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.