We’ve been graced with some pleasing weather throughout most of this lockdown, which in some ways is adding insult to injury, I suppose. We’re now approaching early summer and the time when so many of us would normally be thinking of going away. Maybe abroad, or maybe to some other part of the UK.
One of the great joys of my life is travelling, and yet, like so many of us, I don’t know when I’ll be able to leave my house again. I certainly can’t see there being any real journeys for quite a long time yet. However, we can dream, which is certainly the story behind my TERROR TALES anthologies.
I’ve been editing these now since 2011, and the emphasis has always been the same, each volume focussing on a different corner of the UK (and maybe, in due course, going far beyond these shores). Each time original horror fiction alternates with factual anecdotes, all digging deeply into that district’s scary legends. Much of which, perhaps inevitably, means folk-horror.
On that same subject, I’ll also today, in my usual unsparing detail, be reviewing Adam LG Nevill’s remarkable novel of extreme folk-horror, THE REDDENING.
If you’re only here to read the Adam Nevill review, that’s fine. As always, you’ll find it at the lower end of today’s blogpost.
First, though, if you have a couple of minutes free, perhaps you’ll also be interested in …
The truth behind the terror
The TERROR TALES anthologies – be they TERROR TALES OF LONDON, TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT or TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL, or any of the seven others we have published so far – primarily contain fiction, though it’s always fiction with a sense of place. When I first commissioned these stories, I asked specifically for material that didn’t just happen to be set in the correct geographic area, but fiction that was atmospheric of it and relevant to it, drawing deeply on the local myth, tradition and history.
And the authors have delivered the goods for nearly a decade now, with at least a couple from every volume being selected for inclusion in Year’s Best anthologies. But even though many stars of the horror genre have graced our pages – we’ve published tales from names as varied as Peter James, Helen Grant, Ramsey Campbell, Thana Niveau and Robert Shearman – I don’t think these TERROR TALES books would be quite the same without the local ‘non-fiction’ anecdotes with which I intersperse the stories.
This is an idea I unashamedly pinched from R. Chetwynd-Hayes when he did the TALES OF TERROR books for Fontana way back in the 1970s. Take Welsh Tales of Terror, for example (first pub in 1973). You couldn’t read such classics of Gothic and macabre fiction as Jordan by Glyn Jones, The Cry of Children by John Christopher and The Shining Pyramid by Arthur Machen, without first encountering the factual chills of Old Ben and The Cyoraeth, which lay in between them.
My ambition has always been to create as full picture of each region as I can, incorporating as much of its mystery and folklore as possible. And the anecdotes, which I write and edit myself, are a particularly satisfying way to add this essential colour and atmosphere. And remember, as outlandish as it may seem, they DO purport to be true. We don’t make stuff up for this section of each book. That is left to the fiction writers. These many small interludes are, or at least one time were, believed to be the reports of real incidents.
And now, on the basis that you probably fancy sampling some proof of the pudding rather than listening to me droning endlessly on, I’ll quit while I’m on top.
Here, for your complete delectation, are some examples of the true-life (albeit very folkloric) horror that we have published to date in the TERROR TALES series.
There is much to interest antiquarians in the far west of Cornwall. Archaeologists and prehistorians abound on the open moors above St Ives, Towednack and Penzance, in particular on the picturesque Lady Downs, where a range of Bronze Age artefacts have been uncovered over the years, and cairns, barrows and ancient stones, some arranged in enigmatic patterns, others standing cold and aloof, hint at the former existence of human settlements whose names and occupants have long passed from memory.
If there is any place where the formidable power of the faeries could believably manifest it is here. And indeed, the Lady Downs provide the backdrop to one of the eeriest and yet more well attested tales of human/faerie interaction in modern times.
