Where does reality end and illusion begin… and at what point does a simple footstep on the stairs become the stuff of nightmares?
Adam Nevill treads that fine line between paranoia and the paranormal in this atmospheric horror story which blends the visceral arts of taxidermy with a macabre cast of marionettes.
Nevill is fast becoming a master of supernatural thrillers and House of Small Shadows, a terrifying and fantastical tale of a mansion haunted by its late owner’s psychotic genius, is guaranteed to raise goosebumps and send shivers down spines.
The action centres round a vulnerable young woman who is sent to value a disturbing collection of stuffed animals and sinister mannequins created by a damaged veteran of the Great War at his creepy house in the Herefordshire countryside.
Catherine Howard’s last top flight job ended badly. Corporate bullying saw her fired and forced to leave London but she was determined to get her life back and is now settled in a new job as a valuer for respected rural auctioneer Leonard Osberne.
She is thrilled when she is given the challenging and prestigious project of cataloguing the wildly eccentric hoard of antique dolls and puppets created by M.H. Mason, the late master taxidermist and puppeteer.
Custodian of Mason’s nightmarish collection is his obsessive and menacing 93-year-old niece Edith who has agreed to let Catherine examine his elaborate and legendary displays of posed, costumed and preserved animals, said to depict scenes from the First World War.
But Red House is a house where time stood still, its interior silent and rigid with tension, a place of shadows and strange rustlings, a building that seems ‘enraged at being disturbed.’
Worst of all are the glass display cases full of armies of posed dead rats, dioramas of slaughtered animals complete with uniforms, weapons and expressions ‘impossibly but entirely human,’ each re-enacting the nightmare of suffering on the Western front.
The battle tableaux, and tiny beds crowded with eerie mannequins that look like ‘small dead people’ in ‘winding sheets,’ are the work of a deranged man who had lost his faith not just in God but in men, society and humanity.
And Red House has secrets, secrets as dreadful as those from Catherine’s own murky past. Persuaded to stay overnight, she discovers that in darkness the building comes alive with noises and movements, footsteps and the fleeting glimpses of small shadows on the stairs.
And as the trances that have bedevilled Catherine since childhood return with vivid clarity, she starts to question her own sanity…
The highlight of this grisly, gripping story is undoubtedly the spectacular army of eviscerated rats, their expressions frozen into a miasma of ‘terror and pain and despair and shock’ in a landscape so surreal and so convincing that it is like peering into ‘hell’s inner circle.’
Compelling characterisation and a subtle interplay between reality and a very visual brand of horror have become the hallmarks of an author who can set a scene through the smallest of detail or a single turn of phrase.
A sense of unease and uncertainty drives both the action and the imagination, carrying the reader on a swift-flowing tide of hallucinatory episodes and tense, teasing plot twists.
And along with all the supernatural chills and thrills, Nevill conjures up a petrifying sense of claustrophobia as the dark corners and demonic secrets of the Red House crowd in on Catherine’s increasingly troubled mind, building to a mesmerising, mind-blowing dénouement.
Original, unsettling and genuinely scary, this is a book to be read only in daylight hours…
(Pan, paperback, £7.99)