If you’ve read any of my previous reviews, you’ll know I’m a fan of Adam Nevill. I obtained a signed copy of ‘Under a Watchful Eye’ from the author when I attended Birmingham’s horrorcon earlier this year (along with a number of paperbacks from his back catalogue.) So, I have to say I was really looking forward to reading his latest book, even though I couldn’t schedule it until last month. Like his previous works, this novel shines (or should I say ‘cloaks itself in darkness’) as a result of Nevill’s knack of writing rich prose and his ability to evoke dread using uncannily fear-inducing descriptions of monsters, spirits and the macabre settings they appear in.
Here we see a central advantage of the novel over film as a medium. It may be hard to convey sudden shocks when reading a book, but the reader’s imagination, sparked with the flintlock of Nevill’s prose, is a campfire that can be fed repeatedly by the hands of a master – and Nevill is a master in these devices.
This tale bears more than a passing resemblance to an earlier work of Nevill’s, namely his short story, ‘Yellow teeth’, which you can read in his excellent collection ‘Some will not sleep.’ But it wasn’t until I unearthed this previous story that I realised the character, Ewan and his ghastly yellow teeth were a precursor to the novel I have just read. To me, this character was the most terrifying in the book, even more so than the dreaded ‘Thin Len’ who lurks as a prevalent shadow throughout UAWE. The reason for this is that I have come across this type of malignant narcissist before in my own life. I’m glad to say that the individuals in my past never sank to the depths of Ewan, but I could see the potential there.
This is the first time that Nevill has placed a writer as the main protagonist in one of his novels, and it is only as the tale unfolds that we see why this is essential to the plot. Although the culmination of the book is terrifying enough as we see Seb, the writer descend gradually into madness, it is the first half of the book that persuaded me to read it in daylight rather than at night. It is the sense of inescapability that Nevill conveys which weaves a thread of terror, gradually tightening until the reader feels as trapped as our hapless mc.
As the story moves towards its conclusion, we find ourselves at the source of Seb’s nightmares and visitations. The description of the house, Hunter’s Tor Hall extends to many pages and Nevill plays to his strengths here by putting you in the writer’s shoes, feeling what he feels, yearning for him to flee from the dread place where the sinister Hazzard inculcated his disciples in a practice that should never have been undertaken. You’re actually there in the mansion, feeling the dread, the dampness in the air and the hairs on your skin pucker up in goose flesh. My only niggle was the repetition of the ‘as if … ‘ phrase in these last chapters, which may simply be my inability to recognise a literary device. But apart from this, my journey to the dreadful conclusion and false ending to the book was unobstructed (that may be a spoiler.)
You may be aware that Neville’s book, ‘The Ritual’ is being adapted as a film this year. It will be interesting to see how his eery, masterful storytelling is interpreted in the movie. I suspect this will be the first of many film adaptations, with UAWE becoming a prime candidate for the treatment.