Friday, August 11, 2017

Review: Under a Watchful Eye - Adam Nevill

 Adam Nevill is unpredictable. Unpredictable but never boring. He plays ball in all horror subgenres, and he plays it hard, merciless and oh so delightfully fucked up. And his prose is so stylish he makes the likes of James Herbert look positively infantile.

I’ve read Under a Watchful Eye twice (so far), simply because the horror in it is in places of such an uncanny, eerie dreamlike quality that stays with you less in what you saw but more how it made you feel, the way you wake from a nightmare, shaken and scattered by it all day but only able to remember snippets - probably just the tip of the iceberg wreaking havoc in your subconscious now. Which makes the book utterly re-readable, leaving you to discover new bits each time you touch base with it again.

You wouldn’t think a picturesque Devon seaside town would give you the heebie-jeebies as much as a dilapidated house rented out by apsycho live-in landlord in a poor part of Birmingham. But fear not – when successful writer Seb spots an oddly floating figure staring at him from a distance, one that looks unpleasantly familiar to someone he had escaped decades ago, the sunny beachfront soon turns into a creepy negative like the intro from Tales from the Darkside.
The figure keeps popping up in his path, out of thin air and coming closer and closer, just to disappear again, making Seb question his sanity. Until it appears in his drive, the disturbing figure of his uni housemate Ewan, a man so filthy and unkempt, Nevill’s description practically makes you gag, with no redeeming features whatsoever. He’s far from a hobo with a heart of gold – he displays delusions of grandeur and psychopathic traits and plants himself into Seb’s classy house like a human tick. You might wonder why Seb just doesn’t chuck him out – but once you’re exposed to the threat and mind-twisting manipulation he endures (paired, perhaps, with crippling Britishness) you feel as trapped as him. 

And not just that. With Ewan, things appear in the house. Things from another Arthur-Machenesque plane that followed him there and start stalking Seb, as well. Things so unspeakably horrible, images Nevill plants into your head like demonic seeds that will sickeningly blossom before your inner eye just as you turn off the lights. Lost creatures, barely human, in a nightmarish fog. Condemned spirits and souls lost in a hellish dimension after dabbling in a cult practicing astral projection. A cult that soon starts stalking Seb, as well. And Seb’s life begins to crumble as he desperately tries to find out what Ewan has let loose on him, that he needs to get involved with that cult in order to find a way to free himself of the demonic forces in his life, just to get entangled deeper and deeper, with no hope of any human forces to rescue him.
By the way, those who read Nevill’s privately published short story collection “Some will not sleep” (another absolutely unmissable, by the way) will recognise the characters from an equally fascinating and gag-inducing short story called “Yellow Teeth” – to me, one of the most disturbing one in the lot, and that’s a walk in the park compared to UWE - ; its title featuring as the name of a novel Seb produces in UWE after his harrowing experiences with Ewan and his ghastly entourage.

I swallowed that book in two sittings, leaving my eyes dry and my flesh creeping. The imagery is as haunting as scenes from recent paranormal films: put visions of Silent Hill together with the various Furthers and Upside Downs, flavoured with the spirit of Arthur Machen and Aleister Crowley, you’re getting there. Nevill induces that cosmic terror in you that he’s become famous for. That sense of spiralling out of control, with no reprieve and escape. Seb’s terror will infect your own bones and not let go. Word of advice: plan in a few recovery periods with Disney films to get through this experience with your sanity intact.

Highly recommended, easily the best horror of this year.

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