by S. T. Joshi
(From 21st-Century Horror)
In 1990, Adam L. G. Nevill (b. 1969) wrote an honours thesis for the University of Birmingham (UK0, “H. P. Lovecraft: ‘Aesthetics, Psychoanalysis and Ideology.’” This impressive-sounding thesis was a study of several Lovecraft tales from a psychoanalytical perspective, with an emphasis on his use of the “other.” At a minimum, it revealed Nevill’s thorough grounding in the literature of classic weird fiction and his attempt to probe the sources for its effectiveness.
It would be more than a decade before Nevill began publishing weird fiction himself, but he made a spectacular debut with the novel Banquet for the Damned (2004). Nevill has gone on to write several more novels, of which I have read The Ritual (2011), Last Days (2012), and Lost Girl (2015). He has also published two collections of short stories.
Nevill’s work is deeply infused with allusions to the work of Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, M. R. James, and others, and more broadly with a refusal—perhaps inspired by the examples of these authors—to descend into conventional supernaturalism by the use of standard vampires, ghosts, and other common tropes. Even when such tropes are used, they are revitalised with innovative features and treatments. His novels, while quite lengthy and to some degree aimed at a popular audience (a common blurb on his books is that he is “Fast becoming Britain’s answer to Stephen King”—a dubious tribute indeed), Nevill reveals an admirable ability to convey a profound sense of dread, in which those exposed to the horror are simultaneously baffled as to its exact nature, properties, and psychological motivations and terrified at its immense power to create mayhem, perhaps on a worldwide scale.
Banquet for the Damned is set entirely at the University of St Andrews, in the coastal town of St Andrews in southeastern Scotland. The narrative focuses in turn on a succession of characters but chiefly follows the visit to St Andrews of Dante Shaw and his friend Tom (last name not provided), rock musicians who wish to do a concept album based on a book, Banquet for the Damned, written in the early 1950s by a professor of religion at St Andrews, the now ageing Eliot Coldwell. Nevill is perhaps deliberately opaque as to the exact nature of the book, which has been an immense inspiration to Dante. Published in 1956, it appears to be a kind of mystical treatise possibly dealing with pagan entities (Coldwell is said to be interested in “occult science and pagan ritual” [29–30]), and also seeming to recommend a course of self-actualisation. Nevill’s portrayal of Dante’s initial reaction upon reading the book may be the clearest description we get: “Suddenly, after the first read in his mid-teens, the acquisition of experience became his goal. Tasting every aspect of life became his aim. The search for fulfilment had to be endless, no time could be wasted with routine, nothing ordinary settled for, mediocrity became the devil” (26).
But Dante is somewhat disappointed with his initial meeting with Coldwell, who now seems tired and confused. The professor, however, tells Dante: “But we must go beyond Banquet.…I have a collection of, shall I say, rare material. I know it will interest you and it’s necessary to complete the canvas” (35). He urges Dante and Tom to work with his colleague, a young woman named Beth; he states ominously, “Beth has all the answers” (38).
By this time, however, the reader is already alerted to the possibility that bizarre, and possibly supernatural, events are occurring. The book opens with a college student, Walter Slater, who suffers a recurrence of his childhood sleepwalking and, seeming to hear three female voices calling him, heads for the seashore and plunges into the water. Later a human arm—presumably Walter’s—is found on the beach, but the rest of his body is never recovered.
Meanwhile, a visiting professor of anthropology named Hart Miller is conducting investigations on “disturbed sleep patterns” (42) and sends out notices looking for volunteers who have had disturbing nightmares. Another college student, Kerry Sewell, has had recurrent nightmares about a creature sitting on her chest, and also discovers that she has been sleepwalking. At this point it has become clear that we are dealing with some kind of supernatural entity, for it actually appears to Kerry: “The thing hisses. It scuttles like a crab. The head is dark but something glints inside the oval of its coverings. Images of yellowed ivory and black lips flash through Kerry’s mind” (22). Kerry survives the encounter, as passersby seem to scare off the creature. She comes to see Miller, stating that her nightmares began soon after the suicide of another student, Ben Carson. Both had been members of a shadowy “paranormal society” (50) led by Eliot Coldwell. Ben, in fact, was Coldwell’s research assistant.
