"The apocalypse and mass extinction may not be an existential future state; is there a greater horror for a writer of horror?"
Adam Nevill is a master of the macabre and terrifying – from the fantastically eerie Red House in House of Small Shadows, the dread of Apartment 16 to the right-out-of-the-park-horrifying tenement in No One Gets Out Alive.
Lost Girl sees Nevill apply this great skill of corrosion, horror and disrepair to the earth itself. Imagine the detail and research in those unforgettable taxidermy dioramas of The Red House extended to the entire dynamics of the earth’s environmental future. In 2053, as a father searches for his lost daughter in a landscape that is both alien and heartbreakingly our own, the physical world falls apart, and famine and chaos reign. The earth is headed for apocalypse.
Like the harrowing near future landscapes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Children of Men, Lost Girl tells of the ragged and terrifying ages of the end of human time, and as the novel unfolds, does so by blending both science fiction and horror storytelling to dazzling effect. Described by The Guardian as “fast becoming Britain’s answer to Stephen King”, Nevill is one of the UK’s most important horror writers, but the future of alarm and chaos depicted in Lost Girl suggests his novels may yet take us anywhere.
One Giant Read Project Coordinator Michelle Phillips caught up with Adam recently to discuss his new novel, and that most exciting of fictional team-ups, horror and science fiction ...
Can you describe the relationship between science fiction and horror? Are there particular elements of the genres which make them good companions for one another?
The first connection between the respective fields that springs to my mind, is probably that of the hostile alien, or the vastly superior alien intelligence or presence that finds a use for us or our planet. So the monstrous “other” can be a link. Though the alien presence would have to be pretty awful to be worse than us and our track record here on earth.
In cosmic horror, specifically, I think the link with science fiction is far stronger for me, because I am most conversant with cosmic horror. In this relationship between the two fields, so much science fiction presents us as masters of our destiny amongst the stars, and features mankind as voyager and coloniser and terraformer; a species with an advanced and sophisticated control over advanced physics, technology and interstellar travel. But cosmic horror tends to look at the same picture and depict us as insignificant within a hostile vastness, without any real understanding or control of what moves through time, space and other dimensions. I find our crushing insignificance easier to accept when I look at what we have learned about time and space, and even the age of the earth: we showed up for half a second when the planet was eighty. We do need to get over ourselves and cosmic horror can help us do that. Where is the cosmic horror self-help book? What a great leveller that would be: the universe is 14 billion years old and your own issues, in your 40 years, mean zip on every level. Embrace your nothingness and feel awe!
To me, space is perhaps the truest horror in our secular world too. It’s freezing, constructed out of gases we can’t breathe, and filled with terrifying debris that hurtles at great speeds and assures annihilating impacts. It’s also seemingly endless and gradually fading towards entropy – an environment that is pitched against our continuing existence and a testament to our utter irrelevance. Even the beautiful stars we can see are already dead. And it possesses a size that we can’t really comprehend. Our intelligence is too small for the task. Even if an equation or laboratory model explains it all, I still look at the sky and shudder at its cold beauty. The size and depth of the universe and our utter insignificance amongst the stars is the truest of literary terrors too, because it contains Machen and Lovecraft’s wonder and awe. I actually remember my childlike mind trying to comprehend space and feeling utterly shaken to the marrow, and also experiencing terror when I was told that the sun would eventually die. Horror needs that feeling in its bones. Maybe all horror stems from the gift of our sentience that gradually awoke on this tiny pebble and looked up. What beauty, what terror.
As a writer, I’d also never have even thought of writing anything in which the descendents of my species would master space travel. As regards our relationship with the universe, I could only see collapse, invasion, obliteration or isolation in our future. I have tried and always end up at cannibalism. Being ignored and allowed to quietly spin in the solar system is our best case scenario.
On that note, I think Melancholia might be my favourite recent science fiction film. The end really frightened me. I kind of drifted away from the film and imagined that situation but in my own immediate surroundings.
Science fiction-horror as a subgenre is evident in works such as Alien and The Thing. What would you say is the main reason for their success?
And I’d add Invasion of the Body Snatchers and War of the Worlds. I think much of the power derives from the monstrous characteristics of a virus or alien intelligence or bestial presence that operates within natural law but seems supernormal in its physical and mental capabilities. Suddenly, we’re no longer at the top of the food chain. Our predecessors on earth weren’t for hundreds of thousands of years; we came about fifth after lions, Scimitar cats, hyenas and bears in Europe, I think, so we suffer a huge but sudden demotion in these films. We’re rewound into pre-history. All of our certainties about our place are challenged and rewritten by what we are suddenly confronted by. The horror here comes from a direct assault on our comprehension, reasoning and also our physical well-being. So our powerlessness also becomes key in a fear factor; a severe loss of control will eventually drive us into madness too.
