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Years ago, I read a horror book called The Ritual. I don’t remember how it crossed my path, though I do have a fondness for both wilderness spookers and Scandinavia — probably it was on a list of books compiled by someone I trusted, or maybe the Internet’s various algorithms simply delivered me to its chilling doorstep. Either way, I read it and loved it and that was that.
A while later I purchased a book called Last Days. It was found-footage in literary form, complete with cults and that strange flavor I call nonfiction-y fiction, where an author with a clear obsession for research and libraries and esoterica — someone who would make a brilliant nonfiction writer, in other words — decides to, instead, set their imagination loose upon facts with teeth and claws until what remains is something uniquely terrifying.
I read Last Days, and I loved it, and I thought… this author’s name is familiar. Since then, I have been devouring everything Adam Nevill has conjured. With the release of his newest book The Reddening around the corner, Adam has kindly answered a few questions for us. Read on to learn about folk horror, memetic evil, and the unfortunate end of a humorless librarian.
One of my favorite things about your work is how I often get the feeling that you came across something that interested you — guerrilla film-making, recording underground cave sounds, etc — and then read a lot about it. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve had to research for your writing?
Hello Sonya and thanks very much for not just reading my horrors but also for appreciating the work that goes into them. I am a fiend for research. I don’t have any professional expertise that I can readily call upon to inform stories, but I have a very inquisitive mind so am compelled to do my own extensive research to try and create plausibility in my horror fiction, in the characters and their worlds. I don’t think writers ever get tired of writing about themselves, but readers may feel fatigue at reading about the same characters in similar situations in the same author’s books. Unless you can turn this compulsion into a series which relies upon the same character and a certain familiarity, an inevitable predictability can creep in. I strive against that very thing in every book I write. It has to be part of your vision for horror, but not the same thing every time.
I also make writing more difficult for myself, but unintentionally, by obsessively researching. It slows me down but I really enjoy learning, acquiring knowledge and reading, and almost all of my secondary material comes from non-fiction books. I’m not a Googler; I still have an academic approach to research. I also believe that fiction has a greater chance of enduring and finding readers across a long game if it’s better considered, from the actual writing to what underpins the world and characters and story that a writer creates. My position on this becomes more entrenched in a publishing world in which four books published per year from a single author has been normalised. My heart tends to leap when I discover a book that took a writer a decade to finish; that alone can sell it to me.
But to (finally) answer your question, I tend to fixate on a subject and when I delve deeply into the wealth of information available, the truth is far stranger than anything I could have imagined independently. This might be true of all human existence and endeavour.
One of my weirdest research experiences occurred right at the start when researching my first novel, Banquet for the Damned. I wrote the first draft while a mature student at St Andrews University in the late 90s and discovered a wide array of books on witchcraft, folklore and demonology, written by scholars from all around the world, in the anthropology section of the university library; much of it was also part of a personal collection bequeathed to the library by a former Rector. The limit for borrowed books was about 30 tomes, which I quickly and repeatedly reached. Eventually, a librarian, who often checked out my loans, asked me, “Can I ask you what you’re doing at this university?” The experience was all very M R Jamesian.
I told him I was researching a horror novel and his expression changed; it was as if he was suddenly chewing on one of his own turds.
I received exactly the same expression filled with revulsion and disdain from another librarian, at a branch library in London, when I borrowed books and took out inter-library loans on titles with the subject of taxidermy and puppetry. This was for the House of Small Shadows research. This guy also asked me why I wanted these particular books. I didn’t care for his tone and found the question a bit intrusive, so I asked him if he thought I was a serial killer? He didn’t see the funny side of that (and still hasn’t, though he’s had years to consider my jest as he sits in my loft, staring into the darkness, with the same expression on his face).
I’ve also had a couple of uncanny experiences. When researching for Apartment 16 and investigating the subjects of British expressionist artists, as well as the British Fascist movement before and during the Second World War, I was also working as a night watchman in a swanky apartment block in West London. And I came across a passage in Diana Moseley’s biography that indicated that the Moseleys, Oswald (leader of the BUF) and Diana, had lived in an apartment in the very building that I was guarding. This was after they came out of Brixton Prison at the end of the war. I nearly slid off my chair. I was creating a story about a fascist expressionist painter who occupied an apartment in the very building that Oswald Moseley had lived in. There are thousands of these mansion blocks in London; what were the odds for me choosing this subject while working in Moseley’s old home?
