Welcome to Neverbury

Welcome to Neverbury cover art.
Welcome to Neverbury cover art.

Written by Chris Lynch

Read by Terry Cooper

It would be a big mistake to describe the love of dark and supernatural stories beneath the surface of ordinary environments as any kind of trend. MR James practically made his name from that combination of the ordinary and the eldritch – to say nothing of one Mr Stephen King.

But the 21st century has matured that irresistible combination of dark and creepy goings-on beneath the surface of day-to-day life, adding a solid swirl of accessible comedy that likewise is based in people who think of themselves and their actions as perfectly ordinary, but who, nevertheless, through the eyes of any outsiders can be seen as stark raving mad, and potentially extremely dangerous.

At the risk of driving the Gen Xers into a dark room to cry, the book of Good Omens came out in 1990, which allowed the eldritch, the ordinary, and the comical to intermingle nicely, but wasn’t especially location-specific. The League of Gentlemen first hit screens in 1999 (yes, really!), and while American hits like Stranger Things have combined the weird, the workaday, the dramatic and the comic in an accessible way for worldwide consumption, the League team have continued to re-spin the DNA of dark location-based comedy in the UK in ways that use particularly British elements of culture, and so aim their jokes particularly at an informed audience with a joy in twisted humour.

The Best Of Both Worlds

Here’s the deal. If you like the League, and Psychoville, and Inside No.9, and even to some extent the likes of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, you’re going to want to get hold of Welcome to Neverbury by Chris Lynch, because it has that same swirl of paranormal darkness through its comedy. Or that same swirl of blood-black comedy through its horror, depending on your point of view.

The catch is that, for instance, I can’t stand any of those shows, and Welcome to Neverbury is still one of my top 5 audiobooks of 2023 so far.

In part, that’s down to Lynch’s unapologetic evocation of place and atmosphere, stripping back the layers of everyday mundanity in his own time, to give you all the human realism you need, comedy included, while letting the eldritch “otherness” of Neverbury creep up your legs and get its tentacles around your head before you realise what it’s doing – just as it opens its jaws.

Partly, it’s also down to the fact that it’s a collection of short stories, so almost like James Joyce’s Dubliners, it doesn’t force itself to deliver a single coherent narrative, but allows you to nip in and out of the lives of the Neverbury residents – and a handful of incomers – so you get a much broader sense of “the place” than you would if, for instance, you had to follow one small group of characters through their uncovering of Neverbury’s secrets.

Neverbury just “is.” It never strives for your understanding, but through this collection of short stories, it shows you elements of itself that will stay with you long beyond the end of the book (or the 4 and a quarter hours of the audiobook).

Without spoiling you, the atmosphere of Neverbury is such that you should never trust a parcel that postman Patrick hands you. Never trust a drink the local MP passes you. Never get caught in the war between the town’s two charity shops. Beware dreams of your perfect project. Take a second squint at the optician. Fear the mystical power of the town council. And never get attached to your dog.

A Selection Box of Terrors

There are various types of horror in Welcome to Neverbury – including that creepy An Inspector Calls horror of past crimes catching up with you, a classic case of whose god is bigger when a life is in the balance, night terrors made real in the day, the calm psychopathy of the smiling stranger you see every day, the very real 2023 possibility that your MP can’t be trusted, the new horror of programmable influence, things rising from the seaside deep, and a whole bunch more.

The stories are arranged to keep you on the back foot, never letting you get comfortable with a single “type” of disconcerting tale. To quote a line – “That was the weird thing about Neverbury – it was a place where nothing ever happened, apart from all the weird and horrible things that did.”

That’s the mood of this collection – some stories go in heavier with comedy elements, like the god-off, and a goth teenager who manages to phone the Powers of Darkness hotline, and others whip the floor right out from under you, like the story of an architect with big plans who finds the perfect place to stay. Most of them will at least give you something to chuckle at, and most of them will make you shudder for one of those many reasons.

The result is a collection that, while it keeps changing its tone and its dangers, nevertheless develops an overall atmosphere that is distinctly and pleasurably “Neverbury.” That means that, for instance, an anthology radio series based on the book and the town would be exquisite, because of that combination of a coherent atmosphere across the set, and a freshness of tone that blows in with every story.

The Upside of Audio

Welcome to Neverbury is an easy book to read silently to yourself. But if you’ll take our recommendation, you’ll go for the audiobook version, read by Terry Cooper.

Cooper pitches his read in a warm neutral tone, but brings colour, vivacity, and above all believability, to a wide range of characters of all ages, sexes, and states of mortality. It makes a pre-existing pleasure significantly better, by breathing all those shades of life into the inhabitants of Neverbury. It also makes a fast read feel even faster, because Cooper has a firm grasp on the material and the necessary tone, which brings you into the town in a heartbeat, and keeps you there through all the stories, leaving you wanting more.

That’s the fundamental vibe you’re left with when you get to the end of Welcome to Neverbury – the urge to go back for more, of both Lynch’s dancing dark imaginings and Cooper’s agile reading.

Unashamedly one of my top five audiobooks of 2023 so far (of 70 heard), Welcome to Neverbury is a gorgeous, dark delight, with ripples of shoulder-shaking comedy throughout.

Pick it up. Laugh. Feel. And wait for things to get weeeeird.

You won’t be waiting long.

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