Readers unfamiliar with
Wyrd and Other Derelictions
may prefer to read these notes only after reading the collection.
Wyrd and Other Derelictions (2020) by Adam Nevill
Seldom have I read a shorter book of fiction, or one more demanding. There are plenty of settings and landscapes on hand: but no protagonists with any useful insights to share. The prose is densly alive, eager to provide concrete facts about events no longer relevant. It's a gutsy way to tell eight stories that suggest humanity is finished.
* * *
"Hippocampus" does at certain points echo William Hope Hodgson and certain nautical pulp stories.
In the captain's cabin:
Pictures of a ship and framed maps have been removed from the widest wall, and upon this wall a marker pen has been used to depict the outlines of two snouted or trumpeting figures that are attached by what appear to be long, entwined tails….
Below the two figures are imprecise sticklike figures that appear to cavort in emulation of the much larger and snouted characters. Set atop some kind of uneven pyramid shape, another group of human figures have been excitedly and messily drawn with spikes protruding from their heads or headdresses. Between the crowned forms another, plainer figure has been held aloft and bleeds from the torso into a waiting receptacle....
"Hippocampus" does not explain why or how. It barely hints at who or what.
In his story notes, Nevill writes:
[....] Enigma is vital to horror, but I never fail to be surprised at how many readers of horror find no value in this quality. Ten minutes of reading reviews on Amazon could leave a writer of enigmatic horror feeling unloved, unappreciated and lonely.
The value of the enigmatic in "Hippocampus" is in what it requires us to anticipate, and look back upon. Horror readers, fortunately, are used to such strange cargo.
* * *
"Wyrd" is an old word for fate or destiny. Each story in Wyrd and Other Derelictions opens after fate/destiny has played its hand. There are no first-person chroniclers on hand from John Wyndham, J. G. Ballard, or Tim Lebbon main office to update accounts.
"Wyrd" is an on-shore story, complementing the maritime horrors of "Hippocampus."
This land is wild yet appears barren, is open yet busy with the buffet and slap of unfurling gusts of sea wind. As the kilometres pass beneath tired feet and a traveller ranges up those steep sides on hands and knees, only to endure another difficult descent that screams a protest behind the shinbones, one might even feel uncomfortable: unwelcome in a place seemingly cleansed of living things. Perhaps a traveller is even intimidated by the absence of buildings or phone masts or roads. Passages here are boggy, flinty or slippery by turn and seem eager to urge visitors over edges.
Forming a third ring, an outer ring, and one that is barely visible from up here, are a series of small black lumps. Each tiny mound is set behind a tent. Twelve black lumps, twelve tents, twelve stone circles.
[....] Below, at the foot of this valley, is a wide ring of brightly coloured tents, their sides soundlessly shivering and rippling in the wind. At the centre of this nylon circle of pup tents, as if they are wagons drawn protectively around an interior space, twelve smaller rings have been neatly formed from pale stones. What lies within the stone circles at such a distance is unclear but the contents are thin and dark-looking. The stone rings suggest fire pits. But why a dozen?
[....] The only other detail repeated within each interior and shielded by the shuddering fabric walls is a specific item. A book. A book that resembles a bible bound in black leather. Each volume in each tent is identical and laid carefully upon the foot of the beds. No author is cited, but in gold leaf each spine displays the title: WYRD. On the front cover, also embossed in gold leaf, is a symbol resembling a rune. A rune that may depict a bird or some kind of winged figure.
The narrative voice of Wyrd and Other Derelictions likes its rhetorical questions:
[....] But it is rational to assume that a dozen lambs were slaughtered before twelve people carefully undressed inside their tents and made their way to the twelve stone rings. Where they then lay down. And waited.
* * *
Turning the Tide
[....] There is little sound save the dry whittle-rattle of the breeze in the nodding, dipping leaves of the wood, and the slop and languorous fizz of gentle waves upon the shore. And yet there has been other activity here, because the cove's sand has recently been divided by this ploughed stripe: a long, unbroken and determined corrugation that extends from the sea and into the trees. The scar is recent. A shallow trench exposing moist sand beneath the powdery crust, the cut not yet blanched by the early sun's growing warmth.
