Next, After Lucifer
Trade Paper, 322 pages, $12.75
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
What could be more rapturous than staying at a villa in the south of France? Oh, to indulge in the delectable food, bask in the stunning scenery, explore the nearby haunted ruins infested with evil – wait, who put that there? Neil McMahon did. He deviously snuck a snake into paradise. McMahon’s novel Next, After Lucifer cunningly combines the seductive setting with a centuries old malevolence. Medieval menace is reawakened by a scholar, and while all is nice in Nice, there’s hell in the hills. The narrative is an intelligent reflection on succumbing to the dark side, and how temptation cannot always be tempered by rationality or morality.
Renowned history Professor John McTell is on holiday in Provence. All appears idyllic: “Around him as far as he could see rose the steep craggy hills of the Alpes Maritimes, soil baked to the deep rust color of a ceramic glaze, forming a bright mosaic with the thick green vegetation. The sky was like a polished slate of sapphire. No other dwellings could be seen, nor, the realtor had declared, could any others see this one. Though the heat was intense, the villa’s tiled oval swimming pool was filled with cool clear water, procured mysteriously during this season of drought.” The water is tainted by malign elements that baptize McTell in unholy undertakings. The academic’s soul is usurped by a notorious legendary local from the Middle Ages. The fiendish villain practiced bloody acts. And the black arts; employing them to lure McTell into a sanguinary appreciation of the arcane.
This unhealthy meeting of the minds and souls is depicted as inevitable: The Middle Ages merging with middle-age malaise. McTell is going through a midlife crisis; prone to ruminating on his life and picking at the scab of discontent: “And suddenly he saw his own future spread out before him like an endless not-unpleasant suburb, with long sunny streets named Routine and Productivity and Modest Success, sloping gently down the Parkway of Retirement in Comfort to the darker cul-de-sac of Oblivion.” In essence, the protagonist is ripe for the taking; a perfect host for a dastardly ghost.
The dark forces that permeate the tale are vile and vicious. Their demonic whisperings exacerbate McTell’s disquietude; playing to his weaknesses. Inclined by profession to solitary research, McTell can rationalize when he turns further away from society. Excuses also come into play when his placid marriage becomes threatened by the charms of a lovely local girl, but his attraction to her is more than marital ennui. The urgent yearning is beyond his feeble control; he is a puppet with a terrifying master.
McMahon superbly executes the psychic takeover, and isn’t sparing in the carnage that ensues from it. Despite the violence, the real horror springs from the measured and assured build-up to the savage sequences. Readers may notice that those endangered don’t have cell phones at their disposal, and the action seems to take place in present day. This is explained both by observing the book’s original publication date (1987) and reading the author’s note at the beginning of the book.
Next, After Lucifer ends on a cliffhanger. The novel is part of a trilogy which includes a direct sequel entitled Adversary (originally published in 1988) and the third volume, described as a “semi-sequel” to the previous books, is Cast Angels Down to Hell. It was first released in 1990 with the title Kiss of Death. The earlier versions were published under the pseudonym of Daniel Rhodes. Neil McMahon, the writer’s real name, states that he was inspired by three particular horror classics in writing the first book of the series: Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book and Count Magnus by M.R. James, and The Book by Margaret Irwin. Their influence resonates in Next, After Lucifer. When initially released, the novel garnered advance praise from horrormeisters Robert Bloch and Graham Masterton. It remains very deserving of the honor.