The Devil’s Ark by Stephen Bywater

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 404
Year: 2014 (8 May)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Devil's Ark by Stephen BywaterReview
Harry Ward is a man damaged by war, haunted by its victims and tormented by its memories. Twelve years after the First World War ended, Ward returns to Mesopotamia, the land where he fought the Turk and almost lost his mind. This time, though, his mission is to rediscover himself. But all that blows away with the sand when he is hired to replace a missing photographer on an excavation of a ziggurat, or primitive pyramid, outside the great walls of the ancient city of Nineveh. Older than Stonehenge, the ziggurat reveals layer below layer of sealed chambers and, as the small team descends into the dark, dreams increasingly disturb Ward’s sleep. He must learn that there is much more to fear than the ghosts of recent wars.

The Devil’s Ark combines historical adventure and horror. Set in the Middle East during the 1930s, it evokes the archaeological desert world of Howard Carter or Agatha Christie. The cast of characters would certainly feel at home in a Poirot tale – Russians, Americans, the English mingle (at a distance) with members of local ancient tribes, deemed superstitious and expendable by Tilden, the archaeologist in charge, a man more concerned with riches than science. With the men are their wives, Tilden’s hysterical, cowering Susan, the American Suarez’s beautiful, imperfect Clara, the Russian Stanislav’s Sasha, a woman he views as being little more than a comforting lap. There is a widow, Mrs Jackson, who provides homely security until she, too, sees something on the ceiling of one of the ziggurat chambers.

Told in the first person by Harry Ward, The Devil’s Ark moves from telling the story of a man recovering from war, finding comfort in the arms of a woman he shouldn’t touch, to the obsessed thoughts of a photographer who knows he is being watched and whose dreams are enflamed by female monsters. Once people begin to disappear and suspicion points at all, including Ward, it becomes harder for Tilden and the others to ignore the engravings and images they discover in the ziggurat. The line is crossed from archaeological mystery and psychological thriller into horror.

The atmosphere of The Devil’s Ark is superb. It brings to life the spirit of 1930s’ archaeology, with all its flaws, excitement and sense of adventure. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the thrill of the excavation as more and more is revealed. The elements of the desert, both the hot sand and, more surprisingly, the relentless rain, contribute to the mood of the novel. The interaction between this bunch of colourful characters is intriguing and entertaining. Although most of the people remain a mystery through to the last page this suits the feel of the book. We inevitably know more about our narrator Harry but even he is careful what he reveals to us. We learn snippets, most of which suggest that anything the Assyrians could do in terms of violence and outrage, modern man could equal in the trenches of war.

The second half of the novel has a very different feel to it as the mysteries begin to be explained and horror replaces Ward’s soul searching and his focus on his relationship with Clara. Clara herself remains lost in the mist and we are never quite sure what is real and what is imagined. The fate of others among the team, though, is quite clear and very frightening. One in particular will stay with me for a long time. While I preferred the first half (probably due to my fascination with Middle East archaeology), the second half was unputdownable, menacing and memorable.

As with all horror, the most important element to my mind is atmosphere and The Devil’s Ark has atmosphere galore, largely because of its historical setting. The entire novel felt like a book out of time, for its 1930s’ location and for the mysteries contained within it. This gave the horror an edge and made it easier to accept, reminding the reader of the curse surrounding the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb. The novel captures its time as well as the fear of the unknown and it is that, more than what the tomb or prison actually contains, that gives The Devil’s Ark its power and appeal.

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