Horror fans often point to their genre of choice as an arena of literary risk, a genre that is marginalized because it dares to go further, to ruffle feathers, to penetrate into the psychological badlands that mainstream writers shy away from. All too often the opposite is the case. The heartland of generic horror is populated almost entirely by books that take no risks at all, relying instead on crash-tested shocks, tired tropes, and recycled scenarios to the point where generic horror literature has, somewhat bizarrely, become a literature of nostalgia. Which is why it is genuinely thrilling to discover a book that defies the clichés and charts an original course into new territory. To discover a writer who, instead of wheeling out the same tired leitmotifs, dares to imagine situations, worlds, textures that relate neither to the Victorian ghost story nor to the 80s horror boom but to the cultural and political landscape of our present reality.
Will Wiles is such a writer. His second book The Way Inn is such a novel.
If you've ever been bored out of your mind at a weekend business conference, yet felt you'd be losing brownie points with the management if you failed to attend, the protagonist of The Way Inn offers a service that might interest you. Neil Double works as a "conference surrogate." For a suitable client fee, he will go to the conference so you don’t have to. He'll attend presentations, hobnob in the bar, take notes, and present a full report, saving you both time and brain cells. For Neil, business is booming along with the meetings industry. And besides, he loves staying in hotels. The Way Inn chain in particular provides him with exactly that level of comfort, ease, and anonymity that makes his job pleasurable.
Of course I still have to deal with the rigmarole of actual attendance, but the difference is that I love it . . . I love to float in that world, unidentified, working to my own agenda. And out of all those generalities I love hotels the most: their discretion, their solicitude, their sense of insulation and isolation. The global hotel chains are the archipelago I call home. People say that they are lonely places, but for me that simply means that they are places where only my needs are important, and that my comfort is the highest achievement our technological civilisation can aspire to. (pp. 45-6)
What attracts Neil to the hotel environment is its disposability—a pristine and functional commercial ecosystem where everything is box fresh, where sex, business relationships, and even the room you stay in are all infinitely replaceable, forever evolving yet ultimately always the same. We join Neil as he arrives at a Way Inn on the eve of a conference at the knowingly named MetaCentre, part of a service complex at a newly completed motorway intersection. Neil settles into his room then buses across to the MetaCentre to register for the conference. He soon spots people he knows from previous conferences—a female executive whose name he can't quite remember (is it Rhonda or Rosa?), a bumbling and seemingly omnipresent business journalist called Maurice, and a red-headed woman whom Neil last spotted at an identical Way Inn in Doha, Qatar. It's business as usual, in other words. But not for long. Neil doesn't know it yet, but his anonymity—the part of himself he values most—is about to be snatched away from him. And the reassuring customer-first dynamic that makes Way Inns so attractive and so dependable looks set to be reversed. For Neil Double, this is the conference that will alter his worldview—permanently.
I don't want to say much more about the plot. One of the many joys of this wonderfully original and bitingly funny novel is the journey it takes you on—a journey down the rabbit hole into depths and vastnesses whose lurking presence you would never guess at from the book's deadpan opening. An equal and complementary joy is Wiles's writing. Fans of his debut—an addictive and hilarious exercise in Schadenfreude entitled Care of Wooden Floors (2012)—will not be disappointed. The clipped, polished sentences, the terse asides, the passive-aggressive dialogue—a delicious hybrid of Beckett and Ayckbourn—form a perfected topiary of understatement and irony that I'm tempted to say could only ever be the work of a British writer.
