Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review: House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill

Adam Nevill is an author who just keeps getting better and better. His third novel, The Ritual, won the August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel, and helped bring more attention to his two earlier novels, Banquet for the Damned and Apartment 16. Nevill's follow-up to The Ritual, Last Days, was a solid novel despite a lackluster ending. Now Nevill is back with House of Small Shadows, which is doubtless his best work yet.

First, the blurbs:

Catherine’s last job ended badly. Corporate bullying at a top television production company saw her fired and forced to leave London, but she was determined to get her life back. A new job and now things look much brighter. Especially when a challenging new project presents itself – to catalogue the late M H Mason’s wildly eccentric cache of antique dolls and puppets. Rarest of all, she’ll get to examine his elaborate displays of posed, costumed and preserved animals, depicting scenes from World War I. When Mason’s elderly niece invites her to stay at the Red House itself, where she maintains the collection, Catherine can’t believe her luck. Until his niece exposes her to the dark message behind her uncle’s ‘Art’. Catherine tries to concentrate on the job, but M H Mason’s damaged visions raise dark shadows from her own past. Shadows she’d hoped had finally been erased. Soon the barriers between reality, sanity and memory start to merge. And some truths seem too terrible to be real.

The Red House: home to the damaged genius of the late M. H. Mason, master taxidermist and puppeteer, where he lived and created some of his most disturbing works. The building and its treasure trove of antiques is long forgotten, but the time has come for his creations to rise from the darkness. Catherine Howard can’t believe her luck when she’s invited to value the contents of the house. When she first sees the elaborate displays of posed, costumed and preserved animals and macabre puppets, she’s both thrilled and terrified. It’s an opportunity to die for. But the Red House has secrets, secrets as dreadful and dark as those from Catherine’s own past. At night the building comes alive with noises and movements: footsteps, and the fleeting glimpses of small shadows on the stairs. And soon the barriers between reality, sanity and nightmare begin to collapse . . . 

The cover and blurbs should be enough to get any horror fan salivating. Dolls, puppets and taxidermy are all three creepy enough on their own, together they are a recipe for terror overload. The blurbs do not do the book justice, however, as the novel goes into much, much weirder territory.

Nevill finds success in creating the perfect atmosphere for paranoia. The Red House and the nearby, decrepit village of Magbar's Wood both exude a sense of being forgotten, tucked away into their own secret corner of England. Taking example from all the best haunted house stories, The Red House itself often transcends being simply a setting and becomes a character in it's own right. Populated by the highly eccentric, if not completely insane, niece of artist M.H. Mason as well as her mute, unfriendly housekeeper, The Red House soon becomes a prison for Catherine. The atmosphere is heavy and oppressive, from the muted, red lighting to the unpleasant smells. Mason's gruesome exhibits and creepy collection of puppets push an already tense, scary atmosphere into one of pure terror.

Catherine, the protagonist, is a deeply troubled individual. Early on in the book, her past is almost too convoluted, a long history including adoption, severe bullying, her best friend disappearing without a trace, mental health issues involving trances and a multitude of therapists, a humiliating departure from a previous job, and a relationship beset by issues such as an earlier miscarriage. Quite a lot to take in, but it's soon clear that Catherine is about as much of a wreck as they come, and is only barely holding it together. All the complexities of her life are almost overwhelming for the reader, but over time they all come together nicely.

When Catherine is invited to stay at The Red House while she values Mason's collection, things really take off. It's not soon before she feels more like a prisoner than anything, like a player on a stage who doesn't know her lines but can't help but playing out her role. Her predicament bleeds through the pages, so readers feel her claustrophobia and her worries. At times her reactions almost seem to be too much, as she is in hysterics for a good half of the novel, although having the feeling that one is stuck in a living nightmare will do that to most people.

House of Small Shadows is a great example of weird horror with a good blend of the psychological. Troubled Catherine starts to question what is real and what isn't as things become more and more bizarre. There's a certain turning point halfway through the novel where things immediately go into overdrive, and stay there, making the second half a wild nightmare trip with nowhere to turn. Puppets that may be much more, an ancient cult, otherwordly beings, things not being what they seem, this novel has tons to offer. Without a doubt Nevill's best work to date, and one that readers will lose sleep over. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Definitely one of the best horror novels of recent years.