Adam Nevill writes a mean “haunted house” story, as demonstrated by last year’s “House of Small Shadows”. His brilliant new novel from Pan builds on that foundation (sorry) and combines ugly violence with spooky chills for an engrossing read that sits in your psyche long after reading.
After a failed relationship and a grim family circumstance in Stoke, Stephanie Booth is making a new start. Strapped for cash and temping in central Birmingham, she rents a cheap room in what is advertised as “girls-only” accommodation on the rough side of town. But she soon realises that her house-sharing dream of chatting with similar young women over a communal stir fry and a bottle of wine is pretty far from reality. The neglected and cold house at 82 Edgehill Road seems strangely deserted, despite the creepy noises that emerge from beneath grimy beds and behind fireplaces, not to mention the silent figures that seem to stalk the corridors and bedrooms during the night.
But the danger also comes from a tangible presence in the form of her landlord, Knacker McGuire. An odious fashion-hooligan whose disturbing behaviour sets Steph on edge from the moment she moves in, he is determined to talk her out of leaving, and we know his intentions can be nothing but nefarious. When his even more unpleasant cousin Fergal turns up, Steph’s life soon descends into nightmare.
This novel dives straight in. I enjoyed the single point of view that immerses us into Steph’s plight and the slow-burning menace that pervades every chapter from the outset. There’s a Rosemary’s Baby feel of having nowhere to turn, and Steph seems trapped even when she could still physically leave. We are teased by her resolve to escape and also by the potential for outside help in the form of her old friends and ex-boyfriend back in Stoke. When she does briefly leave the house for work or other errands, our relief is palpable, but she keeps getting drawn back into its baleful atmosphere through no fault of her own. It’s to the author’s credit that this requires no suspension of disbelief and it’s a horribly believable pickle in which Steph finds herself.
All this would only work with a stout protagonist, and Steph is a perfectly investable character. She’s sensible, likeable, and possesses an inner strength that is soon tested to the max. Her fear is so real that it makes us want to intervene, especially when she’s being bullied by her landlord.
Regarding the other characters, Knacker Macguire is an obnoxious and unpredictable liar. In fact, he’s so devoid of positive personality traits that you might think he would be a bland cliche, but far from it. As Steph describes: “It was the kind of face that nutted and spat and bit; she recognised it from around the bad pubs in Stoke.” He’s the epitome of every sneering bully you’ve seen causing trouble after a beer, and only the arrival of his cousin manages to relegate him to being a secondary concern. Fergal brings a terrifying physical presence and an even bigger cruel streak than Knacker, but without any of the hesitation or insecurity. This makes him a truly vile presence, and the dynamic between the two men is an awkward and depressing phenomenon itself.
The author is an astute observer of the human condition which comes across through nuances of behaviour and faultless dialogue. This adds a grounded realism regardless of what strange occurrences may also be in progress.
Which brings us to the haunted house element. Is the house inhabited by spirits? Or are the spine-chilling nocturnal disturbances trickery on the part of the landlord? Or maybe it’s Steph’s own sanity that’s on the road to ruin. It keeps us guessing, and even as someone not usually impressed by the suggestion of the supernatural, it thoroughly creeped me out.
I love it that the house itself is a presence, almost fulfilling the role of an abusive partner, drawing Steph back for more torment and knowing she has no choice and nowhere else to go. As you read, 82 Edgehill Road also takes on the macabre aura of infamous addresses belonging to real-life serial killers.
Despite its dalliance with classic spookiness, this book is not for the sensitive. The jeopardy becomes truly unpleasant, and the often-misogynistic abuse delivered by Knacker and Fergal is pitch black, even when purely psychological. It also doesn’t hold back with the violence. The author understands the use of sound, and also utilises Steph’s unwavering point of view for scenes that can sicken even when off-camera. An example is this moment when she witnesses a man receiving a beating at Fergal’s hands:
“Even though Stephanie had turned her head away, a sound followed her, a noise similar to a large metal spoon repeatedly striking an open crate of eggs until they were all smashed to liquid.”
The bleakness is tempered by rewarding moments such as brief shifts in the balance of power that put me in mind of Susan Hill’s “I’m the King of the Castle”. We get a few surprises, superb use of the book’s ominous title, and just when you think it can’t sustain the spiral into hell for the whole novel, there’s a satisfying change of direction about two thirds of the way through. It’s unexpected and works perfectly to maintain the threat while keeping it all feeling fresh.
Being picky, my only complaint would be the occasional dreams. They’re well written and serve a purpose, but I found myself restless for a return to the real action. However, as I’m generally allergic to dream sequences in fiction, this may be more of a personal preference than a true criticism.
“No One Gets Out Alive” is a longish novel, but has the keen bite and ease of reading that one normally finds in something half this length. Creaking with desolate mood and menace, it nails its characters and settings through elegant turns of phrase and the intensity can be quite breathless at times. I was gripped by the descent as it kept peeling back its wounds and revealing more darkness, right up until the under-your-skin conclusion.
An intelligent slab of carefully-crafted terror, it made me feel somehow infected as though the malevolent forces at work had somehow leaked from the pages. Although as a reader of this book you actually get out alive, the scars might take some time to heal.