A Primer on the Fiction of Adam Nevill
By Tony Jones
In previous contributions to Ink Heist, I have featured several of my favourite ever horror writers, including Robert McCammon and Scott Sigler. Today I turn my eye to another from my top tier; Adam Nevill, who is amongst the very best writers of supernatural horror fiction in the world today.
For the sake of debate, and the simple fact that readers like lists, I have ranked Adam’s eight novels in order of personal preference. Just to be clear: Nevill has no duffers in his back-catalogue, they are all great, and you are very welcome to disagree with my order of choice. I have known Adam in the online world for a number of years and first made contact after reading his second novel, Apartment 16, way back in 2010. Ironically, this book is ranked number eight on my list! I am such a fan I regard the arrival of a new novel to be a major literary event and pounce on them on the day of release.
Tune into Ink Heist again soon for our brand-new accompanying interview with Adam, where we discuss many different aspects of horror and take a closer look at the mechanics behind his fiction.
This article is not meant to be an in-depth critique of Adam Nevill’s work and is aimed at those readers who are less familiar with his work or looking to take a new author for a test drive. If you enjoy supernatural horror, read my reviews, there are plenty of books to savour and terrify here. Remember, my favourite might not necessarily be yours.
Adam Nevill also has two exceptionally strong short story collections, I have featured these towards the end of the review, but they are not ranked against his novels. You can also pick up two collection of three free stories for Kindle, Before You Sleep or Before You Wake, which are outstanding introductions to his work culled from the full anthologies. There is a third free collection which can be obtained from his website, Cries From the Crypt, which I have also reviewed but not ranked.
Now for the eight novels.
1. No One Gets Out Alive (2014)
No One Gets Out Alive is an exhausting 650-page beast of a novel, long it might be, but it never lags or overstays its welcome. At certain points you’ll be screaming to escape the confines of 82 Edgware Road, but Adam Nevill lets nobody escape, not even to buy a pint of milk. This grueling novel only features a few characters and the first 400-page sequence is set over a very short space of time, all in the house. Once again, it is never dull or repetitive and the author builds up the tension like no other with long descriptive sequences that get more uncomfortable as the book progresses. There is one particular scene in the basement of the house which goes on for page after page and must rank as one of the most terrifying sequences in modern horror. These descriptions of peeling wallpaper and damp spots in corners of decaying rooms are trademarks of a Nevill novel and there are few writers who can do this sort of thing better. We readers are quickly sucked into the house from hell with poor Stephanie Booth, when the cash-strapped young woman rents the wrong room, calling it the ‘wrong room’ is a major understatement. Her luck is really out, especially when she meets her landlord’s cousin Fergal. Considering he’s human, he’s worse than many of Nevill’s supernatural entities.
No One Gets Out Alive is a deeply unsettling horror novel, with some really painful and descriptive sequences that will have you wincing. It’s incredibly realistic, as good supernatural horror should be, it starts very slow developing a heavy atmosphere, creaks, whispers and noises of young women coming from other rooms which are empty. As the supernatural elements develop Nevill goes through the gears and the end result is one of the finest haunted house novels of the last decade. I guess Nevill fans could argue all day about which their personal favourite was; I read this monster over four nights and loved every second of it. However, this does not necessarily mean it is the best introduction to the author for a Nevill newbie as, perhaps, you need to develop an extra layer of protective skin first. Read on for further choices.
2. Lost Girl (2015)
In 2015 Adam Nevill performed an impressive change of direction with Lost Girl, which evolves slightly from the supernatural horror of his previous releases into a near post-apocalyptic tale with a strong and exceptionally well researched and terrifying global warming theme. The first major star of this outstanding novel is the setting, a version of Britain which is spiraling into lawlessness and its own version of the end of days. The backdrop combination of climate change and an overcrowded Britain and a police-force too stretched to prevent crime is such a vivid creation it’s easy to see why the life of a solitary child means nothing to nobody apart from her parents.
Set fifty years in the future, an unnamed man takes the reader on a terrifying journey looking for the daughter who disappeared, probably snatched, from his garden. This fighter will do anything to find her, even if it costs him his soul, and this brutal novel documents his journey to hell and back. Although this is a supernatural story, it deserved to be a mainstream hit and reach beyond the usual horror audiences. As with all his books it was very difficult to put down and thoroughly researched, as the bibliography indicates. If you have children it adds substantial levels of fear to what is already a vivid vision of a Britain on the point of disintegration.
