Devils of London
William Brown reviews Devils of London, Simon Bestwick’s novella set in a post-apocalyptic London: ‘historically- and politically-attuned horror, smouldering with dread.’
You might recall the years 1665 and 1666 from your primary school history lessons. They were God’s great one-two punch, striking England, and its capital in particular, with untold death, destruction, and misery. First came the Plague: between 1665 and 1666, one-fifth of London’s population was killed; crosses were daubed on doorways, denoting sickness within; and ‘plague pits’ were dug throughout the city, filled to the brim with the Black Death’s victims. And then, in September 1666, came the fire: from a single spark in a humble bakery on the inauspiciously named Pudding Lane arose a conflagration that quickly spread throughout the mourning metropolis, in four days reducing much of Britain’s hitherto-prospering heart to ash.
History repeats itself in Simon Bestwick’s new novella, Devils of London. If 2020 was our plague year – 131,260 deaths attest as much – then Bestwick is here to deliver the flaming coup de grâce. As we’ve come to expect from the author of The Faceless (2012) and A Different Kind of Light (2021), Devils of London is historically- and politically-attuned horror, smouldering with dread. Although it plumps for action over horror per se, it’s atmospheric enough to rise above the present glut of post-apocalyptic fiction. And it contains absolutely no zombies, which is a big plus.
John is an undocumented worker living in a squalid flat in a nigh-derelict London terrace, beholden to a pitiless landlord, a pitifully underpaid job, and a society that wants to sweep his kind under the carpet. For John and his downtrodden flatmate Bilal, London is already a post-apocalyptic landscape, life a constant battle for survival against tides of vilification and hopelessness:
John is on the brink of fleeing from London – how realistic is his hope of finding a ‘fresh start’ up North, we can’t be sure – when fire literally begins to rain down from the sky. ‘It was starting to snow,’ John remembers thinking at the onset of the trouble, before realising that it was actually ‘larger flakes of some kind of burning material. We weren’t sure what it was, but one piece clung to the road surface and not only didn’t go out, but started to spread long thin tendrils of fire across the tarmac’. Bestwick’s descriptions of the fire are exquisite – you can almost feel the heat radiating from the page. But he keeps the nature and origin of the combusting ash ambiguous; what matters more is how it is construed by London’s populace:
Again, this is history repeating itself; in his postface to the novella, Bestwick recounts how following the Great Fire of London ‘there was a wave of street violence, largely aimed at foreigners’, as people sought to cast blame for the inexplicable calamities that had befallen them. This scapegoating, this plunge back into the darkest annals of human history, Bestwick’s novella ultimately implies, is the real evil that prospers in the wake of catastrophe – and one that we must be mindful of avoiding in the post-covid present. The inferno that rampages through London is really just a catalyst for the primary aggressors in Devils of London. For two devils there are, though really they are two sides of the same coin: both symbolise the historical and societal darkness lurking beneath the surface of civilisation.
First come the ‘yellow-scarves’. ‘The news had mentioned mobs, going after foreigners, refugees, anyone different’, John recounts. ‘I’d seen people like this countless times both here and back home: waving flags, hurling abuse and missiles, demanding “their country back”’. The yellow-scarves, so-called because, well, they all wear yellow scarves, are one such group; they arrive at John’s flat-block, baying for the blood of the Other. Okay, so I wasn’t too convinced by them. It seems like every post-apocalyptic story has a Mad Max-type gang of marauders like this; Bestwick even arms one of them with the 80s henchman’s weapon of choice, a pair of nunchucks. But they’re pretty damn savage for all that, and John and Bilal’s frequent run-ins with them are exciting enough.
But the Devil is the undisputable star of the piece. Fleeing from the spreading flames and the yellow-scarves, John and Bilal stumble upon a church:
As we reached the other side of the road, the church’s main doors burst open. Smoke boiled out of them, and more lashing tongues of flame. And then a man walked out.
At least, that’s what I thought he was at first.
He was a big man (I’ll use the term for now, in the absence of a better one), standing well over six feet tall and perhaps closer to seven. He was built to match, with massive shoulders and huge, well-defined biceps, pecs and abs. None of those were a matter of conjecture as they were fully on display: he was naked from the waist up, wearing only a pair of leather breeches and heavy boots with steel toecaps, which glowed a cherry red with heat.
Around his wrists were studded leather bands, and he wore gauntlets of some kind: steel plating sewn onto leather. Each plate had cruel, hooked barbs protruding from it, and each fingertip was capped with a long steel talon.
The Devil appears to have been awoken from its subterranean resting place beneath the church (upon one of London’s secret plague pits, perhaps?) by all of the destruction and chaos above. Soliloquies from this Terminator-type aggressor are interspersed with the narrative from hereon in, and I can’t say I was particularly enamoured of them:
The Devil is little more than a surrogate author in these bombastic soliloquies; they provide exposition, but very little in the way of terror. The fiend’s actions speak for themselves, performing impromptu eviscerations with its bare hands and suchlike. On his blog, Bestwick describes Devils of London as ‘a far less gentle tale than my last two novellas, Roth-Steyr and A Different Kind of Light’ (Bestwick 2021) – and that’s putting it mildly. A sort of cross between Rawhead Rex and Bane, London’s Devil is a fantastic creation, perhaps more deserving of a novel.
All of these ingredients make for a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable novella, and it’s a mark of Bestwick’s brilliance as a writer that I was left aching for more from it. What we get is, ultimately, a fairly straightforward chase-and-survival narrative – though it does possess a valuable social resonance. Damien Walter has described Bestwick’s horror stories as ‘perhaps the most engaged with ordinary British life of any horror writer working today’ (Walter 2016). Whilst the outcast status of the protagonist and his companions feels slightly arbitrary to begin with, it takes on a much deeper meaning by the novella’s close. It’s a story about the darkness and violence that the more unfortunate find in a gaping metropolis such as London, and how friendship can cut through that darkness. John and Bilal’s friendship, though understated, forms a compelling emotional backbone throughout the action, building to a poignant climax.
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Damien Walter, ‘The Ominous Ordinary: Horror Writers Finding Scares in the Everyday’, The Guardian (29 Jan 2016) https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/jan/29/the-ominous-ordinary-horror-writers-finding-scares-in-the-everyday [accessed 18 Aug 2021].
http://simon-bestwick.blogspot.com/ [accessed 19 Aug 2021].