Cross, Neil. Natural History

Simon & Schuster $32.95

Before you open Natural History, you already know you’re in for a bit of horror. Block red capitals, big knife, chilling cover. Then right from the first line, something heavy approaches. A dead ape, a slightly indifferent keeper, a whiff of primal terror.

Patrick seems like a nice guy. He has lived his adult life as a self-confessed “sidekick” to his wife, Jane. A zoologist who’s recently become a bit famous, Jane leads Patrick on adventures that have taken them to Africa, then back to save an ailing Devon zoo, Monkeyland. Along the way, they produced children who are now at the opposite ends of their teens: a geeky astronomer-in-training daughter and a brooding Brando of a son.

Monkeyland was going to be the latest adventure, necessary to flee the memory of a sick stalker and revive a sad marriage. And soon it becomes a fresh base for a prodigy daughter and the son who’s stalled at the start of adulthood. But Monkeyland is in deep, and full of troubled primates mirroring the primal evil lurking in this tale.

Cross writes page after neat page of sparse, shuddering text, each page straining towards the next, practically quivering with suspense. You know something’s coming, but what, to whom? None of the characters invites you inside their soul, and you don’t want to go there, anyway: almost everyone is just a little too creepy. Even Jane, who is there physically for the first chapters, later seems more present in her absence.

Scattered plotlines are thrown in many directions. Natural History blends the Hale Bopp comet, the emergence of the Democratic Republic of Congo from a fractured Zaire, hallucinatory sleep paralysis, the Heaven’s Gate cult, big cats roaming the English countryside, and primates galore in a brooding tale.

And after the inevitable shock, these disparate plotlines are sketchily collected, completing a dramatic, assiduous novel, full of themes and parallels that you’ll recall for quite a while after you’ve put it down.