By Adam Neville
A Book Review by Aaron AuBuchon
Okay, so, just to make it clear- this is an unpleasant book. I mean that in a good way, but holy shit. And it’s not an unendingly unpleasant book, nor is the unpleasantness anything but what you’d expect of masterfully written horror, but at the risk of being considered a repetitive, hack writer…. holy shit. Purposefully and at specific and calculated times, this is an unpleasant book.
I’m loath to do what I’m about to do, because it will keep some folks out of the conversation, and because I think that comparisons to other media are often pretty lazy and unoriginal, but have you seen Bone Tomahawk (2015)? If so, all I have to do is refer to that scene and you will know immediately what scene I’m talking about. The scene that is so brutal, so visceral, so unimaginable in the agony it expresses that it literally took my breath away when I first saw it. A scene that both makes the movie stand head and shoulders above other movies in its category and made me wonder when it was over if I’d ever put myself through that again. Now imagine a scene like that, but that lasts for pages and pages and pages; a scene like that but in highly detailed and evocative prose, repeated over and over throughout the entire book. Imagine an experience so uncompromising in its brutality that it makes you actually feel ill sometimes, and then imagine that it keeps happening, repeatedly. This is the power of Adam Nevill’s The Reddening.
Some people would say “Jesus, why on earth would you do that to yourself?” Those people are probably not horror fans. But it’s an interesting question, because several times throughout the course of this folk horror tale, I found myself asking myself that very same question, as it’s a strong cup of coffee using any metrics you can think of. But I think there is something to be said for strong emotional resonance and its correlation with deep thought. Sometimes I need to feel something deeply to have it strike enough of a cord to allow my mind to want to explore the whys and wherefores more than I might otherwise. And I find that I want to explore the themes of this book quite a bit.
Previously I mentioned that I was loath to make comparisons, and did it anyway, so I may as well double down. The comparison to Bone Tomahawk was about shared affect, but the same comparisons could be made about subject, antagonists and themes. The Reddening is about a bucolic British region by the sea that is harboring an ugly prehistoric secret with very modern implications. In much the same way as Bone Tomahawk it is about the present meeting a past that it cannot comprehend. More importantly, it’s about what happens to our sensibilities about culture and morality in the face of that atavistic incomprehensibility.
About the same time that an ancient archaeological site is found in the caves around Brickburgh, travelers to the region start going missing at an alarming rate. The site, it is discovered, was home to a tribe of troglodytes that passed out of history 20,000 years prior, but had relics in their possession that were 20,000 years older than that. The announcement is made at a press conference which is covered by journalists from all over England, including local writer Kat, a former big-city reporter who ran away from the city and its demons to become a lifestyle reporter for a highly sanitized posh magazine and its rarified clientele. Quickly, through her coverage, we learn that the “people” who lived in those caves engaged in ritual torture and nutritional cannibalism (a term the book introduced to me, and I think is remarkably evocative from a pure “ick” perspective). The scale of the slaughter was enormous, as if they engulfed and consumed everything in their path, save for the lovingly attended remains of a handful of women who are discovered wearing masks that were themselves many millennia older than the ancient people buried there. One thing that impresses me in any storytelling exercise is when important details that underpin the plot are laid out in the open but only become clear later, and this scene where we meet Kat and also hear this story of primeval savagery does just that. In his longest single work At the Mountains of Madness (1931), H.P. Lovecraft used anatomy and physiology to explain topology and ecology via the dissection of a creature from another world. In a passage that seems unnecessarily long at first read, his scientist, Professor Lake, reports his findings from a dissection of an alien creature. The dissection points out the odd, unearthly anatomy that gave the creature life, and as a result explained the living conditions on its home world. In much the same way, Nevill uses this press conference as a way to reveal the basic beliefs and social organization around the concept that the book refers to as The Red. What makes it especially interesting is that though we are learning about people who died thousands of years prior, we are also learning about the behavior of people who are terrifyingly alive.
Describing The Red is difficult, but I guess you could call it an all-encompassing, atavistic bloodlust. When it is invoked, the reader gets to go down a really horrendous path paved with torture, disemboweling, bludgeoning, rending, and devouring. If being squicked out is outside of your wheelhouse, this most certainly isn’t your book. And don’t take my description the wrong way, this book isn’t about gleeful fun violence, this book is about an utterly terrible violence; violence that is sickening to behold, violence that feels completely real and really horrifying. We are made to see our main characters Kat and single mother Helene as real people. The secondary characters are obviously real people as well. People with flaws, people who make bad decisions, people who refuse to see what the rest of us can see until it is far too late. This book contains a number of moments where, were it a movie, the audience would be bellowing at the screen, begging the character looming over them not to do the thing they were surely about to do. And then they do it anyway.
Reading this book created several moments of such breathtaking violence that I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish it, which is a powerful thing from someone that has participated in hundreds and hundreds of violent stories over time. But I think that’s what this book is trying to do. I think that the goal is to take you out of your safe space, rob you of objectivity and distance. The reader is not merely an observer, the author forces them down in the gore and shit with the book’s characters, awaiting the unspeakable. Sometimes the characters telegraph the plot via their internal monologues and I found that pretty difficult. When a character is internally celebrating their good fortune, it’s pretty obvious what happens next, and that struck me as pretty sloppy writing while it was happening. But now that the book is finished, part of me thinks the author wanted me irritated by that. He knows his audience is at least somewhat savvy and knows that most of us will know exactly what he is doing, and he does it anyway. Because I really think that part of the point of this book is to make you feel mad, angry, sad, irritated… the point of this book is to make you feel the horror, unapologetically, which I find pretty brave is a society so consumed with its own emotional safety in the current moment. And I’m not trying to say that there aren’t good reasons for safe spaces and trigger warnings, but I am saying that a book that is trying to push your buttons isn’t exactly fashionable right now. And that which isn’t fashionable is always a little bit interesting to me.
Part of the genius of the book is the ending, which many will likely see coming. I actually didn’t, though the author certainly telegraphs that too, but I think that even if someone else does see it coming, it won’t lessen its impact. Because the takeaway for me is the very unsettling idea that there is likely something vicious and alien hidden just below the surface of everyone you know, including yourself. At various choke points in the story, I found myself hollering (internally and sometimes out loud) for justice and revenge, and I think that is rather the point. Because what happens to these characters, the brutish, oafish violence to which they are subjected and to which some of them succumb, begs for redress, begs for a proportionally violent response. And that, as the book’s plot eventually points out, is a great way to take a big step down into the gore-streaked, howling darkness of The Red.
This is a book that wants to shake you up, wants to trigger you. If that sort of thing is anathema to your sensibilities, it might not be your cup of tea. But if, like me, you sometimes find yourself wanting a challenge, wanting your comfort zone compromised in a way that motivates you to think about things more deeply, I think it’s more than worth a read. A week after finishing it, my mind returns to it over and over, searching my own inner recesses for evidence of the fury of The Red.