British horror is on fire right now and there are some authors whose work is just meant for adapting for the big screen. Adam Nevill is certainly one of those people. The hard-working, sea-loving master of fright was able to sit down and answer some of my burning questions.
(Interview conducted by Janine Pipe)
CEMETERY DANCE: No One Gets Out Alive (NOGOA) has been doing amazingly well on Netflix. How does it feel to see something you wrote on the big screen and getting amazing ratings and reviews? Not that you are new to this after The Ritual of course!
ADAM NEVILL: It never fully sinks in. I am still occasionally struck dumb by the realization that there is a film of The Ritual, let alone NOGOA.
But I’ll offer some perspective. I’ve been writing fiction, as the main purpose in my life, for just under three decades. I started getting published in 1995, my horror in 2003/4. The next break came in 2010 with Apartment 16. Six years later one of my novels became a film. This has been a long journey encompassing over half my life. There have been some incredible peaks but also long troughs of disappointment and a pervasive sense of futility that have left scars. So, I retain a balanced perspective. I don’t get carried away. These amazing things have happened — two films — but it all so nearly never happened. And it certainly hasn’t all been down to me.
There have been so many variables that I had no control over that fell into place. Also, so many key people who took a chance on my work precipitated other good things happening. The causality of my entire career is frightening. Like everyone in creative industries, we’re all walking along one of those thin, wooden suspension bridges, supported by old fraying rope, above a rocky gorge. The view below is sickening. The slender chance of getting across to the other side tantalizes but is almost illusory. At times you get a few firm planks and you think “I’m gonna make it!”…and then one of your feet crashes through a rotten board and you start inching backwards again. I’m always waiting for my own ropes to snap. Even now they could go at any time.
I always fidget when people say, “You’ve worked really hard” (I have) and “your stuff is good” (for some), because that is not enough. And hasn’t been for many people who have worked hard and produced brilliant work. There are so many other variables that come into play in the big picture, as well as in a writer’s own microcosm, that determine levels of success.
Also, few see the vast pyramid scheme that film-making and publishing are. Films can collapse at multiple key moments, or just fizzle into extinction, slowly and inexorably. That’s the fate of almost everything in development. It’s happened to me a few times. And few aspiring writers know how capricious and inconsistent publishing is, too. It’s incredibly hard to have a career as a writer. Almost all human endeavor, anyway, ends in failure. For writers the odds of falling short are even greater than most pursuits, and I’d guess acting is as bad on odds for and against. So knowing all of this increases my joy when the dice rolls a six, but I am always still anticipating a one or two. So, yeah, I take nothing for granted and don’t get carried away.
But I have never compromised on quality control, I have never given up on anything I have started, I continually read, write and rewrite and keep working hard as I move from one idea to another. Eventually, some things do stick …
How much say did you have in the creative process? Did you have any part in moving the setting from the UK to US or was it more for logistical matters with filming during COVID?
I was in the mix of a big collaborative endeavor, as an executive producer, so I had some say in the script development and casting. Looking back, I actually did a lot of reading and wrote screeds of notes across the numerous drafts of the screenplay. But I wouldn’t overplay my hand in terms of my ultimate contribution. I was one voice in a chorus. In production and post-production, I was present, mainly as an observer, but I am not a filmmaker. The knowledge, expertise and experience of actually shooting a film and then editing it and adding VFX and sound, lay with other members of the team and I trust them. Now and again, in the second half of the process, someone would ask “What do you think, Adam?” and I’d give as considered a response as I could. But I certainly didn’t have the deciding vote in anything — nor should I have done.
For The Ritual I was purely the author of the source material. I was kept in the loop but I can’t take any credit for the film. For NOGOA I was very grateful to have had more involvement. I think that where I can be useful, though, is on the horror and story; that’s always what I am bringing to the table in the first place.
On the location shift, very good reasons for why the story would move were made and I trusted those instincts and ideas from the team.
When did you first set eyes on The Creature and was it as you’d designed in your mind whilst writing the book?
No, both creatures were the creations of Keith Thompson, who worked with the directors, David and Santiago, and their visions of what these gods could be and would look like. But I was fascinated and impressed by what they conjured and summoned. I’m easy to work with, I think, because I am open to interpretation in a new medium, of which I am no expert.
I have to ask, if the creature from The Ritual and the creature from NOGOA were to fight, who would win?
I think the Jotunn would appear to be winning from the get go — it’s faster, taller, more nimble and spends more time on our side so has acclimatized. I sense its weakness, though, would be its vanity and overconfidence. As it prepared to deliver a killing blow, the Aztec butterfly deity would bring its mind tricks into the fight to instill just enough of a pause for that hidden mouth to strike a fatal blow. It would then crunch upon the Jotunn’s head like a mantis with a fly in its jaws.
The book can multi-task as a coffee table or weapon. Do you know going in that something is going to be an epic tome or does the story just tell itself?
The NOGOA story and its length evolved steadily from the opening scenes. I had no intention to let it run so long but I do let a story itself dictate length once airborne. Writers are beset by so many arbitrary rules that all contradict each other. So, my advice is to develop a strong internal editor and to listen to its voice.
Before I began NOGOA, I had done a lot of research and had many ideas that I’d wanted to include in the story, and I had a location and a character in a certain kind of situation with compromised circumstances, but I didn’t have the action or plot when I began writing the opening scene.
