Apartment 16 Paperback – May 15 2010
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Arrived on time and in excellent condition.
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None of the material here is particularly original but Nevill combines ideas and inspirations from a variety of sources -- the cosmic horror and mirror world ideas of H P Lovecraft; episodes and facts from the life and artistic output of Wyndham Lewis (especially his short-lived vorticism movement), the Bloomsbury set, plus the author's own experiences working as a night porter in apartment blocks around Knightsbridge and Mayfair -- to produce an intense blend of the weird and the disturbing from which he weaves a spine-chilling tale of obsession, possession and the looming presence of evil lurking behind the façade of the everyday world. The result is a good solid contemporary horror story, built on the classic horror tradition but not seeming in any way derivative.
Nevill's prose is top rate, almost poetic at times, and never less than highly atmospheric. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this is the first book I have ever read that feels to have been written in colour, so vibrant -- and visual -- is it. It would adapt perfectly for the screen. The story is well paced, escalating the tension and the terror steadily to a fast moving, adrenalin-inducing finale. My only criticism of the book is reserved for the very end; personally I found the ending curiously unsatisfying, inconclusive and something of a disappointment -- an anti-climax, almost -- after the sustained excellence up to that point. Also, looking back over episodes from the middle of the book from the vantage point of the close, I could not help but feel that some events were included more for their disturbing effects, than for any contribution they really made to the progression of the story.
These really are minor quibbles, however; overall "Apartment 16" offers a pretty solid horror story of the old school, guaranteed to make you reluctant to turn out the light at night, or to risk glancing in mirrors when you are tired. I suspect that you'll come to view some aspects and areas of London in an altogether new (and rather less savoury) light as well.
Into this dim gothic domain enters Apryl, a young American who has come to sell apartment 39, which she and her mother have inherited from an old aunt she never met. And through aunt Lillian's diaries she discovers a catalogue of madness, delusion, paranoia and nightmares in its residents, all induced by the paintings of Hessen, residents who, in fifty years, have never been able to venture more than a mile in any direction from the building before becoming disorientated and ill . . . the only escape is death.
Meanwhile, when nightwatchman and aspiring-artist-down-on-his-luck Seth investigates noises coming from apartment 16, he soon experiences hallucinations, paranoia and ultimately finds himself becoming a channel through which new paintings are created - paintings which open up a gateway in apartment 16 to the Void.
This isn't simply a haunted English country manor transplanted to a city setting, for London is an integral part of the story - a character in itself - and in that sense Nevill brilliantly conveys a Thomas Ligotti-esque flavour of a city relentlessly grinding down its citizens. And the moments of hallucination and paranoia (especially the superb sequence with Seth in the supermarket) are nothing short of vintage Ramsey Campbell as the author presents mundane situations which become transformed when seen through the eyes of his deeply disturbed characters. There are shades of Clive Barker, too, not least in the descriptions of paintings but in Nevill's portrayal of what the old and selfish and money-twisted residents of the apartment building truly look like when the thin veil of reality is stripped away. And then there are wonderful moments of delightful weirdness, as witness the chapter featuring a group of people calling themselves The Friends of Felix Hessen!
With the arrival of such imprints as Quercus, Corsair and Corvus there is a sense of horror finally being able to spreads its wings once more beyond the ghetto boundaries of the small press. But if publishers want to find the next, say, Clive Barker then they're going to have to have the conviction to turn their writers loose and let them go nuts, to have the courage to allow their writers to achieve their full ambition. This second novel from Nevill is an excellent 4-star read - but I'm saving the 5 stars for when he's turned loose and writes his equivalent of `Imajica', for there is a forceful sense that that potential is there in Nevill, as it is also in Mark Morris and Conrad Williams: two other terrific writers in need of a publisher to take that big gamble. Only then will publishers see the genre once more breaking out.
Of course, this is horror - it never really works that way. Seth's not only wrestling with artist's block, but also his theoretically quiet nights on duty are frequently interrupted by strange and inexplicable things. Bumps. Sounds. Ill winds. Dark and flickering figures. All emanating from the titular apartment - a flat that's been empty for almost fifty years.
