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Book Review: House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill

Adam Nevill horror“Scaled back ideas and scares!”

House of Small Shadows by Adam NevillHouse 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.

DAN HOWARTH

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Hardback (352pp)
Release Date: 10 October 2013

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8 comments

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  1. John Costello

    One of the reasons I like This Is Horror is because it doesn’t pander to the wider horror community clique and churn out fawning, gushing, barely credible reviews. I am not used to reading critically objective analyses of work by ‘untouchables’ in the usual horror & fantasy media; if one wishes to gain a balanced view then the goodreads or amazon responses are much more representative of an average reader’s perspective and likely to contain negatives. So, unusually among the horror media, if there’s a spade to be called same then TIH will do so. This review is a case in point. The reviewer has offered an honest response to the work and should be applauded for not taking the easy way out, but I know this has not fully been the case. In my humble opinion he has been a touch generous in his assessment of the overall writing standard as ‘excellent’ and that the prose is ‘up there with the best’, but he has dared to point out that the novel is overlong, underpaced and in need of a much tighter edit – and he should be supported in his honest appraisal. Empty five star reviews do neither the critic nor the writer any credit when they are unmerited, so kudos to Dan for acknowledging that this will be a tough slog for some readers and endeavouring to offer an objective judgement of its merits and weaknesses.

  2. adam nevill

    Thanks for the review, Dan. I always knew this book would split the vote, even more than the others have, so I have already assumed the impact position. But I think there’s some fishing on TIH for a response, so here it is:

    If Dan has issues with the book, he’s free to have them. I don’t agree with all that he has written in the review, but he has his own tastes and perspective so I have little problem with the review, or with Dan; never have done, never will, even if he hates the next book (which in all probability he may do, though it won’t stop me writing the book or have me changing a word of it); he reads carefully and makes a considered response; in an age of feckless opinion in social media, who can ask for more? But it’s odd that another TIH reviewer has to then add a more negative review in the comments as a show of solidarity to Dan Howarth’s freedom to speak his mind (as if I and my “legions of fans” would interfere with his opinions). So the comment and the podcast sadly smacks of agent provocateurs trying to draw attention to themselves as guardians of integrity in horror. Are you guardians? And are you THE arbiters of taste and quality in modern horror? I’m pretty sure you may only be representatives of your own ideas, guys, as am I with my own ideas about books. Also the fact that I loved THE SLEEP ROOM, and think it is a terrific addition to modern British horror, makes me wonder if we’d ever agree on anything. I can take a bad review, Lord knows I’ve had to learn to, but the idea that I am a horror “untouchable” I find hilarious considering the volume of bad reviews I get for every book. And the suggestion that I only get good reviews from mates, which are undeserved, is as about as low as you can go. I expected more from you guys on that front – it’s just ill-informed and scurrilous, as are the comments about my relationship with Pan Macmillan editorial (of the 4 reviews so far, I’ll admit to knowing one of the reviewers, but not that well). As hard as it is to take, there might actually be readers out there who like HOUSE OF SMALL SHADOWS. I’m not sure I’ve ever been prouder of a taking so many risks in a novel. So we’ve really disappointed each other today – not with the review, but with the supporting chorus.

    I’ve listened to the podcast as well, and I can assure you:

    I am not too big to be edited
    I was not asked to write a story of this type to be mainstream (in fact, I would say it’s my least mainstream book)
    I only write, and will only ever write, what I feel compelled to write

    And one thing that should always be taken into consideration is that writers don’t always want to write the same book, or even each book in the same way, every time. So if a book or story is not to your personal taste, it is not necessarily a bad book.

    Adios.

