No One Gets Out Alive
Pan, 23 October 2015
Paperback, 627 pages
I'm grateful to the published for an advance copy of this book.
This is a dark book - very dark indeed.
As with Nevill's previous book, House of Small Shadows, and some of his short stories, the book is a masterclass in creating a creepy atmosphere by layering ordinary, everyday seediness - that flyblown shop you avoid going into, the dodgy looking flat you decide not to rent (if you have a choice) - with a sense of roiling evil. It's all damp plaster, clinging smells, scuzzy bathrooms and tacky lino. And dust, lots of dust - but not clean, bookish dust: no, it's sticky dust, the kind the collects behind the cooker like a kind of growth, perhaps.
Stephanie Booth is down on her luck, poor, almost homeless, struggling to survive on bits and pieces of temporary work, having left home because of a violent (and possibly abusive?) stepmother. She has no choice but to take what's offered at 82 Edgehill Road, Birmingham, even though it comes with a leering, sneaking landlord, Knacker McGuire, who seems to have his own plans for her. Once Stephanie has handed over her deposit money she's basically trapped, unless she wants to sleep on the streets, and has to put up with the filth, the strange night time noises and bad dreams.
Stephanie's plight is authentic and convincing: this isn't one of those books where the protagonist ignores all the warnings and still visits the old, empty house to be haunted and driven out of their wits. There's no artificiality here, and the book gets very dark even leaving aside the supernatural, exploring misogyny, human trafficking and abuse, and even the antics of a twisting and distorting media.
Indeed, it gets so dark, and Stephanie is in such jeopardy in this respect, that I worried halfway through at the way that the author seemed to be following a rather well worn trope here. However Nevill successfully avoids this, immediately by keeping his supernatural threat in play even as we are see very harrowing levels of actual violence and ultimately by tracing the origin of the McGuires and their predecessors to that supernatural angle.
It's a fairly long book, at over 600 pages, and while it begins as apparently a conventional ghost story (those noises in the night) which is frightening enough, it soon develops into both a mystery (what are the McGuires really doing, and why?) and a fight for survival - a fight which lasts right up to the final page.
The story is engaging - you'll really need to know how it ends up - though harrowing and difficult in places. In the McGuires, Nevill has created a couple of the most brutish villains I've read for a long time, although even then he remembers they are people, and the eventual revelation of what is behind them almost makes one pity them.
This is a book that will stick in my mind for some time, I think...