The whole of southwest England was long known as ‘the Summer Land’, largely in reflection of its benign climate. Cornwall in particular, which sits at a southerly latitude in the heart of the Gulf Stream, is famous for its warm summers and amazingly mild winters; in some areas it even boasts evergreen oak trees. This creates a magical aura, which, in a less educated age, was easy to attribute to the presence of mysterious beings. The pixies (or piskies) are a famous Cornish variant on the more traditional faeries and sprites of homespun mythology, but Cornish legend mentions all kinds of little folk, mainly in those areas where there are barrows, ring-forts and dolmens – like the Lady Downs.
In the late 18th century, a certain young woman, whose name is given variously as Cherry of Zennor or Jenny Permuen, and whose age was said to be 16, was found wandering on the Downs in a dazed state, with her left eye ‘curious’ – either changed in colour, unable to swivel, or simply and inexplicably blinded. She had apparently gone missing several weeks earlier, having left her home to go looking for work.
After much coaxing, the girl, who remained in a confused state, told an astonishing story. She claimed that she was on the road from Zennor to Gulval, which took her across the Lady Downs. Halfway over, at a remote crossroads, she met a handsome gentleman dressed in the manner of a country squire. He appeared to know before she even spoke that she was seeking employment, as he promptly told her that he was a recently made widower who was in need of a housekeeper and nanny for his son. The payment he offered was good, so the girl agreed to accompany him. He led her along a series of moorland paths, ever downward, through a network of deep valleys and gullies, until they reached a place where no sunshine penetrated. Here, there was a beautiful house surrounded by handsome gardens, which bloomed magnificently despite the permanent shade.
The boy she was introduced to was very quiet and polite, and once the girl had commenced her job, seemed happy to be left to his own devices. However, one very important duty of the new nanny’s was to anoint his eyes each morning with a mysterious salve, though his father asserted that on no account was she to use this substance on herself. For long periods each day, the widower and his son would disappear from the house. The girl subsequently found that she didn’t have much to do, and so she became bored and inquisitive. Nothing in the house was out of the ordinary, but she’d long noted that the ointment she used on the boy seemed to make his eyes shine. One particularly tedious afternoon, unable to resist temptation, she applied a dab of it to her own left eye.
Immediately, the eye began to burn. In agony, she ran outside to a nearby pool, wherein she attempted to wash the ointment away, only to realise that she could now see bizarre things. Firstly, half men/half fish creatures swam below the surface. But then other beings appeared, dancing on all sides of her: men and women who seemed to have adopted hybrid forms, melding their own features into those of animals and insects. Among these terrifying creatures, she spotted her master and his son. The girl fled back to the house, before fainting onto her bed. In the morning, her master, now restored to his normal human shape, informed her that she was dismissed, and offering no explanation why or for what she thought she had seen the day before, he led her away from his home by various, complex paths, finally leaving her dazed and alone on the Lady Downs.
The weird tale was taken seriously by the girl’s family, who demanded to be introduced to this strange widower. However, try though she may, the girl was unable to find any path leading down into a permanently sunless valley, on one occasion taking a track which she was sure she recognised, only for it to end at an overgrown tumulus. In due course, the story was written off as fantasy. It was proposed that the girl might have been injured in some other way, maybe even had poisoned herself eating berries or other ill-advised fruits of the moor and had dreamed the whole thing.
But Cherry or Jenny, whatever her name actually was, maintained to the end of her days that these things had happened, and was often to be found wandering the Lady Downs on moonlit nights, calling for her former employer in a hopeless, despairing voice.
“I was returning to the cairn on the summit in the mist when I began to think I heard something else than merely the sound of my own footsteps. I heard a ‘crunch’, and then another ‘crunch’ as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own. I listened and heard it again but could see nothing in the mist. I was seized with terror and took to my heels.”
So spoke Professor Norman Collie in 1925, describing an experience he had near the summit of Scotland’s second highest mountain, Ben Macdui, in 1891. It is an account many climbers today will be familiar with, because the unknown beast of Ben Macdui is still one of the most mysterious and terrifying beings in British mountaineering mythology.
