Thursday, July 17, 2014

Interview: Adam Nevill on The House of Small Shadows

To celebrate the American publication of The House of Small Shadows, The Arkham Digest hosts an interview with British author Adam Nevill, one of the rising stars in the genre. In October I reviewed the UK edition of this novel.

First off, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

Thanks for having me, Justin. Your interest in this book is much appreciated too.

Puppets, taxidermy and dolls are all rather sinister. What served as your inspiration behind this piece? Are these all things that have creeped you out over the years?

HOUSE OF SMALL SHADOWS is the first novel in which I have made a concerted effort to use my childhood fears, fascinations and imaginings, specifically in the area of the strange secret lives of effigies and imaginary companions. There has always been a certain type of grotesque imagery relating to puppets, dolls and mummified creatures that appears in my fiction, and I may have been unconsciously working my way to devoting an entire book to this in HOUSE OF SMALL SHADOWS.

Reading the blurb it seems House of Small Shadows is going to be a haunted house/possessed doll story, but in reading it I was very pleasantly surprised to see that it was anything but conventional, and was a great example of weird horror. Are you a reader of weird fiction? When you set out to write this novel did you know from the start it was heading in that direction or did it just take you there?

Thanks, Justin, for the appreciation and open mind. The novel isn’t a Puppet Master slash-and-stalk B Movie, or possessed Chucky doll story, or anything like that really (though Karen Black being pursued through her apartment by a voodoo doll in Trilogy of Terror, that I saw when much younger, was an inspiration for this book). It aimed to be less obvious and more dreadful but also magical. Assumptions can be problematic in horror, I think; there are cinematic triggers for nearly everything now. Maybe horror in film and television even creates expectations for readers. But I think this my most idiosyncratic and strange story, and perhaps the most genuinely weird tale since Apartment 16. This approach was not contrived for the sake of weirdness, but if you dig deep enough and are honest about what disturbed you, and disturbs you, you will most probably hit a seam of the truly weird naturally.
The primary challenge I had with this book was placing the imagery, notions, feelings, ideas, and visual fragments that had been stored in my memory and imagination from my first memories into youth, into a novel-length narrative. I had no real story to hang it all upon, and hadn’t for years as I mulled over things like a tatty hare head with long teeth that terrified me as a pre-schooler, to a small satin slipper from Tudor England that my friend found in the foundations of his house in Hereford. How does so much of this stuff, that I have always found affecting, become a novel about itself?
I’ve thought it before, but in some respects this should have been my first novel. BANQUET FOR THE DAMNED was me trying to master structure and narrative in the novel, while I learned the craft. That first novel involved a more conscious and orchestrated process, but I needed to write that, and the other books, before attempting to put a more noticeable shudder through reality in this story.
I talked about the ideas of HOUSE’ with my editor who allowed me “Plus one Unspecified Novel” in my contract, which is incredibly generous, as I would not have been able to write an outline for the book. Not one that would have resembled what I eventually delivered. As it was, I had a very real fear that when I did deliver H.O.S.S, I’d get a “we can’t publish this” response. But that is a good doubt to have as a writer because it means you are really reaching for something that could be special, and that you are taking risks. I guess what I am trying to say is: the story really came out of the process of writing it. There wasn’t enough of a plot that I could anticipate before I began. Describing things and reading around the subject created the story. Reconciling strangeness with narrative is a battle I will always be engaged in, but the two can complement and change each other once you are in the zone.
At an imaginative level, I mined childhood feelings, dreams, memories that still remained – the enchantment and terror of childhood that Edith mentions in the novel is the theme - and I just let it flow. What helped me find a way into a coherent story through locations, situations and characters, came through research. I read a lot about the history of puppets, and the history and stomach-turning processes of taxidermy, as well as further investigations into my personal horror and fascination with holy relics. The idea of M H Mason, Britain’s greatest preserver of animals in tableau (an art form I discovered in a Reggie Oliver short story called The Children of Monte Rosa), an antique dealer with a 70s British childhood, and the Red House as a character, or catalyst that changed all inside it, emerged out of secondary reading. One subject jumped on to another and pretty soon I had a folk horror story that sustains, at least for me, the sense of a childlike dream that combines terror and enchantment – maybe this was also a striving for wonder and awe with what I have at my disposal. I might be as much a writer of the grotesque as anything else too, and the grotesque “artefacts”, twinned with their traditional roles in history, started to settle into a story the more I learned about them.
At the same time as fashioning a story, I also didn’t want to be too conscious of the process; again, the imagination had to lead the whole thing – this is most apparent at the end. But my greatest fear when writing horror is the trapdoor into silliness, and this novel dealt with subjects that tiptoed around that. Observing the difference between childish and childlike was imperative. The jury is probably out on what the book achieves.
Yes, I am a big reader of weird fiction too, and the strangeness that reveals something almost incommunicable about consciousness, but in all kinds of fiction and art.

