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Underground Reading: Apartment 16 by Adam Nevill

Apartment 16After the exotic locations (also, Leeds) in the horror I've been reading recently, there's a certain grim comfort to be had from finding that urban London can still be terrifying place. Even, as Adam Nevill's Apartment 16 demonstrates, the really posh parts. Previously, the scariest thing in Knightsbridge was that statue of Diana in the basement of Harrods, but even the Princess' gilded countenance must take a distant second to the corroded decadence of Barrington House.

Apartment 16 follows two different characters as they explore the secrets of the luxurious old building. The first is Seth, the building's night watchman. The job is ostensibly perfect for Seth. His own lodging is a vile bedsit in a decrepit pub, so the long hours aren't painful. Plus, as a former art student, Seth hopes to get some sketching done during his nights on duty.

Of course, this is horror - it never really works that way. Seth's not only wrestling with artist's block, but also his theoretically quiet nights on duty are frequently interrupted by strange and inexplicable things. Bumps. Sounds. Ill winds. Dark and flickering figures. All emanating from the titular apartment - a flat that's been empty for almost fifty years.

The other character plagued by the abandoned apartment is Apryl, a stylish young American. She's surprised to learn that she's the heir to a "long lost" great-aunt's flat (also in Barrington House) and her possessions. Apryl flies over to do a bit of speculative looting and finds a cobwebbed hoard of treasures worthy of Miss Havisham. Apryl also learns that her deceased relative was a little bonkers - prone to wandering around the neighbourhood with her expired passport, avoiding the sight of mirrors, and, perhaps most importantly of all, scribbling hundreds of pages of nonsense in her journals. 

Seth and Apryl take baby steps towards apartment 16 from different directions. Seth's investigations are more physical - actually sneaking into the abandoned apartment. Appropriately, his results are tangible. His dreams are haunted by strange characters and horrible visions; ones that slowly spill over into reality. For almost the entirety of Apartment 16, Seth is feverish and weak. The malevolent forces in Barrington House are assaulting him in harsh and material ways, grinding down his stamina and his will with occult radiation.

Apryl's investigations are more introspective. Unlike Seth, Apryl isn't trying to determine the source of physical phenomena - she's trying to learn more about her aunt and the people around her. While Seth is curious about the apartment itself, Apryl is focused on the people involved. 

The supernatural forces respond to Apryl in more subtle ways. Like Seth, Apryl sees glimpses of things - eerie, pallid figures in corners and reflections. Unlike Seth, Apryl doesn't suffer any physical impairment. She approaches her great-aunt's journals in a doggedly pragmatic fashion. She interviews the neighbours, does research at the library, uses the Internet (!) and takes copious notes. In short, Apryl's utterly sensible - the sort of character you'd never find in a horror movie. 

Their parallel adventures unfold with awful inevitability of an hourglass. As the two characters begin to brush up against one another, the tension mounts. Cursed with a certain omniscience, the reader sees the novel's devastating climax long before Seth and Apryl do.

In the The Ritual, Mr. Nevill combines two types of horror - the atmospheric and the cinematic. In Apartment 16, he does the same, but this time running them concurrently instead of consecutively. Seth is surrounded by a whirling vortex of supernatural forces: dark rituals, faceless demons, wailing sounds, gnashing of teeth, freezing winds and screaming portals. Mr. Nevill flings him into the unstable world of a Lovecraftian short story... and then maintains it for hundreds of pages. This lavish madness is offset by the meticulously constructed disquiet of Apryl's misadventures. Whereas Seth wrestles with bloated Boschian entities, Apryl has unsettling evenings with badly dressed academics. Seth's demons have fangs and mucous trails; Apryl's have stained jackets and poor dental hygiene.

The pairing works well. Apryl grounds the reader and helps unfold the backstory in a character-driven way. Even if she's not being overtly pursued by eldritch entities, she bumps into enough nastiness to keep the reader twitchy. Similarly, the near-mundanity of her story keeps Seth's tale from spiralling entirely out of control. Unmitigated madness would've gotten old very quickly. Apryl serves as a reminder of what Seth's losing. In turn, Seth epitomizes what's at stake - not only for them, but for everyone.

There are a few moments where the duet hits a sour note - Apryl occasionally degenerates into a passive info-drip and Seth a burbling stream of poetic gibberish. However, these missteps are few and far between. There's also an unlikely third character that surfaces at the end of the book purely to give a Goldfingerian recitation of the plot-to-date. Apartment 16 channels many of the elegant touches and devious tropes of the early 20th Century horror masters; the unfortunate monologuing, however, is also something that stems from this era, and should've been left behind with it. However, Mr. Nevill does - wisely - keep from trying to explain the Inexplicable(tm) supernatural, Mephistophelian eeeevil behind the scenes. Some things are best left to the imagination, and Mr. Nevill knows it.

Those quibbles aside, there's no question that Apartment 16 works. It scared the bejeezus out of me. Fear isn't merely the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind, it is also the most personal. From the flickering almost-shadows to the ghastly, filthy paintings to the cackling, squirming cast to Weird and alien entities to the piles of magnificently unsettling clutter, I found every touch in Apartment 16 to be utterly chilling. I won't thank Mr. Nevill for the sleepless nights, but I enjoyed the book that caused them.