Ben Macdui itself contributes in no small way to the aura of very genuine fear this oft-told tale creates. Standing 4,295 feet above sea-level on the southern edge of the Cairngorms, it is a remote and lonely peak; it also suffers from extremely severe weather – heavy snow in winter and much mist and fog for the rest of the year. Stories that its high slopes and passes are home to an enormous, aggressive biped have been told for generations.
The creature was certainly known about in ancient times, when its old Gaelic name was ‘Am Fear Liath Mor’ (literally ‘Big Grey Man’). In the late 18th century, the great Scottish author, James Hogg, described a blood-chilling encounter with what he estimated was a 30 foot-tall giant, whose close details were hidden in frozen vapour, though Hogg said it was dark of aspect, “like a blackamoor”. In 1903, renowned mountaineer Henry Kellas reported something very similar. In 1943, climber Alex Twenion claimed that he shot three times at a colossal shape in the fog as it lurched menacingly towards him. Shortly afterwards, in 1945, a former mountain rescuer, Peter Densham, a man very experienced in the high peaks of the Cairngorms, told friends how he’d fled the mountain in terror when a massive, two-legged form chased after him.
There always seems to be an overwhelming sense of terror and panic in the presence of this unknown thing, though one or two witnesses have hung around just long enough to get a better look at it. They describe a burly, “crudely-made” humanoid form, somewhere between 12 and 20 feet tall, which is either grey in colour, or covered in short grey fur. Its face has variously been described as “malign”, “inhuman”, “apelike”, or weirder still, “non-existent”.
Owing to the harshness of the terrain, no major searches have ever been launched on Ben Macdui, but the majority of the sightings centre around the Lairg Ghru Pass, and perhaps not surprisingly, more than a few climbers no longer use that route.
Theories abound as to what the Big Grey Man could actually be. An optical illusion is one possibility: mountain mist, refracting sunlight, rapidly altering perspectives and so on, with the accompanying panic caused by exhaustion in the presence of this awesome landscape. However, other theorists dismiss this explanation as too pat, pointing to the very solid, very real nature of the phenomenon so many reliable witnesses claim to have experienced. One question raised is could the Big Grey Man be a relict woodwose – a mysterious hominid rumoured to have lived in the very wild parts of Britain during the Middle Ages, and supposedly glimpsed much more recently in the Highlands – in effect, a Scottish Bigfoot?
The reasons why this must be nonsense are almost as many as those given for why the North American Bigfoot must be nonsense, and yet – as in North America – the reported sightings continue. As usual in these kinds of cases, no real answer will be possible until some carcass or other type of physical evidence is discovered. For as long as it isn’t, scary rumours will persist that an unknown something prowls the desolate slopes and icy ridges of Ben Macdui.
The murder of King Edward II in 1327 is one of the grisliest tales in English history. And in the shape of Berkeley Castle, in southern Gloucestershire, it boasts one of the most ominous backdrops imaginable: a lowering structure which so emanates menace that even today it is associated with monsters, witchcraft and evil spirits.
Berkeley Castle was built in 1067 by a powerful Norman family, the FitzOsberns. Such strongholds had appeared all over England in the wake of the Norman Conquest, and were rightly viewed by the population as symbols of oppression, but Berkeley Castle was more feared than most as it was constructed on the site where an infamous Saxon witch had once made her home, and stories were soon circulating that the evil lurking within its mighty walls was more to do with the black arts than with the cruelty of foreign despots.
The story of the Berkeley Witch was already a famous folktale when the Normans arrived in England. It concerned a wealthy Saxon matron who, after living for many years in a fine timbered hall, on the exact spot where the castle would later be built, confessed to her family that her good fortune was the result of a pact with the Devil. After her funeral, it was reported that the chapel where her coffin was kept was inundated with nightmarish demonic forms, one of which finally broke open the casket and bore the woman’s corpse away on a horse covered with spikes. The corpse was said to have been impaled on these spikes, and witnesses claimed that it screamed in agony. In an associated legend, a supposed monster, a gigantic toad that fed on human flesh – possibly the witch’s familiar – was also believed to inhabit the site and in later decades, after the castle was built, it would reputedly wander through secret passages and spring out on the unwary. And indeed, an immense, unnaturally bloated toad was recovered from a recess in the castle cellars and killed during the reign of Henry VII, (1485-1509).