The atmosphere of the novel plays a huge part, and The Red House at times seems to transcend being simply a setting, instead becoming a character itself. Was this intentional? Which earlier fiction or films or life experiences lent themselves to shape The Red House and the town of Magbar’s Wood?

Yes to the location as a character, and thank you for noticing. I think I have attempted exactly that in every novel. For me, atmosphere is an essential and vital part of horror, and places and situations that make me feel as if I am close to something enthralling but unbearable, places that can transport me, are the shadows I chase and try and replicate in horror fiction. This may sound “inflated” but just writing a story ain’t enough – I have to feel moved by what surrounds the plot.
For this novel, my influences were nearly all female authors – Shirley Jackson (Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle); Edith Wharton’s short stories; Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Angela Carter’s work that I was mad on in my teens and twenties. I was never sure whether I could depict a troubled and unstable female character, and I was probably most anxious about that, but soon got carried away and created five in the story. But that sense that we, as creatures, are filled with multiple and shifting selves, that are made more animate by the extraordinary and by adversity, is something I’m also attracted to as a writer. The house represents this fluidity.
The Red House itself is key in another way, in a desire to draw the reader into more than just a literal reading of plot events, and character motivations and responses to these events. The house was my attempt at creating a vehicle to produce a more imaginative reading of what actually happened in the Red House’s past, and what is happening to Catherine Howard within the present. It does all make sense, in magical terms, but I’m not going to explain how or why. Creating a sense of occurrences beyond human experience was the aim, but an understanding is still being suggested at the far reaches of the lead character’s mind - the part we rarely use.

What type of horror fiction do you prefer to read? What scares you?

As a reader, I’m almost entirely sold on the more literary end of horror, because I enjoy the way it is written and its ideas, and it makes me want to write – it recharges me. It’s that end of the field that brought me back after a decade away. I read Thomas Ligotti and M John Harrison and Aickman (who I’d come across as a teenager and not really responded to) after a long break reading other things. And there are great riches to be found these days; so many new writers and so much quality out there. Dare I say a new generation of writer exists for whom horror was the passion of their youth, but who have since exposed themselves to all kinds of other writing and brought that into a new generation of horror fiction. As a sub-species of literature, horror is probably more prone to the threat of commercial extinction that any other, beside the western, but new writers have adapted to survive. Being exiled might have enabled so many new voices to flourish in the underground, beyond the strictures of what’s hot right now. And no matter how good the writing is (mostly educated) people will still sneer! You need stones to write horror.
I can’t say I read horror in order to be frightened. I did once when much younger, and it could transfix me with terror, but not now. I read horror for all the same reasons I read darker literary fiction – insights into the inner life, a desire to understand these times and what they do to us, fine writing, enigma, and to be transported by a writer’s imagination, and to be disturbed. I just tend to get those things from more sophisticated pens – an entertaining story is not enough. I don’t ever read to pass the time. I want everything I read to be an intense experience and everything I write to be intense. Otherwise, what is the point?

So far you have five novels under your belt, and a few short stories. Is the short form something you foresee yourself toying with more?

