Book review: ‘Thirteen storeys’ by Jonathan Sims

(contains spoilers)

Is there such a thing as ‘political horror fiction’? The last book I read (and reviewed) in this genre was Ian McEwan’s ‘The Cockroach’ and I think it’s safe to say that political satire, or political horror, or political anything is more than my poor addled brain can take after the outright joy of 2020. Perhaps I’m in the minority here but after Brexit, and COVID, and Trump, the briefest mention of government provokes a violent mental gag from me.

I read this as part of my book club, and considering all of the very positive reviews online, none of us particularly enjoyed the book – finding it instead to be dense, with too many characters and storylines to keep track of, a poorly constructed metaphor and a very frustrating ending.

There is a clear effort in Thirteen Storeys to subvert the reader’s opinions, and to masquerade as a horror anthology while also delivering heavy-handed metaphors on capitalism and moral ambiguity. The title itself shows clearly this intention by representing both the thirteen storeys of Banham Court, and the thirteen stories of the different residents experiencing unique supernatural events.

Banham Court is a multi-million pound development, as the book describes it: “It was often said that Banyan Court stood as a monument to everything Tobias Fell was; both to those who held him as their idol, and to those who hated him. A towering, thirteen-storey residential development in the heart of Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest areas of central London.” The fact that it is split into two sections – the more expensive, new section and the much older, poor side of the building, as legally a portion of the area had to be for low-income residents – is an obvious but somewhat clumsy metaphor about elitist society, which comes in handy once the consequential hauntings of the lower class section starts to infect the upper classes. However, it felt a little like Sims was trying to construct metaphors within metaphors to deliver a final rallying cry which falls flat.

Out of the thirteen individuals, there were only two stories which I found interesting. The quality of them swang in roundabouts to the extent that I would have given those two five stars for ingenuity and storytelling.

The first is a resident on the new side of Banham Court – a CEO who is trying to push the boundaries of efficient and ‘good’ living by inventing an AI called ‘Donna’ who acts as a personal digital assistant and life guide. Over time, she begins to take control over his life; overriding his shopping list with healthier options (“You based my shopping list on a tweet?”) and cancelling alarms, responding to his full inbox with not only placeholders but instruction and ideas. Eventually, Donna decides that the only way for Carter to be better is to remake him entirely. He sits at home and watches as a more articulate, attractive and funny version of himself is interviewed on prime time TV, before Donna optimizes his thermostat: “Your happiest memory, a beach trip to Corfu, at age 7, averaged at a temperature of thirty-three and a half degrees Celsius. So it has been chosen as the optimum temperature.” She plays his favorite song on repeat, keeps him locked in the apartment and controls his phone and email. Out of desperation, he must fight his own AI for control.

The second great story was a very visceral exploration of decay through the eyes of Leon, a PR manager whose wife spots a patch of damp on the wall. However, as it fades away for her, in Leon’s eyes it becomes massive and all-encompassing – infecting his eyes and lungs and bubbling black on the wall in front of him. At one point, he even starts to see it spread to his wife: “His gaze focused on her arm. He felt his legs go slightly weak. There, just below her elbow, there was a tell-tale patch of light grey. Bile rose in his throat. It was spreading.”

Of course, there are reasons that each of these residents experience a particular kind of supernatural haunting – they are all in some way either a representation of poverty, tragedy or exploitation by Tobias Fell. of the less fortunate. From hungry children, to poiosoned water supplies, to nefarious art dealings – these residents have been carefully selected by Tobias Fell to take on his sins for a fee, within the ‘trap’ that is Banyan Court: “Tonight, ten years to the day since this building began its life, you will each assume a part of my offences, after which you shall remain a focal point for those spirits that blame me for them.”

The thing is, Tobias offers everyone one billion pounds for taking on these spirits for the rest of their life. And then – says anyway “to be perfecty clear, if you do not wish to partake, if you refuse my offer, then – I believe it’s Max? – one of the nastier manifestations, well, he will beat you to death.” JESUS TOBIAS, what was the point of the money offer? Lead with that!

The fact that he also doesn’t have a PLAN B when his Max manifestation is quickly and easily beaten to the ground by a few of his invited guests, is ridiculous. Suddenly he is powerless, and he’s lost his leverage.

To agree, they must eat a bit of his flesh, cut from his leg. In an unexpectedly hilarious moment, the only child resident, probably unable to comprehend the offer, reaches out and pops the human meat in her mouth before Tobias has even had a chance to explain that it’s his leg. A very child thing to do.

To bring the metaphor full circle, Tobias is set upon by the spirits he has earned over a lifetime of preying on the less fortunate. Sims here giving a quite obvious ‘what goes around comes around’ lesson – but in actuality, I just found the ending anti-climactic and a bit ridiculous.

So there we go. In the meantime! If you want a great anthology of horror short stories, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND ‘The Stuff of Nightmares’ by Malorie Blackman, which I read as a child and think about on a monthly basis to this day.

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