliant effect here again.
It’s the set-pieces in The Reddening that really stand out though; among them a dog attack, a desperate fight against drowning and, at almost the halfway point of the book, a scene of extreme horror that is one of the most disturbing things I’ve read in quite some time. I’m already regretting using the term “extreme horror” as that conjures up (in my mind anyway) lurid and gratuitous descriptions of violence designed to shock and disgust rather than create any real feelings of horror. The scene in question does involve extreme violence but the writing here is so good that the emotions it stirs in the reader are ones of horror in its purest sense; eschewing over the top descriptions, the spare and concise way in which it is written magnifies the terror of what’s happening. It’s a grim and relentless scene that will leave you shaken and stirred; a masterclass in how this type of thing should be written.
Set in Adam’s own stomping ground, The Reddening is a novel of folk horror. Its starting point is the discovery of a cave containing Neanderthal remains, among which is found evidence of ritualistic behaviour involving bizarre, dog-headed idols, mass slaughter and cannibalism. The novel opens with a series of vignettes, setting the scene and introducing some of the book’s characters. The always tricky job of providing information to the reader is handled very cleverly, the findings of the teams exploring the cave are presented retrospectively in a press conference, the reader discovering the horrors alongside Kat, one of the book’s main characters. It’s another brilliantly written scene with the dark revelations of the dig stirring feelings of horror and revulsion in Kat, her emotional responses magnifying and enhancing those of the reader experiencing them vicariously.
It soon becomes apparent that the horrors uncovered in the cave aren’t as ancient as they might seem. Enter Helene, the book’s second protagonist: sister to Lincoln who has disappeared after having made the aforementioned recordings near the site of the cave. It’s another clever move, introducing a character to play the role of the outsider – a standard in any tale of folk horror, a baseline of normality against which to measure the strangeness of the “locals”. This is done extremely effectively when she finds herself caught up in a procession, the inherent hostility of the residents – and the sense of unease and danger this creates - permeating the whole scene.
As both women pursue their investigations, so the dark secrets of this particular part of South Devon begin to reveal themselves. People, it seems, have been disappearing on a regular basis. A possible explanation for these disappearances is that of a drugs empire protecting itself, a nice sub-plot which injects some ambiguity into proceedings and also the allows the introduction of seventies’ folk singer Tony Willows who may or may not be involved in what’s going on. It also allows some nice cross-references to Adam’s other books, a feature of most of his novels; subtle enough that if you spot them you’ll feel the warm glow of familiarity and your own cleverness but if you don’t the narrative is in no way affected.
Whilst the drug runners may provide a rational explanation for the disappearances and general weirdness, there is another, supernatural, rationale to be considered. Something, or so it seems, lurks beneath the surface of the ground; something worshipped – and feared – since prehistoric times. As with Black Maggie in his novel No One Gets Out Alive, Adam has created an entirely plausible, and terrifying, mythology as the backdrop to The Reddening. Old Creel is a fine creation, a distant relative of The Ritual’s Moder but a traveller along a different evolutionary pathway. I do like a good monster, and there are none better at creating them than Adam Nevill. As with Moder in (the novel of) The Ritual, the descriptions of Old Creel are handled in such a way that the reader’s own imagination is engaged to paint their own picture of what the monster looks like. It’s another example of skilful writing and reinforces that in most cases, less really is more. Samuel Araya provides an incredible image for the book’s cover, perfectly capturing the imagery suggested by the prose within. The cover of the hardback is particularly effective, presenting the art work unencumbered by the book’s title - an artistic decision which works incredibly well. As with all of the Ritual Limited books it’s a quality product, the care and attention to detail apparent in every aspect.
The separate storylines eventually converge in a thrilling showdown at the book’s conclusion. The third act actually begins with a flashback – a bold move considering it could have interrupted the momentum which builds all through the novel. Could have, but doesn’t. Backstory is provided in order to give the reader information the protagonists lack and sets the scene for the final showdown. There may not be any wicker men involved but the horrors Adam conjures are just as effective.
The Reddening is described on the paperback edition’s cover as a Folk Horror Thriller and there can be no argument that this is exactly what it is. It’s the paciest book Adam has written, hurtling along, drawing the reader towards its horrifying climax. The writing throughout is of the highest quality, nothing is sacrificed to the momentum of the plot and the characters populating the story are perfectly drawn; real people facing an unreal situation. The use of location is particularly effective here, the eerie landscape of South Devon a character in itself. The Reddening is in essence a plot driven, literary novel. Now there’s a thing.
Although I’ve just used over thirteen hundred of them, words can’t adequately describe how much I enjoyed The Reddening. There are a few authors whose new books I await with great anticipation and Adam Nevill is most certainly one of them. The imagery and themes contained within The Reddening make this possibly the quintessential Nevill book but I don’t for one moment think that this is an author resting on his laurels. The change in tone, and style between this and Under a Watchful Eye shows how gifted and versatile a writer he is and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Friday 2 August 2019

Apocalypse Then. And now...