Still more students are manifestly killed by this entity, including Maria Skidmore (who is found hideously mutilated on a golf course) and Mike Bowen, whom the entity seizes in a tunnel under the Bishop’s Palace. Rick Leech is discovered by his roommate, his body mutilated and in the process of being eaten by some creature: “Its teeth are obscured by what looks like a pale fragment of cloth, flapping like a rag in a dog’s mouth, but the eyes, yellow above wet bone, band themselves into his soul” (150). Miller, who investigates Leech’s death, concludes: “Something has been seen in St Andrews; it is corporeal, its manifestations tangible, whole in its horror, complete in its intent” (183).
Meanwhile, Dante meets Beth and is immediately taken with her, not least because she is almost six feet tall. On a subsequent meeting, Beth not only kisses him but bites his lip and perhaps sucks his blood. Later, Dante has the sensation of being drugged. On yet another meeting, Beth shows up wearing only a nightgown under a coat. Again she bites him and sucks his blood, and she also shows him a hideous bruise on her back: “Pain can be a reward” (231). At this point we are led to believe that Beth is merely some kind of psychotic. Miller, who is acquainted with her, seems to have provisionally come to the same conclusion. He has read a book on Anne Muir, a woman of the seventeenth century who was convicted of witchcraft; Miller wonders if Beth thinks of herself as a reincarnation of Muir.
But a psychological explanation of Beth’s eccentric behaviour seems dashed when, after his encounter with her, Dante is pursued by some entity. It catches him and flings him to the ground. Dante survives, but by this point the reader has learned that Coldwell’s second book, which has been stalled for years, was to be on “the witch’s familiar” (206). So the general outlines of the supernatural premise of the novel appear to be coming into some kind of clarity.
But the gradual transformation of Eliot Coldwell from a balefully imposing figure to one who is himself the victim of supernatural terror is one of the strengths of the book. For, although Dante is becoming convinced that Eliot and Beth are trying to use him as a “sacrifice” (249), he also comes to believe that Eliot himself is afraid of Beth, who is clearly the chief link with the supernatural entity. It is only now that we learn, from Eliot’s colleagues, of some ceremony conducted some months before in the cellar of Eliot’s cottage, in which Beth was involved. She had been traumatised, and one of the men also states: “We both saw something in that cellar in May” (280). Eliot now delivers a paper in which states frankly that a “monstrous coven, and its unwholesome familiar, from the sixteenth century” (295), still exist at St Andrews.
Events rapidly reach a cataclysmic conclusion, focused on Eliot’s cottage. Dante, Miller, and others encounter a number of supernatural entities there, including some creature that is “impossibly tall” (395) and is later labelled the Brown Man. A fire breaks out, which consumes Beth. But the Brown Man attacks Dante, and he later passes out. He is told that Eliot showed up and “called it off you” (400). Instead, the Brown Man seizes Eliot and carries him off.
Banquet for the Damned is a rich tapestry of supernatural and psychological horror that is meticulously crafted to lead to a spectacular denouement. Nevill has drawn upon his wide reading of classic supernatural fiction for some phases of his novel. When Dante reflects, in reference to the Brown Man, “Without Beth, it’s gone wild” (396), we are reminded of the cosmic twin brother of Wilbur Whateley in Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” who breaks out of his house and goes on a rampage after his brother dies. The Brown Man itself may perhaps be an evocation of the “thin ghost” in M. R. James’s story of that title, as well as an allusion to the “Black Man” (i.e., Nyarlathotep) in Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House,” which like Banquet for the Damned tries to bring the witchcraft theme up to date in the modern age. The novel also has a lengthy discussion of Algernon Blackwood and a brief mention of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (207f.), as well as a librarian named Rhodes Hodgson, whose last name can only be a wry allusion to the author of The House on the Borderland. But these echoes or borrowings do not affect the overall originality of Nevill’s work.
But we are puzzled by a few unexplained features. Nevill is somewhat vague in his description of the Brown Man—perhaps by design, as the creature only manifests itself fully at the end. But why and how Beth turns into a vampire is never clarified. There is a suggestion that her body is possessed by some entity, but this idea is never fully elucidated. But the greatest flaw in Banquet for the Damned is excessive verbosity. The novel could have benefited from being pruned by at least a quarter, perhaps a third. It becomes particularly bogged down by prolixity in the lead-up to the climatic scene—Dante’s exploration of the basement of Eliot’s cottage—which in itself is indeed one of the more striking set-pieces of supernatural menace in contemporary fiction. Conversely, the novel develops a finely intimate sense of place, as the author’s clear familiarity with the college brings it vividly to life. An early passage, in which it is stated that “St Andrews possesses its own peculiar brand of darkness” (128), elaborates on the point:
Every monument to a martyr burned slowly for heresy speaks of injustice, and every skeletal ruin of church and tower hints at death. Nights have shadows deeper than any city and the impenetrable, almost oppressive, grey stone reminds him of a great and ornate mausoleum slab, dropped into place to cover forgotten plagues and unrecorded tortures. (128)
The Ritual is a novel of a very different sort—not merely in its setting, but in the greater ambiguity of its supernatural premise. We are here taken to the remote forests of Sweden, where four Englishmen in their mid-thirties—former college buddies—are on a hiking trip. They are referred to as Hutch, Luke, Phil, and Dom. Phil and Dom, now seemingly comfortable with well-paying jobs in London, are physically ill-equipped for such exertion, as Phil has put on a great deal of weight and Dom has injured his knee so that walking is difficult.
