Review – “Lost Girl” by Adam Nevill

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With last year’s magnificent “No One Gets Out Alive” still a raw wound in my brain, I couldn’t wait to read Adam Nevill’s latest from Pan. My anticipation was also stoked by the semi-apocalyptic setting – a personal favourite – and I found that the author has thrown everything into this violent, dystopian journey of love and obsession.

Lost Girl by Adam NevillThe world is frying on the brink of an environmental catastrophe that’s been building for years. Starvation and militia violence consumes the third world, and here in the UK, organised crime has flourished as the death toll spirals beneath soaring temperatures. People are forced to grow their own food, public services are stretched to breaking and on top of this, the country reels beneath an unprecedented refugee crisis.

Amid all this, we meet “the father” – only ever referred to by this title – whose young daughter was snatched from his garden two years ago. It’s a scene replayed on a crushing loop in his head, and the story finds him stalking the sweltering streets to gather information from paedophiles who’ve slipped through the net due to cuts in social services.

He’s helped by an anonymous telephone contact whom he assumes is some kind of frustrated child welfare officer, and his nocturnal strikes become increasingly challenging. This singular vocation in life is breaking the father’s mind, of which he’s aware, but he owes it to his daughter to never stop searching.

Despite his bitter rage and what he is forced to do, the father doesn’t initially consider himself a killer or a bad man, but his search soon leads him to clash with “King Death”. This is an enormous network of chaos-worshipping gangsters who have their fingers in everything including street crime, politics, and of course, human trafficking. They thrive on drugs, corruption, the infiltration of governments and police forces, and possess a fondness for rusty-machete beheadings.

King Death is a genuinely terrifying presence in the book. You truly get that it’s impossible to hide from them, and what awaits can only be the stuff of nightmares and snuff movies. And as they worship death, it also makes it difficult for the father to gather information. Tell a King Death child abductor that you’ll shoot him in the face if he doesn’t spill his guts, and he’ll smile, spout some morbid spirituality, and then cajole you into pulling the trigger. More extreme measures are required to crack these nuts, which is a real test of the father’s limits.

Indeed, one of the triumphs of this book is that as the father is drawn deeper into this hellish world, we wonder how far will he go. If killing becomes the norm, he risks losing not only the shreds of humanity holding him together, but also the few others he holds dear. Messing with King Death means torture and execution for him, but also for anybody else on his radar. This includes his similarly devastated wife, who stays at home during his lengthy missions, and his benevolent faceless contacts. We know he means to do whatever it takes to find his daughter, but will he, can he do it, or will compassion or hesitation be his downfall?

The father is a solid lead, and much of the enjoyment comes from watching him evolve. He’s relentlessly serious from the off, naturally, and leads a joyless existence in which he harbours guilt over his daughter’s abduction. At the time, he was busy sending an inappropriate email to a female colleague rather than watching his child play in the garden, but he regrets and acknowledges his flaws and the consequences. I like his hesitation and reflection, and his humanity, which is one of few beacons of hope that stop this whole reading experience from becoming too bleak. The recollections of his daughter’s abduction are shattering to read, which helps ensure our investment despite his slowly capsizing psyche. And while he may be becoming unstitched, which is perfectly understandable, will he become a monster himself?

“I will reduce them to ash.” The last sentence seemed to emerge from a recently discovered pit inside himself, and it was as if his conscious mind could not catch such utterances from this pit before they left his mouth.

Superb stuff, and it’s paragraphs like this that make us forget it’s just a very ordinary bloke saying and doing all of this, or certainly someone who was normal – and just one of us – a couple of years ago.

I love the world Adam Nevill has created for this ugliest of quests. The state of the country actually helps the father, and his early vigilante-esque encounters are barely investigated by the strained authorities. The heat and fear also conspire to keep people indoors and loathe to intervene. It’s a convincing global meltdown, and I actually think it lightens the tone of the novel as a whole. I’m not sure if this is deliberate, but as the main storyline is so grim, it may have been too harrowing with a standard contemporary setting. It might even have eclipsed the pitch blackness of “No One Gets Out Alive”. The apocalypse dilutes the nastiness with an sf tone that takes all this piled-on horror just far enough away from our own lives so that we can enjoy it. And it’s an outstanding story that deserves to be enjoyed, not just endured.

The pace is punchy with truly breathless moments, and it deftly hops from one important scene to another without any cumbersome bridges or links. For me, it only lagged once during a lengthy religious rant by a King Death acolyte. I got that it was all part of conveying the deranged lore of the cult, and the father’s frustration with it, but I was relieved when that particular drug-addled psychopath finally put a sock in it. Apart from that, I found it a refreshingly seamless read.

Like any abduction tale, “Lost Girl” harbours the question of whether the search will meet success. With a transient population, refugee saturation, kidnapping and trafficking on vast international levels, the needle in a haystack metaphor doesn’t even begin to cover it. Not to mention how to shake off King Death when (or if) the father is done. Surely such an average man shouldn’t get anywhere near his goal? Of course I’m not going to give any clues either way, but I found the finale very satisfying with a few pleasing surprises along the way.

This novel is faultless with regard to writing and evocation, and while Adam Nevill understands the power of explicit violence, he’s also master of the unseen shudder. For example, he cajoles the horror reader’s imagination into creating a snapshot of hell that might be the abducted girl’s existence, leaving us to chill ourselves without giving any actual details. Along with the father’s transformation, this element also shows how quality horror writing doesn’t devalue life, as its decriers would have us believe, but quite the opposite.

I couldn’t put “Lost Girl” down. There’s something for anyone who likes their books to grab them by the lapels, and plenty of layers to keep your subconscious busy. It’s a thriller if you want to take it that way, and also a mirror for our times with the pandemics, global warming and refugee crisis. But deep down, it’s an intense and extraordinary tale of human endeavour with a moral core that never completely loses its sense of hope, no matter how low the lights are turned down.

Hell’s waiting for you. Enjoy.

Review – “No One Gets Out Alive” by Adam Nevill

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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.

No One Gets Out AliveAfter 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.

Highly recommended.