Turning back to black

Yet another maundering on horror fiction, this time occasioned by my finishing the first horror novel in years that I’d say, on balance, I both enjoyed and found mostly successful. The book in question was Adam Nevill’s award-winning, The Ritual, and…yeah, interesting. I’m not going to go into a whole of detail here, but will touch on some of the book’s themes in a slightly spoilerish way, so if you want to read the book without a clue what’s coming next, it’s probably best if you stop reading now.

What I liked about The Ritual was that it managed to address both of my points of dissatisfaction with modern horror: 1/ a lack of genuine tension and 2/ a dearth of imagination when it comes to the fantastical elements – the monsters. The only trouble for me was that it dealt with one of these aspects in each of the two very different halves of the book.

The first half, in which a quartet of friends get first lost and then hunted in ancient Swedish forest, is all about the build up of tension: proper, page-turning, read-through-the-night-to-see-what-happens-next-stuff, but there’s nothing at all new in it. It’s a classic scenario, well played and excellently evoked in the palette of the modern horror film (grim, grey, trees, rain, lots of shouting), but in the end that’s all it is.

And maybe that’s all it needs to be to bring us to the point where part two can start, which sees the hero rescued, after a fashion, and becoming the “guest” of, um… Bad News. Sorry, but it’s pretty much impossible to convince me that a metal band (even a black…especially a black metal band…with Scandanavian accents…actually what we’re talking here is Strijka (number one rock band in Oslo, for now and for all time)) is scary. So the only recourse was to find them funny. And there went the tension. What the second half did have however was the revelation of the horrific mythology underlying the whole thing. And even if was a riff on the Lovecraft’s Shug-Niggurath, it was a very good riff and one that was new to me.

So, all in all I enjoyed the book. It had tension and invention, and that’s all I ask. Maybe I’m slowly turning back to the dark side after all.

4 thoughts on “Turning back to black

  1. Ooh! I’ve been wanting to write about this but once again you’ve beaten me to it.

    When I started it, I was really taken in by the initial mythological idea and the weird imagery but was uncertain about where it was going–it was, as you say, page turning but nothing new. What impressed me about it was the way in which Nevill delved into pain and grief and loss.

    The black metal band worked for me because I thought the point of it was that it WAS so absurd–this is it, this is how you die, at the hands of idiots who have no idea of the power they’re trying to harness. These are people you should be able to laugh at, and yet when you’re totally in their power it doesn’t matter that they’re morons–you’re still at their whim. That’s more horrifying to me in many ways than if they’d actually been, you know, competent. I thought it fit in with the way the novel grappled in an essential way with the absurdity of the universe. If only we’d taken a different path. Etc.

    I actually have more to say about that bit but I’ll save it for when I get round to writing my own post!

    1. You speak a lot of sense, Lynda. Especially when you talk about the unfairness, the outrage, of dying at the hands of such ludicrous people – I thought Nevill brought that across well, actually, but for every now and again I thought of Bad News or Spinal Tap and it all just collapsed for me (which probably says more about me as a teenage metal fan than it does about the book). And I agree about the strength of the theme of never knowing where your choices in life are going to lead you.

      On the subject of grief and loss, I think I actually wanted more. More delving. When the action moved into the second half I thought there was an opportunity to learn a lot more about Luke, but there wasn’t anything particularly forthcoming. I dunno what I was hoping for, but I just felt it was an opportunity slightly missed. But this is nitpick territory now, it’s a very enjoyable novel.

      Looking forward to reading your thoughts.

      1. Hahaha! Oh, man. Yeah, I can see where that would be a problem. I am actually relieved, now that you mention it, that neither Bad News nor Spinal Tap actually crossed my mind while I was reading it–I kept thinking of Varg Vikernes and the church burnings in Norway in the 90s and even Anders Breivik (and yeah, I know–all Norway, not Sweden, but it’s the Scandanavian forest and those dark myths).

        I was actually surprised and impressed that bit worked for me because it’s the kind of thing that feels really contrived for me in many other novels–throw in a ‘human evil’ to ratchet up the tension. So I do find it interesting that it was less successful for you.

      2. Like I say, it probably says more about me. I grew up listening to Iron Maiden and the like at a time when there were still “parental concerns” (not my parents, but generally) over the effect that horror imagery might have on kids, so the idea that anyone actually *could* take all that bollocks seriously is … far fetched for me. 😀

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