But things take a foreboding turn almost immediately as the men find a mutilated animal hanging from a tree. It seems inconceivable that another animal could have done such a thing, and the only other culprit is some crazed human being in the area. Matters are not helped by the fact that the men have become lost in the forest; their cellphones are not working, and their supply of food and water is running low. They come upon an empty house; it is filled with the skulls of dozens of animals mounted on the walls, with crosses in between. Phil goes upstairs but rapidly comes back down, claiming that there is some kind of creature up there, on what is either a small coffin or a bed. Luke goes up to investigate, and the omniscient narrator presents a glimpse of the entity:
Two thin rear legs, ending in hooves, jutted out from the body then bent at the bony knee joints. The hooves looked as if they were poised upon the sides of the casket in readiness of the horned thing rising out of the box.
Black lips were pulled back above long yellow teeth; a grimace to last for all time beneath nostrils that still appeared curiously wet. Up and down the chest, small pink teats parted the fur. This was the most unpleasant thing of all, worse than the ivory mouth which Luke imagined was about to open and then snap shut with a clacking sound. (38–39)
This would seem to confirm the existence of a supernatural creature, but when the men flee the house the creature does not follow.
Later they come upon two buildings along a trail. Luke, following the trail further, finds several standing stones covered with runes—runes that Phil had earlier noticed carved on some trees. Beyond a clearing Luke now sees a church. In the course of leading the others there, Luke gets into a violent argument with Dom and beats him up. There is some suggestion that Luke resents Dom and Phil for having established themselves comfortably in life, each with a wife and a secure income; Luke, by contrast, is alone and barely making ends meet running a record store.
Hutch believes the stones could date as far back as 3000 B.C.E., and also believes that the church “must have been a Christian church once…[but] there are no Christian symbols here” (108). Was it built over an earlier site? The men also find animal and human bones (including those of children) at the site. Phil now believes that some creature has followed them from the previous building; he states chillingly: “I thought it was a dead tree” (115).
More strange noises are heard in the forest—“a mixture of a bovine cough and a jackal’s bark” (139). Luke, in a tent with Phil, awakens at night to hear a hideous screaming in the other tent, holding Hutch and Dom. Dom has been attacked by some creature, with a serious injury to his leg; but Hutch is missing. Not long afterward they find Hutch hanging from a tree:
Stripped naked. No sign of his clothes. Opened down the front of his torso to a groin black with old blood. Pale muscular legs stained brownish. Feet drifting in space at the height of their heads. Eyes open wide, as was his mouth, the latter filled with a swollen tongue. His expression was one of mild surprise in an ashen face not without a suggestion of life, as if he were merely looking out and into the middle distance where something had caught his eye and made him stare, distractedly. (158)
The three survivors move off together, knowing that the creature is tracking them. They reach the summit of a hill. Luke climbs a tree to see if he can find a way out of the forest. When he comes back down, Dom states that Phil has been “taken” (193). Dom urges Luke to go on his own, since his injured leg has made it nearly impossible for him to walk any significant distance. He notes grimly: “Staying with me is a death sentence” (205). But Luke, now deeply regretting his fight with Dom, refuses to leave Dom alone. Both of them hear a horrible bellowing nearby, and Luke senses that the creature is trying to lure him out so that it can take Dom. He detects its presence but does not see it; he notes to Dom in harrowingly simple language, “I think it’s big” (211).
Luke later has a more direct confrontation with the creature, which has gone up a tree. Luke has hit it with a rock, but the creature swipes at Luke and cracks his skull. Somehow both Luke and Dom manage to stumble down the hill, using makeshift crutches; and, not entirely to their surprise, they find Phil hanging from a tree, dead. Later Luke, crawling in desperation, wanders into a thicket—and suddenly realises that Dom is nowhere in sight. He plods on, hallucinating that his friends are still alive. In spite of himself, he falls asleep for hours—and then wonders why the creature did not seize him while he slept. He passes out.