3. Last Days (2012)
By the time Last Days arrived in 2012 I had already read Nevill’s previous three novels becoming a major fan who was looking forward to this exploration of a very dangerous cult. It ranks as one of his most ambitious works which effortlessly moves from the present day to the murky origins of the cult several generations earlier. Holding a horror fans attention for over five hundred pages is tricky, and although the novel has a crazy ending, it rocks and rolls right until the final paragraphs. There are some exceptionally creepy otherworldly sequences which has the reader scratching with paranoia to see whether there are any dodgy looking marks behind their radiators or fridges! If there are, this means the ‘Blood Friends’ have you on their radar. These horrible creations rank amongst the finest of Nevill’s monsters.
A substantial amount of research into religious cults and film making obviously went into this novel, which gave the book an extra level of authenticity and believability. Although it’s only a story, you still get the feeling there is something real, lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce. I am not going to bother with a big rehash of the plot, in a nut-shell: a strapped for cash documentary film maker is suckered into making a film about a 1970s religious cult and gets much more than he bargained for. I’ve read horror novels all my life and as I get older am notoriously difficult to please, so it was great to read such an addictive, ambitious and really entertaining tale. It’s easy to make a trashy story out of religious cults, by throwing in lots of group sex and goat’s heads etc, Nevill is much more clever than that and gives up something both unsettling and scarily believable. Now I’m going to check on that fresh stain on the bathroom wall, it looks dodgy….
4. Under a Watchful Eye (2017)
2017 saw the arrival of novel number eight and Under a Watchful Eye cemented Nevill’s reputation as the finest exponent of supernatural fiction in the UK with a unique tale of a rather literary themed haunting. Sebastian is a horror author who finds relative success in early middle age after years of struggling, scrimping and saving and now lives a peaceful life on the south coast of England. His orderly life is shattered when he sees visions of someone he quickly realises is an unwelcome blast from his past, and bizarrely, the feature of a Nevill short story, a rare example of cross-pollination across his fiction. He had hoped never to see this individual again and before long the unsettling visions intensify and become more threatening and the mystery behind them takes the story in an alternative and unpredictable direction. His girlfriend deserts him and the feelings of both being watched and stalked get stronger and more vivid. The plot is a particular sneaky one, which cleverly shrouds where it is heading.
The second half of Under a Watchful Eye has a great change of pace as we leave the seaside and Seb begins to further his research and is unknowingly sucked into a spider’s web of horrors. The otherworldly descriptions are outstanding and we catch a glimpse of what might be waiting for us beyond death. This terrific novel has a combination of both personal hauntings and some outstanding sequences in both a remote mansion house and a train. Remember to keep your wits about you for an outstandingly sneaky ending.
5. The Ritual (2011)
By the time novel number three, The Ritual, arrived I was well and truly hooked on this author and was absolutely delighted to discover it lurking in an Irish airport before the official British release. This was a slightly different beast and the only novel of the author’s not to be principally set in the UK. This exquisitely well paced supernatural thriller concerns four old university friends, on a hiking holiday in a remote part of Sweden with hiking trails and dense woodlands. They are trying to rekindle old friendships and rediscover their youth before middle age truly sets in. Much of the early stages are psychological, but when they stray from the path, hoping for a short-cut, horrible, horrible things begin to happen as they are stalked by something nasty and otherworldly.
The first two hundred pages sets a very atmospheric scene, the descriptions of the forest are so vivid you can smell the trees and as the four friends struggle with internal demons they find themselves totally lost in a forest that seems to have some sort of evil spirit. Nevill uses the amazing, desolate landscape incredibly well, and you feel the four friend’s pain as you realise the full extent of the nastiness in store for them. A mobile phone will not save you here. The book changes direction in the second half and if you’ve only watched the Netflix film of the same name prepare for a completely different second half. There were a few sequences that genuinely creeped me out and that’s what a good horror novel is supposed to do. My wife is Swedish, so I visit the country yearly and when we go out walking in the countryside this novel always springs to mind….