The other character plagued by the abandoned apartment is Apryl, a stylish young American. She's surprised to learn that she's the heir to a "long lost" great-aunt's flat (also in Barrington House) and her possessions. Apryl flies over to do a bit of speculative looting and finds a cobwebbed hoard of treasures worthy of Miss Havisham. Apryl also learns that her deceased relative was a little bonkers - prone to wandering around the neighbourhood with her expired passport, avoiding the sight of mirrors, and, perhaps most importantly of all, scribbling hundreds of pages of nonsense in her journals.
Seth and Apryl take baby steps towards apartment 16 from different directions. Seth's investigations are more physical - actually sneaking into the abandoned apartment. Appropriately, his results are tangible. His dreams are haunted by strange characters and horrible visions; ones that slowly spill over into reality. For almost the entirety of Apartment 16, Seth is feverish and weak. The malevolent forces in Barrington House are assaulting him in harsh and material ways, grinding down his stamina and his will with occult radiation.
Apryl's investigations are more introspective. Unlike Seth, Apryl isn't trying to determine the source of physical phenomena - she's trying to learn more about her aunt and the people around her. While Seth is curious about the apartment itself, Apryl is focused on the people involved.
The supernatural forces respond to Apryl in more subtle ways. Like Seth, Apryl sees glimpses of things - eerie, pallid figures in corners and reflections. Unlike Seth, Apryl doesn't suffer any physical impairment. She approaches her great-aunt's journals in a doggedly pragmatic fashion. She interviews the neighbours, does research at the library, uses the Internet (!) and takes copious notes. In short, Apryl's utterly sensible - the sort of character you'd never find in a horror movie.
Their parallel adventures unfold with awful inevitability of an hourglass. As the two characters begin to brush up against one another, the tension mounts. Cursed with a certain omniscience, the reader sees the novel's devastating climax long before Seth and Apryl do.
In the The Ritual, Mr. Nevill combines two types of horror - the atmospheric and the cinematic. In Apartment 16, he does the same, but this time running them concurrently instead of consecutively. Seth is surrounded by a whirling vortex of supernatural forces: dark rituals, faceless demons, wailing sounds, gnashing of teeth, freezing winds and screaming portals. Mr. Nevill flings him into the unstable world of a Lovecraftian short story... and then maintains it for hundreds of pages. This lavish madness is offset by the meticulously constructed disquiet of Apryl's misadventures. Whereas Seth wrestles with bloated Boschian entities, Apryl has unsettling evenings with badly dressed academics. Seth's demons have fangs and mucous trails; Apryl's have stained jackets and poor dental hygiene.
The pairing works well. Apryl grounds the reader and helps unfold the backstory in a character-driven way. Even if she's not being overtly pursued by eldritch entities, she bumps into enough nastiness to keep the reader twitchy. Similarly, the near-mundanity of her story keeps Seth's tale from spiralling entirely out of control. Unmitigated madness would've gotten old very quickly. Apryl serves as a reminder of what Seth's losing. In turn, Seth epitomizes what's at stake - not only for them, but for everyone.
There are a few moments where the duet hits a sour note - Apryl occasionally degenerates into a passive info-drip and Seth a burbling stream of poetic gibberish. However, these missteps are few and far between. There's also an unlikely third character that surfaces at the end of the book purely to give a Goldfingerian recitation of the plot-to-date. Apartment 16 channels many of the elegant touches and devious tropes of the early 20th Century horror masters; the unfortunate monologuing, however, is also something that stems from this era, and should've been left behind with it. However, Mr. Nevill does - wisely - keep from trying to explain the Inexplicable(tm) supernatural, Mephistophelian eeeevil behind the scenes. Some things are best left to the imagination, and Mr. Nevill knows it.
Those quibbles aside, there's no question that Apartment 16 works. It scared the bejeezus out of me. Fear isn't merely the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind, it is also the most personal. From the flickering almost-shadows to the ghastly, filthy paintings to the cackling, squirming cast to Weird and alien entities to the piles of magnificently unsettling clutter, I found every touch in Apartment 16 to be utterly chilling. I won't thank Mr. Nevill for the sleepless nights, but I enjoyed the book that caused them.