Cunning Folk by Adam Nevill – A Review

Horror fiction is often about plunging into a pool of unexpected terrors. Jump-scares, plot twists, gory enactments of horrible violence. This is all common fare. With Adam Nevill, there is a certain expectation you have to gird yourself with – that of an inevitable, unavoidable, dreadful conclusion whose seeds are sown from page one. That is not to say that there aren’t some gory moments or surprises in Cunning Folk, but the real thrill is found in the way Nevill builds atmosphere through character, setting and his use of impeccable research.

This is not a haunted house story as such, but it starts with a house. One that is decrepit, run-down and just the ticket for a cash-strapped Fiona and Tom. This is to be their dream home, a place in the country they can renovate according to their desires. A haven of nature that their daughter, Gracey can explore.

But they haven’t reckoned with the neighbours. How many of us do when considering the purchase of the most expensive asset we will ever own? It is to prove the family’s undoing.

It is clear from the outset that Tom and Fiona’s neighbours are hostile to their occupation of the crumbling house that adjoins their own pristine, neatly-manicured property. The Moots are both weird in name and nature. Their appearance and manner of speaking is quirky and judgemental. Their objection to Tom and Fiona’s DIY priorities, together with outright resistance to any interference with the wooded burial ground at the foot of their garden, extends to extreme measures. The Moots possess powers that seem to distort perceptions of reality, invade the family’s dreams and steep them in a torpor that slows down their attempts to get stuck in to upgrading their new house.

The source of the Moot’s power is gradually revealed, and it is to Nevill’s credit that this unfolding realisation – especially to Tom – is unveiled in a believable manner. A little like Jack Torrance’s progressive unravelling of sanity in The Shining. Thankfully, the author avoids well-trodden ground. The folklore created to explain the horror(s) that dwell in this place are sufficiently mysterious and suggestive to pique the reader’s imagination in a way that native American burial grounds and gateways to hell cannot.

As the story progresses, Tom enlists the help of another occultist (for want of a better word) yet this is not your typical benevolent shaman. He will supply knowledge and practical advice for Tom, but at a price. And it is this sense of a world where no one is really your true friend, that the authorities are indifferent to your pleas for help, which creates the wider experience of despair. First Tom has to rid the garden of buried lead tablets with strange glyphs carved into them, and then there are grisly totems under the floorboards to deal with. Ah yes – floorboards. Who would have thought they could be the focus of one of the most horrifying moments in a story such as this?

Some reviewers have criticised Nevill’s style of writing as too verbose or lengthy; but this is to misunderstand the roots of his muse. Steeped in MR James and Algernon Blackwood, together with a hint of Lovecraft here and there, Nevill builds ambience and mood with every sentence. Two examples follow. ‘ … the mouth of the old house breathes upon them, gusting a miasma from its mouldering innards. Damp–darkened wood and moisture–softened plaster. A chemical and custard aroma of paint. Nose–tingling spices from grey pelts of dust.’ How about that for expressing the full-on sensual experience of walking into a house whose previous occupant hung themselves from the rafters by a length of electrical cable?
And another (describing a horror that invades the daughter’s night-time awakening): ‘What reaches down is more smudge than form but she’s sure it’s hanging by its feet, from the ceiling, like a giant, horrible bat. Its whitish length smears the wall and the bumpy head extends. Ragged ears the same size as Daddy’s cricket bat, cock like horns and blade the bony head.’

Just when you think you have discovered the final rotting onion of dread in Cunning Folk, Nevill pulls away another layer to show there is no end to the cosmic horror he has created. The conclusion to the story is both inevitable yet nonetheless astonishing.

This is a story of obsession, control, and that typical human territoriality that poisons relationships the world over. It is also a tale of parenthood, responsibility and sacrificial love.

Don’t read this book for escapism. Its events and overall impingement of horror will dig deep into your psyche. Will you be affected by it? For sure. Yet its contents will somehow leave you better able to face the real world you live in. It expresses the horrors we all turn over in our minds; and the fact that Nevill’s characters have experienced them in their most extreme form, thankfully, mean that we don’t have to.

You can purchase Cunning Folk at Adam’s website here

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