No One Gets Out Alive

Adam Nevill
No One Gets Out Alive Cover

No One Gets Out Alive


Minor spoilers in the review below

Wow, wow, wow! I loved this book! As soon as I had finished it I just wanted to find out more about the author and read more of his work. This was my first experience with Adam Nevill and I can pretty confidently say I will be reading more of his work in future.

I picked this book up as it won the August Derleth award from the British Fantasy Society in 2015 and this year I am trying to read winners from as many speculative fiction awards. I wonder if the Derleth award will be renamed the Nevill award in the future - in the last five years he has won it three times and been nominated twice!

Stephanie Booth is a 19-year-old woman, estranged from her family, her friends and her ex-boyfriend. She moves to Birmingham to start a new life and is temping in short term, casual work. She manages to rent a room in an old house - 82 Edgware Road which at £40 is too good to be true. Stephanie enters a terrifying nightmare as soon as she goes to bed...

This is a whopper of a book weighing in at nearly 650 pages. Despite its size (and subject matter) it is a book that is easily accessible and I found once I started reading it was a book that was very difficult to put down. The pacing is relentless. From the first page the reader is thrust into a Haunted House, a nervous young woman is settling down for the night in a bed she hasn't slept in before in a house she hasn't slept in before. Nevill wonderfully takes the reader into the mind of young Stephanie -- I could hear what she heard, feel what she felt, the changes in temperature -- the textures of being somewhere new, being slightly unnerved before things happen...

Of course, if the home was just haunted that would be manageable but of course the ghosts are the least of her problems. She has a terrible landlord who shares the property with his vile cousin and a few other 'flatmates'. I can say with some conviction that this novel frightened me, at times repulsed me and at other times made me squirm. I wanted to shout 'RUN'! (At one point I was reading this whilst my young children were playing in the room on a bright sunny Sunday morning and I exclaimed 'Fucking Hell!' at one point before realising where I was and covering my mouth! I feel quite embarrassed for cussing in front of my children, especially since I was just reading a book!)

I have described the book as relentless and unremitting and unforgiving. Stephanie's tormentors are completely evil and amoral -- they are sociopaths with no redeeming features. The book reminds me of Tobe Hooper's 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'. If you've seen the film you'll understand where I am coming from in that the protagonist in that film is harassed and mentally (and physically) tortured for what seems like hours, essentially just for sport. In this book it feels like Stephanie is being toyed with and sucked into a world she can never escape from.

Nevill knows his ghosts. He knows how to put doubt in the mind of the reader, how to scare, how to portray the 'other', the 'unknown'. His ghosts terrify but they also convey sadness, desperation, malevolence and hate. They are longing for warmth and love, comfort and affection. They are inspired by greed, lust, violence and terror.

I just love the characters of her landlord 'Knacker' Maguire and his cousin Fergal. They are truly despicable. In many ways they are caricatures of the very worst kind of slumlord but perhaps most terrifying is that they seem very real characters. Every once in a while one sees news stories where sociopaths with no redeeming features exploit and commit unspeakable cruelty against others are convicted of terrible crimes. One knows people like this exist, yet one cannot quite comprehend how they can treat other human beings as effectively worthless and beyond consideration of their most basic needs. I guess it is worth pointing out that the way these men wheedle their way into Stephanie's life and the ways others are treated is that this book could provide some very distressing triggers for victims of sexual, domestic or other exploitative violence.

'Knacker' dresses in the brand new sports clothes -- effectively dressing like a teenager although he is clearly a much older man in his 30's or 40's. He is pure slime. You can almost sense the grease falling off his hair, his skin every time he speaks. One would imagine needing a shower just listening to him. His voice is permanently aggressive, threatening, confrontational -- he is a bully -- even 'WEN I IS DOING THE RITE FING FOR YA'. If anyone has ever had a dodgy landlord you'll recognise the trope -- one who will do anything to wheedle cash out of you, one who invades the privacy of your home -- your room, who seems to think you are 'friends'. Nevill must have met a few in his youth. He is masterful when he describes this brute of a man crossing the threshold of a young girl's room and just sitting on her bed with his legs open -- like he owns the place 'COS I DO OWN DIS PLACE LIKE'. Without touching Stephanie one feels her uncomfortableness -- he invades her space and her life with ease. I love 'Knacker's dialogue -- he has got the twang of the South East wide-boy to a tee. He speaks in capitals, like he is always shouting. 'Knacker' is a man who likes the sound of his own voice and is used to being the only one heard. He talks like an entrepreneur -- 'HAD NO SKOOL OR NUFFINK', MADE IT MISSELF LIKE, OFF MI OWN GRAFT' (I do think there is a small plot hole here -- in the novel it becomes apparent he cannot read yet Stephanie responds to an advert in a newsagent for the room which is written as 'Knacker' writes -- either 'Knacker' can write to a basic level and hence read to a level or an Essex wide-boy runs a North Birmingham newsagent)

And Fergal is even worse.... He stinks, he doesn't wash, he's the 'unreasonable one'. Tall and gangly he is less about the threat of violence, he is more about violence about to explode. Where Nevill does such a good job with these two is that although you hate them, one could almost pity them -- 'Knacker' especially. I finished the book a week ago now and I can still hear, 'Ho! Ho! Ho!' and 'It's all going off!' - once you've read the book you'll know what I mean -- these characters have become ghosts in my head...

I don't want to be unkind to Birmingham, but as Britain's second city perhaps it has lost it's mantle somewhat to the Northern powerhouses of Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. Driving out of central Birmingham one can see a tired city, weary and worn out from its history as an industrial powerhouse. I first visited Birmingham in the 1980's and remember the walk from the City Centre to the football ground being quite a scary one -- dark streets with towering abandoned Victorian industrial units crowding the rain soaked streets. Central Birmingham is much nicer now but I think of those first few visits and can't help think those old factory units had their own ghosts in the spectre of unemployment. I guess that is why I think the setting is perfect for this book.

I have read some reviews where people do not like Stephanie as she has little agency in what happens to her. I think this is a little unkind. It's important to recognise this isn't Hollywood and she isn't a hero -- at least initially. She's poor, friendless and depressed. She's trapped in a cycle of low wage, insecure employment -- a truly day to day experience. She's experiencing what thousands of working class people go through all the time, scratching together enough money for a deposit and months advance rent in some dingy shithole and hoping to earn enough to eat. Stephanie cannot be aspirational as there is NOTHING to be aspirational for. In a climate of 'austerity Britain' Nevill truly captures the misery of working class young people -- a group of people demonised as feckless -- the low waged, the unemployed, the single parents. Although the greater societal condemnation of people like Stephanie isn't exactly expressed her loneliness drips through every page. She is effectively ignored by society -- she is invisible and NO ONE CARES.

What can Stephanie report to the police? Where can she run to? What options does she have? By the time she realises she should do something she realises she really can't.

The novel does take itself on a tangent during the novel which I didn't quite see coming and it's my only criticism of the book -- it does hang together, but only just. It leads to a terrifying crescendo which is a fitting end to the novel.

Fantastic ghost story, a terrifying novel of malice and cruelty and a stunning representation of disenfranchised youth.