A new sound. Sudden. Piercing. Incongruous in this still-life momentarily devoid of human congress.
Music. Pinging electronic music. A phone's ringtone.
Some way between the shoreline and the visor of drooping trees, a phone lies upon the sand, its rectangular screen suddenly alight with the green icon of a telephone. A word announces the caller: Police. This instruction flashes for six seconds.
Moments expire and the screen dims. Then, coinciding with an electronic chime, it is lit up again, this time by a thin white banner that announces: You have been left a message from Police. The time is given: 10:15am.
As if the device is eager to return to deep sleep, the lights on the screen dissolve to a black, glassy void. Any sound is sucked back inside the handset.
This phone and two other handsets that become visible in the sand lie outside the four-metre-wide furrow, as if they were dropped over the side of whatever made the track in the red sand. One device is depressed into the ground and the screen shows the wintry veins of cracked ice. Despite the damage inflicted upon the handset, the item functions and beneath the web of shattered screen a light soundlessly flashes orange. The text is just visible beneath the shattered screen. Mum. Mum is calling someone called Kayleigh, to whom the phone must belong.
Were the Police alive when the texts were sent?
"Turning the Tide" offers plenty of evidence of tidal surge. Perhaps some people living around the cove sheltered in place while others bolted?
[....] Turn around.
Close to the nearest tent, a reminder of the campsite's proximity to the sea is visible on the neat, shorn grass. Near translucent and still glimmering with salt water, long bands of brown weed stretch across the earth. Thongweed that has not been strewn here long enough to dry crispy and shrivel into brittle twigs, exposed to the sun and air. Tangled about itself, pooling where the tent's zippered door was torn away, the great glistening spaghetti of seaweed is fresh and brown.
Wet and creased, the white netting of the tent's inner lining and the blue nylon of a porch canopy lie discarded like wet rags upon the grass. This portion of the tent has been tugged out from the collapsed mess, a boneless wing. Glossy, tough and viscous, strands of wet thongweed disappear inside the demolished tent as if burrowing for survivors.
An odour lingers. A fading fragrance of supple marine life; a thin, oily perfume that penetrates the sinuses whenever a nose passes over the silvery flanks of a large fish to assess its freshness. A glance at each of the collapsed tents reveals the same lengths of coiled or probing thongweed about the broken canopies. Each ruin is misted by the spore of fish skin sparkling and dripping with the sea's diamonds.
Beside the collapsed and strewn wreckage of a family tent, another strident scent mingles with the taint of wet scales and dew-moistened grass. An odour of wet dog fur hangs in an invisible cloud about the ugly tears in the tent's bright panels. A smell that grows more pungent with proximity and is soon spiced with the ammonia of exposed kidneys and sun-warmed offal.
The body of the lifeless dog becomes visible.
* * *
Like Auden, Adam Nevill has accomplished something for his landscapes: he has made his stony ground stony again.
Before us, a rock. About us, darkness.
Aged limestone dimly lit from below. A dolmen, pale in patches on its raised features but mostly weathered green, blotched like verdigris on copperplate. A pillar stained the tinge of dried mucus or dead seaweed; a palette of nausea when observed for more than moments. A monolith of stone pored and burrowed by creatures no longer infesting the rock; the uneven surface pockmarked with sinuses, tiny tunnels that end in black. Honeycombed from the myriad of tiny mouths that chewed stone during a vast swathe of time in the sea, or perhaps a cave where it patiently awaited excavation.
A rough design is inscribed on the front of the menhir. Unsavoury form emerges upon this crude column that stands within an iron caliper, rooted to the floorboards. Is that a bulbous abdomen fashioned by Neolithic hands, from a time of frost and tundra, wild times without words? Are they wings, foetal and insubstantial, that cling to the sides of the rock? Was this a likeness, or an impression, wrought by an artist, or priest? And what does the faint, ghastly image depict? Can we assume that the pointed or beaked shape crowning this lumpen bas-relief was once a fearsome head tilted to shriek? Is this an ancient royal crest hewn into rock? Or an image of something once worshipped? A symbol? A territorial marker? Was it brought here from a lonely vigil in a misted, wet landscape, or from the ruins of a temple? The rock's carving conjures all such purposes and settings.