Of course, none of these stories are provable, but the one tale of Berkeley horror for which there is much documented evidence concerns the fate of Edward II.
Son of the famous warrior king, Edward I, who conquered Wales and was also known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, Edward II made enemies on all sides simply because, by comparison, he was very weak. He was supposedly fonder of poetry and sailing than of fighting, which in the early 14th century were not kingly activities. And when he was defeated by Robert the Bruce at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, few of his nobles were surprised, though many were furious as they’d lost friends, relatives and retainers en masse, and more importantly, they’d lost their holdings in Scotland.
Edward also incurred hostility by showering favours on ambitious but unpopular young courtiers like Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser. There was no proof that Edward was homosexual. He had at least two female partners and fathered five children. But accusations of ‘sexual perversion’ were a useful scandal to spread when one was stirring discontent. His barons’ real gripe was that, despite his many failures, he refused to subject himself to the will of Parliament. When in 1326, Roger Mortimer, a powerful marcher-baron, with the full connivance of his lover, Queen Isabella, Edward’s aggressively opportunistic wife (so aggressive that she was known as the ‘She-Wolf of France’), rose in rebellion and deposed Edward, there was general satisfaction.
But this was not to last.
Edward’s eldest son, also called Edward, was a minor, and his mother, Isabella, and her lover, Mortimer, intended to rule England from behind his throne, which was not widely popular. This made it problematic for them that the older Edward was still alive, even though he had officially abdicated. As long as he lived, even in custody, the former king could be the rallying point for a counter-revolt.
It was unthinkable that one of royal blood should be murdered, so Isabella and Mortimer opted to bring about Edward’s demise by ‘natural means’. He was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle, and put in the custody of two extremely brutal gaolers, Gurney and Maltravers, who were charged with literally mistreating him to death.
Edward was enclosed in an odious cell, which only a metal grille separated from the castle’s main cesspit. The stench was said to be suffocating, but to make matters worse, Gurney and Maltravers also piled rotting animal carcasses in the pit. Edward lingered for months amid these foul humours, weeping and begging for release. In addition to this torture of the senses, he was given only decayed food to eat and stagnant ditchwater to drink. But somehow he survived. Mortimer, becoming increasingly uneasy as opposition to his haughty rule grew, finally ordered the two gaolers to do their worst. Edward had to die, by any means, so long as there were no telltale marks left on his body. The wicked duo thus stripped their captive naked, and one held him down on his bed while the other inserted a metal funnel into his anus. A red-hot poker was then thrust through the funnel, burning out his innards.
The grotesque act was said to have lasted for minutes on end, and Edward’s shrieks could be heard in the countryside beyond the castle walls.
Initially the plan was successful. Edward’s unblemished body received a royal burial at Gloucester Cathedral, but still there was resentment towards the new government. When in 1330, the young Edward turned eighteen and was crowned Edward III, he immediately had the conspirators arrested for the murder of his father. Roger Mortimer was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, a process which in the Middle Ages was no less gruesome than it sounds, while Isabella was imprisoned for life at Castle Rising in Suffolk, where she finally died shrieking with insane laughter.
This laughter is still reportedly heard on dark winter nights at Rising, just as the unfortunate Edward II’s appalling screams can be heard ringing though the gloomy passages of Berkeley Castle.
THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …
An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.
by Adam LG Nevill (2019)
The area around Divilmouth on the South Devon coast is one of exceptional beauty. But at the same time, it’s rugged and stormswept. Not only that, it’s hemmed to the sea’s edge by towering cliffs and wild, expansive moorland, all of which means that it’s more likely to attract extreme sportsmen than everyday tourists. One such is paraglider Matt Hull, a sturdy outdoorsman who comes to enjoy his five minutes of fame when he takes to the air off a high point near the fishing village of Brickburgh, only to witness a minor landslide and the subsequent exposure of a fissure in the rock face. When he investigates the fissure, it leads through to a previously unknown cave system, though almost immediately there is something not entirely wholesome about this find.
