Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Adam LG Nevill - Banquet for the Damned

Terror comes in two flavors in Adam LG Nevill’s Banquet for the Damned: the one off and the build up. Nevill’s use of the former, a tactic that (when you remember that these are just words on a page, and we only care because of our empathy for the characters) really should not work, is done through night terrors. Throughout the first quarter of the narrative, we find ourselves inside character after character’s heads. They are not in their beds. They do not know how they got where they are. They have been suffering increasingly disturbing nightmares for days on end. Within a few pages, they will be dead. The inevitability of these sections is horrifying, and I found myself reading as fast as I could, sometimes having to force myself to not skip whole paragraphs, because growing acquainted with these pre-damned characters, understanding their thoughts and what makes them tick, was simply too painful. And, since this is horror, I mean that in the best possible way.

Bed wetting dream sequences are nice – very nice, even – but they alone cannot sustain a novel. In order for an atmosphere to permeate every page, for the suspense to forbid us from even glancing over the top of the book, we need to be grounded in the setting and characters; we need for their every threat to be a mortal one for us as well. In this, Nevill succeeds admirably.

The novel takes place in the college town of St. Andrews. The setting is perfectly realized in the story, both in its grandeur and in the new darkness that begins to creep within it:

This is a home for learning built from old stones, with an elegance to its arches and courts, and a mystery endowed by its shadows and legends. But the aesthetics have shifted: he can feel it. Something has arrived to disturb the calm, to wind back time and reinstall a grimmer place where thinkers burned for heresy and darkness brought dread to small grey towns. (p.66)

Coming to the town from outside are the key characters of the novel. The first of these is Dante, a washed up heavy metal musician coming to St. Andrews for his last chance at a big break and a chance to meet his idol. Now, it could be argued that, in a St. Andrews housing laptop computers and cell phones, a leather clad rock musician would be more bizarre anachronism than daring rebel, but such a thought doesn’t enter your head until long after you’ve turned the last page.

The reader sees the majority of the story through Dante’s eyes, and his emotions and reactions to events often determine our own. When the story starts, Dante is arriving in the town. It’s a moment of hope for him, and, though our expectations are obviously colored by the knowledge that we’re reading a horror novel, the reader sees St. Andrews as a new beginning, a place where anything can happen, compared to the routines of Birmingham and our own lives. Even then, though, there is a hint of uneasiness to the whole experience, conveyed by the police investigation underway on the beaches as we arrive.

Hope changes to despair, the change marked by Dante’s meeting with Elliot. The lead up to and execution of these first interactions between the two are, quite possibly, the heaviest hitting parts of the book. The depths of Dante’s admiration for his mentor, coupled with the disillusioning reality of the man, are agonizing to read about. After that, though nothing truly malignant has occurred to our lead, the town takes on a disorienting, unfamiliar feel that it maintains, to great effect, throughout the rest of the narrative.

An excellent result of our reliance on Dante’s narration comes about when Dante is, essentially, hypnotized. The scene is like suddenly having the color on your TV cut out, leaving you with half the picture. We can still see Dante’s actions, still understand the world around him, but, without warning, we can no longer make any sense of his thoughts. While an effect like this could easily become nothing but baffling, or perhaps just a cause of apathy, it’s unsettling and dream like, here.

Our closeness to Dante, however, does bring with it the occasional problem. While our view of Elliot is tempered through the viewpoints of the school’s administration, our grasp of Tom, Dante’s friend and band mate, is left entirely to Dante’s eyes. As a result, while we come to understand and rely on the intricacies of the two musicians’ relationship, we never come to care for Tom as a character, rendering any threat to him unmoving to us beyond what effect it has on Dante.

One of my main problems with Nevill’s Apartment 16 was that the source of the horror, when it was finally revealed, proved to be unequal to the buildup. While I won’t go so far as to say that the source of Banquet’s terror is as frightening as our corner-of-the-eye glimpses of it, it doesn’t disappoint.

A large part of that is the second of Nevill’s two major viewpoint characters, Hart Miller. Hart is a researcher who studies the kind of night terror epidemics that have gripped St. Andrews. His carefully documented, scientific means of looking into what’s going on in the early chapters of the book give the town’s collective nightmares far more believable weight than they otherwise would have had. Later in the novel, Hart’s research into the occult, browsing through a collection of real and invented sources, fleshes out the novel’s menace without defanging it.

To refer back (or forward?) to Apartment 16 again, the secondary point of view in that novel, Apryl, felt like she had no existence outside of the strict confines of the plot. In some ways, Hart is the same thing, but here that very one dimensionality becomes the springboard for the character’s growth. Up until this point, Hart’s life has been wholly focused on night terrors and, at first, the events at St. Andrews seem as much an opportunity as a threat. As the book progresses, however, and as the danger grows more and more personal, Hart tries to take a step back – and realizes that, not only can he not flee the darkness in the town, he has nothing to flee to. Though not uplifting reading, the character’s questioning of both his efficacy and purpose are powerful moments.

A large part of Banquet for the Damned’s atmosphere comes from Nevill’s prose. The writing here is never flowery – think a gateway rather than a stained glass window – but its simplicity belies the clarity, precision, and feeling that comes through every word. Take the opening paragraphs of the novel, for instance:

It’s a night empty of cloud and as still as space.

Alone, a young man walks across a deserted beach. His eyes are vacant, and his mouth is loose. The steps of his unlaced boots in the sand are slow, as if they are being taken under duress, or as if he is being led.

Guided away from the jagged skyline of St. Andrews town, he moves west towards the Eden Estuary and the Tentsumir forest beyond, until the distant streetlights become nothing more than specks winking at his back. As if beckoned, he then moves to the base of the dunes, where the shadows are long, and the sands cold.
(p. 1)

It consists of short sentences and basic vocabulary, yes, but the amount of information (the man is orienting himself by the landmarks of the town, for instance, so it’s clearly the focal point of his life, here) and, more importantly, mood, that comes through is tremendous.

Banquet for the Damned succeeds in almost every way that counts. The novel’s atmosphere – a chilling, claustrophobic darkness that leaves you trying to stay awake with cup after cup of coffee in the hope that you won’t find yourself, in the dead of night, on some forsaken forest pathway – is rammed home by precise prose and well drawn characters. If you’re a reader of horror, Banquet for the Damned deserves a spot on your shelf – perhaps between Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and The Shining. Though, of course, that’d mess up the filing system something mighty…


Nevill talks about Banquet at some length in this interview, which is certainly worth reading if you've read the book or are curious about it.

I interview Nevill here.

No comments:

Post a Comment