Friday, 2 April 2010

‘Apartment 16’ – Adam Nevill (Pan)

Horror isn’t as stagnant as you would think; it’s certainly not dead. Horror is simply doing what it has always done; lurking in shadowy corners waiting to trap the unwary… Have a look at the ‘Mammoth Book of Best New Horror’ series and you’ll see what I mean.

A quick look at the bookshelves though would have you excused in thinking that this isn’t the case at all. Go into any bookstore and you’ll see the usual suspects taking up shelf space along with certain urban fantasy titles that booksellers really don’t know where to put. I’m looking forward to seeing writers like Brian Keene, Gary McMahon, Conrad Williams and Maynard & Sims making the horror shelves as varied as they deserve to be. Maybe that’s for the future but, in the meantime, this coming May could well be the start of it all. Adam Nevill’s ‘Apartment 16’ is by no means perfect but I found that I couldn’t put it down until I’d finished reading…

There’s an empty apartment in the exclusive Barrington House in London. There’s also a night porter who, over the coming weeks, will come to wish that he had never looked inside… If that wasn’t enough, there’s also a young American woman (Apryl) who has been left an apartment, in Barrington House, by her mysterious Great Aunt Lillian; a woman who died in strange circumstances. It isn’t the same flat but the two are connected by a horrific event that took place decades ago. Barrington House hasn’t been the same since and Apryl is determined to discover why. She may end up wishing that she hadn’t though; evil lives on in Barrington House and Apartment 16 is the gateway to somewhere even more horrifying…

‘Apartment 16’ is a bit of a slow burner. When it really gets going the book has a ready capacity to shock but you do have to jump through some over familiar hoops before you get to the good stuff. It’s a bit of a shame really when you see how good the book can be once Nevill lets his imagination run wild and unleashes fear on his reader. I found myself wishing that the whole book could have been like that.
The opening chapters do a fine job of setting the scene and laying little clues in place that end up making a lot of sense once you get to the end. What they also do however is throw a lot of typical ‘ghostly moments’ at the reader that I’ve seen many times before. Shadowy figures in the corner of Apryl’s eye, Apryl waking up to find all is not as it seems through one nasty surprise or another. The concept was enough to keep me reading through these early stages but I just wasn’t getting that delicious chill down my spine that genuinely terrifying ghost stories give you. Stick with it though, it’s worth sticking with.

Was Nevill just lulling his reader into a false sense of security, through a sense of the familiar, or was he aiming for scares that didn’t hit the mark? I don’t know. What I do know though is that the mid to latter stages of the book had me hooked and unnerved all at once. As the mystery of Barrington House unfolds, the tension is racked up mercilessly as Apryl begins to understand what she is facing. The whole landscape of the novel changes as things become clearer, what at first appears to be normal slowly becomes anything but and the tone of the book becomes more and more oppressive as time passes. The sense of evil is overpowering (is there anything more evil than a nasty child…?) and that’s when occurrences get truly scary. All of this is skilfully drawn out until a finale that’s in keeping with all good ghost and horror tales. If someone deserves a bad ending then that is what ‘Apartment 16’ has in store with them. However, no-one comes out of a good ghost tale unscathed and ‘Apartment 16’ plays by these rules too…

Apryl is a hard character to engage with purely because she is so out of her depth in a city that she has never visited before as well as out of her depth in terms of the evil that she faces. She spends so much time trying to work things out, or fit in, that you never get much of a chance to find out who she really is, only what she is trying to do. This is great in terms of moving the plot forward quickly but I would have preferred to see a main character with a little more substance to her.
Luckily, there is a lot more to the character of Seth and this was where the real fun was for me. While things that go bump in the night are scary enough, the true terror is in seeing someone fall under the sway of evil and gradually deteriorate mentally. This is what Nevill gives us and he really plays with his reader’s emotions by swing Seth back and forth between a forlorn hope of redemption and eternal damnation. You don’t know where Seth will end up and that’s what kept me reading, that and the sense of London as a dead weight hanging around Seth’s neck and driving him to distraction all the more.
The chapters mainly switch back and forth between Seth and Apryl’s viewpoints (with the occasional switch to a supporting character) and that’s where things fell a little flat for me. I loved Seth’s chapters but was ambivalent about those featuring Apryl. What I got as a result was a ‘seesaw’ effect of enjoyment and being a little non-plussed, something that made the book feel a little choppy in terms of it’s pacing on occasion.

Nevill’s writing is powerful enough though for this issue not to be too much of an obstacle though and once you get past the opening stages of the book you’re in for a real treat if you like ghost stories that will scare you to your core. I love reading horror fiction/ghost stories and Adam Nevill is definitely a name that I will be keeping an eye open for in the future…

Eight and a Half out of Ten


Adam L G Nevill said...

Hey Graeme
Thank you for the careful reading of my novel Apartment 16, and for a very considered review. Your comments were interesting, and instructive in places too. Will make sure you get a copy of the new one next year too.

Kind regards


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Graeme Flory said...

Hey Adam,

I'm glad you liked the review and I'm looking forward to reading your next book when it's published. Would you like to give us any hints as to what it's about...?