In this writer’s opinion, British author Adam Nevill is one of the more exciting voices in horror literature today. His style, particularly with regard to Apartment 16, a novel published in 2010, is similar to early Clive Barker, and some descriptions in particular in this offering had me wondering (albeit not seriously) if I were actually reading a lost Book of Blood.
Apryl (horrible spelling) has come to London unexpectedly. She and her mother have learned they have inherited an apartment owned by a late aunt with whom they had never had any contact previously. The apartment is one of many inside Barrington House, which is prime real estate in the London housing market. The occupants, most of them, have been living there for decades, Apryl’s Aunt Lillian among them.
Once Apryl is shown Aunt Lillian’s apartment, she immediately feels a kinship with this woman she had never met. The apartment is appointed such that it appears within its walls the 50s never ended. Apryl is drawn to Lillian’s classic wardrobe from days long gone. But she is also disturbed by the way it appeared her aunt had been living. The apartment is a hoarder’s heaven (or hell) and has not been well maintained. The decor is drab. Strangely, there are no mirrors in the apartment, either.
For the majority of the novel, Nevill divides the points of view between Apryl and Seth, a night porter at Barrington House, who, strangely, was hired in large part because he was an artist. Seth is a struggling one, an artist trying to make clear his vision. He is alone and lives in a cramped studio above a local bar.
As Apryl prepares her aunt’s apartment for sale, she discovers a collection of journals. In them, Apryl learns of the death of her uncle Reginald and Lillian’s slow crawl into madness. She also learns of a man, another artist, named Felix Hessen who moved into Barrington House sometime in the 1950s. Through her aunt’s journals, Apryl learns Lillian was no fan of Hessen and that something tragic happened while Hessen occupied Apartment 16. Apryl learns, also, that her aunt had been trying to flee Barrington House and London for all her remaining days, only to make it as far as a single block in any direction before succumbing to some debilitatingly sudden ailment and form of dementia, forcing her to return to her rooms at Barrington House.
Seth hears noises coming from Apartment 16 during one of his nightly sojourns through the building to ensure nothing is amiss. He becomes drawn repeatedly to 16 and attracts the attention of the apparition of a young boy who, at first, remains a specter in the background of Seth’s daily activities. Soon, though, the boy speaks to Seth directly, seeming to guide him, shepherd him, toward some yet unnamed, mysterious destiny. Seth begins to see the world and its inhabitants as grim wastes and hideous creatures with faces drawn by some insanely twisted creator.
Once Seth finally enters Apartment 16, the true measure of the evil within and without becomes indelibly stamped on his soul. He will be a great artist with a hauntingly unique vision. But at what cost to him? At what cost to others?
Without a doubt, Neville’s novel is impeccably written. His descriptions of Seth’s visions and of the various artworks central to the narrative harken to the powerfully dark erotica for which Clive Barker was famous in his earlier writings. Landscapes and figures described within these visions and artworks are at once both Barker-esque and quite Lovecraftian. These are the strongest, most interesting, and engaging elements of the novel. As is the mystery surrounding Felix Hessen and the freakish cult to grow from seeds sown from the artist’s sudden unexplained disappearance from the world and his fascination with Fascism and Germany’s Third Reich.
There are major faults with the novel, and they are major without necessarily detracting from a certain enjoyment of what Nevill has written; faults that reduce a great novel to merely a good one. Apartment 16 is one of those rare instances where, if it existed, too much may have been cut from the novel in the editing process. Namely, the reader isn’t offered a clear sense of who the characters are. They are largely defined by the unique quirks they have. But there are backstories here worth exploring that would have provided the novel with some much-welcomed depth and weight. Instead, it exists as a relatively static moment in time (save for Lillian’s journal excerpts, which do fill in a bit around the edges). However, I felt myself wanting to know more about these characters. From where did they come? What specifically brought them all together at Barrington House at this moment in time? Hessen’s character could have been explored in greater depth; he is an enigma, a mystery, without being an actual flesh and blood character. It is possible to create characters without writing from their perspectives, using others’ perceptions and experiences of them, but Neville, here, doesn’t quite accomplish this. I wanted to know who Hessen was; there were nuances hinted at that never quite hit home. And who was Stephen, the head porter, in relationship to all of the goings-on at Barrington House? There is a deeper mystery there, but it is presented as a disjointed afterthought. And then there is the hooded boy, whose origin and ultimate fate simply didn’t mesh for me. Finally, Seth and Apryl are characters that beg for the dignity of flesh on bare bones.
Don’t get me wrong. Apartment 16 is still better than many horror novels out there. Sadly, it doesn’t impact the reader as fully as do some of Neville’s other novels (The Ritual, Last Days). Apartment 16 is Nevill’s second published novel. Perhaps it is simply an example of that mythical sophomore slump said to plague many artists.