Adam Nevill’s powerful supernatural horror novel The Ritual was released last month, and consistent with his earlier two horror outings delivered high quality shocks and scares aplenty.
Adam kindly spared me a not inconsiderable chunk of his time to answer a few questions about his books, the sources for inspiration that lay behind them, some feedback on writing and publishing, and on why horror should be disturbing.
His earlier novels Apartment 16 and Banquet for the Damned marked Adam as a definitive and powerful voice in the world of horror fiction, but more so they showed him as a fine writer in any genre. Check out this highly insightful interview for a chance to glimpse into the mind of one of horror fiction’s leading figures.
In Banquet for the Damned we roamed the streets of small town Scotland, in Apartment 16 it was an upmarket apartment building in London, including that city’s streets and parks. With The Ritual you had a vast area of Scandinavian forest to play host to your imagination. Do you have a preference for urban over natural environs – do you find either one more suited to getting those creative juices flowing?
I’d say they’re all environments that I have experienced first-hand that lend themselves, in my imagination, to a possibility of the supernatural. The period building, the mediaeval town and the ancient unmanaged forest have all made me receptive to the sense that natural law might not be the only law. You almost feel you’re in receipt of a psychic sensitivity in certain places, like you’re using a different part of your consciousness; it’s not a case of seeing things, but of sensing the edge of something.
Without having to give anything away from The Ritual, very early on in the book there’s the animal carcass in the tree. You give a nod to a related incident in the preface – can you enlighten us any further as to the influence in question?
1991. A camping and hiking trip in Wales, in March of that year, saw me and my three companions running out of daylight fast while looking for a patch of sheltered deciduous woodland in which to pitch our tent. It was freezing, we were exhausted, and it had begun to snow.
On the map we located a potential site and trespassed through a farmer’s fields to reach it. Only to discover thick bracken, dead wood and nettles were waist-high between all of the trees in the patch of woodland. Of more concern was the inexplicable site of an old car hanging from a tree top with two eviscerated sheep carcasses strung up beside it.
At the time, we had no words, let alone an explanation for the reasons behind such a morbidly surreal sight. We were dead on our feet, but this spectacle added a distinct element of menace to the entire trip, as if we had fecklessly blundered into a part of the world in which we had no understanding of the rules. Of course, this was Great Britain and we would never be far from a road or a house. But it was still frightening and had the circumstances been the same, but our location in more remote and inhospitable terrain … now that would be a story.
Even now, we can’t account for the presence of the wrecked car, but the dead sheep, someone told me last year on a writer’s week in Catalonia, were probably baited with poison to kill crows. Plausible, because the nearest field grew a root crop.
I ended up spending the most uncomfortable night of my life in a snow-covered tent, pitched in a nearby farmer’s paddock, while fully clothed and shaking with cold inside the wrong kind of sleeping bag that never reached higher than my collar bones. The expedition leader’s words, uttered after the fire wood had run out and we had no choice but to bed-down for the night in the tent – “You’ll be as warm as toast in no time” – I then carried with me too, for nearly twenty years, before finding a place for those words in a story. That story is The Ritual.
A sense of creeping insanity, and doubt, are constant bedfellows in your books, yet in The Ritual there is a much more ‘in your face’ approach, granted it was a slightly shielded one, but it was in your face. A move from the say Aickman and James approach to a more actively head-on style. Which do you find more appealing from a writer’s perspective?
I’m not against physical horror, never have been. I’m against bad writing of any stripe, and particularly bad writing that evokes revulsion, if it’s lucky. I may lean more toward a psychic and psychological terror, and deal with semi-wakeful or altered perceptions in my characters, but physical horror is still important and evident in all of my books.
Even in Banquet the set-pieces were bloody; cannibalism and dismemberment were major themes. Yet, I don’t think I use the word “blood” once in the book. How you express physical horror is often, but not always, the key to elevating its power and impact. Banquet’s story and setting called for a suggestive lyrical horror throughout. So body-count and blood flow is dependent on the circumstance of the story. What I want to avoid at all costs is the cosy Christmas ghost story; horror should be disturbing.
The Ritual is a story of ultra-violence in the second half, but violence and physical horror has to mean something, it has to matter and justify itself to me as part of the story and its themes; as opposed to using it as a form of puerile entertainment. That would be trite. Previously, I allowed readers see the aftermath of a terrible occurrence; an event that was only suggested. Or the scene closed as the figure loomed over its prey. And I will always pursue this approach because it is the most effective way of plausibly depicting the unthinkable, the impossible.
In The Ritual I do this in the first half, because the threat is predominantly supernatural, but in the second half I took a more immediate high impact ultra-violent approach, as the story moved into the realm of premeditated murder in the human arena. So the story called for a change of approach and the story got it.
