As a seasoned reader of horror, I’m very pleased to say that House of Small Shadows is the most genuinely frightening book I have read in a very long time! In fact, I can honestly admit that I couldn’t bring myself to read it alone, even though I thought I was long past being scared by a book! The novel is set in a typical haunted house setting, with suitably bizarre hosts and ghostly activities. The reason it stands out from other works of horror is because of the chilling atmosphere the author has created, which stays with you even after you’ve put the book down. There are enough spine tingling moments to maintain the level of fear, and the plot has many good twists which keep you guessing until the end.
The plot revolves around Catherine, a young antiques valuer, who is sent to value a sample of some antique dolls from a collection which belonged to the late M.H. Mason. What she sees is enough to convince her that this is a once in a lifetime find, and she eagerly agrees to go to the house where the remainder of the collection is stored. The “Red House” is occupied by W.H Mason’s niece Edith, who is slightly peculiar to say the least. As Edith (reluctantly) shows Catherine around to examine the various items, Catherine is “treated” to viewings of her uncle’s vast collection of taxidermy. Personally, I’ve always found taxidermy very creepy and strange, so for me this was the perfect background for the plot.
As far as Catherine is concerned, this is the defining moment of her career, so it doesn’t take much effort to convince her to stay in the house while she completes the valuations. Catherine is so busy planning exhibitions in her mind that she chooses to ignore the disturbing nature of the house, and even dismisses the clear warning to stay away by the suspiciously mute maid, the only other person occupying the house. It doesn’t take long for events to take on a more menacing tone, starting with the obligatory strange noises in the night, but growing more and more sinister as Catherine’s mind grows weaker.
Catherine is not a strong woman. She’s been in counselling for most of her life, which seems to have taught her nothing but to constantly doubt herself and her feelings. This means she has a fairly justifiable excuse for ignoring the warning signs and attempting to rationalise the frightening events occurring. She also experiences “episodes”, where she enters trance like states for hours without being aware of them, which become more frequent the longer she spends in the house. The recent break up with her long term boyfriend also causes her to relapse into depression which, along with several therapists leading her to believe she is paranoid, allows the reader to forgive her slightly for convincing herself it’s her imagination and deciding to stay in the Red House. And, unlike in other books and films where you just end up hoping all the characters die (due to the shocking levels of stupidity and insane states of denial), you actually end up liking Catherine and feeling very sorry for her.
Without a doubt, the best character is Edith, the eccentric old lady who now owns the Red House. She reminds me of a mix between Miss Havisham (Great Expectations) and Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada). A strange mix I know, but she has the condescending tone of Miranda and the manic nature of Miss Havisham. Catherine’s biggest mistake is to assume that Edith is just an innocent reclusive old lady. She may seem frail at first and completely out of touch with reality, but she’s still able to intimidate Catherine into meek obedience, and she has some secrets to reveal.
The best part of this book, aside from Edith, is the Red House itself. It’s an extremely macabre setting, and a fascinating insight into a madman’s mind. M.H. Mason was a famous and talented taxidermist, who was mentally scared by events in the First World War and was haunted by these memories for the rest of his life. When he returned home, he was severely disturbed. He and his sister became recluses in the Red House, and spent their time making taxidermy. W.H. Mason also made several truly disturbing displays, using rats to re-enact traumatic memories from the war, which Catherine (along with the reader) finds particularly horrific. W.H. Mason’s story is very sad, and is written very well. It makes you realise that you can’t possibly imagine what those men went through.
W.H. Mason and his sister also conducted several theatre plays, aptly named ‘cruelty plays’, with several scary-looking dolls. These priceless dolls are about the size of a ten year old, and Edith makes it very clear from the start that they are not for sale. When Catherine is shown the dolls, she is instructed that she cannot see them until she is in the proper state of mind, and must respect them. Obviously Catherine dismisses this as Edith just being her usual odd self, and ignores the warning. She can’t believe her eyes when she sees they have their own nursery and a choice of night/day clothes. Edith shows her the last remaining film of a puppet show her mother and uncle performed, and Catherine notices that she can’t see the strings on the puppets. This is the first clue that something isn’t quite right with the dolls, but of course Catherine ignores this and tries to use logic to think of an explanation. This is where the story picks up pace and, without giving too much of the plot away, I can tell you that these dolls are not meant to be toys.
Of course, the book had a few bad points too. Firstly, I grew a bit tired of Catherine’s dithering. Although it’s made clear that she has many reasons to doubt her state of mind, I feel there are too many instances where Catherine becomes torn about her decision to stay. One minute she would convince herself to leave, the next she would convince herself that it was all in her head and that she’s just being paranoid. However, it does all lead her to a near mental breakdown, so it all had a purpose. The major problem I had with Catherine is that she went back into the house at the end (after finally deciding to leave) when it should have been painfully obvious to her that she should run away. Although she had a reason to go back (to save someone else) I didn’t feel like that reason was good enough for me, as the person wasn’t really worth risking her life for. I felt like shaking her and shouting at her to get a grip and run.
I also had a slight issue with the finale. Whilst it’s always a treat to read a book with an unpredictable ending, this one left me feeling a slightly confused. What I wanted more than anything was more clarity on past and present events. I wanted to know more about Violet, Edith’s mother, and W.H. Mason. I also wanted to know more about Catherine’s real parents, which I felt was left a bit unclear.
Overall, the book scores 8.5 out of 10. It would have been higher, but I felt that the ending was too abrupt and could have easily been extended, as it left a few unanswered questions. I also feel like the first half of the book was scarier than the second, as Nevill clearly put in a lot of effort creating the haunting atmosphere and building up the tension, which gets overshadowed in the second half by the fast pace and nightmarish events. But I’m sure there are others who would disagree, and enjoy the action more. I’m currently living in hope for a prequel, as Violet and M.H. Mason’s story is very interesting and I want to know more about them. I really enjoyed reading House of Small Shadows and highly recommend it, as the story kept a good balance between suspense and fright, and had an unexpected ending. I will be looking out for Nevill’s other works from now on.
Perfect for: those who want a good scare
Not suitable for: anyone who doesn’t want nightmares
Review by Ceimone Kercher
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