6. Banquet for the Damned (2004)
The chilling occult horror Banquet for the Damned was the second Nevill book I read after my introduction with Apartment 16 and until its eventual re-release the original publication could fetch a pretty penny online. Set mostly in an out-of-season and wind-swept Saint Andrews, the small Scottish coastal town oozed atmosphere and an underlying sense of threat which was an outstanding setting for a scary novel. When it comes to the fear factor, Banquet for the Damned really delivered and I recall a truly outstanding sequence in a deserted university library which had me looking over my shoulder. But spooky libraries are the least of the student’s worries as a number of them are being haunted by incredibly realistic night terrors. Scary dreams are soon followed by disappearances and an exquisite supernatural mystery is built around these circumstances.
Banquet of the Damned is deliberately slow, perhaps too slow for some, but readers who do invest in the plot are really going to enjoy time spent in St. Andrews. The descriptions of the town were fantastic, vivid and gave a real sense of Scotland. Others, including the author, have mentioned the influences of MR James and his mighty shadow lurks in the background of a superbly crafted horror novel. Banquet of the Damned reveals its secrets very slowly and deliberately in what develops into a very clever modern tale of devil worship and witchcraft. If you like your horror violent and fast this might not be the book for you, but it gives a solid blueprint for the type of novels Nevill had in front of him. I read this very clever book over three days and if you’ve never visited Scotland, the author brings the location to life. I do enjoy reading books set in my northern homeland as it’s a wonderful location for otherworldly tales.
7. The House of Small Shadows (2013)
When I first heard the basic plot of The House of Small Shadows I was a tad underwhelmed, having the impression that the plot sounded fairly similar to other books on the market with freaky puppets or dodgy dolls which was Nevill’s first foray into the area of folk horror. Catherine Howard is invited to value the contents The Red House which was once owned by a reclusive taxidermist M.H. Mason. There are a treasure trove of antiques to be archived and as Catherine’s stay in the remote house lengthens things begin to get stranger and she becomes unsettled in her isolated surroundings.
As with many of Nevill’s novels the setting is crucial and The Red House is outstanding, it does not reach the heights of 82 Edgeware Road from No One Gets Out Alive, but it is still a fine creaking and disturbing creation. It has secrets, it breathes, footsteps come and go and Catherine is sure she is not alone. Before long she begins to question her sanity and the blurring of nightmare and reality begin to dominate the book. The book will really get under your skin, and has some outstanding descriptions connected to Mason’s monstrous taxidermy creations. Similar to No One Gets Out Alive there are few characters and most of the action set in one location. Enter at your peril.
8. Apartment 16 (2010)
Apartment 16 was the first Adam Nevill novel I read back in 2010 and was immediately struck with the startling and unsettling imagery with what was to become one of his literary trademarks. Scary buildings are another of his favourites and there are few finer than the apartment block, Barrington House, which includes a flat which has been empty for fifty years, and with very good reason. The block of flats was so well described, I felt I lived there. A suspicious noise causes a night watchman to investigate further, something he comes to regret. In an earlier life Adam Nevill worked in security and there is most definitely a touch of life experience mixed in there.
Like many of his novels Apartment 16 is slowly, but exquisitely paced, with the terrors being built up gradually, with not much being given away in the first half but blending in some well described horrors in the second. As the book moved on, my sense of doom heightened and it was difficult to predict the exact direction the novel would take; how the evil would arrive with the revelations involving the back-story of the flats. I enjoy intelligent horror and Apartment 16 is a very clever book; by about page 160 I thought I had everything figured out, but it twisted into an even darker dimension. I feel bad ranking it eighth of Nevill’s eight novels, but that only highlights the strength of his back-catalogue.
Moving away from the novels and into Adam’s anthologies…
Some Will Not Sleep (2016)
Adam Nevill’s first collection of short stories deservedly received universal acclaim from the world of horror, bloggers and early readers. This anthology of eleven wonderfully crafted stories crept into every corner of the genre and represent a cross section of creations from two decades in writing horror. Some being influenced by the curve-balls life throws at us, other crap jobs, horrible flats, and spells living abroad. The author has obviously spent considerable time selecting his chosen eleven and as a result there is no padding or weak stories. As with everything, there were some stories that I liked more than others and the pacing was one of the overwhelming strengths. This has obviously been a constant feature in Nevill’s novels and he seems to have a great knack in scaling everything down to the size required for success in the short story format.
Some of my personal favouries kept you hanging until the final paragraph To Forget and Be Forgotten a perfect example on a loner landing a dream job working nights as a doorman to an exclusive block of flats where nobody ever seems to be around too much. Until his peaceful nightly harmony is disturbed and the old grannies are much more than they seem. Some of the stories end with a certain ambiguity which also works well in the short story format, with the author not needing to join every dot in the final sentences. Sometimes your own imagination can be enough.