Getting old has many advantages. To be fair, I’ve yet to experience any of them – the only changes I’ve noticed thus far are a musculo-skeletal system that seems to take a couple of hours longer to wake up than my brain (at which point it does nothing but complain anyway) and an increased desire to wave my fist and shout “gerroff my lawn!” at passers-by. Something else it’s brought however, is a wave of nostalgia which has manifest itself in a longing to revisit the books I read in my youth, to rekindle my love of the horror genre by reading the works that hooked me in the first place.
Joy then, greeted the news that PS Publishing have re-issued a book from one of my literary heroes, Stephen Laws, with a swanky new signed hardback and trade paperback edition of Chasm. First released in 1998, I not only read it then but attended a launch for it in Newcastle. The fact that Stephen hails from Newcastle, and set the majority of his novels in the North East played a big part in my admiration of him but not so much as the skill and imagination he employed in his writing did. Each of his novels – whilst grounded in the familiar tropes of the horror genre – always presented something original with new and entertaining ideas crammed into every intricately constructed plot.
Such is very much the case with Chasm, Stephen’s tenth novel, an epic (in every sense) tale of the aftermath of what appears to be an earthquake which strikes the town of Edmonville. Following the vividly described destruction, the town’s surviving residents find themselves marooned on isolated pillars of rock, the rest of the town having disappeared into what appears to be a huge crevasse.
The crevasse is, of course, the Chasm of the book’s title. And yes, I’ve used a capital C – exactly as the author does throughout the novel, and for good reason. This is no ordinary chasm, is in fact…
To say more would of course be a huge spoiler. Much of the joy of the novel comes from working out exactly what has happened alongside the book’s characters. Alongside the physical dangers faces by the protagonists, a host of supernatural threats are also thrown into the mix, most notably the Vorla, the darkness that dwells within the Chasm. The Vorla is a brilliant creation, a tour de force of imagination, a truly original monster.
The characters facing up to the horrors within Chasm are all skilfully drawn – real people thrown into an unreal situation and reacting in exactly the ways their characters dictate. The book’s protagonist is Jay O’Connor (whose initials – minus the O’ - may or may not be significant) whose journal entries provide a framing device for the novel. Jumping between these journal entries and the narrative itself (told in third person) lends a fragmented nature to the novel, something I loved as someone who appreciates form as much as content in a novel. This effect is further enhanced by introducing what appears to be a completely separate storyline in the early part of the book, the “Ordeal of Juliet Delore” before cleverly bringing the two strands together.
A feature of Stephen’s writing is the cinematic feel he brings to his stories. His prose is so precise and his powers of description so skilful that it really does feel as if you’re watching a film as you read the book. There are some who will throw their hands in the air at this, or possibly wring them theatrically as they cry out, protesting that books and films are different art forms but personally I greatly appreciate any author who has the skill to paint pictures with their words that put images directly into my head. Chasm is a prime example of this skill, with a whole host of brilliantly rendered set-pieces to enjoy.
Chasm is a long book, but so tightly written and with so much action contained within that you’ll fly through it. The fractured structure lends itself to plenty of cliff-hangers (including one thrilling literal example) which keep the reader hooked. The supernatural horrors are a joy to read – a mix of originality and new variations of established tropes – but it’s the introduction of some human monsters in the book’s third act that ushers the reader towards the conclusion.
I vaguely remember a feeling of disappointment when I first read Chasm that the horror had switched tone but on my re-read now see that it was in fact a master-stroke. Throughout, the book is beautifully constructed, edited to maintain pace wonderfully, storylines and characters interacting to brilliant effect and so it is that the introduction of the Caffney family provides the catalyst for the novel’s dénouement, disrupting the tenuous status-quo the narrative had fallen into.
There’s heroism, redemption and action galore in the conclusion of Chasm and, ultimately, the explanation both characters and readers have been searching for. If I have any criticism of the book it’s probably that the huge ideas the events described in the novel are based on are covered relatively quickly. It’s far from an info-dump but perhaps a little more time spent on the revelations may have been better.
I loved re-reading Chasm, enjoyed it more this time round. Given it was written in 1998, I had concerns that it may have felt a little dated given that this is the original text of the book. To be honest, this isn’t the case. True, there are no mentions of the internet or mobile phones – smart or otherwise – but, given the cataclysmic events which occur disable all means of contact with the outside world this isn’t really an issue. At one point a Ford Cortina appears but this only added to the nostalgic glow I was seeking anyway.
I’m so happy that Chasm has been given a new lease of life and is available again to a new generation of readers. It’s a thrilling, terrifying, thought-provoking read – pretty much everything I want from a horror novel.
You can – and should – buy it here.