Part II of the book begins with Luke awakening in a crude bed. He seems to see three figures standing in front of him—a goat, a hare, and a lamb. But in fact they are human beings dressed as animals. They declare themselves to be “the wild hunt” (259). The two men and one woman—all quite young—call themselves Fenris, Loki, and Surtr. The men are devotees of black metal music and are in a band called Blood Frenzy. Fenris claims that he and his band worship Odin, going on to state, “In this wood is a real God” (285). Luke, although disturbed by his apparent captors, doubts that they were responsible for his friends’ deaths; the presence of an actual creature (whether supernatural or not) has become too evident. Loki, who seems to be the leader of the group, does in fact deny having anything to do with the death of Hutch and Phil, although he later states with some pride that he has killed nine people. And yet, Luke is not surprised when his captors show Dom hanging from a tree. Fenris declares that their music has summoned the creature, and Loki makes it clear that Luke is to be a sacrifice to their god.
Luke is led to an attic, where there are rotting corpses of an array of “small, thin bodies” that the omniscient narrator calls “little people” (331). When Fenris and Loki break into a chant, Luke wonders if there is some movement among the bodies. Loki declares: “These are the ancient ones” (334). It is only now that an old woman who is also among Luke’s apparent captors makes her presence felt. Loki says that “She can call it” (339)—referring to the creature in the woods. In fact, the summoning will occur that night. His captors dress Luke in a smock and fasten him upside down on a crucifix. The next morning he awakens, surprised to find himself still alive. Evidently the old woman did not call down the creature the night before. She has also left him his Swiss army knife: does she want him to kill the others for some inexplicable reason? He does exactly that, stabbing Fenris with the knife and later shooting Loki with a rifle. Surtr, however, manages to flee the house and rushes into the forest.
The old woman is now singing in the yard: is she summoning the creature? Luke comes to realise that she has somehow been manipulating events from the beginning. When he shoots her in the back with the rifle, he notes to his horror the anomaly of her physique: “The hem of her dusty dress was hiked up to her bony knees. Unclothed, her legs were thin and covered in coarse white hair. The skin through the hair was pinkish. Her legs bent the wrong way at the knee joints. At the end of her goatish legs were little white hooves. Her tiny loud feet” (393).
Luke suspects that the creature she was summoning was none other than her own monstrous mother, and he realises that he must now kill this creature, which he refers to as “the last black goat of the woods” (395). In a dramatic conclusion, Luke attempts to drive away in a truck, but finds Surtr’s mutilated body in the flatbed of the truck. Later the creature—a “lanky darkness” (407)—lands on the roof of the truck and then crashes through the windshield. But Luke manages to stab it in the throat with his knife. It apparently runs away. Luke trudges to safety, thankful that he is still alive.
The Ritual, although as long as or longer than Banquet for the Damned, is considerably more compact and tightly knit than its predecessor, although it too could perhaps have been cut down slightly. Large portions of it—especially the lengthy episode where Luke is the captive of the crazed young people in the cabin—read like an extended conte cruel. Luke seems on several occasions to be on the verge of escaping from his imprisonment, only to be recaptured. And the image of his physical degradation—especially after suffering his head wound, which his captors do little to treat—makes for almost unbearably grim reading.
It should be evident that Nevill is again intent on making allusions to the work of his great predecessors, Machen and Lovecraft. The Machen influence exhibits itself in the glancing allusions to “little people,” as well as the concluding scene, where Luke dimly senses the presence of the Mother’s children, whom he calls the “white people” (414). As for Lovecraft, allusions to the “ancient ones,” the “black goat of the woods,” and others are unmistakable. This is not to say that either author exercised any significant influence on The Ritual, for there is no suggestion that Nevill intends these references to be taken as literal identifications with the corresponding entities in Machen’s or Lovecraft’s fiction. Both authors, however, found a fertile source of terror in the untenanted wilderness, as Machen’s “The White People” and Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” (where the “black goat of the woods” is a clear allusion to the apparent god Shub-Niggurath) are alone sufficient to attest; and Nevill may have derived from these authors some hints on how to evoke terror from fleeting glimpses of the supernatural by characters who, in their physical or psychological trauma, are uniquely exposed to perceptions of the strange.