I write about two stories in a good year, but none so far this year. I have no prejudices against short fiction, as a reader, but the novel is my favoured medium as a writer. And that doesn’t leave me much time to write short stories. I think I’ve written seventeen stories in as many years and that paltry sum is purely down to capacity as I dedicate nearly all of my writing time to novels. And I may spend my entire life trying to write a good one.
I don’t favour one form over the other as a reader; the writing is engaging and captivating and transporting to my mind and taste, or I am indifferent to it. Doesn’t matter what form it comes to me in. Commercially, the novel is everything in a publishing sense, but as mediums for horror, I’m beginning to think the endless discussion over which is better, the novel or short story, is pointless. There are good stories and there are the rest, there are good novels and there are the rest. I don’t see medium as an advantage. The short story has a kind of artistic moral high ground in the horror field, and at times, I almost feel that novelists are expected to prove themselves tenfold against the canon of short story writers, as if the novel is a vain attempt at birth to achieve the same effects as the short story. Not something I subscribe to.
One of the hardest things about creating horror successfully over an entire work, any work – short story, novel or film – might be that horror often has no story, and needs no narrative to support it – when we try to make it into a story we can start diluting it. Horror often just is. I think this is why parts of stories, a facet of novels, or a scene from a film can be so memorable, without the sum of the constituent parts necessarily adding up. Horror can be a feeling you have when standing in a certain place, or next to someone you gradually realise is dangerous, it can be a glimpse of a clear night sky, or something that grins out from behind the museum glass it is preserved behind. It just comes upon you and impacts, adrift from any narrative. It’s one reason why I admire Francis Bacon, the expressionist painter, and sometimes wonder if he was the greatest horror artist of all.

What are your thoughts on film adaptations? Is that something you have ever considered? Who would be your dream cast/director for bringing House of Small Shadows to the big screen?

My thoughts are: I’d love to see one of my books adapted into a film. Three novels are currently under option, another one is under negotiation, and the fifth did have an option that has expired, so I am very excited, but with managed expectations, to be on the film production radar. Any film adaptation of one of my books would be another person’s interpretation, and I accept that, if not welcome it. There would be no point in me clinging to my own head-cinema version of how it should be.
I have been assessed in the past, of not being ambitious enough as a writer by not throwing myself at screenplays. I’d disagree with that. In fact my ambition to write a novel that really resonates and might endure is so strong, I don’t have much time or energy left over to write anything else. Why try and master everything? Aspiring to be good at one thing is sufficient for now. The fact that I have stuck to that approach with the novel for nearly twenty years has delivered some dividends, incrementally, but the books have probably been noticed, among the many contributing variables, because of that long process behind their creation. For short term financial gains I could split myself into various strands, but this is a long game.
In the future, if time and energy and opportunity aligned, I would like to try exec’ producing and writing a horror film. That is not really in my hands, but sitting on my ass, on my own, and writing a novel always is.

Is there anything you can tell readers about what can be expected from you in the future?

NO ONE GETS OUT ALIVE is my next novel. I have just finished work on the proofs and the book is published in the UK this October and in the US/CAN summer 2015. My first true ghost story, I’d say. Also my longest book to date, certainly the most disturbing for me – the research took my head to places I’d be reluctant to visit again. It may also feature the most loathsome individuals I’ve yet imagined, and continues my folk horror adventure that began with HOUSE OF SMALL SHADOWS. In some respects it is also a meta-fiction about female victims in horror cinema, and horror media. So there is a connection to LAST DAYS, which was a kind of meta-fiction about true crime, counter-culture, found footage and digital film making. Though I would say NO ONE GETS OUT ALIVE has its closest cousin in THE RITUAL. After that comes my first foray into something new with horror – the horror of the future, not the past.
Just counting the books I’d like to write that are filtering through me now, I’ve worked out I’ll be 65 by the time I’ve written them all at the current rate, so God willing I will be around for some time to come …

Thanks for your time!!
And thank you for your time and enthusiasm, Justin.


  1. Great interview! I'm looking forward to reading House of Small Shadows!

  2. Fascinating.