Monday, 5 April 2010

Book Review: Apartment 16 by Adam Nevill

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"In Barrington House, an upmarket block in London, there is an empty apartment. No one goes in, no one comes out. And it’s been that way for fifty years. Until the night watchman hears a disturbance after midnight and investigates. What he experiences is enough to change his life forever.

"A young American woman, Apryl, arrives at Barrington House. She's been left an apartment by her mysterious Great Aunt Lillian who died in strange circumstances. Rumours claim Lillian was mad. But her diary suggests she was implicated in a horrific and inexplicable event decades ago."

"Determined to learn something of this eccentric woman, Apryl begins to unravel the hidden story of Barrington House. She discovers that a transforming, evil force still inhabits the building. And the doorway to Apartment 16 is a gateway to something altogether more terrifying...


Press a successful author into advising young hopefuls on the tricks of their trade and as often as not, they proffer something along the lines of this little gem: write what you know. Let's put aside for a moment the fact that Adam Neville has written nine erotic novels under the name Lindsay Gordon. His second horror novel, after the occult thriller Banquet of the Damned, is the dark and disturbing tale of a porter working the night shift in Barrington House, an upmarket block of flats in the west end. This much Neville certainly knows, having worked "from 2000 to 2004 [as] both nightwatchman and day porter in the exclusive apartment buildings of west London," and so it's no surprise that Apartment 16 is an authentic depiction of life as a dogsbody for a block packed full of the privileged and the pompous.

Seth and Apryl are neither. An impoverished artist moonlighting as the night porter in Barrington House, Seth lives in a seedy flat above the Green Man pub; Apryl, meanwhile, is an alternative thirtysomething American newly arrived in London to sell off her late great-aunt's flat. The narrative of Apartment 16 is cleanly divided between these two characters. Largely without exception, you get a chapter in the company of each, and though their respective paths don't cross until surprisingly late in the game, their neatly competing perspectives play off one other well. In one, you learn of a problematic flat covered in creepy paintings; in the other, you hear about an infamous Satanic artist who vanished decades ago. That it takes so long for Seth to meet Apryl creates a tension in the narrative that's almost unbearable.

Indeed, reading Apartment 16 is a tense and uncomfortable experience for the duration - and at nearly 500 pages, Nevill's second novel is by horror standards fairly substantial. But for all its length, the narrative flies by. The pacing isn't perfect - a few relatively pointless diversions early in the second act don't do much to add to Apartment 16's primary thrust - but the author evokes the dank and desperately unpleasant atmosphere of Barrington House so effectively that you'll be whipping through chapters just to see the back of the place.

The supernatural goings-on in and around the luxury apartment block are one thing - one creeping, dreadful thing, at that - but perhaps the book's most memorable moment has nothing whatsoever to do with hauntings or monsters or anything along those lines. In a pivotal, all-or-nothing moment, Seth is attacked by a trio of vicious young thugs on the streets of London; thugs who don't seem to want to mug him so much as indulge in a random act of horrifying violence. It's a truly terrible sequence, blunt and brutal, that sets the misbegotten nightwatchman off down a road from which there's no return, as well as marking Apartment 16's descent into darkness.

Seth and Apryl's last visit to the titular apartment isn't pretty, you can be sure of that much, and though the narrative ends on an appropriately bleak note, Neville rather dulls the impact of his novel's climactic last throes by ushering a rush of revelation from a sudden new narrator (to say any more about whom would be to give the game away). That aside, there's a great deal to appreciate in Apartment 16, not least a terrific sense of tension, an antagonist wrought from the stuff of nightmares and no short supply of moments of utter, open-mouthed terror and discomfort.

And isn't that what horror novels are all about?

Whatever you do, don't read Apartment 16 before you turn out the lights and head for bed. But do read it.

Apartment 16
by Adam Nevill
May 2010, Pan

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  1. yay, this one is in my pile and I can't wait.

  2. I preordered this when James reviewed it and now I can't wait.

  3. Love, love, loved this book!