Book Review: House of Small Shadows
December 19, 2013 | 4:18 pm
On the jacket of House of Small Shadows, Adam Nevill is described as “Britain’s answer to Stephen King.” I’m happy to say that, if this is an answer, it’s a very distinctive and locally accented one that is anything but pastiche King. Rather, Nevill’s very personal style is more what you would expect from a British ghost and horror story writer in the tradition of M.R. James and Arthur Machen – updated to the era of The Ring and body horror. It’s that unsettling.
Briefly, late-thirtysomething provincial antiques valuer Catherine Howard sets out in quest of a fabulous collection of animal tableaux and other relics in the collection of renowned taxidermist M.H. Mason, preserved since his death at his country mansion, the Red House. There, she finds an appropriately grotesque chatelaine (Mason’s niece) and housekeeper, as well as appalling (and marvelously imagined and evoked) Great War dioramas of trench warfare built from rat carcasses, historic mysteries, and much, much more. Especially the titular small shadows, of every kind – most forms of imitation of life get to strut stiffly across this novel’s stage, from dolls and mannequins to puppets and stuffed animals. Don’t be surprised to find yourself looking at barroom moose heads or showroom dummies in new and very unsettling ways after reading.
Nevill mixes strong influences from the likes of Thomas Ligotti with his own powerful imagination to conjure up something very unique and very British – while tapping into the best current international streams of dark fiction and the weird tale. The Red House is a superbly realized (and carefully researched) venue for the story’s events, taking on a character and identity of its own like a Victorian paper theater made from death notices. And Nevill’s evocations mix deliciously musty scholarship with hands-on visceral unpleasantness without any apparent disjunction at all.
I have two very personal criticisms of House of Small Shadows – both of them actually virtues if looked at in a different light. One is the chief protagonist, Catherine. Her passivity and apparent naivety as she confronts the unfolding horrors of the Red House and its inhabitants – of all kinds – may have deeper foundations in her backstory (no spoilers here, though!), but they do help to make an already not-so-believable character even less convincing. She just doesn’t gel for me as an individual, either in her personal traits or her dialog – whereas her fascinatingly repellent host in the Red House, Edith Mason, is convincing down to each marvelous turn of phrase in her insidious statements. Catherine is no action heroine, but Nevill’s resurrection of an older,wiser style of storytelling hasn’t yielded a central character to match, for instance, Professor Parkins in M.R. James’s “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad” – or James himself in A.N. Donaldson’s brilliant Prospero’s Mirror.
The other – very personal – criticism is the pace of the story. Although House of Small Shadows unfolds with the somber, atmospheric inevitability of a walk to the scaffold, it can feel like a very slow build at times – albeit all the more jolting when the trap is sprung. That clearly hasn’t hurt its sales or its positive reviews in the slightest, though – nor should it. But every so often I did feel a yearning for the taut economy of Ligotti or Robert Aickman.
Other reviewers, though, have celebrated exactly those aspects of this hand-tooled piece of nightmare, so my criticisms remain very personal ones. It actually manages that rare feat of leaving you less certain, settled, and comfortable about the world and your self than when you began the story. That may not be welcome, but it is absolutely what horror is for. And Nevill has earned his place alongside the other great names in this review by the sheer caliber of his writing and his dark vision. With House of Small Shadows, I’m happy to say that British horror is in very unsafe hands. Read at your own risk.