The Reddening by Adam Nevill

A review

I ‘d been looking forward to reading The Reddening for a long time, having read a number of Nevill’s works and received a signed limited edition copy of the hardback. So, nice to sit back and enjoy a cosy read during winter’s darkest weeks? Not exactly. You don’t get cosy with a tale as disturbing as this one; in fact I woke up in the early hours a couple of weeks ago and made the mistake of reading a few chapters to get me back off to sleep. After half an hour my pulse was literally racing and my head filled with images of ancient, unspeakable monstrosities.

If you’ve listened to any recent interviews with Nevill e.g. this one on the ‘This is Horror’ podcast, then you’ll know he writes over a relatively long period of time. You could liken it to a slow cooker containing a meat stew, gradually simmering away, releasing its juices and aroma until it reaches the point at which one says, ‘Well I could leave it longer, but I’m sure as hell going to eat it now.’ Whether that’s the anticipation of the reader’s salivary glands, or the author simply abandoning a masterpiece to the world – or maybe a combination of both – well, you get the idea. No one can accuse Nevill of skimping on research, nor avoiding the graft involved in deliberating over every last word placement and nuance of characterisation. I’ve understood this from reading ‘Under a Watchful Eye,’ ‘Lost Girl’ and his two collections, ‘Hasty for the dark’ and ‘Some will not sleep.’

Therefore, after some two or more years in the meditation and execution of this work, following on from his successful screen adaptation of ‘The Ritual’, Nevill has released his repast to the world. I ignored other reviews of the book before diving into The Reddening as I didn’t want to encounter spoilers or suffer from escalated hype (the book has been heralded by many horror luminaries already.) This was an experience to be ‘enjoyed’ unsullied by such eventualities.

The Reddening’s plot, of which I will only give the briefest thumbnail, begins to unfold with a number of characters – some of which never make it to the latter pages. Each person encounters the phenomenon of The Reddening and its expression as seen in the deranged and zealous acolytes who hold to its insidious call. So as not to detract from the mystery and dread, I will simply say that this murderous and utterly unfeeling primal force dwells in the depths of the Devon rocks. Evidence of its existence is seen in the discovery of ancient caves holding countless bones of its victims, in paintings preserved in caverns aeons old and in the very real presence of something that has awakened; something known in local folklore as ‘The Creel.’ Two key characters emerge after the first scenes are set. The first is Helene, whose brother apparently committed suicide after recording strange sounds while camping along the Devon coastline. The second is Kat, a journalist who is charged with running articles on the Brickburgh excavations that have acted as a locus for tourism and a minor economic boom in the area. The storyline then follows each of these womens’ encounters with the Reddening cult, and let’s say their experience is not a happy one.

I pause here to elaborate on Nevill’s use of setting. It is clear from the exquisite descriptions contained in this quite lengthy book, that Nevill has studied and immersed himself in the Devon geography and history. Having lived there himself for some time now, he has explored the coastline and drunk in its ethos from both terrestrial and oceanic points of view. Canoeing and swimming along this particular stretch of the Devon coastline is a common occurrence for him and lengthy hikes through the surrounding moors and countryside have instilled a sense of place and drama acting as a backdrop to his tale. Nevill is a skilled enough wordsmith to weave these details into the story in an unobtrusive manner, creating an atmosphere that you feel emanates from the very soil and atmosphere of the area.

Another influence that should be mentioned is that of Nevill’s literary forbears, most notably MR James. The style here is one of suspense and even folk-horror. The chills a reader receives are not so much from gruesome depictions of savagery (although there are plenty of these that judiciously pepper the story,) but more from the suggestive terror; that sense of some incomprehensible evil lurking at the edge of one’s vision. The horror of what we imagine is always far greater than that of what is.

Speaking of that which churns our stomachs; for me, the greatest sense of disquiet comes from the depiction of man’s inhumanity to man. The thing that confined me to reading this in small doses was the notion that the Creel would not have expressed itself, nor been unleashed on the world, without human’s welcoming it in and succumbing to its visceral primal appeal.

Another important element in ‘The Reddening’ is music. In his previous book, The Ritual, Black Metal came to the fore as Nevill’s driving force initiating the devotion of cultists in Sweden. Here, it is the savage, sacrificial ‘religion’ rising from a backdrop of folk music written and performed by one of the main antagonists, Tony Willows. Although there is no explicit reference, I imagined something akin to early Comus recordings being played in isolated country retreats and the accompanying drug-induced dances carried out by worshippers under a full moon. The recordings made using underground microphones by Helene’s brother evoked ambient drones produced by the likes of Palaeowolf. These musical descriptions all help make one’s experience of the horror tale multi-sensory.

This brings me to Nevill’s descriptions. As a writer, I can only marvel at how he lays out the elements of a scene with a consistent turnover of active verbs both original and evocative. Take this description from an early depiction of the Devon countryside:

Cloud had tarnished the sky metallic, giving the sea an appearance of liquid steel’ In one circular portion of the iron cumulus, light splintered to produce the sulfur and mercury of a Turner seascape

 Or how about this from one of the more graphic scenes:

Sinewy forearms glistening by fire light. Hands slippery and gloved in bright Scarlett. A hand sawing. Another hand tugging at the hair and raising a head too far from its shoulders.

The congregation had committed their voices to fresh ululations: exultant, deafening, born from their rejoicing. And in the red barn the fire had leaped higher as four men worked like butchers.

Slick, wet sounds from the carving. Sharp black stones in wet fists, up and down. Hack hack hack. Crack of bone, the stretching and splitting of sinew. The black hair seething yet squeezing her with its undersea pressures. Smoke billowing about wet straw.

This is the strength of Nevill’s writing — his ability to put you in the character’s head and body, within the scene.

I’m fascinated with how horror authors differently evoke those emotions most commonly associated with the horror genre. One component with Nevill must be that sense of every character in the book being vulnerable and game for a bad ending. This arises from the author’s Lovecraftian appreciation of an unfeeling universe, and entities far too old to give credence to something as insignificant as an individual human’s life. I’m not going to reveal who makes it through to the last page, or to what extent they remain unscathed.

The ending of the story has a few unexpected twists and turns — enough to take you by surprise but not so much as to overdo it. In this way the conclusion is satisfying and at the same time disturbing. One wonders how much more Nevill can delve into the unknown depths of human dread, or explore another facet of cosmic horror, yet he keeps inventing new concepts and settings. As such, The Reddening marks the latest milestone on a dark road trodden by an author at the top of his game. Read it with the understanding you will be affected. But as a lover of horror, that’s what you want, isn’t it?

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