Friday, 1 May 2015

Dead Man Talking #23 - Adam Nevill

Strachan McQuade (Deceased) Interviews Adam Nevill

Adam Nevill first came to my attention when a friend pointed out that both Nevill and I had set horror novels in the Scottish town of St Andrews, and then took great pleasure in letting me know Nevill’s ‘Banquet for the Damned’ was far better than my 'Garden of Remembrance'. Ouch. Naturally I had to check out the competition and sadly had to agree. On a more positive note ‘Banquet for the Damned’ signalled the emergence of a writer who has since breathed new life into the stagnant and moribund Horror genre. Nevill’s stories are genuinely disturbing affairs and have a nasty habit of finding their way into the dark cracks of the subconscious where they take root and undermine a normally cheery disposition with micro-fissures of anxiety, gnawing dread, deep-unease, and in severe cases; sporadic bed wetting. But if you want to read proper horror fiction undiluted with cheesy romance, bad jokes, loveable (but doomed) family pets, mad scientists, giant radioactive insects, or even any glimmer of hope that you might make it through the book mentally unscathed   – Adam Nevill is your man.

His latest novel, ‘No One Gets Out Alive’, is guaranteed to give your nervous system a good kicking, and if you ever look at polythene sheeting the same way ever again you’re either devoid of any human empathy or perhaps one of those weirdos who find shrink-wrapping sexually alluring. 

As usual the Reverend Strachan McQuade has been dispatched to have a chat with Mr Nevill. 

Adam Nevill
Strachan McQuade R.I.P.


McQuade: Welcome to Dead Man Talking and this episode sees us squatting, well sitting actually, in a derelict council flat rank with damp running down the graffiti strewn walls, and all manner of rodent and insect life scurrying about outside the small circle of light from my paraffin lamp. The flat smells strongly of urine, excrement, rotting plaster, and mildew.  So why here, you ask. Two reasons really. Firstly, this element of squalor provides a perfect metaphor for the background static that often seeps through the novels of our guest, Adam Nevill. Secondly, our budget won’t run to a nice tearoom with proper tablecloths and chintzy curtains which I was hoping for. Ahem… actually come to think of it, there’s a third reason… 

Nevill: Thanks for having me, Dead Man Talking, and welcome to my home. I'm so pleased that you seem right at home. Oh, I wouldn't sit there. Not there. No, no, no. The others wouldn't like it. They could come back at any time, and they'll know that you touched their things. And then, of course, they'll have your scent  ...

McQuade: By Jove! The only thing I smell of is pipe tobacco and kippers. Anyway, Nevill, hope you’re well and don’t have silverfish in your pockets. Let’s start with an easy question – I have a theory that computer mouse mats tend to reflect the personality of the owner. Mine for instance is tartan with a superimposed picture of Stanley Baxter. I imagine your mouse mat to have a many-tentacled Lovecraftian monster gripping a bleeding corpse between its slavering jaws. Am I even close?

Not Adam Nevill's mouse mat
Nevill: Mouse mat? My mouse mat is one of my note pads right now and has been for about half a year. I actually have no interest in pens, paper, computers, or any equipment as such. Equipment seems to be the least important thing about writing, but it isn't always and I have often paid the price for this attitude by using old and infernally slow computers that have nearly lost entire works and given me a stroke through frustration.

So my ideal mouse mat would just be functional and effective and make that mouse glide and not do that sticking thing, when you pick it up and shout "cunt" and shake it ... and then you have lost the thread of whatever it was you were writing. The current one does that all the time - the sticking - and it is a miracle that the mouse has not been smashed against the wall, or yanked out of the back of the computer, thereby damaging the computer, as most of its predecessors have been.

McQuade: By Jove! No need to flip your lid. Just as well I never asked what you think about Windows 8 (scrunches up paper and tosses over shoulder).  Now, in your novel ‘House of Small Shadows’ there was a great deal of technical detail regarding the art of Victorian taxidermy. If I killed one those greasy big rats nibbling away at that pile of mouldering newspapers over in the corner, could you, without the aid of a manual, rip its guts out and transform the bleeding carcass into a delightful pipe-smoking rodent leaning nonchalantly on a garden gate?

Nevill: No, and nor would I try. I did a lot of research into taxidermy and it was stomach turning. Also, M H Mason was a master preserver of animals and could set up a rat in sixteen hours, but most Victorian amateurs decimated this country's hedgerows in a holocaust of animal hunting and trapping so that they could make ghastly preserved creations that mostly fell to pieces or were destroyed in the sixties.  Little has survived and all of those animals died cruelly and needlessly. 

McQuade: (hastily stuffs a three-headed gerbil back into pocket and mutters) Damn, I spent ages making that too.