From its cold breast an aroma wafts and lingers in heavy air. An ecclesiastical flavour, mingling with the mineral scent of damp stone. Something has been sprinkled, consecrating the crude rock. Frankincense, a sweet piney resin. Vetiver, a twist of citron. And something more pungent, like almonds, adorns, honours and respects this stone.
About the foundations of the pillar, a myriad tealight candles glimmer in the last of the liquefied wax upon which they float like small yellow hands waving from tiny grey seas. Close to extinction, the dimming candlelight ripples the engulfing dark and the silent, hallowed air that surrounds the rock.
Incense for the horror reader also recalls Arthur Machen, a man of the west, its black stone and hidden depths.
[....] Moments after the hard, stamping feet become audible on the landing outside, the mirror of the dresser at the end of the unkempt bed where the broken man is wedged is busy with motion. Framed within the rectangle of the doorway but partly obscured by the tilting door, a brief moment of revelation is granted. The aperture darkens, is filled.
A flash of torso beneath embryonic wings, raised as if for a fledgling's first flight. Long ribs as if glimpsed through a tadpole's abdomen. What functions for a head is intricately boned, the beak stained, not unlike that of a great plucked bird. A crown of wood upon the ghastly skull.
* * *
[....] Amidst uprooted tree stumps and the tentacles of protruding root systems, a great rectangle has been excavated. A gash clawed and scraped from the earth by the small red digger that currently stands unmanned and idle.
Within the crater, the edges of a vast gravel bed, recently laid, peek out. Impressed upon the gravel, a neat underslab of poured cement, over which the galvanised steel of rebar reinforcement imprints a skeletal waffle shape. Stacks of grey building blocks, blue pool coping and white tiles wrapped in polythene await their inclusion in the creation of a large swimming pool.
Foundations for a pool gouged out of the old wood. The furthest edge of the excavation clips the sloping skirts of the grassy mound. Once the trees were felled and the undergrowth cleared, the mound presented itself and the ancient yew looked on, naked and fearful and disrobed by the disintegrating perimeter of wood that had concealed and protected what was once a small woodland glade.
[....] Labours and exertions to produce the luxurious swimming pool have paused. No one works in the pit this fine morning. Had men toiled about the great rent in the earth, the cacophony of whistles and caws and shrieks from the receding, battered treeline might have competed with the grind and whine of their power tools and the diesel grunting of plant machinery.
* * *
[....] Upon the bottom of the swimming pool an obese form squats. Against blue tiles, the bulb's rubbery dimensions suggest the bud of a giant tropical flower, an exotic fruit, or some lambent marine flora glimpsed through the face-mask of a diver drifting along a coral reef.
[....] Two of the creatures appear taller, resemble rosy columns, as if their digestion is more advanced than that of their neighbours. Their pink feelers have resumed a bloom and a seething exploration of the surrounding water, prospecting for more of what has been consumed and now rendered pulpy. From the mouth of the most distant anemone, a pale human forearm extends, the delicate wrist curved gracefully. A diamond ring sparkles upon a slender finger.
[....] The cladding or siding of every chalet within sight of the through-road also bear the marks and stains of what could be mistaken for neglect. Row after row, cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac, from the more expensive cedar homes atop the hills, with decks providing the best sea-views, to the standard forty-foot caravans, not a single dwelling has escaped the markings of a curious and unsightly contamination. The cleaner, brighter vestiges of the walls and the clarity of the pool's water, however, suggest that this transformation has not been the result of a lengthy abandonment or dereliction. Rather, a recent reclamation is indicated by the contrasts of the clean sidings to those places given over to the weed. The land and its structures seem not to fully recognise, nor acknowledge, the suddenness of their transfiguration. They seem to be half what they had until recently been, and half something else entirely. Here exists a condition of modification.
Upon the bottom of the swimming pool an obese form squats. Against blue tiles, the bulb's rubbery dimensions suggest the bud of a giant tropical flower, an exotic fruit, or some lambent marine flora glimpsed through the face-mask of a diver drifting along a coral reef.
