Adam Nevill’s latest fiendish work has reached new heights of terrifying. Famous for his skin-crawl-inducing paranormal horror, which so far has come in various gruesome flavours: Scandinavian pagan folklore, Lovecraftian madness, creepy dolls and Victorian taxidermy, all enough to rob me of any decent sleep, his books always had a classic horror elegance to it - but they are positively cushy compared to the brick-sh**ting real-life horror he’s unleashed on us now.
Fret not, the paranormal element is still well and truly present. But as I agonised, glued into protagonist Stephanie’s skin, my nails bitten to the quick, flippin' ghosts, unsettling as they were, were the least of my problems. If anything, they pointed to the bigger problem: Knacker McGuire and his psychotic cousin, the token Evil Private Landlord of an unregulated rental market we’ve all had to deal with in our student years at some point (and some of us, beyond), and which, more often than not, is run by deluded psychopaths keen on milking the naivety or desperation of the modern destitute, knowing full well they cannot be beaten by lawyers tenant can’t afford or Small Claims Courts, which are notoriously incapable of enforcing their rulings.
This book, my dears, is not about charming-albeit-evil Victorian dolls scratching on your bedroom door with ancient, cracked porcelain hands in the dead of night. This one’s Eden Lake meets Silent Hill.
Let me call it Landlord Horror. The sheer every-day survival terror you will only experience when your options have become severely limited by crippling poverty. OK, maybe the landlords we had to deal with weren’t as bad as Knacker. But what unites the real and this fictional one is that, if you’re as poor as protagonist Stephanie, with an irregular pittance of an income from a job that works you into exhaustion, no security net, scraping by on pennies day by day, with friends and family either too far, too indifferent or too alienated to help, you are completely at the mercy of whoever owns the roof of the house you’re sleeping under. And you better just hope and pray Knacker McGuire isn’t that man.
Nevill paints the picture of Stephanie’s bleak existence and her helplessness masterfully. She’s so used to encountering dodgy characters that she probably thought she could handle this one. And it’s not that she has much choice. Desperation makes her rush into a rented room agreement. And once Knacker, oscillating between creepy and sleazy and downright antisocial, has his hands on her deposit, she is stuck – without that money her options are hardly more than the streets. Desperation is what makes her rationalise the warning signs until it’s too late. Lack of sleep saps her of energy, because late at night she hears crying and voices in other tenants’ rooms – tenants she only seems to encounter briefly in dimly lit staircases and who don’t seem to want to speak to her.
In short, it doesn’t take long for her to feel like she is losing her mind, and to learn that Knacker and Fergal are capable of worse things than just making her feel severely uncomfortable.
And when Knacker’s cousin Fergal – who makes Knacker look like a school boy in comparison - arrives on the scene, and a dark presence inflicts violence in the rooms around her, things begin to spiral out of control.
And the comparison to Silent Hill? You’ll see what I mean when you get there. If you want your cosmic horror element, Knacker and co are just the gateway: it will billow into this before long and will fully fledge in the second half of the book, which will hound you with paranormal terror that is inescapable and won’t stop at anything before it breaks you.
Again, I’d be a party pooper if I gave the story away, of how bad things get. I don’t see why I should ease the way for you, dear reader, by preparing you. You must suffer the horrors as I have, because, let’s face it, we love it – why else would we be reading this?
Let me just say this: considering that around the time I started reading this book, I found out I have to move house myself, and reading about the depressing, existential anxiety-inducing familiarity of trying to find a place that is a) not a hovel, b) in my price range (which is virtually impossible in Witneyshire), and c) not run and occupied by a Knacker McGuire, made my stomach churn, and this book seemed to hit all my fear buttons with a hammer. It made me want to clamber for the property ladder just to not have to rent anymore.
Give Mr Nevill this: he might well be the modern Dickens who opens up the public eye to the need to regulate and restrain private landlords. True, this is a horror novel, but the terror lies in familiarity with exaggerated features.
This here novel definitely comes as a cautionary tale: read the small print of your contract. More so, insist on a contract. And don’t move into the first place on offer. Small Claims Courts cannot fight hell.
P.S. Adam – thanks for giving Waterstones a cheeky cameo! ;)