Fiction Reviews

Apartment 16

(2010) Adam Nevill, Pan, £7.99, pbk, 400pp, ISBN 978-0-330-51496-5


Listen, you don’t need to tell me, I know how good a writer Adam Nevill is. Last year I edited a horror anthology called Raw Terror and included a story from Nevill in it, but could have easily taken another one, such was the quality of his writing and the originality of the idea: oh, and the scariness. Scariness matters. This is not his first novel though, although some people think so. That was Banquet for the Damned first published by PS Publishing then reissued as a mass-market paperback by the late-lamented horror line from Virgin Books, which Nevill helmed. I mention that book in passing as it makes a good contrast to Apartment 16 given that it was set on the eerie, and sometimes bleak east coast of Scotland around the university halls of St. Andrews. (St. Andrews, I think is not just the home of golf, but home to Scotland’s oldest university and is a town full of cobbled streets, dark alleyways and a decaying castle where a protestant martyr was burned at stake, and in retaliation the Catholic bishop was hung from the castle ramparts.)

With Apartment 16 we are not in a semi-remote coastal part of Scotland where anything could happen, but in the bright glare of upmarket Knightsbridge in London at Barrington House, an apartment block which has its secrets, and its reclusive millionaires – is there a nod to Rosemary’s Baby there I wonder? Although its secrets are about to be found out by two individuals. One is Seth, a would-be artist, who has taken on the job of night porter because it is not too taxing, and gives him plenty of time to be creative in the wee small hours if it were not for the residents, the disturbing noises and the pervading sense of dread. The other is Apryl, an American who has to visit the house to tie-up the affairs of her elderly aunt who stayed there and has now bequeathed Apryl and her mother her old apartment.

Of the two characters, Seth could be described as the more full-on, his role as night porter something that Nevill has experience of doing; while Apryl is slightly harder to get into as a character. They are contrasts in gender, nationality and temperament, and outlook, probably, given Seth’s negative world view, and the downward spiral he is about to take, reminiscent of Jack Torrance’s in The Shining. Also contrasting is their experiences of the house and what might lurk within Apartment 16. Seth patrols the house, hears sounds and noises, knows something is wrong. “You don’t want to go in there!” But of course, he does. Apryl almost picks the 'wrongness' of the building up second-hand through the things that her aunt has left behind, particularly the notebooks which offer a tantalizing glimpse into her great Aunt’s life and the death of her husband. Apryl did not mean to stay, but the house has grabbed her attention and a lot more besides. For her, it might be already too late. Here, we are in classic ghost story mode, like using letters and diaries and journals to learn of the past and other characters. Stories within stories like in the work of M.R. James, and Lovecraft and Machen and used so well by modern masters like Peter Straub.

Apartment 16 a big book, with a big take on the ghost story and the tropes and themes therein. Given that, it is perhaps slightly too long and takes a while to get going at the start and ultimately misses the chilling bite and shudder from sheer awfulness (to the characters, not in the writing) at the climax that authors of the shorter ghost story novel, like Susan Hill and Jonathan Aycliffe, can achieve. The ending could have been scarier, but there is a neat twist – no spoilers here. But in the end, this is a bold, big sweeping effort and one to be applauded. Scary, atmospheric, horrific, with an engaging plot and good, well-rounded characters. Can you do anything new with the ghost story in novel form? Probably not, but Nevill has given it a good go, almost like a reboot of the genre, a fusion of the classic ghost story by taking it back to the city in the way Bradbury and Leiber did; and possibly adding in the disturbing techniques of the best of Asian horror cinema. Not quite a ten out of ten, but a good eight, or even nine, and given the false start of the Virgin horror line it can only be hoped with the publication of Apartment 16 by Pan McMillan that horror is on the up, and there will be other novelists for Nevill to pass the baton too, while keeping a spare one in his pocket so he can keep running himself.

Ian Hunter

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