The Whitaker Estate, on the outskirts of the town of Bankside, is old, neglected and largely deserted, its only regular visitors wildlife and schoolkids. Like many an old and dilapidated place, it has a colourful past and has, as a result, attracted its fair share of local gossip and superstition. Reading this, you may be forgiven a certain sense of déjà vu: this is, after all, the stuff of horror. However, Peter Labrow adds an intriguing twist to the formula. The estate, it transpires, also has a disused, derelict well; and this, as schoolgirl Becca and her boyfriend Matt are about to find out, is far more dangerous.
A freak accident whilst planning an illicit tryst leaves the two teenagers trapped at the bottom of the well. Nobody knows they’re there. Their parents are away for the weekend. They were injured in the fall. They have only a little food and clean water. Their mobile phones don’t work. And, as if this weren’t enough, a local ephebophile, who has been keeping a predatory eye on Becca for some time, is on their trail. Needless to say, this on its own would have made for a tense, taut horror/thriller. However, Labrow doesn’t stop there. The well, as soon becomes clear, is the focus not just of the earthly horrors of pain and hunger and death, but also of a supernatural threat. And all of these different threats have very long tentacles indeed: they creep outwards, affecting the lives of various luckless strangers.
These different plot elements could have made for confusion, but in the hands of a skilled storyteller such as Labrow they flow together seamlessly, and apparently effortlessly. The separate but interconnected stories are told carefully and with great dexterity, and come together at the end in a very satisfying dénouement. It’s hard to write a novel with so many strands and so many characters, all with their assorted viewpoints; it requires great skill on the part of the author. What I love about The Well is just how beautifully Labrow manages it. There isn’t a single wobble, nor any of the clunkiness and slip-ups that could all too easily have crept in. The well itself is evoked in all its dank, claustrophobic nastiness, but Labrow just as easily draws us into events above ground.
Deceit is a major theme in The Well. Becca lies to her mother, and Matt lies to Becca; a mother tells white lies to protect her young child; the lies told centuries ago continue to reverberate in the present. A dangerous, predatory man lives a lie, concealing his unhealthy interest in young girls and total lack of human empathy beneath an affable, kindly façade. And yet, from the point of view of the characters, all of these lies are necessary and understandable. Reading, you ask yourself exactly how honest you would have been in similar circumstances, just as you are forced to consider the consequences of deceit. Labrow occasionally brings the darkness a little closer to home than is comfortable.
The questions you are led to ask yourself do not, however, weigh the story down. It is tightly-paced, never drags – and yes, it is often quite horrific. Yet the horror, curiously enough, owes less to the supernatural than to Labrow’s vivid and uncomfortably plausible portrayal of human nature. In this respect, the novel often put me in mind of ‘Salem’s Lot, in which the supernatural is far less frightening than King’s depiction of the mindless, low-level corruption and brutality of some of the town’s inhabitants. In Labrow’s novel, too, the characters are realistic and psychologically believable, often disturbingly so. There are no heroes here, and only one real villain. For the most part, these are complex people with complex motivations, behaving as people do – and people, as we all know, do not always behave well. This is, perhaps, the ultimate source of all horror.