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Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Review: Two Short Story Collections from Adam Nevill: Hasty for the Dark and Wyrd and Other Derelictions.


England has a long and storied tradition of horror literature. From M.R. James and Walter de la Mare to Robert Aickman and Daphne du Maurier, England has been fertile soil for the growth of beautifully dark and sinister fiction. English horror fiction mastered the art of creeping dread, rich in quiet prose where something… sinister is slowly revealed, something that has been lurking, hidden in familiar surroundings or in familiar faces. In recent years, it could be argued that England has been experiencing a new golden age of horror literature. Writers like Ramsey Campbell, Joyce Carol Oates, Nicholas Royle, Clive Barker, have all upped the ante on what horror fiction is capable of. And to the top tier of English horror writers, we can add the name of Adam Nevill. Adam Nevill is famously known as a horror novelist, but here I want to focus on his two newest horror short story collections, namely Hasty for the Dark and Wyrd and Other Derelections. 

Adam Nevill’s collection Hasty for the Dark is an exploration of run-down cityscapes, the dehumanization of modern life, the ruthless exploitation of the needy. The strange places desire and a need for human connections can find us. In Hasty for the Dark, there seems to be some inescapable doom awaiting us all. In what form it takes and how it presents itself to us at that hour is where Adam Nevill shines. His stories in this are realistic depictions of the working class, and brings you into their day-to-day lives, only to have… something… emerge… Hasty for the Dark is an amazing read, every story showing a different side of Adam Nevill’s writing, and each strange and dark. Adam Nevill uses this realistic minimalist prose that, just as the most unexpected moments, erupts into this explosion of surreal chimerical imagery. Adam Nevill’s work tries to reach that moment of nightmarish delirium, of mind-breaking chaos. A sinister poetry of a twisting and flowing abyss. Utterly original terrors lurk in Hastry for the Dark, no vampires or ghosts here, these horrors come from the unique shadowy underworld of the author's mind. 

Angels Of London is a peek into the dark underbelly of working-class hell. Dilapidated buildings, humans stuck being wage slaves with no hope in the future, living your life to please those who control your bank account and therefore your existence. Frank is down on some hard times and needs to hole up in an affordable apartment until he can sort his life out. But his landlords are not so happy to just let him go. Angels of London is a masterwork of urban horror. Gorgeous language and an atmosphere anyone who has lived in the rundown portions of the city will instantly recognize. On All London Underground Lines is a mood piece, almost a long prose poem, portraying the dark and dank subways tunnels of London. Being stuck in the piss-stained shadowy underground is a nightmare that you can find yourself walking down into on any given day. Hippocampus, the story that inspired Adam to write Wyrd and other Derelictions, is a modern masterpiece, maybe in the top ten horror stories written in the last twenty years. I will talk more about this tale when I cover that collection later on in this review. Call The Name shows Adam trying his hand at a grand cosmic horror tale in the tradition of Lovecraft, Bloch, and Klein. An impending Apocalypse looms over the narrative, the coming of an ancient doom. Playing with familiar tropes and reinventing them into his own style, this is a nice change of pace from the other more nebulous stories in the collection and a lot of fun. White Light, White Heat has Adam writing a tale using the classic trope of urban horror, the hellish office job. Recalling Samuels, Ligotti, and Kafka, Adam Nevill again shows how well he knows the bleak life of the working class and how the terrors of a horror story can only reflect, never surpass how horrible working your life away really is. Little Black Lamb has Adam, in the great traditions of jazz music, playing his horn to try to bring his own unique voice to the mind-bending tradition of labyrinthine horror like Campbell, Evenson, and Golaski write. Bizarre plot elements hidden in a realistic narrative and ending in utter delirium, Little Black Lamb can stand with the masters of the form. The Days Of Our Lives is a tale of a strange eroticism and strange relationships. I found this one quite surprising in how perverse the author was willing to go. Eumenides (The Benevolent Ladies) is a walk through a kind of mental landscape, featuring a downtrodden man desperately seeking some kind of connection, either sexually or personally, and hoping to find it with a coworker he is attracted to. Where his desire leads him to is both baffling and bizarre. Adam Nevill’s Hasty for the Dark stands up there with Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses and Hunt’s The Dark Dark as an example of the best horror fiction being written today. An instant classic. 

