The venerable university town of St Andrews, best known as the home of golf, is the place; the characters are struggling Brummie rock musicians Dante and Tom, who relocate to Scotland in search of inspiration. The man they seek is Eliot Coldwell, one of those sixties intellectuals who once wrote a book (bearing the same title as this 2004 novel) full of the usual new age nonsense mixed with the occult.
For Dante, however, the book is a masterpiece; he wants to compose a rock opera based on it. All starry-eyed, he approaches Coldwell – now an aged drunk – and becomes his new assistant. The previous one apparently burned himself alive. Other students at the university also come to bad and bloody ends; there’s a strange creature making rounds among people who attended a study group organized by Coldwell.
The first horror novel by Nevill, The Banquet for the Damned takes off like a bullet, with promises of great things to come. Sadly, it never quite cashes in on those promises. Instead of the roaringly Crowley-like slouch that is Coldwell, his female companion Beth, possibly possessed by something summoned from beyond by Coldwell, becomes the adversary; but the character never really catches on, remaining an (erotic) enigma. In the end, even the creature she controls has more of an emotional impact.
The second half gets progressively murkier, even with the addition of a rather unconvincing American lecturer, Hart Miller, who has some inkling of what’s happening. The characters, and by extension the readers, just stumble around with some ideas about night terrors and occult goings-on, never really figuring out enough to make sense of it all. The end is action-packed, but somehow unfulfilling.
But the mood is good throughout: St Andrews plays its part well, providing a very M.R. Jamesian backdrop for the story that’s perhaps slightly more indebted to the works of Ramsey Campbell. Certainly the murkiness is a rather Campbellian trait. For a first novel, such comparisons aren’t half bad: and Nevill’s later works, such as the brilliant The Ritual and the creepy Last Days, attest to the fact that he’s constantly improving his craft and becoming increasingly more original in the process – more Nevillean, so to speak.