Characters making stupid decisions in horror books/moves just to further the plot. Discuss.
It's something every horror fan is aware of - that moment when a character in the book you're reading does or doesn't do something that would save them. It's maybe a particularly acute problem for haunted house novels, when the solution is so blindingly obvious that you want to shout at them: "just leave!"
Adam Nevill's new haunted house novel, No One Gets Out Alive, gets around this thorny issue by having a main character forced by circumstance into knowingly making such bad choices. Steph is very much a product of her time: cash-strapped and living in rented accommodation without the safety-nets of parents or secure employment. At the start of the book, she moves into a room at 82 Edgware Road, and is soon confronted by ghostly voices and a particular unappealing landlord. But the reader understands she literally has nowhere else to go. Rather than being frustrated by her staying in the house, the reader feels an anxious empathy with Steph's plight. It just one of many ways this book quietly subverts genre norms, especially around how female victims are presented.
For the first few hundred pages or so there's a certain repetition to the book, representing the repetition and limited horizons of Steph's life. As well written as it all is, readers who are aware of Nevill's other work might sense he is keeping much of his powder dry during this first third of the book.The ghostly goings on continue without real escalation, and the reader, like Steph, might be lured into a false sense of comfort...
Then the trap closes.
In a simply breathtaking chapter, it suddenly becomes clear that Steph has squandered her last chance to escape the house, and the way it happens so quickly leaves both her and the reader almost stunned in the face of it. In the middle third of the novel there follows some of the most intense, emotionally brutal events in a horror that I've read for a long time. I won't give away too much, but suffice to say there's both human and supernatural horror here, and both are equal gripping and frightful. Nevill is always great writing about characters trapped either literally or metaphorically (see The Ritual and House Of Small Shadows) but even he has rarely put a character through the wringer as much as he does with Steph here.
But she emerges from it, and in another subversion of standard genre plotting, Nevill spends the final third of the book detailing the aftermath of the events at 82 Edgware Road, with some nice digs at tabloid reporting. This section has the feeling of an extended coda, and whilst the horror does re-intrude back into the narrative, it doesn't reach the same dizzyingly terrifying heights as before. Again, this seems to be for deliberate effect rather than a misfire: Nevill wants the reader to see how Steph has been changed by what happened to her, strengthened but also scarred. Some trauma is permanent.
This is a long novel, all of it somewhat claustrophobically shown from one perspective. Some readers might take issue with that, and with the pacing of the narrative mentioned above. But in the issues raised (around inequality and victim-hood and the media) and in its questioning of genre norms No One Gets Out Alive is very intellectually satisfying, and yet it still proves to be one of the most scary and emotionally hard-hitting horror novels of recent times.
Nevill's finest book to date? Tastes will differ, but for my money yes.