It’s a story about the violence that accompanies apocalyptic faiths and ideology, about injustice and entrapment, about sadistic cruelty. We live in a world of violence or barely suppressed violence at the best of times; of hostility and unfairness and unavenged crimes. Human behaviour so easily lends itself to inhumanity. That needs to be represented authentically too in horror and it has to matter. Even if it is excessive; it has to matter.
You can’t avoid the animal corpse in the tree – whereas a dream or two, indistinct shapes lurking shadows, a mind’s mental compass, can be questioned. How did you find writing The Ritual in comparison to your earlier two (horror) novels went?
The writing style in The Ritual was dictated by the situation and circumstances of the story. And those circumstances are dramatically different to anything else I have written. It’s stripped down, occurs over a matter of days, has eight characters, and only two real locations: the forest and the house within the forest; it also begins at the moment of crisis and in a situation that has just turned from recreation to survival for four men, in the first paragraph. From then on, they are whittled down to fear and anxiety and a desire to survive.
The idiom of the novel needed to reflect the situation in its syntax, the dialogue, the very language. I think there are only about three paragraphs of exposition in the entire 120K book; it is nearly all experienced through the point of view of one character as the story happens.
There is no narrator. No back story beyond the drift of memory in a POV character, and only minimal flashback like the two scenes that go back a few hours. And the reader also has only the testimony of the point of view character, Luke; there are no secondary sources; no reliable witnesses; no means of extracting information from anything other than what Luke’s senses make of the evidence on offer.
It quickened the pace by putting everything into the now. Within hours of hardship outdoors, your personality also changes; it has to; you are no longer as diffuse or complex. I wanted the motivations and responses of the characters to be accurate.
Do you ever take the writing process for granted – is it ever possible to do so?
No I don’t. If it ever feels easy, I’ll look back during a rewrite and cringe. And ask me after I’ve written a dozen horror novels if I have found a method or signature style and I might be able to answer. At the moment writing every book is a euphoric and tortuous process by turn, it’s full of hope and good intentions and outright despair. The book I set out to write in my mind is never the one I actually finish either. So my control is also limited. But don’t tell my editor.
You’ve written several successful books now, all stand-alone. Are you ever tempted to make the sequel call, to return to grounds previously covered?
I’ve written three horror novels, and am working on the fourth now. As for sequels, after spending a great deal of energy devising a world for a novel, I do think of other scenarios that could occur in the same world. What I find more exciting is the gradual development of my own mythos, or a connectivity between books, at first in their Apocrypha but now increasingly in recorded events.
There’s potential with Apartment 16, no?
There is. I was very pleased with Felix Hessen and the Vortex. Intimations of an afterlife can be risible, but that one took some creating and still has mileage in it.
Apartment 16 had some of the most powerful scenes regarding decay and insanity that I’ve read. I was holidaying in Japan with crazy jetlag and had to stop reading in the wee hours one morning as it was just creeping me out too much.
There is a feeling of likewise in your short story ‘On All Underground Lines’ in the anthology The End of the Line with a suitably decayed and blurring feel of insanity and creeping doubt, of one horrible world merging with another lurid one. Where, in particular, did you draw inspiration for such scenes?
Thanks, Will. Bizarrely, a health care professional who read Apartment 16 did ask me if I suffered from a psychotic disorder which gave me pause; I said, possibly, but one undiagnosed and untreated! Dan Simmons wrote that writing fiction comes from an urge to write about strange things. He’s right. My own experience of the world often filters and warps into a grotesque aesthetic that then comes out in my writing, eventually.
I have regular bouts of being immobilised by the sheer horror of the ordinary world around me; and by a conviction that everyone in it is damaged and delusional or a potential threat. Paranoia surely, but I’ve rarely been let down by my instincts about people or situations I’ve been in. Imagination and storytelling are attempts to portray and explore the strangeness of existence, or to make it strange by concentrating on its constituent and oddly affecting parts. This is the part of the process that transports me; connecting with that strange part of myself.
You’ve talked elsewhere about the real and perceived threat of physical violence present in society today, in other interviews, the nature of the Anglo Saxon condition. Here in the forest in The Ritual you still have a micro-culture represented, and despite ‘friends’ together, violence propagating. Luke clearly has anger management (amongst other issues) but do you see the violence a product of our times – impatience/instant reaction without thought – or as stemming from deeper cultural/atavistic seat?
A good question, and a big one. Violence is ever present, as is its potential to explode. Its causes are manifold. Its seat is embedded in human nature; we weaned ourselves on the genocide of other primates. Our continuing propensity for violence demotes us, in my opinion, down the hierarchy of the animal kingdom.
