Despite being a county rich in sinister supernatural folklore, Devon is often overlooked by horror writers in favour of its next-door neighbour Cornwall. However, Adam Nevill is here to change all that with his latest novel, The Reddening. Nevill’s renown as a novelist is such that Goodreads and other sites are already groaning with reviews of the book – his first self-published novel – but when has lack of necessity or demand stopped me from putting my oar in?
The subject matter of The Reddening couldn’t be hipper right now. Journalist Kat has crawled away from the wreckage of her career as a big city journalist to the south coast of Devon, where she has taken a less stressful job writing for a posh lifestyle magazine and consoled herself by taking up with a (slightly) Younger Man, the ambitious photographer Steve. But when a deserted stretch of local coastline is revealed as the site of a pre-historic cannibal cult of vast extent and savagery, it falls to a disturbed Kat to report on the archaeological feeding frenzy the discovery inspires. Fast forward several years later, and one of Kat’s old interviewees, a hang-gliding enthusiast who was the first to spot the now world-famous site from the air, is muttering darkly about harassment, murder and drug dealing on that same stretch of coast. He claims that he is being stalked by sinister “red folk” who want him dead, a claim that Kat fails to take seriously until he duly vanishes. When single mother Helen bowls up in the area searching for traces of her younger brother Lionel, who committed suicide not long after holidaying nearby and making some very odd sound recordings around the “Cannibal Coast”, a chance meeting between the two women and Steve sparks off a series of horrifying events as they attempt to get to the bottom of it all.
One of the most immediately noticeable things about this novel is the change in style from Nevill’s other works. Although previous books like The Ritual and Last Days have the strengths of a fast-paced modern action novel and can be cosmic in scope, the methods he uses to evoke horror have often struck me as predominantly Jamesian (that’s M.R., not Henry, thank God), demonstrating a gift for brevity, understatement and wry humour. The Reddening is different. Although there are definitely some scenes where use is made of hints and oblique angles to slowly conjure a brooding sense of horror (Kat’s interview with the hang-glider is particularly effective in this respect), elsewhere Nevill lets rip with some very highly-coloured, sturm-und-drang language. This kind of thing isn’t my bag, and I occasionally found my attention drifting as a result, though arguably the style is a good fit for the subject matter (there are several scenes of the red folk’s rituals which, if made into a film, would owe a lot more to Ruggero Deodato than Lawrence Gordon Clarke!)
Having said that, this is still an unusually readable book that belts along well, with good pacing throughout and a long stretch in the middle that is properly nail-biting, as Kat and Helen both have to grapple with two different sets of enemies – one lot at sea, the other on land – and here the economy of style is faultless. Characterization is also good, particularly Kat and her relationship with her past life, her present assailants and the kind-of-awful but not completely terrible Steve. I enjoyed her character development a lot, with its oddly redemptive and feminist outcome (the way women deal with the anger that they’re never supposed to feel or display is another preoccupation of the novel.) Nevill is also good at bullies, something that was spectacularly showcased in No-One Gets Out Alive but also comes in handy here. Some of his minor characters really give Phil Rickman a run for his money in the detestability stakes.
Fans of field recording and found-sound in music should also enjoy the details of Lionel’s ventures into the caves around Divilmouth, and there’s also the character of Tony Willows to cater to lovers of the darker end of folk music and proto-metal. As a Hawkwind fan I initially hoped that Willows might turn out to be the fascinating Robert Calvert in thin disguise (he was at large in the wilds of Mid/North Devon for a while in the 80s), but when this turned out not to be the case I dried my tears and soldiered on bravely like a good reviewer should. In any case I hope the author will be including more musical themes in his books in future.
However, what really makes The Reddening memorable is its politics and social themes. I’m from Devon – I was born and spent the first ten years of my life in a tiny hamlet near Sidmouth, which gets a little mention in the book, and I also spent some years as a teenager in the less touristic back country of “Mid-Devon” and finally the city of Exeter. My mother still lives there so I’ve retained ties with the place, and as a result I was delighted to hear that Nevill was going to be “doing” South Devon. I commend the accuracy of his description of the local coast, which has something of a multiple personality, by turns genteel Regency seaside resort, quaint fishing village and blasted heath dotted with psychotic guard dogs and tumbledown farms. But what impressed me more was his willingness to engage with the social problems of Devonian life, which are actually quite considerable when you look beneath the charming façade. It’s one of those counties where swingeing rural poverty and outrageous amounts of wealth rub shoulders, with the vast majority of people unable to buy their own homes, and often compelled to take low-paying, back-breaking jobs cleaning, fruit-picking and tending to the needs of the hordes of rich pensioners who have chosen Devon as the place to live out their roses-round-the-cottage door retirement fantasies. This rank inequality sweats out of the novel’s pores (especially with characters like Kat’s boss Sheila and her husband), though another social blight is addressed even more directly: Brexit and the ties between far-right ideology and the European folklore revival.
These are central themes of the novel. Nevill’s fictional town of Divilmouth is home to an annual fete at which a close relation of the Padstow ’Obby ’Oss, a creepy hyaena-like thing known as Creel, cavorts in the streets to much public glee, exuding not a little sexual threat in the process, as a bewildered Helene finds when she has to pick her way through the revelry. But it gets worse: ever since Brexit, Creel has been adopted by the locals as an icon of Europhobia. Whatever it might have been like in the past, the fete now offers a truly emetic combination of cutesy old village traditions and overt bigotry, with hate-mongering MCs and anti-EU gifts on sale among the homemade cake and jam stands. This is barely an exaggeration of what some British village fetes are like now – I still remember the time I saw my first ever UKIP bus at a fete in High Wycombe in 2013, and the feelings of impending doom it inspired. And, of course, Devon is all about Brexit, even those landowners who benefit massively from cheap immigrant labour when they need their raspberries picked. This isn’t entirely new – anyone reading the area’s local newspapers in the 90s was familiar with the adverts placed there by the owners of a shopping complex called Trago Mills. These “adverts” were in fact ludicrous extended rants about European interference and much more besides, and a lot of people (the reasonably open-minded, friendly, decent people who definitely do exist in Devon, as Nevill himself takes care to point out) used to just laugh at these screeds, back in the day. Well, no-one’s laughing now, and I was very glad to see Nevill spearing this kind of thing in print, in a way that is by turns darkly comic and all-out horrifying.
And, of course, this resurgence in far-right ideology extends far beyond the South-West. Anyone who spends any time at all on the part of Twitter devoted to European folklore will be aware of the constant, often successful attempts of fascists to infiltrate the field, and it is quite common to see the most hideous kind of jus sanguinis xenophobia masquerading as its polar opposite, a love of cultural diversity. The action in The Reddening is underpinned by a warning against the rise of fascism in Europe and the West. When the gloating bad guys boast of “the Red” rising again to regain its former glories, they’re certainly not talking about the Labour Party, and the whole novel serves as a very timely reminder of the sheer volume of blood continually involved in blood-and-soil nationalism.
There’s a lot to like about this book, and its presentation also deserves a mention as it is by far the best-looking novel that Nevill has ever had published, with great artwork, nice paper etc. (see here for art credits). This is the first time the outside of one of his novels has been worthy of the inside. If you want to do anything properly you’ve sometimes got to do it yourself!