Book review:Apartment 16, by Adam Nevill

March 18, 2010 by
Filed under: Book reviews 

Apartment 16With the exception of a handful of short stories consistently high in quality and spookiness, Adam Nevill’s singular voice has been quiet in the six years since the publication of his debut novel Banquet for the Damned, which was released as a collectable slipcased hardback by PS Publishing, and more recently in paperback format through the lamentably short-lived Virgin Books horror line which Nevill helmed.

Those years of whispering silence have been fruitful as his second novel, Apartment 16 (plus a third, in-progress), have been picked up by publishing giant Pan MacMillan – an occurrence that (hopefully) has all sorts of positive implications for the genre in this country. A BIG UK publisher buying titles by a UK author? Not something that’s happened since, well, since the days of Clive Barker, and before him, Ramsey Campbell and James Herbert (synchronistically Nevill’s stablemate in horror at Pan MacMillan). From that ‘golden age’ and all that’s gone between (most of it not so nice if you’re a UK-based horror fan or writer) to now is a big gap in time, so whether you like it or not, these facts make Apartment 16 an important novel, and Adam Nevill an important writer who, I’m happy to say, establishes his status amongst today’s outstanding creators of speculative horror with Apartment 16.

Banquet for the Damned is a tale of drop-outs, demonology, shamanism and anthropology, and Nevill parades his influences proudly with every dark paragraph: Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James and Arthur Machen amongst others; and the book’s setting in the grounds of St. Andrews University in Edinburgh allows Nevill to indulge in the arcane atmosphere that academia lends to stories of this nature. In Apartment 16, Nevill again arms himself with these unsettling influences but this time embeds them brick by brick within the (on the surface) classic setting of an apartment block in central London, Barrington House, and then allows them to infiltrate the local environs.

Barrington House brings together two young people from completely different worlds. Seth is a frustrated artist who has taken the job of night porter; a role that naturally appeals to those with a creative bent: not much responsibility beyond sitting at a desk and patrolling the corridors at regular intervals and trying one’s best to ignore the irritating residents – the intervening time spent ‘creating’. (And on reading, it will come as no surprise that Nevill spent a good few years doing just this when he was writing Banquet for the Damned). Seth and the residents of Barrington house are haunted by the noises echoing down the corridors from the depths of apartment 16.

Apryl is an American staying for a couple of weeks to tidy up the affairs of her Great Aunt Lillian who recently passed away, leaving Apryl and her mother the substantial inheritance of an apartment in Barrington House. Apryl soon becomes obsessed with Lillian’s story, beautifully depicted in the mementos and memories she finds in Lillian’s flat, the clothes left behind, and a series of notebooks that painfully and mysteriously describe her last days, and of her heartbreak at her husband’s death:

Highgate and the Heath are entirely lost to me now. I have accepted this. I went there to remember so many of the walks we took together. But they will have to live on in memory alone. And I haven’t seen St. Paul’s in at least six months. I cannot get near the city. It is too difficult. After my episode on the underground, I have sworn off travelling below ground. The breathlessness and anxiety may be acute outdoors in the street, but they are doubly so below ground in those tight tunnels. Even my afternoons at the Library and British Museum in Bloomsbury are in jeopardy.

Nevill fluently depicts the supernatural atmosphere and how it has manifested across the years in the psychological and physical breakdowns of Barrington House’s stubborn and scared elderly residents (lending them and the House a colourful history that captures the antiquity of the genre we love so much within the very souls of the residents), and how it does so in the rather desperate lives of those younger characters who serve the House’s ageing population, the porters.

His writing shows an almost perfect melding of the old and the new: the raw atmospherics of Blackwood, the subtle and oh so terrifying nearly-glimpsed horrors on the periphery of M.R. James’ and H.P. Lovecraft’s imaginations; the masterly development of buildings and environments as characters and vessels, (much in the same way as Stephen King’s infamous Overlook Hotel’s room 217 channels Jack Torrance’s psychological deterioration in The Shining); and a cutting contemporary miserablism describing everyday urban hopelessness that is as grim and inevitable as the spiral into which Seth and Apryl find themselves descending. Put simply, he writes damn unsettling prose:

And after he gathered his breath, his balance, his shaky sense of place and self, he noticed the background in which the figure was suspended. This peformance of violence and fragmentation was nothing without the depths behind it. Baboon-snouted and eyeless, but horribly twisted in the vestment of a floral housecoat, bloddied and still moist, the figure hung upon complete darkness. A total absence that still managed to transmit the cold of deep space and the ungraspable length and breadth of forever.

Apartment 16 is a deeply disturbing hypnotic experience exploring obsessions taken to extremes and beyond, and Adam Nevill has an imagination that rends itself into pure darkness for our reading pleasure.

Read Joseph D’Lacey’s in-depth interview with Adam Nevill at Horror Reanimated which also provides more information on Banquet for the Damned.


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