There’s an affinity between horror and the avant-garde. From the visceral dystopian visions found in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, to the gothic-infused surrealism of films like Jane Arden’s The Other Side of Underneath and Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess, and even to David Lynch’s projects over multiple mediums, experiments in form frequently amplify the nightmarish aspects of horror (both horror as a genre and horror as an emotion). Adam L.G. Nevill’s recent collection of stories entitled Wyrd and Other Derelictions is part of that avant-garde horror tradition.
The tales are premised on an intriguing thought experiment: what if a weird narrative was told simply through its aftermath and ruins? Instead of characters, context, backstory, motivation, etc. – the building blocks of most fiction, horror or otherwise – what if a story was instead related through description alone? In Nevill’s collection, there are no characters, but there are corpses, and there is no authorial explanation/context for the scenes that we encounter – only vividly written accounts of the scenes itself. If mystery novels tend to be best before the identity of the murderer is revealed, I would argue a great deal of horror is best before the otherworldly elements are given explanations. One of the striking aspects of Nevill’s weird fiction is how he removes any promise of explanation. The weird remains unapologetically so.
Nevill is probably best known for his 2011 novel The Ritual, which was turned into a film in 2017. The Ritual is in the folk horror vein, and Wyrd in some ways follows suit, with several of the stories evoking a sense of grisly ritual and eldritch presences. In “Enlived,” one of my favourite stories in the collection, we begin with the image of a seemingly ancient stone column located in an underground space, and as the language draws us from the carvings on the menhir to the larger scene, it becomes clear a violent and unsettling ceremony has taken place. Within this subterranean site “an aroma wafts and lingers in heavy air. An ecclesiastical flavour, mingling with the mineral scent of damp stone. Something has been sprinkled, consecrating the crude rock. Frankincense, a sweet piney resin. Vetiver, a twist of citron. And something more pungent, like almonds.” Shortly thereafter two bowls containing the unsettling offerings of the ritual are detailed. The atmosphere mixes folk horror facets (the cryptic carvings on the stone) with Symbolist undertones (the musky incense, the weak candlelight). It’s as if Gustav Moreau were painting film stills from The Blood on Satan’s Claw. As the paragraphs continue, we encounter, upstairs, the grotesque reckoning brought about by whatever entity was called forth from the ceremony.
Other stories in the collection generate their unease by placing the weird within a large (and indifferent) natural landscape. “Turning the Tide,” opens with a beach, a cove haunted by its absences. “No one sits and looks out,” Nevill writes. “No dogs mad with glee dart into the water…No towels, no sun umbrellas, no beach toys.” As with all of the stories, the ghostly narrator takes their time widening the scope of the imagery, almost like a camera carefully panning backwards, or a painting being created in real time, as we watch. After briefly surveying the wind-swept terrain surrounding the cove, we come upon evidence of some recent devastation: a ringing cellphone with a police message on the screen, long drag marks in the sand “as if fingers have tried to cling to a loose surface to slow a passage to or from the sea, or to or from the fringe of the woods.” By starting with the wider landscape, Nevill creates a mood of calmness and quiet, and it’s not so much that the scenes of the weird stand in contrast with that mood as it is that the weird appears to rise out from within it.
As forensic as these story-experiments might sound, the language throughout is constantly charged and surprising – and by no means a simple recitation of images. In the title story “Wyrd,” Nevill writes, “The beach is the color of cold chisels in half-lit workshops. Only sopping wigs of brown seaweed crowning the larger boulders offer any tonal variety.” The metaphors here (the workshop chisels, the seaweed wigs “crowning” the boulders) suggest a human world even as that world has been emptied out, and adds even further depth to the uncanny atmosphere. And throughout the book, all of the senses are involved in building the scenes, not just sight. In the same story, we’re told, “Merely observing this shoreline fills a mind with scent memories: briny shallows, fishy pools of trapped stagnant water, scouring sprays that burn the top of a nose with salt. Old rope. Wet stone. Damp.”
The issue of language also brings up the question of point of view. If these stories are so absent of literary characters, who is sharing these tales? Nevill could have gone for a neutral third person voice, but that would imply a God-like omniscience not really in keeping with the work. Instead, he has what he calls in the afterward a “thin narrator.” We are guided through these scenes image by image, step by step. And yet sometimes this voice seems like the voice inside our own head, as if the stories were edging toward second person even without the use of “you.” In the first line of “Hold the World in My Arms for Three Days and All Will Be Changed,” we’re told, “Observable from the window of this cottage is a moon stained the red of a white pebble inside a glass of red wine.” As a reader, we’re here in “this” cottage, looking out from a specific window. And no pronoun is used. Elsewhere in the story, as we go through the vacant town with its unworldly weather and light, we’re told, “Walk, walk, walk. More of this.” The continual slippage and tension between the “thin narrator” and second person is a subtle dynamic within the collection and adds to the spectral quality. The voice taking us through these derelictions might be our own.
Rightly or wrongly, “experimental fiction” sometimes has a negative ring for some readers, implying a type of writing style that is thinly conceptual, or dryly scholastic. This might be true in some cases, but experimental fiction can also move in the opposite direction, bringing to light experiences and thought-patterns often kept on the fringes of perception.
Experimental fiction can be a fever dream and the furthest thing from an academic exercise. In Wyrd and Other Derelictions, Nevill takes a slice of experience I imagine many of us have had when we’re walking alone down a deserted street, or hiking along a trail where no one else is around, and expands it, turning that moment of isolation and silence into something rich and strange. Beaches, small lake-hugging towns, a ship on a turbulent sea – in this collection, such places become haunted by the life recently lived there, and we’re left with the unanswerable mystery of how this absence came to be.
Wyrd and Other Derelictions by Adam L.G. Nevill is published by Ritual Limited.