Perhaps it’s to do with the countless human bones that scatter the dank interior.
Not far away meanwhile, in one of the most terrifying early scenes in a novel that I can remember, coastal walkers and campers, Shelly and Greg, pitch their tent in a remote spot and are immediately assailed by a weird flock of horned black sheep, their fleeces ragged and matted with dung. If that isn’t bad enough, the shepherds then turn up. Quite a few of them. Naked, armed with brute weapons and painted bright red from head to foot.
We now move ahead two years to a time when Brickburgh has become famous. The local caves are still being excavated, but large sections have been opened to the public and a mini museum has sprung up. Quite simply, the site is deemed the most remarkable archaeological find of many decades, and the local tourist trade has received a massive and timely boost. But again, there is something vaguely unedifying about all this. The network of caverns that Matt Hull discovered once contained a fully functioning Stone Age community that was previously unknown in the fossil record, but which occupied the site for several centuries, maybe even millennia, and left behind uncountable trace evidence of their lifestyle and beliefs. But there are oddities too, along with quite a few nasties. Whoever this particular tribe were, not only did they indulge in ritual human sacrifice on a colossal scale, (the numbers of carved-up bones and skulls would have put the Aztecs to shame), they apparently practised cannibalism. There are even clues that they did diabolical things with the remains of their victims, turning them into jewellery, drinking vessels and the like, the kind of thing only normally associated with degenerate societies, and something never encountered previously in explorations of Britain’s prehistoric past.
One person who’s distinctly unimpressed is local lifestyle journalist, Katrine, or Kat, who, formerly a topnotch London reporter, has escaped a traumatic domestic past and sought refuge in this quieter corner of the country. Though the frivolous material she produces doesn’t satisfy her, the exciting if gruesome archaeological find is something she’s also struggling to consider a positive. Infinitely more intrigued, though, is her energetic and much younger boyfriend, Steve, a digital marketer by profession, though he contributes freelance articles to the press and dreams of making it as a big-name newshound.
Further north in Walsall, meanwhile, single mum, Helene, is trying to cope with the fallout of a family suicide. Her younger brother, Lincoln, a troubled kid and one-time addict, seemed to find a new lease of life when he got interested in the ‘Sounds of the Earth’, seeking and recording primitive natural music in deep caves and gorges, only to then, for no known reason, take his own life during a trip to the West Country (though his body was never found). Helene listens to his ‘SonicGeo’ tapes and is bewildered to hear bizarre chatterings, grunts, growls and even what sounds like guttural chanting, all supposedly recorded in caves down in Devon.
She follows his meandering route but gains no satisfaction, especially when it leads her to the ramshackle Redstone Cross Farm on the moors over Brickburgh, the weird occupants of which give her an ultra hostile reception and even threaten to set a pack of ridiculously savage guard dogs on her.
Kat, meanwhile, still seeking a new angle on the excavation, doesn’t think she believes in the so-called Brickburgh Curse, whereby those living close to the caves suffer nightmares and depression (even though she lives only seven miles away and has exactly these symptoms!), until she interviews Matt Hull again and finds him a shadow of his former robust self. Hull no longer paraglides but tells Kat that this is because he was threatened by the ‘red folk’, a group of unknown oddballs, painted red, whom he says he saw attacking and killing a couple of campers two years ago. Even though he tries to link this with other disappearances and so-called suicides in the area, Kat is unconvinced there is a story as Matt is rambling as if he’s had a severe breakdown.
