Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Adam LG Nevill - Apartment 16

Horror is, quite possibly, the easiest genre to get wrong. It’s a genre based entirely on atmosphere. It has other elements, sure, but they all matter only as much as they contribute to the book’s mood, be it one of subtle unease or outright terror. A horror novel that lacks atmosphere is a nonentity, the equivalent of a science fiction novel set in modern New York City and following the wholly unremarkable life of a single commuter. Adam Nevill is aware of this. As Apartment 16 progresses, he builds its atmosphere brick by brick, gradually ensnaring the reader in his bleak vision.

Characterization in Apartment 16 is centered on the effects of Barrington House, and, to a lesser extent, London. Seth is a night watchman at Barrington House and an outsider. The other porters disbelieve his story about strange bumps in the night; the building’s millionaire tenants regard him as an incompetent nuisance; and the owners and other denizens of the Green Man, the bar in which he rents an upstairs room, barely know him. His only interest is art, but he hasn’t painted in months.

The presence in Barrington House reaches out to him and gives him his passion back, but, by showing him the world as it really is, it has immersed him in endless horror. Before, he looked out at the world with nothing but apathy. Now, everyone around him is grotesque and sadistic. He’s no longer trapped in his own world; he can see the city all around him, grinding him and everyone else down and turning them into monstrous caricatures of humanity:

Away from this. Oh God, to just be removed from this place that didn’t work. A city regenerating its timeless contamination through the misery of the occupants. That was how it found nourishment. By dousing hope and disturbing minds. By instigating crisis and breakdown. With the shock of poverty and the tyranny of wealth. With the eternal frustration of being late; the suffocation of mania and the binding of neurosis; the perpetual cycle of despair and euphoria; the stares of faces at bus windows; the mute absorption and quiet humiliation of the underground; delinquency and drink; a thousand different tongues snapping in selfish insistence. City of the damned. So ugly, so frenetic. And all beneath the white sun in the forever grayness of sky. Where the damned are swallowed and forget who they are. He loathed it.

Half detached and half revolted, Seth’s narrative is a gradual slide into dementia, and he’s aware of his descent every step of the way, unable to stop himself. Once it reaches critical mass, his story is one of horrible inevitability. His repeated attempts to flee are always half hearted. His consciousness is repulsed by what he is becoming, but it is clear that his is an obsession deeper than his own malleable desires. When he abandons yet another escape attempt, trying to fight his way through sickness in King’s Cross station, it is more akin to the slow slamming of one’s only escape route than a plot twist.

Apryl is the opposite of Seth. She’s new to London, having come from America to sell her wealthy, deceased, and estranged great aunt’s flat in Barrington House. Unfortunately, Apryl’s character is not as successful as Seth’s. Seth’s character can be very much envisioned on its own. Without any ghostly beings in the night, Seth would continue down his slow path of self destruction until he was exactly what all the other characters he saw in his fever-dream-existence were. Apryl, on the other hand, exists precisely as far as the story takes her and no further.

Like Seth, Apryl begins with a defining trait of her own, but it’s both far more inconsequential than Seth’s and too self referential to let us really understand her. Apryl loves old styles of clothing. It could be an interesting aspect of her character, but it’s just not nearly as defining as Seth’s love of art. In addition, having a character fascinated in fashions from the fifties isn’t much of an oddity in a novel primarily concerned with personalities and spiritual remnants from the fifties.

The parallel goes beyond mere interests; for the first ninety percent of the novel, the only real physical description we get of Apryl is that she looks like her aunt from the fifties. The result of all this is that Apryl’s entire being is wholly defined by the events of the novel; I can’t so much as picture her having a cup of tea outside Barrington House’s influence. This isn’t to say that Apryl’s portions of the story aren’t interesting, but that they are interesting due to the things that she discovers and the people that she meets, not because of anything that she herself thinks or does.

This is a novel about obsession, and about insanity, and, at its best moments, we can see the two worlds, real and imagined, at once. Shortly after he begins to truly see the people around him, Seth goes to a supermarket. The scene is sickening:

The tins of tuna that he picked up to buy had something sticky on their dented lids that smelled rancid. Contaminated. He put them back. Inside the sardine tins he knew the silver bellies of the dead mothers were full of tiny brown eggs. Seth burped and wiped a layer of milky sweat off his forehead.

The reader can feel Seth’s frustration and disgust throughout the scene as he smells piss and stares at the filthy, self-absorbed creatures all around him. Even as we feel for him, though, we see the other side, and that is what makes it truly devastating:

A trolley was pushed into his shins. The mother-of-three behind the carriage looked daggers at him and barred her dirty horse teeth. Her breath was a gust of sour yogurt.

“Fuck off!” Seth said, his voice cracked. Grabbing her children against her legs, she stumbled away from him, repeatedly looking back over her shoulder as she took flight. Even at ten feet he could see her mustache.