Whether the portrayal of the four Englishmen is distinct enough to be fully satisfying is another matter. At one stage it is revealed that the apparent prosperity of both Phil and Dom is a sham, as they have both been abandoned by their wives and are in financial trouble. The men’s discussions of their personal lives are scattershot and unsystematic, but nonetheless paint an occasionally vivid picture of lives that have inexorably diverged from the optimism and bravado of youth to the stolidity of early middle age. The portrayal of Loki and his compatriots is in some ways more vivid, since a clear conflict between them and their captive, Luke, brings each of the figures into sharper focus. And the shadowy presence of the old woman, never named, is a triumph of sinister suggestion.
Last Days focuses on a struggling young filmmaker, Kyle Freeman, who comes to see Max Solomon, the head of a London company called Revelation Productions. Max wishes Kyle to make a documentary relating to the circumstances surrounding the death of a woman who called herself Sister Katherine, who gathered a band of devoted followers, many of whom (including Katherine herself) perished in a place called the Temple of the Last Days near Phoenix, Arizona, in 1975. Kyle is suspicious of Max’s motives but cannot afford to refuse the hefty pay he is offering; so he takes his colleague, Dan, on a series of interviews and investigations that spans two continents in the hope of ascertaining the sources of this bizarre pseudo-religious cult—and, more to Max’s (and Kyle’s) interest, whether anything supernatural or paranormal might have occurred.
In the course of interviews with several former members, Kyle learns that Katherine had organised the cult in 1967. She exercised such power over her followers that they gave all their worldly possessions to her, and she also enlisted a band of bodyguards or enforcers she called “The Seven”—“They were bullies who kept control for her” (47), as one former cultist explains. Some of the more attractive women in the group served as call girls for “rich marks” (50).
At the moment this all sounds like fairly routine religious indoctrination of the sort we have seen many times before, from the Jim Jones cult to Scientology; but odd things begin to occur as Kyle and Dan continue their explorations. In examining the building in London where the cultists lived, they seem to detect a strange presence; and, what is more, that presence shows up in the film footage that Dan had shot:
… it could actually be a glazed impression of a curved vertebral column at the centre of the stain, half concealed behind the glistening streaks, like a fossil of a skeletal spine. Which would suggest the lighter surround offered a hint of meagre flesh papered across the vertebrae, as if the bones were being glimpsed under grubby but mostly transparent skin. Above what looked like the shrivelled remains of a pair of shoulders, long threads seemed to waft, or sway like fine-spun wisps, out from what might have been a small skull. (82)
This concrete image—clearly not a product of mere hallucination—casts an ominous light on one cultist’s passing notion of “presences” (57) that accompanied Katherine.
It is at this point that Kyle learns that Max himself had been a founding member of the cult. Kyle is furious with Max for withholding this vital information, but carries on with the project. He speaks to a Brother Gabriel, a Frenchman who was with the cult on a farm in France when it moved from England in 1969. On a wall Kyle sees an image of the same sort of creature he had seen in the London building. When Kyle reports back to Max about what he has seen, Max states that Katherine “broke through to something that should never have been contacted” (179–80). Max goes on to admit ruefully that “I am to blame for everything that happened to that organization and to all who were ever a part of it” (185). Max himself had begun the cult, called the Last Gathering, with a Brother Heron; but Sister Katherine had quickly taken it over, fueled by her immense narcissism and belief in her own messianic powers. Max goes on to say that the real significance of the whole story lies in Arizona, where the cult moved in 1972.
Before he has a chance to go there, Kyle finds himself plagued with strange dreams and also senses a presence—an odour that is like “the scent of stale carrion and bad water” (199). Then he sees, on the wallpaper of his motel room, an image like those he has seen elsewhere. Later Kyle and Dan discover that the image disappears when certain bright lights—sent over by Max—are directed at it.
Moving on to Arizona, Kyle and Dan come to the abandoned copper mine that served as Katherine’s Temple of the Last Days—although she herself spent most of her time in a lavish home in San Diego. A policeman, Lieutenant Conway, tells Kyle of the fateful night in 1975 when Katherine and others perished. The bodies of five cultists, including Katherine, were found with their throats cut: evidently they offered no resistance. Others were shot dead. Five children were found alive. Conway does not believe anything supernatural occurred, although there were anomalies in the case that he couldn’t explain—such as the apparent barking of dogs heard in the compound, although no dogs were ever found. The son of a man who owned a neighbouring farm tells Kyle that his father said he also heard the dogs barking—but that the barking was in the sky. Another anomaly is that some tooth and nail fragments were recovered that were verified to be at least 500 years old; clothes found on the site also date from that period. Still more troubling, there were traces of footprints that “look like there was no flesh on them” (270).
