Some doors are better left closed . . .
So, okay...yes, this novel came out in 2010. I appreciate I'm woefully behind on Adam Nevill's work, but in my defence, I have bought every single release thus far. I made a promise to myself at the end of last year that I would get myself up to speed with Adam's books this year. At the moment, I'm not doing terribly great, but two out of six (so far) ain't too bad. I'm also reading it as part of a personal project, whereby I bought about thirty-odd books relating to the haunted house theme. The reason being, that I plan on writing one myself at some point and it occurred to me that I hadn't read any of the generally held classics of the genre. So, I rectified that, and also bought a few that were relative unknowns (along with one or two that will probably be a bit lacking). Again, I'm falling behind on this but I plan to push on and some of these will appear as reviews on this here site (assuming people actually follow a particular reviewer's reviews and articles).
Anyway, I'm probably the only serious horror fan who hadn't read this book, but just in case you're in a similar boat to me, here's a quick run through the synopsis. Basically, we have Apryl, a young American lady who comes to London after being informed of a distant aunt's passing; as part of the will, Apryl's aunt has left her family her expensive apartment in Barrington House, an upmarket block of buildings in a well-to-do area of the city. At the same time, night-watchman Seth - who works in said block of flats - hears some noises in the long-vacant apartment 16. His initial investigation sets in motion a series of events that will have ramifications for himself, Apryl and anyone else in residence in Barrington House.
Basically what you have, on the surface of things, is a classic British ghost story which relates the mostly separate story strands of Apryl and Seth as they both go through their various and varied experiences by coming into the vicinity of apartment 16 and Barrington Block. In Apryl's case, it begins innocently enough as she delves into the past of a relative she barely knew existed. By searching through her aunt's belongings, looking at and wearing clothes from an era she loves, and finally reading through her aunt's increasingly disturbing diaries, Apryl comes to realise that something awful happened in the past of Barrington House and might still be around. For Seth, a failed art student, it's far more insidious as he is beset by strange visions and dreams, the spectre of a young hooded boy who seems to follow him out of his dreams and subsequently lead and pushes Seth into fulfilling the awful destiny of an artist who used to reside in apartment 16.
As a follow up to his debut, Banquet For The Damned, Apartment 16 is more than worthy. Riffing off a slightly similar theme and using the same kind of creepy imagery that made BFTD so effective, A16 builds on that first novel's promise and piles on the atmosphere. By limiting the narrative to two alternating viewpoints, we get a real in-depth look as Seth slowly succumbs to the madness of the malign influence and Apryl carries out an amateur investigation into both her aunt's past and the past of the apartment block. Both characters are treated to frightening occurrences, strange shadows and noises, and a pervading and growing sense that something is very wrong with the building. However, their experiences differ and this shows that it's not merely about piling on the creepy effects, if you will. Apryl is subject to the more common-place seeming flitting shadows and half-glimpsed figures as she tries to sleep in her aunt's apartment. Seth, though, is subject to something far more interesting; he is given glimpses of the 'ugliness' inside people and there is the suggestion - intentional or not - that he might merely be going mad. I think is what sets the book above the standard haunted house/ghost story; Seth is the quintessential unreliable narrator, no mean feat when achieved in third person. His slow, inevitable spiral into the depths of...whatever is happening to him, is quite something to behold. It's claustrophobic, intense and crushing; and has enough incidents that cast doubt on the veracity of what Seth is experiencing that you feel a little unsure of him, wrong-footed. It all adds to the building wash of unreality and atmosphere. That's not to say that Apryl's story is any less disturbing or predictable. She initially moves into the flat while she deals with the accumulations of her aunt's long life, but after a few disturbing occurrences that begin to weigh on her, she moves out to a local hotel in defiance of most conventional horror. Yet she still can't shake the need to know what happened in her aunt's like, what the diaries allude to in their increasingly disjointed way. This mild obsession is presented with steady internal logic, and there are some absolutely stand-out passages where she is interacting with elderly residents of the building who may have information she needs, or lovely scene with a possible romantic interest which actually doesn't unfold how you might expect.
I did think that while the story is wonderfully written and filled with atmosphere, it does have occasion to repeat itself. While not especially detrimental to the unfolding event, I did think the book could have been shortened by a few dozen pages. That, couple with an ending that feels far too short for the preceding story and ends on a note that feels unresolved, are really my only negative thoughts.
Mostly, it's a solid piece of horror fiction that builds on the author's debut, and while I might not have found it quite as scary as its predecessor - though there are some skin-crawling episodes early on - it did posses a stronger and more dread-filled atmosphere. It clearly shares that book's DNA, with its sense of classic, even pulpy, horror fiction in a modern and sophisticated setting. There's even a small mention of one of Banquet For The Damned's characters.
It shows a writer who has taken what was successful about his first novel and has built on that, refining and improving and after all, isn't that really part of the point of writing? Already looking forward to The Ritual.
PAUL M. FEENEY