  3. John Costello

    As some of Adam’s points concern my follow-up to Dan’s review rather than the review itself, I will endeavour to address them.
    * There was no fishing for a response by Adam from anyone at This Is Horror. Since when is it odd for someone to offer their own thoughts on a review, especially in defence of a colleague? My ‘supporting chorus’ follow-up was prompted by a horror blogger’s petulant and puerile behaviour towards Dan purely because of his review; behaviour to which I allude and which was later specifically mentioned in the podcast, yet has not been acknowledged in Adam’s comments.
    * Nowhere do I use the phrase ‘legions of fans’, ironically or otherwise, so I have no idea why this is placed in quotation marks.
    * Any inference that we are elevating ourselves as guardians of integrity in horror is Adam’s own, and not borne out by the substance of my comments nor the podcast content. Integrity is not a bad thing, as he admits in his assessment of Dan’s ‘considered’ review. Airing critical perspectives and offering reasons for them is hardly a crime, although it has been interpreted as such by certain individuals within the genre community; individuals much more deserving of Adam’s accusation ‘agent (sic) provocateurs’ than we are. At no point do we claim to be ‘arbiters of taste and quality in horror’, much less ‘THE arbiters’. We do have issues with the book, most of them shared by all of us independently and which are outlined in the review, in my follow-up comment and the podcast. Our opinions are not designed to infringe upon anyone else’s, nor to change anyone’s minds because we consider our views to be ‘right’. We certainly do not expect authors to take notice of what we have to say, just as outright hostility and personal insults received since the review went live will not deter us from continuing to make honest assessments of texts in future.
    * Adam loves The Sleep Room. Fine. We simply agree to disagree with him on this. We’ve all had past conversations with Adam and sometimes agreed with his opinions – good and bad – about specific media texts, as he has sometimes agreed with ours, so a dislike of The Sleep Room is indicative of nothing beyond that prosaic, singular fact. Our problem, as we state, is with the surfeit of 5-star ‘reviews’ lavishing general, effusive praise without caveats and therefore effectively lauding the text as perfect. There are always caveats, nothing is ever perfect, and undiscerning rose-tinted doggerel of this kind is worth little to author and audience alike.
    * At no point do I suggest that Adam is a horror ‘untouchable’; in the eyes of a small cadre of fans, authors and bloggers however, who have reacted with childish fury to our opinions, he evidently is exactly that. This situation is neither under an author’s control nor in any way their fault, but it illustrates perfectly our wider concern about certain people within the genre community worshipping heroes with whom they want to maintain perceived proximity and for whom an objective review daring to suggest anything less than perfection is tantamount to a declaration of war.
    * There was no implication or suggestion that Adam only gets reviews from mates; indeed, we make direct reference to his widespread critical acclaim and The Guardian’s quote in particular. This inference is not supported either by the text of Dan’s review, nor my comment, nor the podcast, so I don’t pretend to know its origin. Furthermore, in making this inference it seems that Adam regards our response as a deliberate, co-ordinated hatchet job that is in some way personal and all about attention seeking on our part. This is unfortunate and could not be further from the truth.
    * There are no direct comments about Adam’s relationship with Pan McMillan editors, only a genuine question – based in the main upon our issues with the novel’s length – about whether Adam or the editor has the final say on content. There is, it should go without saying, a huge difference between a question and a statement and I see no reason to call us out as ‘scurrilous’ or ‘low’ over a misinterpretation of our intentions. We had a job to do, which was to review the book on the website and in the podcast. We did that job, and readers/listeners may agree or disagree with our views, as is their choice. That some have disagreed and taken umbrage to the point of ad hominem attacks is obviously ridiculous and depressing, but our opinions are expressed honestly and with no hidden agendas. Anyone who adopts misguided bullying tactics in an attempt to censor us or shout us down will clearly not succeed, and anyone who feels so threatened by ours (or anyone else’s) opinions should take a long, hard look at themselves and their own insecurities before casting their jaundiced view upon others.

  4. adam nevill

    Thank you for this reply, John, but during 30 minutes of the podcast, in which my book is discussed, and others (someone wanted to use the Tallis book as toilet paper? It was also described as “total shit” and “fucking garbage”, adding your own caveat, that any good reviews my new novel has thus far received “aren’t worth shit”) we then have the above comment that tries to rescale the high ground of reason and probity … Surely all must step down in the face of such reasonableness? And you’re adopting a position in which you can say anything you like at TIH, but any response to your comments is somehow “ridiculous and depressing”, perhaps even “bullying” (you were defriended by one person on Twitter and FB?) Let’s see this for what it is: a disagreement between me and you three at TIH. And for me, the disagreement is ultimately all about tone; I have no problem with Dan’s online review, though I strongly disagree with his comments in the podcast. It’s parts of the supporting comments and podcast that I was angered by. I think to be respected as book critics you need to cultivate a better tone on air. But as you are entitled to your editorial direction, I am entitled to dislike it and to not engage with it in the future. Feel free to have the last word. To me, the matter is closed; we’ve made our points and I need to write a new book.

  5. John Costello

    As far as I know I have not been defriended by anyone – not that this would be any loss – and I’ve never been on twitter. Despite your assumption to the contrary you don’t know the majority of what has gone on behind the scenes. I hope you’re happy with the people have appointed themselves as defenders of your honour. Being called a cocksucker or up my own arse or whatever just for having an opinion bothers me not one whit, but when it is by someone within the genre who has form for this – and who hides behind a pseudonym instead of using their name – then it only makes our points for us.

    I did not say that any good reviews for your novel “aren’t worth shit” – this is again a loose interpretation. I said that in my opinion, reviews which gush shamelessly and claim virtual perfection while failing to acknowledge any issues, flaws or difficulties aren’t worth shit, and I stand by my opinion. This applies to any superficial and overflattering puff-piece, not just those on HoSS.