I think it’s why my stories stray into anthropomorphism and animism, because it’s a good way of depicting our grotesqueness. And there are so many circumstances that still seem to provoke violence; in fact, wherever more than one person gathers, it’s possible. And when we’re alone, even suicide and self-harm are possible.
We are assaulted for being young, old, attractive, unattractive, for being male or female, for leaving the house at the wrong time, for being black, brown and white; we’re assaulted because we have what someone else wants, we’re assaulted for being strangers, we’re assaulted because someone is frustrated, or angry, or aroused and derives pleasure from our distress, we’re assaulted because we are defenceless, or because Rangers loose to Celtic, or we’re at home when someone wants our laptop … and on and on and on.
How can we ever get to the bottom of this? A significant portion of humanity either has no conscience, or easily suppresses it. Another portion doesn’t think about consequences and seems to commit it out of recreation or a perverse sense of revenge for being disrespected. Yet another believes anything is justifiable in the pursuit of its self-interest. Another significant section was brutalised in childhood. For others it becomes the focus of their territorial and caste culture. Or, it can be a form of status. It goes on and on. The reasons for it are manifold.
Throughout history, the educated and civilised have also thrown their hat into the ring, repeatedly; invested and intellectualised their frustrations into scapegoats, demonised them and slaughtered them on grand scale. The ordinary will become complicit in political murder from behind a desk to maintain their position within a hierarchy. Violence becomes the discourse too easily, is almost legitimised around alcohol. There is a terrible irrational momentum in humanity that seems too easily roused, especially in group dynamics.
I’ve dealt with only a few areas of violence, for instance in Apartment 16 where it is recreational and random and unpredictable in modern Britain where repressed hostility is loosened so quickly by alcohol. A few years ago in a pub near where I live, a man was murdered inside the bar for complaining about another patron smoking a joint; eighteen people were arrested for the killing. We see the stats, but can you imagine the savagery in a supposedly civilised country? Eighteen people destroyed a stranger with their hands and feet. Even in Norway, the show home of the West, a subculture of young people murdered each other, then strangers randomly, and burned churches in the nineties.
From the streets and wars of the first world to genocide in the developing world; humanity is a force of violence. I’m speaking out loud and shouldn’t have to remind anyone of this. After all, tragically, it could probably be argued that human rights are a minority interest for the west. When will we evolve?
I think, increasingly, we also live in pathological times here in the west and that’s what feeds my concepts as a writer: a competitive, time-pressured, having-it-all culture driven by greed, resentment, and the show of me. There is something particularly vulpine and petulant about the violence that comes from it – whether it’s a woman scarring another for life with a champagne flute, or teenagers killing one of their peers who looked in their direction or allegedly said something to someone else etc..
The predictability is tedious. Doesn’t seem to take much provocation these days for someone to lose an eye, or worse. I’ve always thought it was a last resort to be pulled out when your own life was in genuine danger. Apparently not. And I’ll clearly never run out of material because of it. I sometimes wonder why all books aren’t about violence? And yet writing about the horrors of violence is most often seen as trite, or low brow. Well, as a species we are mostly trite and low brow.
Horror fiction is definitely enjoying something of a renaissance, and I know we’d touched previously upon the earlier heyday or horror in the 1980s, and early 90s. A time of King, Masterton, Herbert, Campbell, Laymon, Hutson, Koontz et. al. Will we ever see another time as that?
I really don’t know. No one does. If individual authors break out, or are broken out by publishers, and attract large readerships it is possible a trend will arise as publishers start copying each other because there’s brass in blood. But the book trade, publishing, how content is consumed, literacy levels etc, are all so different now; there are so many new variables. Society, tastes, lifestyles and consumption are so different.
In books for adults, which is my area, I have a hunch it will come and go in series fiction as ever, and as a minority interest, while one or two big names dominate the mainstream and endure regardless of what is fashionable. I think brand names come before genre now.
I’ve an academic acquaintance with several commercially published works who believes self-publishing via eBooks marks the death of the established publishing industry. I share an opposite view, in that it will force the established publishers to sharpen their game somewhat and encourage a more vigorous approach to manuscript selection and editing, and in turn strengthen them. May I ask you what you consider the future for the publishing industry and self-published authors will be going forward?
It’ll certainly be a challenge for publishers if digital sales eclipse print, unless they achieve volume sales with cheap eBooks. Ebooks have already found their ceiling at 70p; publishers are trying to charge, because they have to, over five quid for theirs. Personally, I don’t buy books because of the price. I buy them because I want to read them. I’m not denying there are some authors out there, who are good and mainstream publishing won’t publish them because they don’t believe the author’s books will be profitable enough, or because they just don’t have room on their lists, or are publishing something else instead because it’s more fashionable, or an editor cannot get a green-light in a publishing meeting; and these authors should self-publish, or go to the quality-controlled eBook publishers that will have to emerge.
