House of Small Shadows is the latest book by one of Britain’s leading horror authors Adam Nevill. To date, Nevill has been called “Britain’s answer to Stephen King” by The Guardian and his output has loomed large over the British horror landscape for the last couple of years.
Two of his previous books, the award winning The Ritual and the terrific Last Days have pushed British horror literature to new highs in terms of scares, content and overall quality of writing. The expectation and buzz around a new Adam Nevill book is something that few British authors generate within the genre.
House of Small Shadows is the story of Catherine, an antiques dealer who is sent by her employer to catalogue and value the exquisite house and property of renowned cruelty play creator M.H. Mason. His collection is stored at his former abode, The Red House, and is curated with disturbing reverence by his niece Edith and her semi-mute maid Maude.
The Red House is atmospheric and creepy as a setting; a disturbed take on the haunted house. Mason’s skill in taxidermy and his eye for the unsettling are described vividly by Nevill. The description of a World War I scene comprised solely of dead rodents is a particularly macabre highlight. As ever Nevill has an uncanny ability for portraying the nightmarish and his prose is as illuminating enough to be considered up there with the best.
As a character Catherine is fully fleshed out. Like Apryl in Apartment 16, Nevill has portrayed a beautiful, intelligent woman as a protagonist, again demonstrating his skill in this area. Catherine is flawed, her emotionally difficult upbringing and the romantic problems in her personal life are written tenderly and the reader is given a genuine insight into the character’s psyche.
However, the other subsidiary characters are not drawn with anything like the depth of Catherine. Red House’s occupant Edith is a crank, deluded and set in her own bizarre ways. Her servant Maude is a tortured soul under the spell of her mistress. Both initially make an eerie and slightly mournful impression but in a book of so few main characters there is no real development in either. In such a compact, suffocating environment the characters have to carry the story yet of the three main characters, only Catherine has enough depth to do so.
Unfortunately the main problem with House of Small Shadows is that for all the excellent writing and descriptive prose, the story itself is slow to progress and lacking any tangible action. After the tight, tension packed narrative of The Ritual and the sprawling, action filled Last Days, House of Small Shadows reads like a book that is deliberately compressed. Nevill has tried, and at times succeeded, in creating a nightmarish, surreal and sanity-bending story. However, the constant dream-like sequences and flashbacks to Catherine’s youth, whilst adding to the atmosphere slow the narrative to a standstill at times. House of Small Shadows could have benefitted from a tighter edit and lower page count, pulling the story into a more rigid flow rather than the slightly bloated feel it currently has.
House of Small Shadows is the fifth book in Nevill’s career; he has produced a number of books that can be held up as an example of everything that British horror should aspire to be. Nevill is the most literary and engaging writer in the British scene yet House of Small Shadows is something of a step backwards from the highs of his most recent novels. Whilst it is a book steeped in atmosphere and will appeal to fans of traditional, old school horror its compact setting and slow pace may well frustrate readers who have come to expect something more expansive from Adam Nevill. Whereas we praised Last Days for being an ambitious move forward in his career, it is only fair to say that House of Small Shadows is a step backwards from that, albeit one that still carries the typical Nevill flair for excellent writing.
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Release Date: 10 October 2013
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