Martha Lake, a cultist now living in Seattle, tells Kyle a gripping story of what life at the Arizona compound was like. Katherine had now become a crazed and paranoid absentee dictator, instructing the “Seven” to dole out punishments (physical, psychological, and sexual) for perceived transgressions. Martha states that “everything was leading to something that only Katherine knew about…Whatever it was Katherine had brought with her from France came back” (299). Martha claims that the creatures Kyle has seen now and again are besieging her own house. Later Kyle learns that Martha was killed—by an “intruder” (349).
At this point Max tells Kyle that the secret of the whole business lies in a triptych painted by a Flemish master, Niclaes Verhulst, now in the possession of a private collector in Belgium. It will, Max claims, explain “Katherine’s true legacy. The Blood Friends” (374). The owner of the painting, a Renaissance historian named Pieter Gemeen, tells Kyle the story of Konrad Lorche, a self-styled prophet who came to France in 1566 with a group of followers he called the Blood Friends. He set up a commune very much like what Katherine did centuries later. On orders from Pope Pius V, Lorche and his followers were slaughtered, but the painter Verhulst survived and subsequently painted his triptych. When Kyle sees the painting, much seems to be explained in regard to the supernatural phenomena he has seen.
But the threat that Kyle and others are facing is far more immediate. Katherine’s former home in San Diego is now occupied by a diseased and drug-addled former actor named Chet Regal—and Max states boldly that “Chet Regal is Sister Katherine” (424). By that he means that Katherine, upon her death, had infused her spirit into one of the five living children found on the compound; and now, as Chet, she will carry on by infusing herself into the body of a boy whom Chet and his wife have adopted. The people at the compound were killed as part of a ritual allowing Katherine to leave her body and enter that of the child. The Blood Friends also wish to be incarnated into human beings, but adults are useless for that purpose. They need blood to manifest themselves; that is why they disappeared after failing to seize Kyle on several occasions. But they can leave traces—such as the images that Kyle and others have seen on walls. The only solution would seem to be to kill Chet/Katherine before he/she can transfer his/her soul into that of the boy.
The conclusion of the novel is reminiscent of certain slam-bang action films in that Max has brought along a gruff, arrogant, gun-toting sidekick named Jed, who creates predictable mayhem with his weapons before perishing himself. Max is also torn to pieces by the Blood Friends. But Kyle survives after shooting Chet dead and saving the little boy.
I have recounted the plot of Last Days at such length—while also leaving out masses of interesting detail—to show how meticulously Nevill has worked out the details and sequence of this complex, richly textured, and multifaceted work. It is true that certain parts of the novel drag a bit, as there is excessive attention devoted to the filming of certain segments of the documentary on which Kyle and Dan are at work; but aside from this, the novel is tightly constructed, and even minor characters are vividly realised. Max Solomon gradually metamorphoses from a brash, wealthy executive into a hapless, conscience-stricken figure terrified of the forces he has unwittingly unleashed, while Kyle Freeman must persevere in a baffling pursuit of natural and supernatural horrors whereby he alternately believes his death is imminent and that he will attain fame by verifying the existence of paranormal forces with his documentary. At the end, however, he wisely adjures his friend not to post on the Internet some footage of the film that he had placed in the friend’s hands prior to his trip to San Diego: the world is not ready for such a revelation.
If any literary influences can be detected, they may come from Lovecraft, specifically “The Thing on the Doorstep.” This prototypical tale of psychic transference tells of Ephraim Waite, a wizard who by some means has developed the power to effect an exchange of his personality with that of another human being. As his death is imminent, he switches bodies with his own weak-willed daughter Asenath, and he is then determined to switch bodies again with Edward Derby, whom he (as Asenath) has married. Sister Katherine exhibits a similar desire to leap from body to body to preserve her existence; but Kyle’s killing of Chet Regal puts an end to her plans.
As in Nevill’s other novels, many of the scenes of supernatural terror are masterfully handled. The gradualness with which Nevill reveals the true nature of the Blood Friends creates exquisite suspense and fascination throughout the narrative, as readers attempt to piece together the bewildering array of supernatural elements that seem to be exhibiting themselves. As the various cultists interviewed by Kyle are killed or mutilated, in a seemingly systematic fashion, it begins to appear as if no one can survive the predations of the skeleton-like entities. Max does indeed succumb, but Kyle—perhaps not entirely plausibly—survives to tell the tale.