Wyrd and Other Derelections is the newest collection of stories from Adam Nevill and has him venturing into some truly uncharted territory for horror fiction. Each story in this collection has a conceit, none of the stories feature any characters. Each tale is a guided tour, an exploration, through a scene of mystery, maybe even of atrocity. Some of the stories show an aftermath of some strange invasion, some show a scene after the conclusion of some diabolical ritual completed, some it just is not clear what happened. The reader is taken through the landscape by a kind of third-person narrator that describes the scenery but never the details of what happened. The absence of people lends these stories a kind of post-apocalyptic feel, it just lingers over these horrific, abandoned landscapes. Stories of complete atmosphere, reading these creates the experience of being able to linger in the world of say,  films like Suspiria or The Thing, but without characters or a need to have and further a plot interrupting your stay. It is horror as only a horror fetishist could write. To look over the aftermath of a Deep One invasion and stay a little bit longer in Innsmouth, to see a cursed freighter ship like the Demeter and what the demonic force did to the crew, these are the kind of pleasures this book has to offer. The exquisite prose is darkly sexy and alluring, the rich and atmospheric settings, these tales hypnotize you into their dark spell, this is top tier horror. You follow the direction of the story, eager to find out more but feeling trepid about what waits for you as the story unfolds. Oftentimes these landscapes are bleak and deserted, but there is an atmosphere of something dreadful has happened, a sinister quality to the air. Strangely the lack of protagonists or even characters makes the tales feel more immediate, more like you are actually there, which with these stories, is something quite unnerving. The first story that was written in this vein, and the inspiration for Adam Nevill to write more works in this mode was Hippocampus. Set on an abandoned freighter lost at sea during a terrible storm. As we explore the ship, the sheer strangeness of a huge ship completely devoid of any crew or passengers is striking. And then we start seeing signs of some kind of violence, some kind of terrible thing must have just happened aboard the freighter. And then as we go deeper into the ship, some kind of malignant force is felt, something is very wrong, something terrible has happened upon this ship. And then, something… nightmarish is revealed, and the story ends. And we are left not knowing what happened, just hints of something horrific. We are left in mystery and darkness. I don’t want to go through a story-by-story analysis, because every reader should encounter this book like I did, completely blind. The pleasure is in the slow unspooling of the tale and seeing where you end up by the end of the story. Wyrd and Other Derelictions is an actually unique collection in an oversaturated field of derivative books. It’s rare to be able to say a book is a complete original and breaks new ground in what horror can do, but Wyrd and Other Derelictions is that book. 

Interestingly, Adam Nevill started his writing career in the realms of erotic fiction, and Adam’s mastery of the tropes of erotica pays off in his horror fiction. Being able to set a mood, a place, while at the same time knowing how to lure the reader in, dole out hints, and tease the reader with what is to come, works just as well in horror as it does in erotica. The broken-down city landscapes of ruin and entropy, the rotting trash on the streets, buildings covered in rust and mold,  and the strange chimerical beings and creatures of nightmare lurking in the shadows of these dead streets, are a kind of horror erotics. The manipulation of his characters, like dead-eyed puppets in horror fiction or fiery perverse sex kittens in erotic fiction, dancing them to their destined ends, is a way of a genre fulfilling the reader's innate and private desires. Watching ourselves as the main protagonist, devoured, deformed, changed utterly by their encounter with the dark, is the keenest of pleasures. And let me add that the range that Adam Nevill has as a writer is astonishing. He is equally at home in the inner city as he is in the darkest wood. If Hasty for the Dark stems from the urban horror tradition of Campbell and Leiber then Wyrd and Other Derelections has its roots in the folk horror tradition of Blackwood and Machen. And Adam Nevill deserves to stand in that hallowed company, with Campbell and Leiber and Blackwood and Machen, in the history of horror literature.