Steve, on the other hand, wonders if it means there is something in the rumours that cannabis plantations are operating on the nearby hills and thinks he can sniff a scoop. When the twosome meet Helene at a village fair, and she tells them about her ugly encounter at Redstone Cross Farm, Kat connects this to the non-story that is Tony Willows, a 1970s folk-rocker who, after several well-publicised drugs-related incidents, and a brief jail term, adopted a reclusive lifestyle up there with his long-term partner, Jessica Usher. But Steve is certain that this is the location of one of the much-rurmoured cannabis factories, and as Kat won’t help him (because she sees him as all enthusiasm and little else), opts to break the case on his own.
Despite her stern advice, he journeys up there solo, and finds Redstone Cross Farm every bit the rundown rural dump that Helen described. He finds other things too, things he could never have conceived of in his maddest dreams. Crazy things, abominable things. And by his mere presence opens a Pandora’s Box that will go on to engulf the entire district in a wave of cult horror that becomes mind-boggling in its viciousness …
One thing you can always be sure of with an Adam Nevill horror story is that it will be frightening. And this is guaranteed. Nevill does not do vanilla scarefare, and yet he doesn’t rely on gaudy displays of carnage to cow his readers either. I mean, there is carnage in The Reddening, and lots of it, but that’s not by any means the whole thing.
Nevill’s real skill is his ability to inject seemingly mundane situations with an otherwordly sense of abject dread. Without going over the top in terms of gore, but relying more on suggestion and off-kilter imagery – a vivid dream of jackal-headed figures in smoke, apelike mouths sucking on human bones, a lost hiker stumbling to an isolated farmhouse only to find its occupants painted red – he seems effortlessly able to make his audience, hardened to horror though it usually is, really, really glad that they aren’t in the same predicament as his protagonists.
He completely achieves this in The Reddening. But in several ways.
Firstly, in the gradually drip-fed idea (there are no intrusive dollops of expo here) that a barbaric cult could exist unseen just beneath the surface of modern Britain, even in so quaint a corner of the country as South Devon. That, despite genteel appearances, you can’t trust anyone. That your next door neighbour might mow his lawn and walk his dog, but that he might still kill and eat people come nightfall. This is nothing new in the paranoid horror/thriller fiction of our current age, but in The Reddening the author ramps it up dramatically, deepening the violence and derangement of these secret enemies of society, intensifying their beliefs, and in so doing creating a whole new universe of secret mysticism and pagan brutality, and tackling it from archaeological and scholarly angles as well as via myth and rumour, which lends it plausibility and an air of impending threat that is almost tangible.
Secondly, in his timely targetting of the folk-horror vibe. The revival of interest in that age-old subgenre shows no sign of slackening, and The Reddening rides that wave to its fullest extent. Even though the rituals and totems here are mostly invented and owe nothing to any known antiquity, Nevill delves back convincingly into forgotten ages when the gods and the land were one, when belief in and obedience to local lore was paramount, when life and society were controlled by the changing seasons and the many ceremonies enacted to keep things beneficial (no matter how costly they might be in terms of sacrifice). But don’t be thinking that The Reddening is just another story of village witchcraft. There is sorcery of a sort, but the latent powers here owe to forces older and more primal than Christianity or the Celts, and way, way more terrifying.
On top of all this, Nevill successfully depicts folklore as it is seen through the prism of the modern world. None of it is initially taken too seriously. It almost seems silly and even sad, with eccentric loners like Lincoln seeking meaning from those ‘sounds of the Earth’ that he’s recorded, while the presence of 1970s folk-rockers (now turned into scuzzy relics of another bygone era), harks back nicely to the first wave of interest in ancient rural beliefs, the presence behind their hippie façade of extensive drug use raising questions not just about how quickly and easily the idealism of those early counterculture movements was hijacked, but how easily it still is.
Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly than any of this, Nevill hits us where it hurts in terms of his monster terror, which, as always, is second to none. This author has long believed that showing less is more. In his 2011 novel, The Ritual, for example, the heroes of the tale were pursued through a deep and trackless forest by an appalling something that, though we barely glimpsed it, played on all our deepest imaginings and thus was so utterly nightmarish that by the end, if we’d seen it in full even on the final page, it would inevitably have disappointed, enabling him to maintain the knife-edge terror right to the last paragraph. Likewise, in his short story, Where Angels Come In, another of the most frightening things I’ve ever read, as the central character is again beset by ghastly hybrid things whose bizarre appearance the author only hints at rather than describes in detail, the result is nerve-shredding.
