Sep 20, 2012

Apartment 16 - Adam Nevill

Apartment 16
Author: Adam Nevill
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publication Date: May 15, 2010

I picked this up right after finishing Nevill's, The Ritual. While I didn't find it quite as good it's still a very entertaining novel. A follow up to his debut horror novel, Banquet for the Damned, Apartment 16 has received a great deal of positive buzz and, in spite of any misgivings I have, it's easy to see why. Essentially a haunted house tale, Nevill mixes it up with some old and new traditions, evoking at times a traditionally quiet, eerie approach and at others the vivid, technicolour horrors found in modern horror prose.

There are two alternating narratives that are related to each other and eventually entwine. The more traditional, reader friendly protagonist is Apryl. She is a young American woman who has come to London to sort out the estate of her Great Aunt Lillian, a strange old woman who she had never met. Apryl has inherited a luxurious apartment in the upper crust Barrington House. At first intending to liquidate her late Aunt's assets and head back home, she begins to take an interest in Lillian and her strange past. Her diaries suggest an interesting and unsettling tale. It seems that Lillian was quite eccentric (wealthy person slang for mad) and that she was involved with something very sinister back in the day, something that kept her a prisoner of Barrington House for years. Apryl is determined to get to the bottom of that strange and probably deadly mystery.

Apryl is a fairly believable, likable character. She's plucky and she's into vintage clothing making her a... hipster? Is that what they're called? Yes, I believe that's right. Her reasons for staying and digging into Lillian's past make sense. When the apartment starts to give her the willies she does have the good sense to stay at a hotel, a point in her favour. Of course, by the time the climax arrives I was thinking to myself that a reasonable person would have just cashed out and fled back home pages ago. Why do these people never realize that they're in a horror novel? Ah, well.

The second and more interesting thread follows the night watchman, Seth. He is a failed artist about to slip through the cracks and is facing a grim future. Isolated and depressed, one night he makes the mistake (?) of peeking into Barrington House's sinister and long vacant apartment 16. What was he supposed to do? There were strange noises coming from beyond the door. Seth soon finds himself steep in the supernatural, and seized by a powerful, ghastly artistic vision. Grotesque images plague his dreams and waking life and he begins painting again. This new found inspiration doesn't come cheap though.

Art. The uglier it is
 the more money it's worth.
Seth reminded me of a Ramsey Campbell character, paranoid, teetering on the brink of madness and a target of misfortune and hostility (Apryl is more Neil Gaimanley). The strongest parts of the novel are Seth's interactions with a ghostly Virgil like character taking him on a guided tour through Hell. Nevill offers up a horrifically squalid and despairing description of the afterlife which seems to have nothing to do with a religious perspective of punishment or reward. Also, Seth's impressions of London as seen through the lens of a deceased painter's disturbed artistic vision are powerfully written. One of my favourite segments was a description of Seth's unsuccessful attempt to find something edible at a grocery store. Who could possibly eat the repulsive wares on display? Especially after they may have actually been touched by one of the hideous, Francis Bacon characters milling about? Madness and misanthropy nicely captured.

The weakest aspect of the novel is the plot. It starts out fairly promising and then proves serviceable and finally ends as a bit of a mess. I initially liked the slow revelation of the scope of the disturbance at Barrington House. Apryl's delving into her Aunt's past is a perfectly good traditional hook. Seth being slowly consumed by an artistic vision was potentially the most compelling part of the story, maybe strong enough to carry the novel on it's own. Around two thirds in though the story seems to lose focus and some credibility. A third character, Miles is introduced late in and his relationship with Apryl isn't developed enough to ring true. Seth is brought back and forth to the brink of madness in what really should have been a steady one way trip, and the identity of his ghostly companion comes out of left field. Most importantly, the whole reason for Barrington House being the way it is does not have a satisfying payoff. The reader knows what's going on by this point, has for some time, so expectations are raised for a twist or additional element relating to what has come before. There is a slight twist, but it's only tangentially related to the main plot and again comes out of nowhere.

Having said that, the quality of Nevill's descriptive prose is excellent. Individually, sections work really well and he is able to build a strong, disturbing atmosphere. Sometimes the plot merely serves as a skeleton on which to hang effective prose. While I think the story could have definitely been improved upon here, Nevill's writing is worth taking note of. I look forward to reading Banquet of the Damned and Last Days.

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