If stories are set in space, you also have the claustrophobia and isolation of space travel, extreme environmental conditions, and the compromised possibilities of rescue or relief if you run into danger. On that note, I can’t fathom why the brightest people on earth queue to go aboard the space station. How clever are they? The craft looks like an air vent filled with floating garbage with the earth in its rear view mirror. Had the same reaction when I saw one of the Apollo capsules. It looked like tin foil wrapped around a fridge with wires hanging loose inside. In space, in that? I wouldn’t sit inside it on dry land.
One Giant Read considers the notion of the Earth existing as a fragile environment which is affected and impacted upon by the actions of humans. Lost Girl, your most recent novel deals with runaway climate change caused by overpopulation. What role would you say the scientific fact surrounding this issue played on your work and what message does the novel seek to deliver about this issue?
This is key to me “Earth existing as a fragile environment which is affected and impacted upon by the actions of humans”. This is why we need to take better care of the earth right now without any delay, because anyone who sees people in silver suits inside a vast space station in our future, or fields of corn on Mars, is kidding themselves. At the rate we’re destroying the planet and undermining civilisation we won’t get anywhere near that vision.
I could not have written Lost Girl without a broad range of scientific information at my disposal through popular non-fiction writers and organisations like the I.P.C.C. Now there’s the irony: I write about the uncanny but am fascinated by science, but am also reading little from the scientific community that assures me of a bright future here on earth or elsewhere. I only see that in science fiction. Which is why I made the point: “there is only horror ahead of us now”. My work is fiction, but I wanted the near-future world of the Lost Girl story to be as informed as I could get it in the time I had. I needed to create an authentic or convincing scenario of the consequences of climate change after we’d crossed the no-going-back line. But storms, heat waves, floods, and weather events, couldn’t be viewed separately from the geopolitical and economic repercussions of our changing the temperature and atmosphere of the planet. Water and food shortages and utterly degraded land leading to wars and civil strife and massive human migration, and in a far more populous world of nine billion souls, had to also mirror the changing climates. Every new variable created by climate change will have an effect on something else in the ecosystem that then affects something else; it’s like a never-ending cycle of disruption in a domino effect that will impact catastrophically against humanity. And I barely scratched the surface. But all of the information is out there, as is the information on why civilisations have collapsed in the past; I imagined those two factors coming together this century because we may already be in the early stages of collapse. The apocalypse and mass extinction may not be an existential future state; is there a greater horror for a writer of horror?
No one seems to agree on a timeline for the biggest impacts from climate change, because no one seems ready to say when anything major will happen (though much appears to be happening sooner than most predictions that I have come across), so I went for a worst case scenario in 2053. And even though I doubt that Pakistan and India will be going to war over fresh water anywhere near that decade, many of the other events referred to in the story have started to look even more likely since I began writing the book in 2013.
Lost Girl deals with a pre-apocalyptic world which is, on many levels, recognisable to the world of today: a decision which is quite unusual for science fiction. Would you say this is an important factor in influencing what the reader might take from the novel?
My only hope was to make the climate-related catastrophes seem more pressing and imminent and not too distant. I think had I gone any further than 2053 the novel would have become fantasy if I had written it. In 2013 I actually thought the 2070s better for my story, but another 20 years was sliding my imagination into some odd places. By 2015, I was pleased that I chose the 2050s. And a few decades hence was a deliberate decision to engage a sense of plausibility and the suspension of disbelief in a reader, that was required for this kind of story. It’s purely my own view, but space opera and the dystopian and post-apocalyptic scenarios that are so popular in fiction, have more in common with epic fantasy to my mind, and often have a faith, that I find naive, in what the human spirit or global community is capable of after the fall. I don’t buy it. We barely share a consensus on anything as a species; we are too many now, and all developing at different speeds, and pursuing disparate arrays of self interest, and shouting in different languages. If the climate remained stable we’d get there; we’d reach some form of harmony eventually. But I fear we will run out of time on a positive endgame because of environmental factors impacting on too many people in too few inhabitable areas in a short span of time.
My favourite blend of science fiction and horror emerges in books like The Road or 1984. They feel real to me and horribly plausible. Take a stable climate and stable world away from us, and I think we’ll all act and think very differently to how we do now, and the change will be far quicker than we’ve assumed. I think concepts like free will, democracy, compassion, and cooperation will undergo a drastic revision – those words may still be used but they won’t mean the same thing. Language is slippery and the signifier may slip away from the current signified. That was the hardest thing to second guess – the alteration in values and outlook when writing a novel in which people will think and act differently on account of the seismic changes in our highly interconnected world. The Red Father has tried so hard to hold on to who we are now. But how did that work out, Dad?
Is there any particular writer who has impacted upon the way you think or write about science fiction broadly speaking and the sub-genre of science fiction- horror?
Cormac McCarthy, who is more well known for his literary westerns, but understands the sophisticated and yet savage beast within us better than most writers. And H.P. Lovecraft. He’s a controversial figure these days, but few if any writers in my reading, have repositioned us away from the Shakespearean centre stage – man as a significant, central figure enmeshed in fate and destiny and choice. Lovecraft dropped us at the edge of the stage, and as a thing bewildered and ill-prepared and just about able to understand its own irrelevance.
Thank you, Adam!