Nevill: Incidentally, I once lived in a neighbourhood that suffered a mouse epidemic when a huge shopping mall was built nearby, so we had to use professional exterminators who left the animals rotting under our floorboards in great number and- the smell was mephitic. The rodents came back too, and the only way I could protect us was to seal the house was by finding each and every hole and crack and slit and filling it with foam that set like cement;  the mice were actually getting inside where the radiator pipes came through the floor boards. When I realised this and filled the holes, I never saw nor heard another mouse in that house. But I had allowed exterminators to kill them in their scores and I still feel guilty. Had I gotten off my ass and worked this out (I found out about what to do from an RSPCA site), instead of just calling the landlord, no mice need have died and we wouldn't have lived with that appalling stench for months . . .  Afraid I can't stand cruelty to animals or children, which distils into the horror in that novel, I'd say.

McQuade: I hope you feel much better getting all that guilt and angst off your chest, but do please remember this is an interview and not a free therapy session. Now… Oh, hang on, we have an unwanted visitor. An old homeless women standing in the doorway eavesdropping on our conversation. Get lost you manky-arsed old besom! And no, before you ask, I haven’t got ten pence for a cup of tea. Ha! That’s seen her off. I hate these Friends-without-social-security-benefits relationships. Funnily enough, your books are frequently populated by the dregs of society. The lost tribe of the marginalised and alienated, who through drugs, drink, mental illness or just plain old back luck have slipped through the cracks in the system. Is this a deliberate attempt to raise awareness of those at the bottom of the social pecking order? Or is it because you know they give your decent, law-abiding, monthly-salaried, book-buying public the heebie-jeebies?

Nevill: That's a good question for me to think about. As a reader and a writer I know that I've always favoured stories about outsiders and misfits, the marginalised, and probably identify with them more than I identify with the successful. From a writing point of view they're often far more interesting characters too, with interesting, arresting and often appalling histories, which are immediately dramatic in fiction; they also inhabit worlds, and exist in situations, that are compromised by personality disorders, poverty, victimisation. In and by itself that creates drama and jeopardy before you even begin writing the story. I've come to Ruth Rendell's fiction very late in the day, but that seems to have been her approach too, which is odd because I always received a kind of Midsummer Murders twee English crime vibe whenever I heard her name, but the books I have read are anything but twee.

Uncompromising and extreme characters in the arts and radical sun cultures, and where those things sometimes meet, have always fascinated me and attracted me as a writer, even if the subjects are utterly misguided; hence the expressionist fascist painters, occult mystics, cult leaders, black metal Aryan folklorists, priests who have lost their faith and turned to necromancy, that inhabit my stories.  In this year's book I have focussed on a vigilante and organised criminals. There have been no princesses or billionaires, spies or knights, in my books (yet).

McQuade: I think you’re missing a trick by omitting robot killer spiders. Oh, so sorry, you weren’t finished talking, were you?

NevillI think only No One Gets Out Alive explores social issues more overtly through a character's experience, though there is no polemic which I find off-putting as a reader. As in other books, poverty and loneliness are major subjects and themes of mine. In a time of excessive economic inequality (2% of the population now posses 91% of the wealth) how could I not write about the horror of being at the bottom? I made the situation even worse by imagining a young, vulnerable woman in a terrible dilemma in which exploitation, domestic violence, rape and murder are very real daily concerns.  Though young men are most often the victims of violence, it seems calculably worse if you are a woman subjected to the same, not least because of the risk of violation. So maybe here, I have tried to imagine and to draw attention to the terrors of being young, broke, female and nearly homeless.  

McQuade: (Looks pointedly at his watch and rolls his eyes)

Nevill: I was also once poor, but by design, in my younger more foolish years, but it had a major impact on me and it's not something I can just chalk up as experience and move on from. But I had the means and advantages and connections to get out, most in that situation don't; the young less so now than ever before in my lifetime. The rules to a game they never designed have been changed around them - opportunities are much reduced and the future looks grim.  But when you're poor you think differently, you lose confidence, morale, your will is replaced by a sense of futility, you are susceptible to making poorer decisions than those you might already have made, because your judgement is impaired by desperation.  You become resentful, bitter, hostile. Poverty is a living horror with few good outcomes, and poverty can happen to anyone through a change of circumstances that you may have no control over.  So more than anything, when I turn to a subject like that, and one that I have some insight into, it has to feel authentic to me. I don't daydream about success and glamour, I tend to daydream about terrible descents into ruin and poverty or victimhood; it might be one of the reasons I write horror. 

McQuade: Your first published horror novel, ‘Banquet for the Damned’, was set in St Andrews where I honeymooned with my late wife in a leaky caravan with a plastic bucket as a toilet. Just my rotten luck to catch gastroenteritis that weekend. Any reason why, as a Brummie, you chose to set your novel in the Kingdom of Fife? Personally I wouldn’t return there if they offered me a free pair of garish golfing trousers and a life-time supply of pastel-coloured Pringle jumpers. 

