While reading Adam Nevill’s collection of macabre tales Hasty for the Dark I was reminded of a conclusion I’d reached about horror fiction; that at its best it borders on satire and particularly that peculiar offshoot of satire; the Grotesque. Like the renowned masks of comedy and tragedy the tradition of satire has always had another face besides parody; for what makes us laugh is never that far from what also troubles us. Satire as a tradition also taps the rich vein of human monstrosity and pathos at the margins where sanity deserts us and life’s edges distort into absurdity, dream logic and nightmare vision. Being a mutation from the same roots as Grand Guignol, horror fiction holds up a distorting mirror to society and the human condition to show us in acts of revelation the nightmares hidden within. And it is these acts of revelation that partly characterise the genre in the sense that horror fiction can be a revelator of unsettling truths and also with the inference of revelling in defiance of life’s horrors. Perhaps it is horror fiction’s distasteful proximity to the carnivalesque and to visionary proclamation that leaves so many critics bemused and ruffled.
The opening story ‘On All London Underground Lines’ is rooted in allusions to labyrinths much older than that of its titular setting. While simply striving to reach his office one morning the protagonist senses that he’s becoming the plaything of a set of increasingly exasperating diversions. Is he right to suspect there is something more menacing at play behind the usual commuter grind? And what of his fellow commuters and the other inhabitants skulking in the subterranean system; are they somehow complicit in the ominous game that is being played out at the unnamed narrator’s expense? This story like those that follow suggest that the kinds of terrors we meet in Nevill’s writing are closer to Aickman’s games with allegory. The moral nuances are cut more finely here than facile binary stances of good versus evil, for the world and its inhabitants are envisaged as being far more mutable and ambiguous.
In probing the capital’s shabbier quarters in the story ‘The Angels of London’ we encounter the unseemly landlord Granby, one of Nevill’s characteristic grotesques emerging from a tenement’s gloom to confront Frank, our protagonist. Granby is a Dickensian swindler in casualwear; a living anachronism who doesn’t quite belong to the ordinary world Frank knows. However since entering the tenement, reality can no longer be trusted as easily as it once had; the world has become a place of unseen influences and disguises. The more Frank is drawn in the more he starts to suspect that the masters that Granby serves will demand much more than mortal debts. The environs are vividly described, with a mood reminiscent of the urban unease found in Ramsey Campbell, often hinting at some monstrous anomaly under the city’s skin. Nevill’s descriptions of inner city squalor are at times described with a poetic finesse. Do these moments hint at a mundane world that might harbour revelations in the least expected places or do they serve as an ironic device too suggesting that corruption has reached much deeper than societal mores?
I’ve encountered themes and inhabitants like these before in Adam Nevill’s novel ‘Apartment 16.’ Horror, like the Grotesque, is nothing without its masks and the monsters of Nevill’s fictions are personifications of society’s fears and troubled desires as in a distorted mirror. Nevill invokes the painter Francis Bacon yet just as easily I find myself thinking of the venomous lines of the popular satirist Gerald Scarfe or the decadent ghouls that stare out of Otto Dix’s pictures when faced with some of Nevill’s denizens. Throughout his fiction we encounter human flesh and desire distorted into parodies expressive of latent tensions. In these tales the apparently desirable is often revealed to be repellent in the end. With mordant humour in ‘Eumenides (The Benevolent Ladies)’ we find a protagonist participating in a tryst at a disused zoo. The events that ensue are reminiscent of Ballard or Aickman in that the apparently tranquil and humdrum surface of a suburban world is increasingly unsettled by dreamlike inferences until waking life is finally breached.
There’s a sense of confrontation and injustice running through the fabric of many of these tales that’s often expressed in biting black humour. In ‘The Days of Our Lives’ we have a lurid tale told via a feverish stream of consciousness; our masochistic narrator bears witness to his wife transforming into something that may be a serial murderer or perhaps something far stranger. We can’t be sure, for the voice we want to believe and rely upon is gradually subsumed into a nightmare whose monstrosity only increases with its momentum, infecting and warping everything it comes into contact with. If the narrator’s voice is feverish then his story is a contagion.
With ‘Always in Our Hearts’ we encounter a taxi driver who, through a hit-and-run incident becomes embroiled in the progressively sinister stages of a ritualistic errand until his own duplicity distorts the world around him and from his own actions a punishment arises.
In keeping with this idea of a ‘satire of the macabre,’ and through writing that is by turns subtly elliptical and allusive or brutal and nightmarish Nevill hints at a cosmic joke being played out. So out of quite ordinary circumstances Nevill’s protagonists face extraordinary dilemmas. They seek to extricate themselves from the momentum of nightmarish events before they too are changed or corrupted into another form. Yet in these fictions we confront monsters too that are only grudgingly human and wish at each available chance to gladly drag the protagonist down with them into an existence ruled by bestial urges or parasitic cravings. Yet there’s no easy division of the innocent and the damned in these stories and even in unspeakable moments some semblance of vulnerability often emerges as evidence of a further absurdity or complexity beneath the apparently simple and accessible surfaces of these tales.
And in a way it’s the cosmic joke we turn to again in the story ‘Hippocampus’: an omniscient narrator hovers over and delves into the evidence left in the wake of a tragedy which has left a vessel stricken on the high seas. No one is left alive on board and we find ourselves tricked into reconstructing the terrible sequence of events with deft cinematic descriptions. Indeed there appear to be other filmic and iconic allusions at play here; are we witness to an expedition gone wrong; the consequences of trespassing on some primal shore or mountain? Savage artefacts attest to a curse. Did I trace a hint of Stoker’s Demeter in this ship that augurs a greater tragedy still to come, or a greater game played out by a cruel demiurge or trickster?
The sweep of that epic tone carries into ‘Call the Name’ – a long Lovecraftian tale of millenarian prophecy and ecological disaster – the falling apart of the modern West is paralleled with dementia and a new evolutionary era. While adeptly conveying the story’s conservation themes we also come to empathise with the many women who inhabit its world; daughters and matriarchs alike are caught in the story’s web which balances rumours of mutation and rising cults with a subtle handling of human vulnerability.
‘White Light, White Heat’ – in a piece that’s possibly influenced by Ligottian ‘corporate horror’ we find Nevill’s distinctive eye for grotesque parody raise its ugly head again in the blackly humorous descriptions of the executive monsters which the protagonist encounters on his journey from commercial publishing to zealous murder. As with ‘The Days of Our Lives’, Nevill shows his skill again for warping the parameters of his story, taking the reader from the disenchanted concerns of an office executive to the vision of a dystopian future.
The final tale confirms that Adam Nevill is a writer with a distinctive and refined vision. In Little Black Lamb subtle accounts of quiet domesticity are gradually eroded by hints of mortality. A husband and wife begin to experience strange disturbances in the equilibrium of their lives. They undergo medical examinations that fail to pinpoint causes yet the psychic disturbances persist and what were at first suspected as delusions brought about by dementia find corroboration in actual places, events and the unearthing of a suitcase. The line between obsession and possession blurs as an ominous momentum builds with the inference of a greater conspiracy waiting in the wings.
With Adam Nevill’s ‘Hasty for the Dark’ we find an imagination at work that, through subtle and refined writing not only reinvents familiar horror fiction tropes but creates a vision of his own that enriches that genre, broadening its symbolic and emotional range.
Stephen J. Clark, Horror as Revelation, March 2018.