Unfortunately, your access has now expired. But there’s good news—by subscribing today, you will receive 22 issues of Booklist magazine, 4 issues of Book Links, and single-login access to Booklist Online and over 180,000 reviews.
Your access to Booklist Online has expired. If you still subscribe to the print magazine, please proceed to your profile page and check your subscriber number against a current magazine mailing label. (If your print subscription has lapsed, you will need to renew.)
You must be logged in to read full text of reviews.
> Logged-in users can make lists, save searches, e-mail, and more!
> Click My Profile to create a username & password
> Try a free trial or subscribe today
February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Titles similar to The House of Small Shadows
Horror fiction often provides shivers of ghoulish appreciation—this shock was effectively staged, that death was impressively perverse—but fans of the genre know how rare it is to find a book upsetting enough to want to take the damn thing out back and bury it. Nevill, in his fifth novel, throws down just such a gauntlet.
From the opening line’s echo of Manderley (“As if by a dream Catherine came to the Red House”), readers will find themselves in the sickly-sweet rotted-silk grip of a decaying gothic nightmare, in which a psychologically damaged antiques appraiser, Catherine, is summoned to the crumbling Victorian home of 93-year-old Edith, the surviving niece of an apparently gifted, though hermetic, puppeteer named M. H. Mason.
What Catherine expects to find are dolls sellable at auction; what she discovers instead are thousands of rats, taxidermied into WWI tableaux of painstaking realism: “[S]o lifelike were their expressions of terror and pain and despair and shock, and so convincing were their little uniforms and weapons, as was their suffering in the soil, that for a few seconds she was sure she had been looking at a crowd of tiny men mired in one of hell’s inner circles.” Ah, but that was only Mason’s early work! The cackling Edith, wheeled about by her silent servant, then introduces Catherine to the 10 marionettes (articulated, of course, from animal carcasses) tucked into 10 little beds. Until night, that is, when time comes to rehearse for the latest “cruelty play,” in which a plum role has been reserved for Catherine.
At the end of Catherine’s first day, Edith’s servant slips into her hand a crumpled note: DON’T NEVER COME BACK. This serves as cue for readers to start shouting the same thing at the page (if they weren’t already), but Nevill, the clever devil, has trapped Catherine before the mansion’s front door even slams shut. Her teetering personal life and career so hinge upon exposing to the world Mason’s twisted genius that readers, too, will find themselves gritting their teeth and submitting: Fine, one more night, but then we’re out of here.
By then, it’s too late. This is largely a haunted-house story, though Nevill’s merciless assault upon primordial fears—darkness, disfigurement, and disablement—does not so much recall the slow, seeping insanity of Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) as it does Stanley Kubrick’s treatment of the novel, single-minded in its determination to terrorize regardless of which rational concerns are dropped by the wayside. A significant side plot involves Catherine’s childhood traumas at the Magnis Burrow School of Special Education, from which disabled children were regularly abducted. Some readers might consider it an overkill of unpleasantness. To the contrary, this is how Nevill shows his command. Like Kubrick, he understands that the most effective horror (as well as the hardest to execute without looking foolish) is the gibbering kind that comes lurching straight at you. Overkill? There is no such thing in fiction of the extreme.
This is most evident in the book’s fun-house construction, which guides readers, quite literally, from one grisly chamber to the next. The tour concludes, as fun houses often do, in the frenzied disorientation of a maze: you slap at the walls, blind and overwhelmed by panic and noise, your giddiness only heightened by the hunch that you and the darkness are becoming one. Haunted-house maestros Shirley Jackson, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and Peter Straub would approve—this sets the bar for the best horror novel of the decade.
> Try a free trial or subscribe today