If each of the above three novels by Nevill are strikingly different from one another in subject-matter, setting, and tone, then Lost Girl is in an altogether different league. This incredibly grim dystopian tale, set in the year 2053, is a poignant fusion of global terror—brought on by the crippling effects of climate change—with the searing emotional agony of a single individual. We are introduced to a man who, throughout this long novel, never receives a name but is called only “the father”—because, two years earlier, he had experienced the kidnapping of his four-year-old daughter (herself never named) as she was playing in his front garden of their house in Torquay. The father is the more keenly racked with guilt because he was at the time conducting an online flirtation with a co-worker. The incident has devastated his wife, who lapses into depression. The father now seeks to use whatever means are necessary to rescue his daughter from her captors.
This intensely personal drama takes place while both England and much of the world is facing the breakdown of the political, legal, social, and moral standards that define civilisation in the wake of climate change. It is a time of intense and unrelenting heat, and in many regions the forces of the local and national government have given way to ruthless criminal gangs. Notable among them is a gang called King Death, or simply the Kings. Could the Kings have snatched up the father’s daughter for the purpose of using her as a sex slave? The thought torments the father, but he cannot imagine any other alternative. No ransom had ever been delivered to him, and in any case he had little money to turn over to his daughter’s captors. But the father resolves to take on even the dangerous Kings in his quest to secure his daughter’s freedom.
Nevill is careful to depict the father’s gradual descent into a killer in a way that allows him to retain the reader’s sympathy. He uses a contact loosely associated with the police—a woman he refers to as Scarlet Johansson, since she reminds him of that bygone actress—to learn of some sex offenders who might know what happened to his daughter. The first one he approaches is a man named Robert East, who coughs up some information on other offenders who might have useful information. The father contemplates killing East, but then declines to do so. When he encounters another sex offender, Murray Bowles, the father does kill him—but only after discovering two young (male) refugees who have been locked in an attic room of Bowles’s house. The killing of Bowles thereby comes to seem as a fitting punishment in a case where the local authorities are incapable of taking any decisive action.
The father is now on the track of one Rory Forrester, but he is under the protection of the Kings, and Johansson warns against challenging their authority: “the Kings truly were the reigning monarchs of ruin, vice, corruption and murder” (101). But the father throws caution to the winds and breaks into Forrester’s hotel room, where he forces Forrester to reveal that his daughter might have been kidnapped by two Russians. When a young man bursts into the room, the father shoots him dead and also shoots Forrester, then flees. Pursued by the Kings, he is saved by a man in a passing car, who proves to be a police detective sent by Johansson. This man—who wants to be known as Gene Hackman—enunciates the dismal prospects the father faces: “Who has the thought…the space in their heart for a missing child in these times?” (139).
Nonetheless, Hackman lets the father know of one Yonah Abergil, a sex trafficker and a lieutenant in the Kings organisation, who may know something of the kidnapping. Abergil lives in a manner that keenly etches the stark inequality between the haves and have-nots in this crumbling society:
Fortunes stowed and unshared, they lived deep inside glittering palaces, glass and steel monoliths, or were caged within humming perimeters of electrified fence. And inside that swept garage and living room befitting a tyrant, the father found nothing but resentment inside his deeps. Evidence of a lifestyle he could only imagine had made his lava boil, gut low. All of this for stealing children…for putting women to work in brothels, the dispossessed into labour camps. Legitimized barons and sanctioned exploiters, that’s what they were. They were the tax-loopholed, dirty-cash-laundered elite, replete and meateater-sheened. (178)
When the father bursts into Abergil’s house—having had to kill a nurse (tending to Abergil’s ailing father) who had come at him with a gun—Abergil admits that the daughter had been kidnapped by two junkies, now apparently dead, at the behest of a lawyer, Oscar Hollow, working for some “rich pervert” (196). The father blandly kills Abergil and leaves. But he wonders why the “rich pervert” had paid the staggering sum of £200,000 for his daughter.
Hackman, meanwhile, provides information suggesting that one of the junkies, Oleg Chorny, may still be alive in the Brixham area. When the father goes to an abandoned church purportedly owned by Chorny, he sees hideous painted figures everywhere. He also sees a photograph of his daughter taped to one of the figures. Now certain he is on the right track, he comes upon a skeletal figure, covered with tattoos and with drug paraphernalia all around. Is this Oleg Chorny, and he is even alive? He appears to be, and the father takes him into his car.