Most aspirants, though, should not publish their work. I used to read hundreds of manuscripts every year as an editor – I read everything that was sent to me eventually – and would find about one new author a year who, in my opinion, was good enough, or whose work was in a condition, to go out with a single author title. But now, those slush piles are being self-published by the semi-literate, and the literate who are not writers.
These are flat, tedious, poorly crafted, clumsy and amateur first draft attempts at fiction that may even put people off reading for years. I imagine the new digital book trade becoming a literary landfill the size of Beijing with four diamond rings buried in it somewhere, that no one will ever find. A few already established authors have made a success of going it alone, but they were already successful. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme by any means.
I think print and digital will operate in tandem, with digital gradually increasing its share as the book trade diminishes down to small concerns, and libraries keep closing; there just won’t be as many routes to market to sell print books, particularly a range of print books. That’s the big problem right now.
Online retailers buy in small amounts; the physical book trade bought copies in the thousands. Will it even be feasible to print books without enough book shops (it’s often not worth printing a book with a run of less than 3K, if it has an average price point, so how do you get 3000 into the last 280 Waterstones still standing?). So I don’t think publishers will improve their quality control, I think they will increasingly become curators of their big name authors, who are sold in supermarkets and Smiths in large sell-in numbers and account for 20% of all books sold anyway, according to the Bookseller since Nielsen Book data began ten years ago. Same focus will occur for their backlists of classics. Midlists and punts I worry about, because the best writing so often comes from there: will these have to go digital without advances, but higher royalty rates on eBook sales, or to small presses with high specs and higher price points? No one knows. We’re all guessing. I’d be wary though of apocalyptic predictions from those with a vested interest in the technology.
No one, after all, ever asked for eBooks. I’m not against them, but their advantages are being hyped (unless you’re an academic who needs to travel with weighty tomes). And print books are fantastic value as they are.
A colleague and I once discussed our nightmare scenario in which, while trying to read a book on a handheld device, pop-ups, emails, phone messages, battery warnings, inter-connectivity to reading groups, questionnaires and spam kept appearing on screen. Unless a new genre, approach, or medium is created by a dedicated lover of books and reading, I’m not really interested. Gadget and app’ fiends and IT radicals make me nervous. They’re often putting the stability of the world at risk because they don’t think things through.
It’s worth remembering too, that backlists and bestsellers create income for publishers; the latter generally come from books with a huge presence – piled high in shops, stocked in charts, backed up with marketing and publicity; these are books published on a big scale that have a presence sufficient enough to get critical mass, momentum, word of mouth and are easily bought because they are sold everywhere.
How does an amateur, or a good self-published writer, do that with an eBook amongst one million others, all claiming to be better than so and so? There will be one or two literary equivalents to Paranormal Activity to be quoted at nay-sayers. But how often will that happen? The chances will be astronomical. Also, the biggest single weakness and danger I can see with digital books, that still has not been addressed, is that the internet has created a culture of entitlement to free content. Neither publishers or one-man-bands can prevent file-sharing.
Stemming from The Ritual and talking of camping rations, instant snacks and suchlike: as a writer, you’ve pulled a few late nights no doubt and needed a quick snack to keep the energy going. I have to ask – what’s your favourite flavoured Pot Noodle?
I don’t have one. I had a Pot Noodle once in my first year at uni’ and it was like eating curry flavoured sand. I did discover a pickle flavoured crisp recently in Belgium, and a mozzarella and pesto flavoured crisp, and these were two of the nicest snacks that have ever been in my mouth. For outdoors, flapjacks are great.
When I go on a trip I know where reading may be intermittent, camping and the suchlike, I usually grab an anthology as opposed to a novel to increase my chances of getting some worthwhile reading done – what’s your favourite collection of short stories, in the horror genre and also in general?
Would be hard to choose, but I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down by William Gay is one of the best collections I have read, and I read it recently because it’s come back into print via POD. It’s Americana, regional literary fiction, with stories set in Tennessee; just incredible writing and the kind of stories that leave you staring into space after finishing them. Heart-breaking, funny, clever, tragic; everything you’d want from great fiction. The Paper Hanger is also one of the best horror stories I have ever read, though William Gay is not a horror writer. If you like Daniel Woodrell and Cormac McCarthy, you’ll love William Gay.
For a weird tale anthology, Robert Aickman’s Strange Tales Volume One (Tartarus) is unlikely to ever be bettered by anyone.