And it’s exactly the same in The Reddening, the main antagonists of which we hear and smell and cast fleeting glances at, or see in crude relief on ancient cave walls, but mainly which we run from with minds reeling, the horror and shrieks of their victims ringing in our ears. There is more to it even than this, though, because in The Reddening the monstrosities to which the red folk are enthralled are not even completely real; at least, they don’t belong in our plane of existence. These are true deities, utterly inhuman and unknowable progenitors (or maybe products!) of a complex, multi-generational belief system, and so irreversibly and violently hostile to all but their acolytes, (and even to their acolytes, if we’re truthful) that all notions of Satan, Cronos or Loki are rendered impotent by comparison.
So, Nevill hits us with a three-pronged attack, barely giving us a moment to reflect once we get into the action, and that isn’t even taking into account his several cleverly-constructed and again, intensely frightening set-pieces: a desperate battle with the open water, a dirty rundown farm in the middle of nowhere, so odious to look at and so full of squalid degenerates that the house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre offers hearty welcome in comparison. And then, after all that, there is a whole series of abductions, murders and dismemberments, which pluck at the worst of our innate knowledge of cult fanatics, serial killers, rapists and cannibals. This is full-on horror, and all of it coming headlong at a bunch of heroes who are total everymen.
Or perhaps that should be everywomen.
In an age when female characters in thrillers and horror stories are gaining centre-stage more than ever before, often taking on the mantle of supercop or even superhero, it makes a refreshing change to see the two stars of this gruesome saga as ordinary women with common-garden problems. Both have love issues and personal hang-ups. Helen is juggling single parenthood with trying to look out for her errant, drug-addled brother, while Kat feels that she’s let herself go both physically and professionally, the ace reporter she once was still vaguely ambitious but now overly cynical, and confined to writing stuff that’s only of marginal interest. Neither of them has ever experienced anything that will prep them for the horrors to come, which is why they will suffer so harrowingly and believably.
In some ways it’s almost demoralising to find our fictional heroes as frightened of the unfolding terrors as we ourselves would be, to see them thinking only of running for their lives rather than fighting … until the fight becomes unavoidable, of course, and then, when it does occur – whoa! Nevill doesn’t hold back in his depiction of just how painful and debilitating one heavy punch can be, or in showing what it really means to hit someone in the head with a blunt instrument, or in his argument that even the most sophisticated persons have homicidal apes lurking just underneath. All of which adds subliminally to the devil’s brew that is The Reddening, because it makes it seem grittily real, and serves to remind us how swiftly an ordinary, civilised (and secular!) society might wilt in the face of a ferocious, committed (and ultra-zealous!) foe. You’d probably win in the end, but at what cost? And would you even recognise yourself afterwards?
Adam Nevill enjoys a long-standing reputation for purveying strangely disturbing horror. And The Reddening is another chapter in that story. It’s a tense and engrossing thrill-ride, at times so frightening that it’s genuinely disorienting. It draws deeply on a well of eldritch evil that most us civilised folk hope was never actually there, but which we still find fascinating and horrifying. Even if you skirt around the edges of this worrying horror novel, its dark magnetism will drag you in. The power of The Reddening goes deep.
This is one I would dearly love to see adapted for film or TV, though only an 18 certificate would work in this case if the full impact of the novel was to be replicated on screen. Given that The Ritual made it, that may not be so vain a hope, and thus I must get my own casting demands in quickly. Here we go …
Katrine – Vicky McClure
Helene – Sophie Cookson
Matt Hull – Paul Anderson
Tony Willows – Oliver Tobias
Jessica Usher – Rita Tushingham
Finn Willows – Richard Brake
Nana Willows – Lysette Anthony
Detective Lewis – Eddie Marsan