Last one! Though I have many. While researching the Manson Family for Last Days, I realised that I had been walking past a building, twice a day for 5 years, in which one of the suspected murders had been committed in London, during a scientology conference in the 70s (so that Manson could keep an annuity he’d taken from a follower). On many of these walks I made mental plans and notes about writing a horror novel about a counter-culture cult from the 60s & 70s, who were murdering former members in different parts of the world in inexplicable, baffling ways . . .
And just prior to this time, I had also worked as a porter in another building in Mayfair that I discovered was near the original headquarters of The Process Church of the Final Judgement. It was as if, something sinister in London, was helping me to write stories about itself.
Folk horror is an established genre, and people have some preconceived notions about what a folk horror story entails. With The Reddening, were there any tropes that you particularly wanted to play with, subvert, or avoid?
An ancient legacy of myth and tradition with unique trappings in a remote English locality, appealed to me; a trope for sure, but one that never loses currency or value to me. It’s how you put your own spin and interpretation on these ideas that matters. I wanted a legacy of isolated folklore to actually reach back sixty thousand years, and beyond, and deeply into prehistory itself. I was reaching for that Nigel Kneale vibe, with a strong element of cosmic horror in which vast swathes of time and space are suggested by the locale and the aesthetic. So it was most certainly folk horror but with a definite cosmic horror angle too. It was to be a savage, brutal and genocidal folk legacy, one of industrial slaughter, and not something that involved flowers, maypoles, saucy rhymes, wenches, or the Green Man. So, yes, I avoided much of the window-dressing while focussing on the core tenets of remoteness, legacy, buried power, animosity to outsiders, horrid pacts between man and a pre-Christian God continuing in isolation. A dirty dog mouth issuing a humanlike scream in a lightless limestone cave, festooned with old bones dusted red, was my starting point. There was no corn dolly, no wreath or totems on my mind; I wanted something earthier, more bestial and stranger that still might find a place in modern festivals, witch-wives and folk magic.
The very landscape was also important – I needed the actual ground, sea and sky to evoke the wild, but in a feral and mistreated way: heavily mined, defoliated, made barren and inhospitable by ancient industries. No vast barley or wheat fields or orchards.
So my approach to any subject in horror — the ghost story, the serial killer, the cult, the alien, the paranormal — is to keep it fresh and strange whilst still maintaining an attachment to the tradition or field of horror.
More broadly, what horror gimmicks reliably scare you? Do you use them or avoid them in your work?
Not sure I’d call them gimmicks, but situations involving tight tunnels and crawlspaces compress my chest and I often have to look away. I might not actually be capable of writing something of that nature without permanently damaging myself.
What makes me really tense too, and I see it in almost every kind of film or TV show, is a driver not looking out the windscreen when in a moving vehicle, but turned to camera and talking to a passenger. I often shout “Watch the bloody road!” I brace for impact. I find those scenes unbearable. Another is if a character is searching a house and the owner comes home and the front door clicks open. I hate it. I don’t even like looking at someone mooching through another’s belongings. It’s oddly simple things like that that set me off squirming.
But it is an ongoing debate in horror fiction — does it have to be scary? I always liked Ramsey Campbell’s definition that it should, at least, be disturbing. And yet, the primary reader expectation for horror is to be frightened. Same for film viewers. It can be a straightjacket. Horror has this terrible win or lose arbitration set against it — did it or didn’t it scare you? And yet, the field can do so much more than offer a scare.
But horror is always going to be more effective and memorable if a storyteller strives to conjure awe that is both wondrous and terrifying. A sublime of terror. The greats do this. It’s the hardest thing to conjure, but aspire to do it and by falling short you’ve probably written something better than the run-of-the-mill using the same-old, same-old. From that kind of ambition comes the real dread, the lingering unease, maybe even fear. There’s little worse in horror than a writer trying too hard to frighten a reader; in the first place, the horror has to arise from out of what a writer is compelled to write about and needs to feel authentic, the ground laid painstakingly first. Sure, there are techniques that can be used, but I tend to imagine what frightens me and just describe it as simply and accurately as I can using ordinary language. The opening scene in No One Gets Out Alive is a good example, as is the opening scene of The Ritual. Both are based on my experiences; one in which I awoke and heard an intruder in my completely darkened room, during my first night in that room (it was actually a very noisy mouse inside a plastic bag), and the second on finding dead sheep hanging from trees after a punishing hike and fruitless search for somewhere to pitch a tent in the dark, as it began to snow.