Chorny is an ambiguous figure who speaks oracularly and mystically about “afterdeath,” but does reveal that it was a wealthy and powerful woman who paid him and his confrère to snatch the child. At first, the father is reassured in some sense, for at least it is now unlikely that his daughter has fallen into the hands of a pedophile; but when he learns the name of the woman—Karen Perucchi—his heart sinks. It is not merely that Perucchi is the former CEO of a charity that reportedly siphoned off enormous amounts of money (meant to feed the poor in other nations) for her own use; she is also a woman with whom the father had had a sexual relationship in the years before his marriage. He had ultimately rejected Perucchi, and he is now faced with the appalling realisation that she has kidnapped his daughter (she herself was unable to bear children) as an inconceivable act of revenge.
The father and Chorny now form an ungainly alliance, as Chorny wishes to kill Perucchi because she had ordered Abergil to kill his co-conspirator, who was also his lover. Chorny leads the father to Perucchi’s mansion, where she is living with her fiancé and, presumably, the child, now six years old. There is elaborate security there, including an electrified fence; but Chorny has a plan for entering the place in relative safety. When the father sees a little girl in the house, he is convinced that there is no alternative but to enter.
Without going into the details of the action-packed scene, we can note that the father and Chorny are indeed successful in breaking into the house. They encounter Richard, Perucchi’s fiancé, who notes that a pandemic is spreading throughout the world that may end up killing as many as four billion people; but he and a very few others have been inoculated and will survive the pandemic. He calmly assumes his privilege: “The needs of the many cannot be met…but the needs of the few can be met” (387). But in the end, he succumbs, shot by the father; Perucchi perishes at the hands of Chorny’s machete. The father collects his daughter—now at last given a name, Penny, even though she scarcely recognises him (“He’d realized he was abducting his own child from what she knew as home” ). In possession of the vaccine and a large quantity of money, he drives to Wales with his daughter and his wife (whom Perucchi had also seized recently) and hopes to ride out the tumult that the world is facing.
Gripping as the personal drama of Lost Girl is, with the father’s relentless and single-minded quest to locate his daughter, the novel’s overarching backdrop of a world consumed by multiple layers of horror and tragedy in the wake of climate change and the imminent collapse of civilisation that it has brought in its wake is what is truly memorable. In an afterword, Nevill points to the numerous treatises on the subject he has read, many of which have confirmed his “suspicions about what awaits us in this interconnected world’s future” (437), and his simultaneous portrayal of a single man’s trauma with the trauma facing the planet is deft and memorable.
If Nevill is to be faulted for anything, it is that he does not seem to have adequately portrayed any significant advances in technology that the decades from now until 2053 would have yielded. The father does use something called “stun gas” to incapacitate his foes from time to time, but otherwise he is still using good old-fashioned pistols or assault rifles to blow away his antagonists, and still uses cellphones, the Internet, and other devices we are familiar with today. Nevertheless, Lost Girl is an unforgettable dystopian novel—perhaps only on the borderline of weird fiction, and more aptly a mingling of science fiction with the crime novel. But at a minimum it demonstrates the widening range of Nevill’s novelistic output.
Nevill’s writing is far from perfect. At times his prose can be dismayingly slipshod. Aside from succumbing to the solecisms now distressingly common among today’s writers (split infinitives, misuse of “like” for “as” or “as if,” etc.), he makes awkward errors such as “sight” for “site,” “bare” for “bear” (as a verb), and so on. Evidently his copy editors in Britain are incapable of correcting these errors. Overall, however, his prose is smooth-flowing and at times eloquent. In several of his novels, it is not entirely clear whether the array of supernatural manifestations can all be harmonised into a coherent whole. This point may be related to the substantial length of most of his novels: there is some reason to believe that Nevill at times loses track of the multifarious details and plot elements he throws out, failing to unify them at the end. (One of the novels I didn’t read—No One Gets Out Alive —is a whopping 628 pages.)
But overall, Adam Nevill’s novels are refreshing in their vivid contemporaneousness, their crisply realised characters, the deftness of their execution of a complex and many-stranded plot, and most particularly in the originality of their supernatural scenarios. The author displays an unerring sense of those hints and details that are most likely to evoke terror and dread in the reader, and he exhibits the skill to elicit those emotions without descending into crude bloodletting. Nevill’s subsequent career is well worth watching.