NOGOA is one of my books, like Last Days, in which I wanted to create and do multiple things at the same time in the same story. In NOGOA, I wanted to create apparitions that were affecting because they were credible and felt like the best true haunting stories that I had been reading for decades. It was a haunting, a ghost story. But the story also had to be about malignant psychopaths too and their victims, with the POV given to a victim of a sadistic killer. So it was a serial killer story too.
I also wanted to explore the folk origins of a peat bog pagan god, and British spiritualism. So it was folk horror involving the mystical and numinous.
Around it all, this was going to be a story about the horror of the terrible disease that is poverty and its catastrophic effects on the vulnerable. It really is a novel about unfairness, so there is the social commentary about my own time and place. And on top of all of that, I wanted the narrative to be cinematic and theatrical in the way it conjured one character’s ordeal, that involved a day-by-day story of endurance, becoming a moment-by-moment life and death story.
So, an awful lot of stories to tell in just one novel. I did drop my editor, Julie, a note and explain that it was running long. She had no problem with that and I needed to hear it. Under my own steam, though, I did take out several scenes with ghosts and even nixed another main character in the second half. But, though it is over 600 pages long, before the eyes of the right reader, it should read as half that length.
What can you tell us about your latest release, Cunning Folk? It seems to be set in your own stomping ground with your signature folk horror spin, but what else?
The setting is the South West of the UK, but I don’t give the story a real location, more a sense of rural Devon. Same deal with The Reddening. And this novel is a block-horror: limited locations and cast but a very intense psychodrama and action story within those limited boundaries. In short, a three-million-dollar horror film within a book. I adapted my second original screenplay into this novel. So, that was new for me.
I began writing the novel with everything already in place — characters I knew from the inside out, a plot and set-pieces I’d pressure-tested in development meetings, a location and set fully realized. I just had to turn 110 pages of mostly white paper into a highly detailed 300-page novel.
It was much harder to do than I’d anticipated, given I had so much to start with. But novels are bastards and will kill you. They’re terrible for your health. Though, there will always be a moment in a later draft when I actually feel the sun rise inside my body and I know that I finally have something that might work out.
Cunning Folk is also my first family-in-peril story — it’s about being a parent and a new homeowner and being crippled by financial anxiety and anxiety about a child’s safety, well-being and future. So, the book starts with a loving family embarking on their biggest ordeal together, with everything real-world stacked against making this move and relocation possible. But it can only get worse when a malignant supernatural presence, through folk magic, also infests their lives … immediately.
My word, they go through hell. My characters always do. I want a reader exhausted and rattled by the end of a story. I’m also going to quote a review from Amazon that made me laugh:
Cunning Folk is a story filled with the classic Adam Nevill tropes: frightening dream sequences, terrifying things dropping from the ceiling, grotesque effigies of pagan deities.
So, yeah, it’s definitely one of mine too, despite the different approach I have taken in creating the story.
Aesthetically, for me, this is a story about nature too and the mysticism inherent in the wild.
The cover has similar vibes to The Reddening. Is that on purpose? Are they part of the same universe, or do you just really like those colors?
The cover art of “The Sow” was created by Samuel Araya, the magnificent artist from Paraguay. He also created the cover art for my third collection, Wyrd. Sam is a brilliant artist and totally grasped the vision I wanted for Ritual Limited books — in fact, he improved it and has made the covers his own, which I am completely happy with. In fact, I asked my designers to take all text off the hardback covers so the jackets become exhibitions of Sam’s art. His work is abstract but leaves no question about what lives inside the story.
Sam gets my horror and my aims on how I want to position and represent my horror. Working with him has been one of the very best things about going indie. Black and red to my eye is horror and its simple, clear and ominous.
Most if not all of your books have been optioned for movies now, would you ever consider writing an original screenplay yourself or are you happy seeing your prose developed by someone else?
I’ve actually written three and have two in some form of development, including Cunning Folk, and the one I am adapting into my next novel. After The Ritual appeared in 2017, I made a determined effort to realize a long overdue ambition to write screenplays. That’s the main reason why there was no book in 2018 from me — I went back to school and studied the craft of screenwriting and had a go at a screenplay, then another go, then another go … It has been of immense value to my exec producer work now. And even if the films never appear as films, they will become novels. Nothing is wasted over here. I’m thrifty.
The only one of my novels not optioned — most have had two or more options to date — is House of Small Shadows. No one can see a film in it. And yet, to my eye, it is close to being the most filmable of my stories if we were still in the 70s or 80s.
What’s next for you?
All being well, there will be another novel next year, folk horror again. Published in four formats through my own imprint.
On film, who knows? I’ve lots of projects in promising places and shapes but whether they live or die is not down to me.
Where can people find you?
Other than that, I’m on the sea and you’ll need a sea kayak to find me …
Trading in a police badge and then classroom, Janine Pipe is a full-time Splatterpunk Award-nominated writer, whilst also being an awesome mum, wife and Disney addict. Influenced by the works of King from a young age, she likes to shock readers with violence and scare them with monsters — both mythical and man-made. When she’s not killing people off, she likes to chew the fat with other authors, reviewing books for Scream Magazine, Cemetery Dance and Horror DNA, and conducting interviews on booktube. You’ll likely find her devouring work by Glenn Rolfe, Hunter Shea and Tim Meyer. Her biggest fan, beta reader, editor and financier is her loving husband.