I also has fun discovering ‘Adam Nevill the man’ which lurked in the shadows of many of the stories. We’ve all had the flatmate from hell, maybe none as bad as the dude in Yellow Teeth, but close. The smell of this guy was described so vividly I was laughing as I read some of the passages to my wife and his ungodly waft was rising from the pages of the book! Pig Thing takes us back to the author’s childhood home in New Zealand where a creature stalks a family and their three children. This collection of supernatural horror has the craftsmanship of an old master and it’s to savour.
Hasty for the Dark (2017)
Nevill’s second collection Hasty for the Dark features stories from the period 2009 to 2015 and has a broader range that its predecessor. The nine tales are cleverly varied, exhibiting chills which deal with the supernatural in both every day and altogether freakier situations. The sneakiest treat of the collection are the various references and wider connections to his novels and other stories. Amongst others our old friend Mr Hazzard from Under a Watchful Eye continues to exert his influence, and the novella length story Call the Name is set in a very similar environmentally destroyed world as his novel The Lost Girl featuring a geriatric unreliable narrator who believes the world may soon end. Filled with some shocking imagery, the vision of mass drownings and deaths of granny and grandad is a hard one to shake off in this engrossing Lovecraft inspired story. And don’t forget to cross-reference the mysterious Movement which pops up here and there with Nevill in playful mood.
The Angels of London was a true corker featuring the landlord from hell. When luckless and down at heel Frank moves into a grotty room above a closed dilapidated pub called ‘The Angel of London’ he quickly regrets it. The place is worse than a dump, and after a bad day poor Frank soon gets into an argument when his horrible landlord Granby taps him for a rent increase. Things then go from bad to worse for Frank and soon he’s even too scared to use the toilet on the landing after a fellow tenant hints about what lies in store if he defies the slimy Granby. Always in our Hearts was equally terrific. Taxi-driver Ray causes a hit and run death and after lying low for a while thinks he’s in the clear and starts going about his business, picking up taxi fares across run down council estates. The story kicks off when he picks up John from a really horribly rundown house, the rather unsettling jolly passenger takes a package with him which appears to have something moving in it. A sick pet perhaps? Ray is then instructed to take a series of different passengers here and there, most of which have shifty looking packages. Easy money soon oozes into something else… It really was a great story, full of dark humour and tension, filthy breadcrumbs dropped here and there, with the reader certain John will get his comeuppance, but how? This was a wonderful second anthology.
Cries from the Crypt (2016)
Of all the books I have reviewed Cries from the Crypt is the one I would recommend you save until you have read everything else and it can be picked up for free from Adam’s website. It is primarily aimed at fans and the 21 chapters give a wide-ranging insight behind the curtains of a writer who is first and foremost a wonderfully knowledgeable reader of fiction himself and a great student of the horror genre and all the side-roads that encompasses. Anybody who is in the early stages of their journey into horror will find the various interviews packed with great author recommendations and insights into his inspirations, his writing process and habits. Many of his recommendations go well beyond horror and highlight the importance of reading James Joyce as a teenager to his admiration of cult writers such Charles Bukowski, and Bukowski’s hero, John Fante.
If you’re a budding writer (not necessarily horror) various articles give lots of sound advice about publishing, editing, agents and to be frank: how tough it is to get started in the writing world. You really get the sense of his own personal struggle through the various articles and some of pieces on editing are really fascinating. I enjoyed the notes on Adam’s thought process on why various sections which were cut from novels and the reasons why are often just as interesting as the new text itself, coupled with the side-notes on literary disagreements with editors. There was even a mention (but not included) of an alternative ending to The Lost Girl which was considered way too bleak to use. Many of the older interviews come from online horror websites which no longer exist and are very detailed.
Cries from the Crypt should be seen as a trip into the brain of a really great writer and I picked up countless nuggets to mull over and I’m sure many others will also. The gold standard of literary memoirs is without doubt Stephen King’s On Writing: a Memory of the Craft which is really a memoir of SK’s writing and just as important what he reads. You’ll get the same impression from this collection of extracts of Adam. He reads as much as King and is as knowledgeable of “the craft” as anyone you’ll meet and to paraphrase what both authors say to write well you have to read first and foremost.
If you have read all eight novels please share your rankings and remember to return to Ink Heist soon for our interview with Adam.