Neville: I took a masters degree in creative writing from 1997 to 1998 at the university of St Andrews. And I went up there with the idea of writing an homage to M R James and the Gothic, Victorian, and Edwardian writers of the supernatural that I admired, and I had a few ideas for a story too: a forgotten counter-culture book that someone tried to turn into a concept album within an apprentice/mentor relationship. The ideas were mostly vague, but when I drove into St Andrews for the first time, one week before term started, I knew that I had found a location for the story and would set it at the university. As I progressed with the book, the town itself became a character and a representation of the medieval sinister, the eeriness of the British landscape, and of the hideousness in much of our social history - for me the town was perfect. The town just became a vehicle for the book and actually suggested as many ideas to me as I suggested to it.

McQuade: I’m told you once wrote erotic novels. Are we talking about bodice-rippers abounding with thrusting manhoods and damply yearning gussets? Or was it something worse? Like erm… involving horses, jodhpurs and small stepladders? I myself once wrote clerical-based erotic fiction for our parish magazine ‘The Steeple’ which I always thought to be a more than adequate phallic metaphor at the best of times. In fact the members of the Womens’ Guild in my parish were often referred to as Steeple-Chasers on account of the way they… sorry, drifting away from the subject here. Have I asked you a question yet? Oh, right. Erotic fiction. So was it proper stories or just sordid ghost-written fantasies for the letters page of Men Only?

Nevill: No stepladders were exploited in my books, But I wrote nine explicitly sexual erotica novels for an imprint published by W H Allen, and then Virgin Books, that were published between 1998 and 2006, and they were mainly sold in Waterstones and W H Smiths on the High Street. And I wrote them for many reasons. Mainly because, although already committed to writing, these were novels that I could strike from my imagination without much research, and that I could also use to cut my teeth with the craft of writing when I was starting out. They were great practice; they had to be between 70 and 80K words in length and have lots of sex in them, as well as a story - there were strict guidelines. And in each one I tried different narrative techniques; I even wrote one in the second person and based it on the Greek tragedies (I have no idea what readers thought); there was a vampire trilogy in there too, though more Poppy Z Brite than Stephanie Myer, and I even tried science fiction, and crime noir inspired by Daniel Woodrell. I had fun, but I took them very seriously too, cared about them as I do everything I write, and subjected them to the same criteria of quality control  that I still use today. They actually kept me going for years until my horror began to appear in print (for horror I had to wait a long time for publishing to change), but my success with erotica kept my morale high and informed me that I could get published traditionally and that I wasn't wasting my time.

I wrote Banquet' and most of Apartment 16 at the same time I wrote the erotica. My first erotica novel sold about fifteen thousand copies too, and was reprinted three times, and I hadn't told anyone that I'd written it! At that time I remember one of my parents warning me about the impossibility of becoming a successful writer and I couldn't tell them that I was off to a flying start.  It paid off my student debts and covered my tuition fees. So it was also a good second income and I had achieved my aim of becoming a professional writer. My editor at Virgin had also imagined that I was a man in my fifties, but I was in my late twenties at the time he'd said that. Another female reviewer was certain that I was a woman. I was flattered by both endorsements of voice and I was quite a young writer at the time. Another writer I know, who was once a bookseller on the Charing Cross Road,  told me a few years ago that he remembered that when my second novel came out, that they had piled it up around the tills because it was so popular. I never knew at the time.

McQuade: Any writers in particular that helped shape your literary approach to erotic fiction? Personally I found Barbara Cartland’s novel ‘The Love Pirate’ the perfect primer for my own efforts at penning a hot-action big pants bedroom scene.

Nevill: My primary influence in erotica was Anais Nin. I read her fiction around the age of thirteen and that's how I actually became acquainted with the facts of life. There was no sex education in my school. But I had been schooled in sex by Henry Miller's lover, Anais Nin, the greatest eroticist of all, and through her stories; a woman who wrote bespoke fantasies for gentlemen that were also great works of fiction. I loved her writing and her stories broadened my horizons dramatically, and also made me want to have a go at the genre when I was older.

McQuade: And to think I was once reprimanded by my church elders for suggesting a ‘Parishioners Wives’ section in ‘The Steeple’. One last question. Most writers I’m acquainted with suffer from a mild manifestation of OCD. I myself am often compelled to count all the sharp knives in the cutlery drawer. Do you have any similar quirks?

Nevill: No, fortunately. But I smoked continually when writing for years and now vape with an electronic cigarette continuously, and that may have some equivalency with O.C.D.

McQuade: Well, many thanks for your time and trouble. By Jove! That horrible homeless woman has returned and heading straight for us. Why is she opening her coat? No, love put them away, we’re not interested. Well, Nevill might be. Hang about, is that bagpipes she’s showing us? Oh hell, those aren’t bagpipes! Quick, Neville, make a run for it. It’s a Lovecraftian many-tentacled monster wanting to grip our bleeding corpses in its slavering jaws. 

Nevill: I told you not to touch her things. She'll hold me responsible.

McQuade: Better you than me. Run you fool, before she…. Oh, that looked painful. Never saw anyone bitten in half before. I'd get that seen to if I were you. 

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