It’s this contrast – the knowledge that, if we were in the store with him, we would edge away from his raving madness – that makes the scene so powerful. We know that Seth is wrong, and we know that he is gradually losing touch with reality, but his viewpoint is too sympathetic for us to stop feeling his pain. The dichotomy returns right before the novel’s climax, when the two point of views finally intersect and we see each through the other’s eyes.

Horror has a bit of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t problem when it comes to revelations. A book that ends without ever giving more than sheltered glimpses of its evil feels incomplete, but everyone knows that the second the camera focuses on the monster you lose eighty percent of your fear for it. Apartment 16’s treatment of this dilemma is mixed. The majority of the evil here, such as the ghostly figures in the corner of your eye, isn’t scary because of its red face or thin form, but because of what it signifies, and yet we never learn precisely what that is. Exactly how these apparitions travelled from one diseased mind to the building’s very soul is never shown. Seth’s characterization stays excellent throughout (in fact, I’d go as far as to say that his conversations with Apryl are his -- and the book’s -- finest moments), but he’s too pitiable to ever be truly terrifying. His handler, an ominous child in a sweatshirt, never comes into a focus clear enough to really be frightening; his entire existence is like the beginnings of a creepy soundtrack with the werewolf attack left out, all buildup and no payoff.

What never loses its dark charm, however, is the Vortex, a hell of infinite distances and seething darkness. The glimpses seen through Felix Hessen’s (excellently described) art are intriguing, but it’s nothing to what’s to come. The final product is so terrifyingly empty that it may just leave you doubting the reality of the very ground beneath your feet. The Vortex isn’t Nevill’s only success when it comes to terror. A large part of the horror comes in a manner that any seasoned reader is likely familiar with – the glimpse in the mirror, the presence near your bed, etc – but Nevill’s prose and the book’s oppressive atmosphere make for a chill factor that’s far greater than its disparate parts can account for and for a book that’s damn hard to put down.

Apartment 16 has problems, and the climax is a little disappointing. In horror, however, atmosphere trumps everything else, and Apartment 16’s got atmosphere in spades. If you’re a fan of dark, character driven horror, Nevill’s a name you need to start paying attention to.


I interview Nevill here.


  1. Enjoyed the review, and despite the negative part of the review (Apryl's character, or lack thereof) I look forward to reading this book. As soon as I'm able to get it!

  2. I'd definitely recommend it (obviously). Apryl's character isn't a glaring flaw, it's not the kind of vapid creation that is painful whenever it walks on stage. It's more like the absence of a positive (IE, a second interesting character) if you know what I mean.

    I'd also recommend Nevill's other horror novel, Banquet for the Damned, if you like Apartment 16.

  3. This book definitely kept me over the edge, to the point where i did not want to turn the page and uncover Apryl's fate. However, i would say that the climax was disappointing... it does feel like a book unfinished in terms of not really being able to understand completely how Apartment 16 and everything else with it came to be, as well as what happened to Apryl and Miles. However, full points to go to the atmosphere of the book and that every page jumps right at you.

  4. ****Major SPOILERS Potentially Ahead****
    *******Aproach with Caution*******************

    Far be it from me to ruin a decent & lengthy 449 page book(***) for you before you've even finished it! (or yet begun!)
    First of all, I absolutely loved what Adam Nevill did in his story "Yellow Teeth" which I read in The Cemetery Dance anthology, this story, like Morris' "Puppies for Sale" in the same book, felt like something fresh in the realms of the weird. Since reading "Yellow Teeth", I have mentioned Nevill to anyone who'll listen based on the strength of this story alone. So, naturally, I was excited to read a full length novel by this intriguing new writer. "Apartment 16" is a flawed book but I feel that for a "novel of the weird" (which are usually so much more flawed than the one in question) it was extremely well done, being as you fellows say: almost entirely atmosphere. Surprisingly cinematic, too, I thought, real images there - really speaks for the strength of the writing. Ultimately, though, I concur: there is something unsatisfying about the ending (almost everything in the half dozen chapters, more or less, leading to the epilogue). Also, I found myself wishing Stephen's character was actually less sympathetic. He was weak, cruel, selfish and ultimately afraid; humanizing traits which I'm confident most can relate to. However, in light of what has been passing at Barrington House: Stephen is not evil. But Stephen, I felt, needed desperately to be evil and not just trapped like the others. Perhaps if his complicity had been more fully wrought? As mentioned: his boy too badly drawn to be anything more terrifying than a nuisance. However, the revelation that Stephen has been posting the job wanted ads in the art rag was the most chilling (I was naturally suspicious but wasn't 100% sure of Stephen until then)and I was a little perplexed that Nevill chose to reference the previous "caretakers" from this same talent source in the epilogue. As to the epilogue itself, I thought it was reminiscent & somewhat derivative of the coda to Machen's "The Hill of Dreams" -did anyone else notice?

