Approaching that spookiest of holidays at the end of the month, we tracked down British Fantasy award winning novelist Adam Nevill, author of Banquet of the Damned, Apartment 16, The Ritual and Last Days to ask him what makes him afraid of the dark . . .
Last Days concerns a cult leader who has connections to the occult – where did you get your inspiration for this character and how much research did you have to do into the cult mentality?
The Temple of the Last Days and its leader, Sister Katherine, are an amalgam of fanatical religious cults from the 16th century and cults from the twentieth century. I wanted to create a modern cult, but with the stylings and imagery of the 1500s, not the 1960s.
Actual 16th century Anabaptists and Waldensian leaders like Thomas Münzer, and the many other visionary heretics documented in Professor Norman Cohn’s fascinating history of millennial cults (The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages), gave me a basis for my own cult history, re-imagined as a kind of Pieter Bruegel painting. There actually was a Sister Katherine too, 400 years ago. The actual histories of subversive religious movements, predominantly started by common people (including one crusade of children), helped me form the background to the Blood Friends, and the Temple of the Last Day’s origins in Europe.
From the sixties and seventies period, Sister Katherine and her Temple were also inspired by what I had read about Mary Anne MacLean, the only female leader of the main sixties cults, who led the mysterious and enigmatic Process Church of the Final Judgment until its end. She was a scientologist, as was Charles Manson. The reading about sixties and seventies hippy cults and fanatical faith movements, came way before I wrote the novel. I’d been fascinated by the counter culture figures of the sixties for some time, and had been reading about Manson and his entourage, and their lives in Los Angeles, for years. Jim Jones was also a ghastly sociopath, who came later, but he too was an inspiration for the Temple of the Last Days. So there are bits of Jones, Manson, The Process, and even the Mormons and scientologists in the cult and in its leader.
Finally, my own first hand experience of sociopaths provided an inspiration I’d have happy to have been without.
Many of your readers claim your novels leave them too scared to turn the lights off after reading – how, as a writer, do you cultivate that level of fear?
It’s immensely satisfying to hear that over and over again. To actually affect a reader’s imagination powerfully enough to frighten them can only be flattering to a writer who writes about terrible situations and ghastly unnatural things. I had a number of readers write to me after my first novel was published, to tell me I had caused vivid night terrors, in which they awoke to find someone in their bedrooms.
I shudder when people tell me they read to pass the time, or to fall asleep. What! Are books not a purpose in life for you? Reading books that matter and trying to write them too, has been the purpose of my whole adult life, so I am very demanding about what I read and write.
And fear is the USP of horror, though I do wish the field and its cinematic wing was judged by other attributes, and not just a visceral emotional or psychological reaction. Because there can be so much more to horror. But I don’t think that will ever change.
I also write about what frightens me, and what terrified me as a child. It’s important to be in touch with your fear as a writer of disturbing things, no matter what your beliefs encompass. And I rewrite and rewrite and approach descriptive writing like poetry to try and get it working on a multi-sensory level. I also try and keep the descriptions of the uncanny ultimately simple, but suggestive. Somehow they become more vivid that way, and suggest that these unnatural things could actually exist. It can take a long time, as does the creation of a world within the novel, and situations in which the supernatural feels plausible to the reader; that is very important.
It’s odd, but sometimes I get so deeply into my zone, ideas and phrases almost feel like they’re being transcribed to me. Consciousness is a truly wonderful thing.
Some of your main characters can be morally ambiguous – what do you enjoy most about writing that sort of character rather than the all-round heroic type?
I have to create characters that feel authentic to me, with realistic flaws, motivations, and responses to situations: their psychology has to work. If they do work then it is immensely satisfying to have achieved that goal. I don’t deal with wishful thinking in characters. Maybe most readers prefer heroes in genre fiction; Sebastian Faulks seems to think so, while literary writers tend to deal with split psyches and divided selves, the post-modern individual. If he’s right, then I prefer to use post-modern characters within popular fiction genre novels. But that’s nothing new in horror, look at Poe and Stevenson and Campbell and Ligotti and Aickman and Harrison and Highsmith; they were all doing it a long time before me. If someone appears normal and completely well balanced, I can only wonder at their self discipline or total absence of imagination.
I also don’t really have to research or make characters up either; those I use are usually waiting for me. And I think most people are actually damaged to some degree, and dysfunctional too. So if there’s one thing I can’t bare, it’s self-delusion and self-aggrandizement through a writer’s characterisation.
Each of your novels are very different in style – do you have a favourite of them and why?
It may sound phony, but I do like each of them equally because they’ve all achieved a major imaginative goal for me. They each aspire to achieve different and ambitious things. For me, they were all monumental undertakings too, that pushed my energy and craft to the limit.
What I do scratch around for, and sometimes for a long time at the beginning of a book, is the right way to write it: the voice, the syntax, the POV, the balance of description to everything else. Each book so far may have similarities, but they are all sufficiently unique too, in the way that they are written. I used to worry that I still hadn’t found my voice as a writer, and was just trying different things out with each book, but I’ve come to realise that the actual stories demanded a certain style from me in order for the stories to work. And that is the most terrifying thing about writing a novel – there are so many different ways to write a particular story, but only one of them will be perfect.
The Ritual is the most obvious example of this – the writing had to replicate a convincing consciousness stripped down by exhaustion and a desire to survive. Each page had to seem to be a matter of life and death for the characters, to be tense with that enormous crisis, and it all had to be “in the now”. I wanted it to feel cinematic too, and be in the idiom of a thriller. It was, at times, harrowing for me to write. There is a scene in that book that made me believe I had damaged myself by imagining it so vividly.
Apartment 16 I started over with a few times, because I wasn’t happy with how I had written it, and I changed how it was written repeatedly. I have seventeen versions of the book. That book and its contents are schizophrenic, but it does have an unusual force because it went through that intense process. It’s so special to me because it was my outsider novel – my own version of those great cult outsider novels that made me want to be a writer in the first place.
Last Days had to encompass an enormous amount of information within an epic story – a criminal case, a film shoot, an actual history of a religious group, an occult mystery story, with a big pivotal reveal, but all within eleven days across many countries: it probably has the most conventional narrative style, and needed it too, to hold that many disparate elements together. I played that one with a really straight bat.
House of Small Shadows really dredges the depths of British childhood terror and the British grotesque in certain historical periods, and I sense a connection between the two in my own childhood. It’s also my first attempt at what I would call folk horror, in that it conveys a kind of British ancestral memory inside it.
Each book has to be transporting to me above all else too, and not just function as an entertaining story. If it’s not underwritten with something enigmatically strange, that a reader can tap into at an imaginative level and be affected by, then I’d consider the book a failure. So far they all have this peculiar force and energy within them, at least for some.
And lastly, a Halloween question for you – what makes you afraid?
Pin your ears back, we may be sometime on this one . . . anything happening to my daughter, random violence, house fires, losing control, old wicker baskets and leather trunks, realising I don’t have the energy to swim back to the shore, any height above one storey (I get vertigo looking up at tall buildings), busy roads, flying, climate change, normalised injustice, the overwhelming sense at times that I am cursed, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, incapacity, children’s television from the 1970s, Christian relics, ordinary sociopaths, the very idea of the universe and its slow entropy, the future . . .