Wyrd is a brave, not always successful, but nonetheless very welcome collection of experimental horror shorts from Adam Nevill, author of Ritual1.
These seven short pieces – none longer than a dozen pages – have neither character, dialogue or plot. What they have – and it’s all that they do have – is setting. These are short pieces which describe the aftermath of some horrific event (which in several of the pieces is evidently still in progress, just out of sight).
It is, by definition, a dark read. Atricities of some form (natural or super-) are freshly evident, and there’s a lot of blood. As the collection proceeds, though, the aftermath of the events described becomes, appropriately, weirder. In “Low Tide”, a holiday camp has been swamped by the sea, and the receding waters reveal extremely odd, large – and dangerous – creatures. “Monument” is post-folk horror: all that’s left are the trappings of a ritual whose forms, victims and purposes are unknown. Most haunting of all is the closing “Hold the World in my Arms for Three Days and All Will Be Changed”. Some natural cataclysm has struck the earth; the quality of sunlight is horribly altered; bodies – those few that are left in a lifeless town – fall up into the sky as if attracted by strange gravity.
Although the concept may be new to genre fiction, there is a precedent for descriptions of a scene which work as coherent pieces and rise above being merely an author’s five-finger exercise. I was struck several times while reading Wyrd by the (presumably coincidental) similarities to one of my favourite collections of short fiction, Instantanes [Snaphots] by French nouveau-romaniste Alain Robbe-Grillet2.
In these fictions, first published in English in 1963, superficially objective descriptions of a scene (a room, an escalator in the Metro, children walking along a beach) reveal on closer inspection to be subjective: there is always a point of view and therefore a viewer, from which these scenes are observed.
And so it is in Wyrd: Nevill’s admirably candid Afterword explains the thought processes that led him to write these, and the problems they posed. Among these were that fiction – and perhaps especially horror fiction, which depends so much upon effect – needs a human viewpoint. It isn’t possible to entirely efface the narrator: if part of the desired effect is a dawning awareness of wrongness, there needs to be a mind there to perceive that something is wrong.
I said above that these aren’t always successful. Some of that may be a problem inherent in the anthology format. ‘Second person present tense’ is unusual enough to be of interest but reading it for any length of time reminds you why it’s relatively rare: it can become a slog. I wonder if these “derelictions” would work better scattered throughout a volume of conventional fiction?
Nevill himself admits that Wyrd may well prove divisive, but he’s to be commended for publishing it, and encouraged to see in what further ways he can push the boundaries of short horror fiction. I look forward to more.
Photo: Jamie Gorman
1 A good book, and the film (with Rafe Spall) was even better.
2 One of the pieces begins “It is as if no one has arrived”. Compare with the opening to Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur: “It was as if no one had heard”.