Two of the creatures appear taller, resemble rosy columns, as if their digestion is more advanced than that of their neighbours. Their pink feelers have resumed a bloom and a seething exploration of the surrounding water, prospecting for more of what has been consumed and now rendered pulpy. From the mouth of the most distant anemone, a pale human forearm extends, the delicate wrist curved gracefully. A diamond ring sparkles upon a slender finger....
Wyrd and Other Derelictions points the line of action inward from sea to shore to cove to littoral suburb.
[....] More careful examination of the human remains on the wet and refuse-strewn floor of the room reveals evidence that the couple were restrained against their will. Their flesh is blanched and radiates an unhealthy pallor, tinged blue about the mouths and eyelids. Each mouth gapes and is missing false teeth. But the remaining flesh upon the upper chest, shoulders, arms, throat and genital area is perforated by numerous rings of circular black incisions. Only the abdomens are entirely broken open, and inside these even a cursory inspection will reveal the clusters of translucent depositions. Egg cases, almost identical in shape to those of the common cat shark and yet the size of an average human foot. The fibrous strings at either end of the cases have entwined about the lower ribs of the hosts, so that the see-through parcel can hatch within the softer area of the gut; probably the best food source for such impressive parasites.
Against the tinted window a sudden thump.
[....] Impressed, slug-like, on the other side of the dark glass, the underside of a vivid orange form adheres and lengthens. A worm. At its plumpest, the trunk possesses the thickness of a soil pipe. Segmentation tiles the visible body, soon tapering to a tail obscured in darkness. The creature's size is impressive, because only the mid-section sucks the glass; the head that flops wetly into the doorway must be supported by a further three metres of tubular trunk.
* * *
Hold the World in My Arms for Three Days and All Will Be Changed
Strange sky-shapes occlude stars; forms along treelines pick up speed. Windows of suburbia are broken outward, residents are seen fleeing upward.
[....] The land's new sinister beauty encourages suspicions of an atmosphere that has been replaced by another; one too strange for the consequences of an event or catastrophe caused by mankind. The light, the surfaces of things, seem transported from another place in the cosmos. Within this vivid new spectrum of colour, what other changes have occurred that cannot be seen?
[....] The empty silence of the unheated house stretches away from the bed, this room. Without warmth, the old cottage smells damp, dusty, is spiced with the taint of old paintwork. Another time already appears to have superimposed itself upon the interior: one many years into the future of its coming dereliction, or a time from the house's past when the building lay empty before.
[....] Turn to the north, to the white blocks of the town. The smoking chimneys of local industries long extinct might have reopened to demonstrate peak production. A murky cumulus of toxic smoke flows upwards and billows across the surrounding hills. Pollutants from the burning town disperse into the growing, unnerving, ruddy stains of the sky, wiping soot on florid cheeks. Above the town and village the skies' wounds worsen, the scarlet taint horrible, the low cloud as blackened as unchanged cotton wool pressed to burns. From the inferno, tiny indefinable forms occasionally fall at the sky. Tiny cinders, eager to catch up with those who left earlier.
Has something passed by the earth? Are the experiences in Wyrd and Other Derelictions misapprehensions of new phenomena registering in a post-human landscape?
[....] Part of the object, at its visible summit, becomes so dark it disappears within the encroaching night. But below the apex of the silhouette and upon this enormous, misshapen celestial body that should not be there, lumpy contours are suggested. The lower part is freckled with spots of red light, no more distinct than the moon's craters on a clear night, though these holes glimmer like rubies.
[....] It seems suspended, poised beyond the atmosphere, though it could not be stationary; this object is either caught in the earth's orbit, or intentionally travelling at the same speed as the earth's rotation to maintain a position. Above this confusing and unfamiliar and unaccountably ruby world, what resembles a new planet is here and so dark that it strives again to become invisible in the swiftly falling night. A black immensity that has approached the earth. How long might the foreign body have travelled to get here? Perhaps it was passing the earth undetected before pausing....
2 November 2022