Narcissus by Adam Godfrey: A Review
Don't be vain... or you'll see your own veins.
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Note, the sequel: This was an ARC given to me by Shortwave Publishing in exchange for an honest review.
Horror, particularly films rather than books, has a noble tradition of getting good value from the concept of don’t do something that’s really hard not to do. In Nightmare on Elm Street, you can’t fall asleep. In Final Destination, you can’t be around anything dangerous. Or anything, to be honest. The concept has ramped up in recent times as we enter a new age of horror popularity in both book and film, with recent efforts including Smile, where to survive you just have to not be around people (finally a horror where a video game-playing introvert myself would do quite well.)
Into this common habit-avoidance genre (other names are available) we can now include Narcissus, a novella by Adam Godfrey published by indie press Shortwave Publishing. Not only is it a great example of the bite-sized quality being put out by Shortwave at the moment (see my recent review of Lyndsey Croal’s Have You Decided on Your Question for another example) but it’s an exciting introduction to a new horror voice whose promise I am really excited about.
The plot is pleasingly simple. Four friends on holiday in Greece visit an ancient cave system, purported to be where the Greek demi-god Narcissus succumbed to his fate – you know, the one who stared so lovingly at his own reflection until he wasted away. Obviously, they look – to be fair to them, in the real world you probably would be expecting too much harm to come from looking into a subterranean pool – and consequently they are stalked by something that hides in their own reflections. How hard is it to avoid your own reflection in any surface? Very hard, as this pacy, compelling novella proves.
Apart from the fantastically creepy concept, competently delivered, the thing which really puts this novella above a lot of its horror contemporaries is the prose. I am really, really excited by the prose and the potential of Adam Godfrey in this respect. You don’t always have to have brilliant prose in horror. Especially not in a whirlwind cool-concept-based short snack of a book. But Godfrey puts real effort into his, and the results are… well, in places nothing short of brilliant. Take this early sentence we get which told me a lot about how seriously he takes his prose:
The stone cathedral sings a song of echoes, every drip and breath and step a note that plays a dozen times across the void and melds into the next in anxious harmony. They stand inside a cerulean bath of light that stains the black, emanating from an abstract work of bioluminescence spackled out across the vaulted ceiling. Down below, a pristine doppelganger of the tapestry above repeats itself inside a pool as clean and still as polished onyx.
I’m sorry but that is fantastic description. Frame it in quality wood, hang it on your wall pronto. Godfrey parcels out these show-off paragraphs sparingly (though all the prose is of a great standard) but they come at regular intervals, and it adds a layer of poetic beauty to a novella that didn’t really need it. It could have stood on its own pace and well-written concept – but the prose elevates it, adding a layer of poetic creepiness to the already surreally unsettling experience.
Another thing that stands out is the quality of the deaths. One in particular might be the best I have read and will read all year – a gloriously dreamlike and deeply unsettling and extended sequence, beginning with an innocent scene on a beach and ending in a physics-defying, horrifically abstract scene of grotesque gore. It’s brilliant, a real contender for horror scene of the year.
I also enjoyed the standard mid-act explanation of the true nature of the horror the four friends are facing, which added an interesting twist to their prospects of survival and gives a new layer to the title. It was a welcome development, but it did make me wish we had more time to explore this, not to mention more attempts at avoiding their reflections which is just endlessly good fun. But of course, as this is a novella, it’s important to remember that this isn’t really a criticism but more a sign of how much I was enjoying it that I wanted more of this lore to be explored.
The one thing that didn’t quite click for me was the characters, none of whom I really engaged with on a level that made me desperately want them to survive. Again, this is a novella, so it is difficult to achieve that while also getting all the plot in, but they didn’t really come alive for me. The one exception, who held a lot of promise though frustratingly brief, was a character with an intriguing neurodivergent trait which was beautifully and compellingly explained (I won’t give it away but it’s genuinely fascinating). So great to see ND rep explored in this thoughtful, even if brief, way.
Overall, Narcissus is not just a fantastic concept brilliantly and creepily conveyed, but it is also a beautifully written book with prose that, on occasion, I swooned over, and it is for both these reasons that on... reflection (sorry/not sorry) I am really excited to see what this fresh new voice of horror will give us next.