on 22 October 2015
We read horror fiction - and watch slasher films, and gruesome documentaries, and online terrorist videos, and accident footage, etc. - because of what Joseph Conrad called "the fascination of the abomination." We like to view things that disquiet us, don't we? We hope that we see something that isn't meant for innocent eyes. Death revealed - and dodged - is as exhilarating as it is horrifying. Our minds sometimes can't take it, but also can't willingly turn away. We seek out the abominations, because we are fascinated by them. We can't help it, apparently, due to a misfire in our individual development, or the natural condition of the human brain.
Abominations are on full and varied display in Adam Nevill's House of Small Shadows, and I as a reader of this exceptional novel am incredibly fascinated. It was as if Nevill was ordered to craft a contemporary Gothic novel twisted inside out - and sewn back up again - that incorporated all the things I find spooky, including but certainly not limited to:
- Small forgotten towns
- Incredibly old houses, owned by incredibly old people
- Antique dolls
- Puppet shows/marionettes
- Non traditional taxidermy
- Ritualistic parades
- Secretive groups
Throw in circus clowns and unnamed creatures with impossibly long appendages (which do not, to my memory, appear in House of Small Shadows, although the lighting is pretty dim in some of those scenes, so you never know), and you've run the full gamut of my own personalized Creep List.
As it stands, House of Small Shadows contains enough of the truly terrifying to make it a landmark read, and an unforgettable exercise in horror imagery that has not dimmed since regrettably finishing the book a few months back. It's all still there, raw and vibrant, like a fresh coat of paint on a wooden puppet face. The places, the lighting, the sounds and smells are still raw in my brainpan, and threaten to stay that way. Probably more impressive still is Nevill's ability to sustain suspense and dread throughout nearly 400 pages, starting very early with the arrival of our protagonist Catherine Howard, an appraiser (a "valuer" in British parlance) for estate auctioneer Leonard Osberne, who is sent to an aged Gothic manse in the English countryside known as Red House, which lies just outside the mostly deserted town of Magbar Wood. The interior of Red House lives up to its name in terms of sumptuous decor, and Catherine discovers that each of the numerous rooms of the house serve as staging areas for impossibly intricate dioramas of World War I horrors played out by stuffed and positioned rats, as well as a bedroom populated by half animal, half human marionettes tucked into a tiny bed like sleeping children. The entire collection Catherine was sent to appraise for a possible career-making and record-setting estate sale was created by secretive genius M.H. Mason, who was once a man of the cloth until the blood and mud of trench warfare stained that holy fabric, twisting him away from God and into the arms of utter seclusion at Red House, where he devoted his sizable talents and the rest of his life to the creation of tiny, static horror shows, and the recreation of Medieval "cruelty plays" acted out by marionettes for live audiences, and eventually a BBC camera crew. Footage of the latter never made the airwaves, as the imagery was too disturbing, too bizarre even for the notoriously eccentric British.
This is the set-up for Catherine, and for us, and as we get the sneaking suspicion of what is to come for our hard luck protagonist, we can't help but sit back and watch, breathless and silent and squirming with claustrophobia, as she is forced to confront all sorts of weird, out-of-the-way, and mostly forgotten places, bringing her face to face with a litany of weird, out-of-the-way, mostly forgotten things. Old traditions, based on older knowledge of arcane wisdom blotted out of human memory for a reason. But things linger in the quiet places untouched by modernity. Eyes look out, and prayers are whispered to ears that don't belong to god or beast. Catherine has come to escape her past, avoid her present, and secure her future, and these powerful urges give her the courage to remain on site and finish her work, lest it all unravel for her. Unfortunately, as this is horror fiction we're talking about, it unravels for her anyway, in a multitude of unsettling ways.
Nevill's language is perfectly balanced, clean with a perfect dusting of melody, and his ability to build atmospherics is masterful. We're in those rooms with Catherine, dealing with these incredibly lifelike dead things. We can see the clothing and wig and skin and teeth and wheelchair of Edith Mason, the elderly niece of M.H. who now oversees Red House and the weird, multi-million dollar installations that clog the place. We can hear the heavy footsteps of Maude, the mute maid whose inscrutable expression hints at deeper mysteries surrounding this family and their strange house. And those marionettes... We're inches away from them as they are arranged in their tiny beds, facing away from us, grotesque hair covering the backs of their misshapen heads. We don't want them to turn around.
That expectancy, that impending doom, all blossom organically from the foundation Nevill lays like black soil, so fertile it literally pops and fizzes with potential life. And we as readers are caught in it up to our necks, our chins. Something very bad will happen, and happen soon. But when? And where? Will it be as bad as you imagine? Will it be worse? We scream for Catherine to leave the house, for her unfit boyfriend Mike or her boss Leonard or even her backstabbing coworker Tara to show up and wake her from the nightmare, but things are never as simple as that, and Nevill deftly spins a web that invisibly traps Catherine from the beginning, giving her just enough twine to allow her a frantic run at hope, at escape, before reaching the end of the sticky tether, and winding it back up again, slowly and determinedly, drawing the moth to the spider waiting at the center of the beautifully constructed latticework nest.
House of Small Shadows reads like one unbroken, spellbinding tracking shot capturing places that you never want to see where things happen that you that you never thought possible, Nevill's grainy camera picking up details along the way, hinting that something terrible can and probably will occur in the next frame. Martyrs will be torn to shreds, and parades will begin in the streets. A booming voice track begins, narrating the spectacle, as the images become more and more unspeakable. And we just sit and watch. Fascinated.