Abandoned by her biological parents at an early age before being adopted into a family that questioned her sanity, Catherine has had it hard from the first, and her life doesn’t appear to have gotten a great deal easier in recent years.
At school, it was plain that she didn’t play well with others, nevertheless Catherine became close to Alice, another social outcast. Together, they found sanctuary of sorts in and around the grounds of a derelict special education centre, but in the summer of 1981, it all went horribly wrong: Alice vanished. Another victim of the Pied Piper of Ellyll, according to the local newspapers.
Her body was never recovered; indeed, no trace of Alice is ever discovered. But months later something like her spirit makes contact with Catherine, who in her innocence tells everyone about her otherworldly encounter… leading to a long period of appointments with child psychologists.
Time passes, and Catherine finally meets Mike, the love of her life. He, however, breaks Catherine’s heart, and so she leaves her troubled childhood behind to turn over a new leaf in London, where she works for a top television production company with an interest in documenting ancient estates. Then one dark day, just as she had dared to dream she’d managed to make a clean break, she crosses a colleague, Tara, who makes it her continuing mission to turn Catherine’s life into a living hell.
Defeated, she returns to Ellyll with her tail between her legs, and suddenly, things start looking up. Catherine’s offered a job cataloguing art and antiques for auction. Meanwhile she and Mike are reunited, and against all the odds, they make a go of it on take two.
Here, at last, is where House of Small Shadows starts. All of the above information we find out through protracted flashback, or reminiscences extended to such an extent that Adam Nevill’s new novel nearly gives way under their weight. Catherine’s implausible past does finally factor into the narrative, I’ll give House of Small Shadows that, but cumulatively, it’s indisputably convoluted, and far from the best foot for the author to put forward first.
Thankfully Nevill’s rendering of the Red House, where most of the text takes place, is much more successful than his heavy-handed central character:
Her first impression was of a building enraged at being disturbed, rearing up at the sight of her between the gate posts. Twin chimney breasts, one per wing, mimicked arms flung upwards to claw the air. Roofs scaled in Welsh slate and spiked with iron crests at their peaks bristled like hackles.
All of the lines of the building pointed to the heavens. Two steep gables and the arch of every window beseeched the sky, as though the great house was a small cathedral indignant at its exile in rural Herefordshire. And despite over a century of rustication among uncultivated fields, the colour of its Accrington brick remained an angry red.
A fantastic opening chapter wherein Catherine approaches this brilliantly sinister building left me longing to return to the Red House’s grounds, but rather than that, Nevill has us travel back to repeat the previous week. When at last we catch up, our protagonist has been dispatched to poke around the property of the late M. H. Mason: a noted taxidermist in his time whose work fell out of favour as attitudes towards his ghastly art altered. Since his death decades ago, his niece, Edith, has cared for his estate:
Even a perfectly conserved Victorian drawing room filled with preserved animals could not upstage the visage of Edith Mason in the flesh. So much powder clung to the woman’s ancient face that the skin papered to the bony features looked bleached, and her tiny eyes were made ghastly by their red rims. The lips about the teeth were non-existent and the nose was a blade, the light seemed to pass through the side as if it were pure cartilage. It was a difficult face to look at and Catherine struggled to do so.
The Red House is redolent of all sorts of awfulness—as are its surviving inhabitants, Edith and Maude; the latter being a mute maid who slips Catherine a note after her first inspection, to the effect that she should never ever return.
It’s spoiling nothing to say she does. But first, Nevill treats us to another chapter in the ongoing saga of Catherine’s luckless life. With next to no explanation, Mike breaks up with her again, and she promptly falls into an intense depression, all alcohol and paranoia. Her only hope is to push through this bleary period and finish the work she’s started at the Red House. To succeed in just this one way; that’s all she wants. “Weirdness,” in any event, “went with the territory. And this was her find, her moment. An opportunity. Not a trial that she could run away from like London and university and school and her hometown, and everyone that she ever encountered in any of those places.”
So she swallows her horror at the prospect and returns, against Maude’s orders, to the Red House, resolving to complete a catalogue of M. H. Mason’s disconcerting dolls and disgusting dead animals as quickly as possible. Whether she’ll live to leave again is unclear…
For a book so rooted in its protagonist’s past, at the first and at the last, it’s a real shame House of Small Shadows revolves around such an unconvincing character. Catherine seems to have a single setting—hysterical—and though her horrid history is an influence in this, the unremitting misery and melodrama of her perspective distanced this reader rather than engendering my empathy. To make matters worse, she has next to no agency over the narrative. “Like a doll; something to be positioned by the insistent and capricious will of a nasty little girl,” she simply does as instructed, even when it’s evident that the individuals instructing her mean her harm.
In recent years, Adam Nevill’s novels have been a bastion of dark fantasy in the field of British genre fiction, and indeed, many of the ideas here are as insidious and effective as anything he’s portrayed previously. The taxidermy will turn your stomach; the dolls are unspeakably unsettling; the Red House itself is an oppressive setting, and the lost old souls who call it home only add to that atmosphere. Take it from me: reading House of Small Shadows late in the evening is likely to lead to some serious nightmares.
As a narrative, then, there’s a lot to recommend House of Small Shadows to horror aficionados. Character is where it all but falls apart, I fear. Your mileage may vary, but I had a tough time caring about Catherine, so though the novel’s concepts and conflicts remained intellectually interesting to me right through to the satisfying, if unsurprising finale, and I admired in the meantime many aspects of the author’s craft—including but not limited to his plot and premise—I wasn’t emotionally involved in the experience at all, and that robbed my reading of House of Small Shadows of something indescribably vital.
House of Small Shadows is available October 10th
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.