It wasn’t a success. With his mates he decided to not stay on a site but go “off-piste” into deciduous woodland. But when they got there they realised there wasn’t a there. Just trees and neck-high bracken, nowhere you could pitch a tent.
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It got dark. It got cold. It started to snow. They were all slightly disturbed by the presence of an old wreck of a car weeping with rust. And then they were seriously freaked out by the presence of two dead sheep. Two dead sheep hanging from the upper branches of the trees.
Nevill didn’t get a lot of sleep that night and not just because he’d only brought a summer sleeping bag with him. “We were quite terrified. The rules of the world seemed to have changed about us,” he recalls. “Subsequently somebody did tell me that they bait dead sheep with poison because of crows. So there was an explanation. But at the time there wasn’t. We didn’t have words for it, let alone an explanation.” Afterwards, after they’d found a way out, he thought there was a story in the experience. Twenty years later he has delivered it.
The Ritual is about a camping trip that goes wrong. It takes place in Sweden, in the woods far from anywhere. Four men go off-piste and get lost. There are dead things hanging from the trees. They may or may not be sheep. In an abandoned house they find an effigy of a black goat sitting upright in a child’s cradle, a grotesque, inexplicable thing. And somewhere out in the night there is something else, something dangerous, something other, something that is hunting the four of them.
The Ritual is, as you might have gathered, a horror novel. Nevill is a horror writer. He knows how that reads. “I think as a writer if you choose to write about the supernatural or the mystical you just have to accept that you’re going to get belittled. You’re a purveyor of pulp, something that is adolescent and trite and your work is never going to be for serious consideration.”
The Ritual is pulp – but in a good way. Lean, compelling, dark, at times frightening, with a sideorder of Scandinavian black metal (not death metal, he points out when I suggest as much. Nevill, a metal fan, wants me to be clear on my metal sub-categories). It is also, if you allow it, a book about life and death and the fact that, stripped to essentials, there is no other subject matter.
“I read an interview with Cormac McCarthy in 2008 and he said every story has to be a matter of life and death because nothing else matters. And I thought, I’m going to see if I can do this on every page of the book. Start from a moment of crisis and it just goes vertical from there.”
Along the way, Nevill suggests, the book might also be about men of his generation, men in their early middle age, men Martin Amis defined as “post-historical men”, who had never been to war, never been in a depression, never been in a famine. Men of Nevill’s age (he’s 42). “We were exempt from the kind of stuff men right through history have had to deal with. How do we fare when we’re suddenly in a situation like the men in the trenches were?” The answer would appear to be “not well”. As you’d expect, almost no-one gets out alive.
The Ritual is Nevill’s third horror novel. That in itself is something of an achievement. When he wrote his first book back in 2000, Banquet Of The Damned – a love letter (in blood red ink) to the MR James stories his dad would read to him as a child – it was rejected by every single agent in the Artists and Writers Yearbook. “They turned it down from the covering letter. I didn’t ever get to send the manuscript,” Nevill recalls. Horror doesn’t sell, he was told.
Times are changing. His second novel, Apartment 16, became the subject of a minor bidding war. But even now – though Ghostface is back on the big screen and zombies are on the telly – horror fiction is the literary equivalent of a monster from an old Val Lewton movie. Hiding in the shadows. All the big horror brand names are old names – Stephen King, Clive Barker, James Herbert – writers who started their careers 30 or 40 years ago. If you wanted to find any new voices in the last 20 years you had to look to the small press.
“I think what happened,” reckons Nevill, “was that it was overpublished in the 1980s. And Thomas Harris turned horror from the supernatural to the human agent, the serial killer. The readership got its dark thrills from crime and thrillers.”
As a result horror fiction – with the exception of King and Barker (who in truth themselves often drifted away from the genre into psychological thrillers and fantasy) – went underground. “It was the genre that dare not speak its name in publishing for so long,” Nevill says. “And I think it was the US paranormal romance that put horror back onto publishers’ radars.” The vampire romance bizarrely opened doors, he suggests, even though it’s not really about dread or fear, but female romantic aspirations: “I call it disco in disguise.” Still, they opened a door for the likes of Joe Hill (who had the inbuilt advantage of being Stephen King’s son) and Nevill.
But even if the door hadn’t opened, Nevill would have written horror. Since he was a child he has wanted to try to capture what HP Lovecraft called its awe and wonder. Not that everyone notices these qualities. “Lovecraft and Poe died virtually unknown,” Nevill points out. “Some writers take a while to embed in the canon.” Sometimes, it seems, we can’t see the wood for the trees.
The Ritual is published by Macmillan, £12.99
They found Dom outside, kneeling in the long wet grass, wearing just his underwear and a T-shirt. Watching the trees with glassy eyes. His whole body shivered in the dawn chill. Neither of them could touch him. Hutch and Luke had never seen him look this way. Lips dark in a dirt-streaked face, bleached of colour beneath the filth by the cold and what he had seen, or what he dreamed of, like them. Dom’s face was oddly pink too, at the sides of his eyes, where his tears had cleansed a hot and salty path down his unshaven cheeks. Tousle-headed and wild of eye, Hutch and Luke could not help but follow Dom’s stare to see what it was he had found out there in the dark trees. But they saw nothing but black wood, dripping greenery and the whitish glimmer of birch bark, all struggling from the choked forest floor.