Adam Nevill’s wonderfully crafted, nightmarish horror-show The House of Small Shadows is one of the best Horror novels I’ve read in a while. To the point of being too scared to sleep after I stayed up late reading it.
An antiques valuer named Catherine is sent to the Red House to catalog the collection of World War I veteran M.H. Mason, a taxidermist known for his dioramas of preserved rats enacting battle scenes from the Great War. Mason’s niece, Edith, cares for the collection, which also includes child-sized marionettes and an intricate stage for them to perform on.
The more Catherine learns about Mason’s life and work, the more diabolical and mad it all seems. There’s a darkness still lurking in the house, a mysterious secret that Catherine is drawn into and unable to avoid uncovering. There’s a sense of something like destiny to the proceedings, an inevitability which adds to the stifling, uneasy atmosphere.
Add in Catherine’s traumatic childhood (lots of bullying and the mysterious disappearance of her best friend), as well as her recent mental breakdown, and it’s a perfect storm of madness at the Red House and the village of Magbar Wood.
Trauma, and the inability to cope with it, is threaded all the way through this novel. Mason worked through his PTSD with his horrific dioramas, and Catherine still suffers from the mental and emotional consequences of her childhood. The darkness lurking behind Mason’s work, and its sinister connection to her own past, makes her mental state even worse–to the point where the reader has no idea how much is real.
Horror is all about creating a pervasive sense of foreboding and unease, to instill a feeling of terror in the reader. Nevill is extremely skilled at this. The plotting is secondary to the images he crafts. The taxidermy is creepy enough on its own, but the descriptions of the abandoned village, the puppets, the “cruelty plays,” the collections of photographs, and what’s hidden in the attic are all vivid and disturbing and make you feel as passive and swept-up in madness as Catherine is. It’s compelling and well-paced, with the tension mounting as the story goes on.
The ending of the book descends into an intricately constructed bit of controlled chaos. The uneasiness turns into terror as you try to decide what’s real and what isn’t, right down to the open ending. You’re left shaken and wondering what just happened.
You might want to turn to classic horror for readalikes for this one. Shirley Jackson was in my mind as I read–The Haunting of Hill House in particular. The creepiness comes from uncertainty and mental instability, as well as an oppressive and menacing atmosphere, just as in The House of Small Shadows. Richard Matheson’s Hell House, with its dark secrets and tension and sense of being trapped, might also appeal. F.G. Cottam might be good to try as well–start with The House of Lost Souls, which involves a years-old crime and an enigmatic photographer.
Remember The House of Small Shadows for Horror Month, folks! I’m rather certain it will play a role in the upcoming fourth installment of Marie’s Favorite Scary Books (title TBA).