I have set myself goals too — in one novel, in which there is a high and gruesome body count, I endeavoured to never once use the word “blood”, and in every situation to use ordinary diction and indirection to describe anything gruesome — to avoid language that carried an unpleasant association alone. To my eye, that makes horror more effective. So how you write something we’ve all read a hundred times before, or how you depict something that has appeared in a 100 films, is the challenge and is key. There is always another way to create, or recreate, everything.
Your characters are often writers, film-makers, and other artists who are coerced into spreading that story’s evil through their work — a memetic enemy of sorts. (You’ve also mentioned liking Gemma Files’ Experimental Film, which is one of my favorite examples of memetic evil in horror.) What draws you to this type of threat? Is it something you ever worry about spreading as a writer yourself?
Interesting question. I wouldn’t flatter myself to be capable of spreading anything in this way, but I have been told scores of times by readers that water stains now make them uneasy after they’d read Last Days. They see teeth in them!
But that concept of a malignant influence or presence transferring through other mediums I do find fascinating and a source of inspiration — it can also be metaphorical and commentary about what continually happens; how people are conned, how people are convinced to vote for stupid things, or deny the existence of important matters and issues because they are too challenging or inconvenient to behold. Ideas are viruses; Yuval Noah Harari writes about this brilliantly in Sapiens. We may even be more prone to ideas spreading like viruses than ever because of the speed and variety of dissemination, the expertise behind spin and the effectiveness of disinformation if its produced convincingly. The idea of subtle oppression, and of gradually being driven into penury, despair and even madness, by near indefinable forces that are driven by self-interest and low animal cunning, is something I return to again and again; my dread of it actually fuels much of my horror.
But I don’t write techno thrillers and even my science fiction novel, Lost Girl, is very low tech. To me, the consequences of runaway climate change in an overheating world immediately conjured the French idea of King Death during the Black Death, and not Mad Max or high tech biospheres on other planets. It’s how my imagination works — I tend to look back on the grotesque in human history and culture to clothe ideas that are contemporary, or timeless in that they are always universally relevant. I guess specific, almost minor details in my secondary reading tend to strike me and set my imagination on fire for what, for instance, would spread a terrible influence or reanimate a curse. So I go for things like ancient oil paintings too sickening to be undraped for more than seconds (‘The Saints of Filth’ in Last Days), or a certain kind of communal meditation or 60s charlatan’s astral projection exercise, that exposes you to a kind of psychic contamination you’re never free of (Hazzard’s paradise belt in Under a Watchful Eye). I tend to use that kind of imagery or aesthetic. I find low tech imagery and ideas more effective, more exciting to write about and more affecting in fiction. As an editor, I remember mountains of stories sent to me about IT related conspiracies and email chains and computer viruses and hackers — I found none of it affecting, some of it “neat” but not memorable. So, I’ll stick to blackened bones that fall from the sky if you embrace a certain kind of communal living, and the screams of pigs in the night in places where there should be no pigs … missing paintings, old film footage, childhood memories, peculiarly charged domestic spaces that begin to inhabit a consciousness like a new persona … this kind of material makes me want to write horror.
In The Reddening, I was delighted when Steve found an album called “Thin Len and Choker Lottie.” And in Under A Watchful Eye, I remember a reference or two to Last Days. Do you see this interconnectedness more as an easter egg for readers or as the building of a mythos?
It’s a vague and diffuse suggestion of a mythos, but one not especially considered or designed into a series or universe. I think each of my books has a slender link, or links, to another, or others, in some small, discreet way, but massive kudos to spotting the reference in that song. There are also three other references to other books between that album track listing and the Wiki entry for Tony Willows.
More than anything it’s a bit of fun and a murky glimpse into sub-cultures and esoteric individuals and rare books and artefacts that suggest a bigger, darker picture; not so much a conspiracy but a glimpse into something simply awful that awaits us all. Were I to properly connect everything and do a big reveal in a future book, the enigma and mystique might be entirely lost. It would be very hard to reconcile everything too because of the various interpretations of an afterlife I have created as I have gone along.
Anyway, I found the interview invigorating; it’s nice to hit pause now and again and think on what the hell am I doing?
Thanks for having me!