    The podcasts have a deliberately irreverent tone which has been part and parcel of their nature since the outset and this will continue. Before now we have had no adverse reaction to them. Many of the comments in this one from Michael and Dan, who have read and loved your other work, are hugely positive; glowing even, yet that has all been ignored in the rush to condemn. Like any other media text it is a personal choice for you and everyone else whether or not you wish to read, watch or listen. We gave Joseph D’Lacey an uncomfortable time – in person – when honestly critiquing some of the stories in his Splinters collection, yet there was no teacup storm or disturbance in the Force when that podcast aired.

    Life’s too short for ongoing spats. If and when we meet again I will extend my hand and offer you a pint. If you should refuse… well, the tides will still roll and the world will still turn.

  6. Emma Audsley

    Is this seriously what you call a review?
    You’ve missed out some very important sides of the novel & essential parts of the make up of the entire piece.
    I’ll be posting my own review within the next couple of days, it will be a lot more professional than the podcast I’ve just sat through. You’ll probably get high stats for this podcast as it’s blatantly attention-seeking. You do not disparage an author like that, that is not reviewing. That’s muck-slinging playground chatter…maybe it should be removed. For the respect of the horror genre & community at large.

  7. John Costello

    A capsule review should deliver an individual reviewer’s impressions of the text and their honest reactions to it. This one does exactly that. As Adam Nevill states, ‘[Dan] reads carefully and makes a considered response; in an age of feckless opinion in social media, who can ask for more?’ When the author himself has made it clear that he supports the review and considers it reasonable and considered, why do you not bear that in mind when disagreeing with him so shrilly? He clearly does not share your view, and you do him no favours by trying to impose your own subjective opinions over Dan’s – especially after they have been addressed positively by the author, whose issues have only been with my follow-up comment and the podcast content.

    You suggest that the review should be removed, for the respect of the genre and community at large. On what grounds are you suggesting this? Adam has certainly not requested us to remove, censor or tone down the review in any way. We contend that by offering our honest individual and collective response to a text we have respected the genre far more than whitewashing all our problems, giving it five stars and praising it to the stratosphere would have done. The only ‘crime’ here has been to give an overall unfavourable review to a major genre author. Ironically, in the podcast we aired the rhetorical question ‘are some genre authors regarded in the community as ‘untouchable’? The personal insults we have received and the disproportionate fury of people like yourself has demonstrated this reality better than we ever could. In the past we have given unfavourable reviews on the website and in podcasts to several other texts, with none of the resulting recriminations that this one has caused. We can only assume that this is because almost no one in the genre community who read or listened to those reviews cared about other, perhaps ‘lesser’ authors or filmmakers receiving them.

    You accuse us of a lack of professionalism, disparaging behaviour and muck-slinging. I note however that on another public forum you refer to us as ‘jumped up little cretins’, playing ‘silly little games’, ‘for merchandise’. You are hardly maintaining credibility or doing your cause any service by stooping to infantile name calling. You also state that the podcasts are for sale, which is factually untrue. In my neck of the woods an untruth is also known as a lie.

    You seem to live in a paradoxical world where you can state, again on a public forum and with no detectable irony, that ‘Everyone’s entitled to their opinion’, yet then claim a superior critical position by adding that you are ‘trained in Literature Analysis’ (or, as it should be written, ‘literary analysis’). Citing unspecified qualifications which make you somehow right and us somehow wrong is completely incompatible with your stance on it being all about opinion (which of course everyone knows it is anyway). If you wish to cite your qualifications as some kind of trump card though, allow me to cite mine: Freelance Lecturer in Creative Writing for over 20 years, working at several UK Universities and one US University, at both undergrad and postgrad level. Ex-Head of Adult Education Creative Writing at a UK Russell Group University. Published author of film & media textbooks, journalism, fiction and poetry. Commissioned and optioned screenwriter, and script mentor & analyst. Michael has worked in publishing ever since he left university. He has developed This Is Horror into one of the best websites commenting on the genre, and one that the BBC came to when they wanted genre insiders’ reaction to Stephen King’s novel Doctor Sleep. I don’t claim to know everything, nor to be an ‘untouchable’ author (or even a very good one), but we’re hardly the ‘cretins’ you make us out to be and I’d back my legitimacy to air an informed literary opinion any time.

    Finally, you could do worse than read Joseph D’Lacey’s (one of my ex-Creative Writing students btw) reasonable and considered response to the podcast on this site. He has received negative reviews from TIH and yet has never thrown his toys out of the pram nor embarked on a crusade against any of us for daring to hold a different opinion. His words demonstrate the best way to approach the matter and I think careful mature reflection always helps to dissipate the emotional fog of misplaced outrage.

  8. ThisIsHorror

    Comments are now closed. No further correspondence will be entered into on this subject because little can be gained and we have far better things to do with our time.

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