Friday 12 July 2019

Holy inappropriate.

Duncan Bradshaw prefers cats to dogs and tea to coffee. He doesn’t like gravy. Despite these bizarre – some might say borderline psychotic – tendencies, I still like him, as a person and as a writer. With such a warped outlook on the important things in life, it’s unsurprising that his writing oeuvre lies well ensconced within the weird end of the literary spectrum. This is a man whose last novel featured a psychopathic vacuum cleaner on a killing spree.
His latest release, a joint publication via his own Eye Cue Productions and the Sinister Horror Company, is a summer blockbuster of a novel: Cannibal Nuns from Outer Space! (Or CNFOS for short – a name rejected by Lovecraft for one of his Great Old Ones because it was too easy to pronounce). It’s a book which the author claims is evidence he has finally found his voice. I wouldn’t disagree. I’m not entirely sure where he found it but wherever it was, I imagine there was a sign saying “enter at your own risk” on the door.
Cannibal Nuns from Outer Space! – what’s it about then? Those looking for a profound meditation on melancholia in post-modern society will be disappointed. Mind you, if that’s the type of book they’re looking for, I should imagine disappointment is a big part of their lives anyway. There’s little melancholy to be found here although, come to think of it, there is some post-modernism – most notably in the frequent references and homages to classic films which are dotted throughout the narrative. These are all handled deftly, enhancing rather than distracting from the story.
Scattered too, are name drops of indie authors, something I occasionally do find distracting but here presented in such outlandish situations that the jokes are magnified. It could be the case that real character traits have been exploited for comic effect. If that is so, then there’s one Welsh author I’d be reluctant ever to share a bus journey with. (There’s also an early mention for an “Anthony the Lesser Peeved”, a statue that weeps blood – it’ll make more sense when you read it. I’m currently in communication with my lawyers regarding a potential defamation proceeding).
(Over the word “lesser”).
But I digress.
As the title subtly hints at, the story concerns the threat posed by a group of extra-terrestrial sisters of little mercy arrived on earth to harvest human flesh. Their arrival doesn’t take place until quite a way into the book which instead begins by introducing the novel’s protagonist, the foul-mouthed and slightly deranged Father Flynn, member of the Order of the Crimson Rosary, in the midst of performing an exorcism.
Things go as badly as might be expected, ultimately requiring the calling-in of reinforcements, neatly introducing the book’s other main characters, Flynn’s rival Father O’Malley and the demon itself. The whole opening sequence is a joy to read, with some excellent one liners and highly inventive use of names. Possibly aware of how unrealistic these scenes are, and with an eye to keeping fans of literary horror happy, the author cleverly introduces a beard-dwelling axolotl to help ground the whole thing in reality.
Flynn’s performance - and his subsequent handling of the aforementioned bleeding statue - culminate in his becoming surplice to requirements for the Order of the Crimson Rosary. A last chance is offered to him: rehabilitation at the St Judas Centre for Reaffirmation of Faith & Training Convent. It’s here, amid a plethora of cultural references, that he ultimately encounters the titular nuns, who have landed their spaceship nearby.
High jinks ensue.
Twice now I’ve mentioned the cultural references which litter the narrative, a feature of much of Duncan’s writing. He’s a proper magpie in this respect, finding a pleasing line of dialogue or action set-piece and pilfering them to reinvent in his own, slightly warped, way. I picture him sat atop a huge pile of shiny snippets, leaving only to find a fellow magpie to bring joy, or two more for a girl, three for a boy. Failing that, he’ll probably just shit on your car’s windscreen.
The nuns themselves are a fine creation. (SPOILER: They’re not real nuns). The reasons for their arrival on Earth are explained along with their history and there’s much graphic blood and guts-letting to be enjoyed as battle commences. Entrails and jokes fly thick and fast as the forces of good and evil, and evil duke it out head to head.
It’s a rare gift to combine comedy and horror successfully, it’s often the case that one suffers as a result of the other but that’s not the case here. Even if you don’t get the references, there’s still plenty of the author’s own deranged humour to make you laugh out loud and, more importantly, a strong narrative upon which the jokes and entrails are hung.
A word too about the presentation of the book. Much work has gone into the formatting and layout, with a variety of versions available, each unique in its own way. The version I read as an ARC will ultimately be the kindle release and, in keeping with the cinematic theme, contains “trailers” for other movies ahead of the main feature. Both of which, I have to say, I would go and see.
CNFOS is yet another triumph for Mr Bradshaw. If you can’t find anything to entertain you within its pages then your either dead or – worse – Jacob Rees Mogg. Whilst marking a natural progression from Mr Sucky, nicely developing what is a very distinctive style of writing, it also increases anticipation for whatever lunacy spills forth next from one of the weirdest brains in the writing community.