Taxidermy, wheelchairs, and the name Edith have all officially been ruined for me. With Halloween fast approaching, there’s no better way to get into the season than reading the deeply disturbing and uniquely terrifying novel, The House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill.
It’s the profoundly macabre story of Catherine Howard, a woman who is offered the job to appraise the antique doll collection of the deceased M.H. Mason. Upon arriving at the mysterious Red House where Mason kept his collection, Catherine encounters a lot more than she had anticipated. In addition to the dolls, she finds elaborate and bloody war scenes depicted by stuffed taxidermy. The longer Catherine stays at the Red House, the more she finds out about the dark truth behind Mason’s creations and the deeper she falls into the black hole of her sanity.
The House of Small Shadows shines brightest in the ominous descriptions of Mason’s collections. Nevill likes his details and doesn’t spare a single one as he richly paints a picture of a house sick with its own little glassy-eyed monsters. The House of Small Shadows exhibits an impressive element of subtlety that the horror genre often lacks. Instead of employing cheap gimmicks and scream-your-face-off bloody visuals, Nevill opts for a craftier, unshakably discomforting atmosphere that unsettles and nauseates in a quiet, bone-chilling sort of terror. His writing is purely hypnotic and disturbingly engrossing. The whole book feels like peering into an old Victorian photograph.
While he has a firm handle on structure and world building, Nevill lacks the finessing of his main character, Catherine Howard. She’s much too passive and lifeless to be the star of the show. Despite having an alarmingly demented past full of psychiatric therapy and habitual tragedy, she falls flat. Her character feels like cardboard compared to the rest of the wonderfully twisted and expertly constructed elements of The House of Small Shadows that Nevill clearly spent effort developing to their fullest.
Nevill writes old school horror. Like his two previous books, The Ritual and Last Days, he relies on atmospheric visuals to carry the weight of the scare effect. The House of Small Shadows holds all the hallmarks of a classic: decaying old house, haunted dolls, creepy old lady, and enough psychotic breakdowns to appease any fear junkie.