Thirteen Storeys by Jonathan Sims

This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid . If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.

Editor’s note: Spoilers for themes, but not specifics.

Jonathan Sims knows a thing or two about horror. The writer of The Magnus Archives and the voice of it’s perpetually tortured lead, Sims has been at the centre of an escalating storm of extraordinarily successful and ambitious horror for close to five years. Next year, The Magnus Archives comes to a close and now, we have an idea of what Jonny’s doing next.

He’s investing in property! Kind of…

Banyan Court is a London tower block, and in turn cross section of London itself, a building bisected by class. The front is pure JG Ballard: towering architecture and opulence, crisp, tight-collared efficiency of capitalism. Tailored sociopathy.

The back is Dickensian, down to the dirt under it’s nails. A diverse, marginalised, neglected community where part time workers rub shoulders with professional tradespeople in corridors that feel like being back stage at a more important person’s house. Banyan Court is designed to do a very specific job. And when thirteen residents, all increasingly haunted by their experiences of the building, are invited to join owner Gideon Fell for dinner, they find out just what that purpose is.

Superficially it would be easy to look at Thirteen Storeys and say Sims is playing a familiar tune on a different instrument. The use of a London tower block as the site for an occult event and the portmanteau nature of the novel are both elements he’s demonstrated phenomenal skill with in The Magnus Archives. But Sims is cleverer than that. Thirteen Storeys is simultaneously a return to the portmanteau or nested stories model of horror, with a cheeky salute to the themed anthologies of the past. Everything from Amicus movies to Urban Gothic, from Hellblazer to Best New Horror has experimented with this form but Sims does something none of the others could do: matches that format with his own unique approach. A word which, brilliantly, autocorrect just suggested I swap for ‘unquiet’ — surprisingly accurate.

Magnus Archives fans will immediately resonate with the voice of the prose; it screams out for spoken delivery. It also reinforces the musical, magical portmanteau effect — resonating through the discreet setting like a disconcerting noise bouncing through darkened, identical corridors. Characters waft through each other’s lives with varying degrees of severity, A worried looking gentleman taking measurements in the corridor becomes vital, the shadowy figures on the stairs only ever multiply. The main characters are never powerless but all struggle under that curiously blunted and uniquely English trauma of not wanting to acknowledge the monster in the room. Or in some cases, the monster that is the room. Everyone smiles and nods. No one makes eye contact. We all ignore the pit.

Using character as lens and scalpel alike to dissect and explore his themes is one of the keys to Sims’ success. Each character is realistic, plausible, complex, flawed, and unpredictable. The ending here, the events of which are built to throughout the book is measured and brutal, feral and cathartic and completely clear-eyed.  The pages that follow are considered, melancholy and bleakly hopeful. Some times you do what you have to, to survive. Sometimes that’s all you get. Sometimes it has to be enough.

Thirteen Storeys is a remarkable debut, and Sims has hinted it won’t be his last. Find it at all good booksellers, in both print and full cast audiobook (including Sims himself).