A psychological horror story set in the dark days of the Balkan conflict of the early 1990s might not be everyone’s most appealing premise for a book, especially from a debut author.
But in the hands of Bosnian author Selvedin Avdić it becomes a haunting tale of loss, human suffering and a constant battle to hold back the tides of evil.
Selvedin’s acclaimed debut novel, Seven Terrors, has the unsettling power to conjure chilling images and disturbing characters that linger long after the lights have gone out.
This is a genuine old fashioned horror story but also unlike the teenage fear fodder or psycho killer thrillers that publishers seem to love so much (for the money they rake in, of course).
This story starts in 2005 when the unnamed narrator wakes from nine months of self-imposed sleep, seemingly brought on by his wife leaving him.
Bad things happened while you are sleeping
To make matters worse, and slightly surreal, the landlord calls to collect nine months of back rent on the very day our hero chooses to wake.
The more he sees, the more the narrator realises that a lot has happened while he has been snoozing. The world in which he finds himself is one where ancient hatreds have been awoken and evil seems to have taken hold.
The rent man is not the only visitor, though. Mirna who has come from Sweden to find her father, a reporter who went missing during war in the early 1990s, also visits the narrator.
Mirna brings her father’s notebooks, which point to what might have led to his sudden disappearance. Desperate to find something familiar among his strange surroundings, the narrator agrees to search for his old friend, setting out on a journey that depicts the impact of war and evil on his homeland and people.
Haunted by visions of Bosnian war
Not surprisingly, with everything that is going on, the narrator suffers from hallucinations, visions of evil spirits and dreams of Hell’s own horsemen.
The Bosnian war features only briefly in the story it is a constant presence, represented through Aleksa’s notebooks, as they chart his investigation into strange goings on at the local mine and the creeping evil that seems to be taking over everyone and everything.
The effects of war are also shown in the evil that can be unleashed when people turn a blind eye to survive and protect those they love, as well as in the inevitable chaos and disorder that follows.
When the mine collapses it is as if a gateway has opened to a world of disturbing apparitions and strange beings, such as the ghostly pale Pegasus brothers. These otherworldly villains who prey on innocence are not only morally corrupt, they also find outlet for their evil in torture and war crimes.
Evil corrupts everything it touches
Author Avdić uses various vehicles to indicate how contact with evil will inevitably leave a stain on anyone, tainting their moral compass. Obviously, setting the story during a time of war compounds this message and allows Avdić to show that everything is not as is might seem at first sight.
In many art forms, the audience is best engaged when there is something left to the imagination. That can be said for Seven Terrors, in which much of the satisfaction is in the space to consider what might be lurking in the shadows, both literally and metaphorically.
The visions in this story conspire to blur the line between reality and nightmares, painting two worlds that become one in a battle of good and evil, the living and the dead, inviting obvious parallels to the divided nature of Bosnia and its people. Refreshingly, though, this is not laboured and does not detract from the narrative of a good horror story.
It is thanks to Istros Books, a London-based publisher with the foresight to commission English-language translations for leading authors from Southern Europe, that books such as Seven Terrors can be enjoyed beyond the Balkans.
At the end of the book, which was shortlisted for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards 2013 and long listed for the Dublin Impac Awards 2014, the author has listed his seven terrors, which make for interesting reading.
Anna Wintour and the seven terrors
These are followed by a wad of blank pages left for readers to record their own fears. This simple device encourages personal contemplation beyond the actual story and serves to bring the horrors home.
Another novel addition to the book is the endnotes, where the author can let rip on a variety of annoyances and fears, including a deliciously vicious attack on Anna Wintour, the British-born editor of US Vogue.
If the legendary Ms Wintour ever reads his book, Selvedin Avdić might find that he faces an eighth terror to add to his list.
Creepy, disturbing and thoroughly enjoyable, Seven Terrors is a thrillingly nightmarish vision of what lurks in the darkness, of the evil that waits just below the surface. It is also a damn good read.