    Btw, as to "the best scene", I must concur with my host, that malevolent Hat, in saying it is with Seth in Tesco or wherever. This scene reminds me of similar but less effective, (kind of humorous, perhaps intended as such) scenes in "The Face of Twilight" by Mark Samuels, Nevill does it better here.
    In an ungrammatical summation: flawed but want to read more by this interesting & obviously gifted writer.

    (***)Though it could be argued that due to the otherwise enjoyable and obvious quality of the writing itself and the rushed feel of the ending of the book that it could have, on the contrary, used another 100 pages or so to flesh things out a little more about three quarters of the way through?

  5. I haven't read Yellow Teeth. The only short story of Nevill's that I have, though I haven't yet gotten to read it, is Where Angels Come In (which I've got in Mammoth Book of New Horror 17, picked up specifically for that story), so I'll look into Yellow Teeth.


    I found that Stephen's pathetic state worked for the most part. Having a more proactive evil antagonist would have humanized the Vortex, I think, or would have needed a bit of a stretch to really give Stephen a motivation for what he did. As it is, he's trapped, yes, but also malevolent when it comes to ensnaring new members, both a victim and, undoubtedly, a part of the evil as well.

    An additional hundred pages could have gone either way, I think. The barrage of revelations that occurs at the end, given almost entirely from Stephen's point of view, felt rushed, as we were being given new information by a wholly new viewpoint, but I'm not sure that more space would have fixed the other problems. Perhaps if both the child and Stephen were fleshed out throughout it could have let a more tangible, but still human, evil carry through to the climax.

    I haven't read Hill of Dreams; my only Machen is (pathetically enough) The Three Imposters and Other Stories. I'll keep an eye out for similarities when I get around to purchasing and reading Hill of Dreams, though.

    I take it that you're aware of Nevill's Banquet for the Damned? I found it to be even stronger than Apartment 16 overall, though Seth's arc would still be his crowning achievement so far.


  6. That's really funny! I did the same thing in that I picked up Best New Horror 17 from the library only to read the Nevill story in it but had to take it back before I had the chance. Some Nevillist I turned out to be!

    At heart, I agree with you concerning my extra pages idea, but I am now leaning towards it solving little, ultimately. Also, the Vortex takes center stage at the end, almost a character but a negative, curiously absent, formless one (I think I'm getting it) and fleshing out other ones could possibly take away from that build up.

    In regards to Apryl, could you picture her? Do you think he tried too hard or not hard enough to "write" a woman? Do you think that she is intended to be the way she is?

    My answers to these questions are: I could picture her very clearly. I feel that her character is a little labored or from a man's perspective at times, particularly when she is "coaxing" information from Seth in the Green Man. Ultimately, I believe she was a successfully rendered character, serving the purpose the narrative assigned to her. Actually, I was a little disappointed with how easily the Vortex ending up getting her but it is important to remember how at so many corners this novel pulls the rug out from under its audience's expectations of what is going to happen next. Like just when you think it's going to get predictable...
    but having said that at curious times the narrative is conveniently straightforward almost to the point of being somewhat prosaic.

    Nevill is close to writing a great horror novel here and I'm sure his next effort (I put my money on "if kept shorter") will show us a thing or two, particularly if he uses Apartment 16 as a stepping stone in his development. But I will believe "great novel" when I see it, not just in Nevill's case but in all cases, as I am more and more of the opinion that horror stories are best served short. But you are so close to writing a better than descent novel, Mr. Nevill, so keep going!

    Yes, I've heard of "Banquet of the Damned" and as PS currently has a crazy deal on it (with reasonable international shipping) in dust jacketed hardcover form, I'll be picking it up soon. I'm guessing that since you say it is stronger that it is also considerably shorter in length than Apartment 16.


  7. (Sorry for the delayed response, I was out of town)


    I could picture Apryl. I thought that she was a competently drawn character, without any major flaws, but I also thought that she failed to really exist outside the confines of the novel, as Seth did. If the whole Barrington incident had been averted, I can picture perfectly the course Seth's life would have taken. Apryl, on the other hand, is cut adrift completely without these precise events, I think.

    I don't think that's a result of her gender, though. Actually, the scenes where she was with others, either Seth or Miles, came through the best, for me, giving her personality something to bounce off of.

    Of course, I do think that Nevill wrote her as a sort of Straight (wo)Man intentionally; the novel needed something to counteract Seth's dementia (as he says in the interview, it'd simply be too bleak otherwise). Her capture by the vortex was shocking, to an extent, but I think that I would have been more concerned if she'd been given more of a distinctive personality.

    Banquet is a shorter novel than Apartment 16, though not by a HUGE margin. I'll warn you that it's a different, more traditional kind of noel, though pulled off very well. The climax, though not excellent, was generally acceptable.

  8. Let me know when you read Nevill's story "Yellow Teeth". It seems something akin to George R.R. Martin's story "The Pear-Shaped Man", at least thematically. Which I found out about on another blog called The Mighty Blowhole.