Banquet for the Damned
by Adam L.G. Nevill
Review by John Berlyne
Virgin Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780753513583
Date: 05 June 2008 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Originally published as a limited edition hard cover back in 2004 by PS Publishing, Adam Neville's brilliantly creepy ghost story is now available to a wider audience, published in paperback by Virgin's new horror imprint. This new release features a slightly revised and trimmed down text, but retains and indeed enhances Neville's deliciously unsettling and atmospheric narrative. A fantastic example of a top class chiller. Check out my review of the original PS Publishing release which we re-running this issue.
Dante and Tom, two loner musicians from Birmingham leave their dead-end lives behind in the midlands and take a drive up to Scotland in search of inspiration. Dante is the prime mover in this, his friend Tom along only for the crack, moral support and the certainty of bedding some tasty female students. There are no such shallow motivations for Dante in this venture however. Instead, for him it is the chance to meet his idol, Eliot Coldwell.
Coldwell, is a man of some notoriety - the author of a cult book, Banquet for the Damned, (think here of every counter-culture publication you can think of and add in a dash of Crowley-esque occult, some drugs and a pinch of angry young man and you'll get some idea of what we're talking about), a book that has had a profound influence on young Dante. This controversial work, some thirty odd years after it first came out, is now widely regarded as esoteric. Long out of print, it is admired by those on society's fringe - like Dante for example, who was moved to write a fan letter to the author. Coldwell, now an obscure and reclusive figure, is a guest lecturer at St Andrews (a position, we learn, only secured by the charity of the authorities there, old university colleagues of his) and via their correspondence, Dante is invited to join him there as his research assistant - for Coldwell is reputedly working on a new book.
The two young men arrive to find a number of strange and frightening things happening in the town. A human arm is washed up on the beach at the exact hour of their arrival, and we learn that a number of students are suffering horribly with night terrors. In town on the trail of this phenomenon is another loner. Hart Miller is an expert in night terrors, having tracked examples all over the world. Now he's here in Scotland, on the trail of perhaps the most acute case he?s ever encountered. A series of interviews with students reveal the depth of the problem, but when they fail to turn up for follow-up meetings and cannot be subsequently traced, Hart begins to realise there's something far deeper and far darker at work than instances of mere bad dreams.
Alongside all this narrative action, the reader is introduced to a chilling and macabre presence in the town, glimpsed initially only from a distance or in reflections and shadows. We learn that this ragged, black spectre is somehow intrinsically linked to Coldwell (could he be a powerful mage?), as is the mysterious Beth, his protégé, about whom rumours abound and whom Coldwell is anxious that Dante should meet. A rendezvous is arranged and Dante finds himself completely out of his depth. Beth is a vamp, remote and erotically alluring, stunning and infectious and Dante discovers this to his great cost. He is truly an innocent abroad, hopelessly ill-equipped to confront the powers he's become embroiled with. The novel shifts, at perfect pace, into the shadowy realms of the occult, producing an ever-growing sense of unease with the reader and we descend with Dante as he truly enters the inferno. The stark horrors that lie there are not for the faint-hearted.
Nevill really has written something special with Banquet for the Damned and in the process, has unveiled a wonderfully constructed horror story that very much revitalises an undeservedly tired genre - in novel form at least. The UK horror field is, thanks to the work of people like Steve Jones and Peter Crowther, still very much alive and kicking in shorter forms, but for the major publishers it remains very much out of vogue. This is shame, because Nevill is writing in a great literary tradition - much has been made with this particular novel of the influence on Neville of M.R. James, a master of the genre and a writer whom, to my shame, I have only briefly encountered up to now. (Check out Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You - a brilliant short story). Banquet for the Damned has inspired me to delve deeper into the heritage it has built upon - and as I do so, I'll be watching for more by this hugely talented author.