Thursday, October 22, 2015

What's a lost child under the reign of King Death?

I’ve been a fan of Adam Nevill’s tales since Apartment 16 made me too chicken to switch off the lights at night. Since The Ritual made me obsessed with Scandinavian folklore and my Germanic  heritage demons that still haunted my mother (there’s a tale there). Since Banquet for the Damned created a discordant homage of twisted love to the dark beauty of St Andrews and the unfathomable horrors of a Lovecraftian mind. Since the cracked hands of my inner evil porcelain doll clapped enthustiastically to the Victorian horrors unfolding in House of Small Shadows.

So far Nevill has ticked all the boxes of my favourite kinds of fears.  It’s like he is an evil wizard pulling all my bad dreams out of my head like a rope of threadbare, rotten knotted handkerchiefs, twirling my demons like Mickey in a Fantasia directed by James Wan or John Carpenter. Only horror fans might appreciate that particular addictive (if not slightly masochistic) joy.

The paranormal is Nevill’s specialty, and I imagine it will always feature to some degree in his tales of doom. But there is a new side to him, which I can only describe as a modern Dickens. Last year, with the publication of No One Gets Out Alive, Nevill dealt with a modern horror that has touched too many of us: unaffordable housing and unstable jobs, leaving us in a poverty so grinding that we are at the mercy of rogue landlords. Nevill might have exaggerated it somewhat (although I have met people like Knacker McGuire, which makes this book all the more terrifying) – but there is illustration in exaggeration, and Nevill’s recent books have become sharp magnifying glasses pointed at contemporary societal ills, not instilling an indescribable horror but stirring up the familiar already there. He’s done poverty, the housing crisis and unregulated rental markets.

His latest, literally, goes more global. It’s not post-apocalyptic, it’s bang in the middle of it. Lost Girl is not just what some called a version of Liam Neeson’s Taken – though if you prefer to read it that way, you certainly can; it makes a damn fine thriller. But there’s more to it than just the Leeson meme we’ve all seen. Set in the near future, in a world that is increasingly crumbling under the effects of climate change in which man has gone past the point of no return – ecological disasters, food shortages and water rationing and the resulting mass migrations to escape their doom to not much more habitable areas – in a Great Britain that is collapsing under the strain of an apocalyptically hot summer, killing pensioners off like flies,  an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, where only the rich can afford to get decent food and protection from an insane organised crime wave so infiltrated in society that the police is as effective as a cocktail umbrella in a super hurricane of lawlessness…  a global horror, a likely horror, a horror bound to happen if one just spins the yarn further from now, a horror along the lines of Soylent Green and The Death of Grass, just more brutal and more likely, where “year after year, decade after decade, always worsening, always leaving things changed after each crisis. The past is unrecoverable. Extinction is incremental. There is no science fiction. Advanced physics, inter-galactic travel, gadgets? An epic fantasy, the lot of it. There is only horror ahead of us now."
In this setting of despair, a family move to Devon from Birmingham to escape the constant flooding, to a quiet, still somewhat idyllic place where self-sufficiency protects them from the worst of the food shortages. And it is just then when they feel marginally safe, that their beautiful little daughter gets snatched out of their front garden in a moment of carelessness, and disappears.

Lost Girl must have been incredibly uncomfortable to write – I had to think of Stephen King’s discomfort with Pet Sematary.  While there are autobiographical elements (a family moving from Birmingham to Devon with their little daughter), the thought of getting your toddler daughter kidnapped from right under your care is every parent’s nightmare. Add to that happening in a world where you can’t expect help from anyone, the law is impotent, a half-hearted investigation is abandoned due to lack of manpower, and the forces you are up against are gigantic. It’s an exploration of the agonies of a father trying to find his child, not knowing whether she is alive or dead, or what horrors might have happened to her. It’s about the lengths he goes to, at the peril of everything he has and is, to save her.

What makes this tale so much better than bland old Taken is how deeply you get submerged into the father’s mind agonising to the brink of insanity with the grief, loss, worry and uncertainty over his daughter’s fate, and the horrific fantasies tormenting him. What adds to the intensity is that he remains unnamed, known only as “the father” through the entire book, making him akin to an archetype that anyone can identify with, where names don’t distract from the state of his soul. It gives it the eerie effect that made McCarthy’s The Road such a haunting read.
The father is not blessed with the skills and coldness of an ex-CIA man; obsessive research and the help of an anonymous agent aids him in tracking down the captors, but often he is tormented by his humanity cracking under the necessity of barbarity to elicit answers from the most callous and vicious agents of his daughter’s disappearance, people so immersed in a world of corruption and violence that the father’s attempts to be threatening at first seem laughable to them. The dilemma the father faces is that in order to save his daughter from the monsters, he has to become one himself. He has to risk losing his ability to be a good father and his own sense of self just to get his child back.

The twist at the end I really did not see coming.  I will not give much more away other than that is left open  like a wound in which an infinitesimally small glimmer of hope  is the only balm on offer – but in times of doom one is grateful to at least have that.
Lost Girl is a relentless study of grief, loss, not just of a loved one but of humanity in crisis. Nevill skilfully puts it in a setting that makes this tale both larger than life and just a mere anecdote in the sea of peril slowly swallowing our planet, a brief zooming in on an individual fate in a flood of many, a new take on awe-inspiring horror.

The almost prophetic descriptions of a vast refugee crisis (considering Nevill wrote this book before the current problems hit the papers) was almost spooky in its timeliness. And the vivid details of his story-weaving sucks you right out of this world into the one he is master of.

As with all of his books, I advise that you read it at your own risk. But at the same time, you will be glad you did. 

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