Marie’s Reading: “The House of Small Shadows” by Adam Nevill

small shadowsAdam 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).

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “Bellman & Black” by Diane Setterfield

bellman and blackHaving read and adored Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, I had so been hoping she’d write something else.  Imagine my Snoopy-esque dances of joy when I heard about the imminent publication of Bellman & Black.

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“N0S4A2” by Joe Hill

Even more rampant in pop culture than the dread Zombie Fatigue is Vampire Fatigue.   Sparkly Romantic Vampire Fatigue in particular.   So it’s even more important when writing about vampires to do so with skill, originality, and intent to disturb.

Joe Hill delivers brilliantly on all three  in N0S4A2.

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Marie’s Reading: “The Asylum” by John Harwood

the asylumI cannot give you a better teaser of a summary for The Asylum than the one provided on the dust jacket, so here it is:

Confused and disoriented, Georgina Ferrars awakens in a small room in Tregannon House, a private asylum in a remote corner of England. She has no memory of the past few weeks. The doctor, Maynard Straker, tells her that she admitted herself under the name Lucy Ashton the day before, then suffered a seizure. When she insists he has mistaken her for someone else, Dr. Straker sends a telegram to her uncle, who replies that Georgina Ferrars is at home with him in London: “Your patient must be an imposter.”

From there we are with Georgina (or the woman who believes she is Georgina), as she attempts to make sense of her situation.  We share her confusion and fear, as well as the desire to know the truth about her circumstances and identity.   Discovering the truth, we soon come to realize, hinges upon finding a writing box, a series of letters, and a brooch.  I don’t want to give too much away, as uncovering the many intricate plot points are most of the fun of reading this novel.  Suffice it to say that letters are found, secrets are uncovered, and the ending, while not shocking, is certainly a surprise!

If this all sounds like something straight from the pages of a dark, Gothic, melodramatic Victorian thriller, that’s because it is.  More or less.  As I discussed in my gushing review of Harwood’s other novel, The Seance, the mood Harwood creates is perfect.  The sense of time and place is superb, and Harwood really excels at writing in the style of a late Victorian novelist without it coming across as parody or over-the-top.   Not only are you absorbed into the textured world of late 19th century London and the cold, dreary asylum in Cornwall, you also get the sense that you are truly reading a story of the period.

There are striking similarities between Asylum and Sarah Waters’ novels Affinity and Fingersmith.  I’d suggest either of those books if you enjoyed Asylum.  They share the same style, atmosphere, and Gothic tone, as well as strong female protagonists.  In fact, the plot is almost identical to Fingersmith in a few places, though the resolution is quite different.  For a more modern Gothic novel, with the same sense of mystery and secrets, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale might be a good choice.

If you like twists and turns but aren’t into the Victorian setting and atmosphere, try Gone Girl or Dark Places by Gillian Flynn for modern thrillers that boast great twists, plenty of dark secrets, and loads of suspense.  Her books are darker, more intense, and at times more violent, but still work as read-alikes, I think.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “A Monster Calls” by Patrick Ness

It’s not often that a book makes me cry.

A Monster Calls, though, got me.  It got me, I think, for the same reason Our Town always gets me: It’s simple, beautiful, and true.  It is a truly moving story about loss and the complexity of human emotion. Continue reading