But like all the finest social comedy, The Way Inn is deadly serious. Will Wiles also writes as an architectural journalist, and his passionate interest in space—the living spaces we inhabit, the way we as human beings engineer space to suit our needs—is the guiding mantra behind both his novels to date. In The Way Inn, his evocation of Ballardian un-space—the business parks, flyovers, housing complexes, and conference centers that make up the post-urban environment—and its detrimental and increasingly pervasive influence upon our mass psychology contains some of the finest descriptive polemic on the subject that I have ever read: masterfully taut, unbearable in its exactitude, and deeply unsettling. Wiles is an expert in describing the bland, ubiquitous texture of spaces that are purportedly designed for everyone yet desired by no one, environments that mostly benefit the developers whose business could be described as levelling down, the rendering of natural landscapes to the architectural equivalent of recovered meat. People come a poor second to the automobiles that drive them in such environments, something Double learns to his cost when he attempts to cross a motorway slip road on foot:
I turned my head to see a pair of cars vectoring out of the orbit of the roundabout, accelerating into an escape velocity, aiming for me. The headlights were on—the weak, alien sun was gone. The lead car sounded its horn as I hit the stony shore on the far side of the ramp and the furious blaring note dopplered away behind me, ricocheting off the precisely formed flanks of the embankment. This was it—the far side, my destination, safety. Part of me wanted to sink to my knees in thanksgiving, but the ground—not pavement, just leftover dirt verge—was muddy and sown with litter and debris from the road. Cracked hubcabs and crisp packets, a coiled piece of clothing, blackened and pressed into the dirt by the rain. Clothes abandoned by the road always had a sinister air, suggesting sex crime or self-destruction, arising from the question of how they got there and who they had left unclothed. After a few moments to regain my breath, I trudged on. (pp. 159-60)
In the hierarchy of dystopian novels, The Way Inn is special because it accurately describes the dystopia we are already living in. Neil Double is even less of a natural rebel than Winston Smith. If you were to ask him at the start of the novel if he were content with his place in the scheme of things, his answer would mostly likely be an emphatic yes. The status quo suits him, because with his unconscious privilege, his airport lounge culture, and his atrophied emotions, Neil Double is the status quo. It is only chance—a small avalanche of minor catastrophes—that reveals to him that he is not in fact the consumer, as he believed he was, but the consumed. The revelation changes him, because it denies him the opportunity for passivity. For Neil Double, a voided bus pass is all it takes.
The Way Inn is a horror novel with something to say about the world we live in, and it is not afraid to use the language and imagery of the horror writer to say it. Indeed there are things here that remind me forcibly of Ramsey Campbell's malign cityscapes, of the singular kind of justice meted out in Thomas Ligotti's similarly black-humored My Work Is Not Yet Done (2002). Rather than dodging the issue of genre in the way of so many writers working primarily in the mainstream, Wiles appears to embrace The Way Inn's double identity with open arms. I was delighted to see this, partly because it’s so rare, partly because Neil's descent into the abyss is so much fun.
Whether the experiment is wholly successful is open to argument. Much as I applaud Wiles's willingness to engage honestly with genre, I actually find the more deliberately horrific final quarter of the book less frightening than the meticulous social realism that goes before it. There is a quality of staginess about the novel's climactic sequences that feels forced. A lack of depth in characterization—an issue that passes more or less unnoticed throughout the first half of the novel because the quality of Wiles's satirical writing is so unerringly high—steers the action unconvincingly toward melodrama. Above all, these final chapters seem less personal and therefore less resonant, and although I enjoyed the denouement I admire this novel most for what it does best—revealing the ordinary horror of day-to-day exchanges, the daunting oppressiveness of the neverlands that threaten to engulf us, the limitless purgatory of the call center:
I put the phone down on Fran's closing remarks. She was useless to me. She might as well have been a push-button answer tree. In five or ten years those jobs will be replaced by voice-recognition algorithms. Dealing with her wasn't going to get me anywhere, and it wasn't her fault. She was there to deflect awkward customers away from the company itself, not to deal with them. It was all an illusion; doors painted on to a solid facade. No central exchange, just a labyrinth of dead ends in which my complaint would be left to expire. (pp 124-5)
The Way Inn does what horror fiction is supposed to do: it tackles important subjects in an unexpected way, it finds strangeness in the familiar, and shows us that darkness lies closer to hand than we would like to think. It is also a stunningly good read. No matter this novel's flaws—we need more books like it.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in Best Horror of the Year #2, Year's Best SF #28, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published by Eibonvale Press in 2011, and her most recent book, Stardust, is available from PS Publishing. Nina's website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.