(2013) Adam Nevill, Pan, £7.99, pbk, 384pp, ISBN 978-0-330-54424-5
You do not want to go there. Yes, you, especially, you, because you have a secret, perhaps one that you are not really aware of. You are different. You are flawed. You have a weakness that has brought you to this place. And this place has been waiting for you.
One of the major tropes of horror, and I mean in all it’s various forms – short story, novel and film, is 'you don’t want to go there'. Read some of the annual 'best of' horror collections, and that will be a common thread running through many of the stories. It’s a rich theme. Think Shirley Jackson. Think Susan Hill. Think Stephen King (and this year saw the publication of his novel Doctor Sleep, a sequel to The Shining (and let’s look at that novel: ominous remote place with a bit of a history -check. Chance of getting cut off from the rest of the world there – check. Flawed, central character with his own demons and weaknesses – check. Oh, and there is a special one, with his own hidden talent - check).
It is no happy accident that I am mentioning Stephen King as the blurb on the cover proclaims that 'Adam Nevill is 'Britain’s answer to Stephen King'. 'I used to be that,' Ramsey Campbell was heard to say at this year’s World Fantasy Convention in Brighton back at the start of November. King is uniquely King. Campbell is uniquely Campbell, and Nevill is uniquely Nevill, but what he has done is taken this key tropes, those key ingredients and kneaded them down into a horror that is a lot more smaller, and intimate and claustrophobic than his previous award-winning novels.
What we have is the story of a house – one with small shadows in it. The Red House, in fact (and the word 'red' obviously conjured up some connotations) which belonged to the late H. M. Mason, survivor of the Great War, but at a cost. For years, this master taxidermist and puppeteer hid himself away there creating many things, not all of which should see the light of day or the dark of the moon, but now he is dead and it is the job of Catherine Howard, late of London, a city where her heart and spirit were broken, to come to the Red House to do some valuation work. Catherine has lost out in the worlds of love and work, but she is damaged goods, stretching all the way back to her childhood when she was adopted and her only friend was Alice, who disappeared, never to be found, another victim of the Pied Piper of Ellyll. Yet the Red House is not empty. Mason’s ancient niece, Edith lives there and she is a ferocious guardian of her uncle’s work, and there is also the mute house-keeper Maude who warns Catherine in a note to go and never come back, but she has to come back, she has a job to do, and terrible secrets to undercover.
I hope someone picks up the film rights for this and turns it into a creepy, eerie film in the vein of Guillermo del Toro’s earlier movies, maybe with chillmeister, Stephen Volk (Ghostwatch, Afterlife) as scriptwriter. If I can hark back to King’s Doctor Sleep which was a brilliant page-turner (even me, the world’s most reluctant reader devoured 160 pages of it in two days). Doctor Sleep was exciting, it was ingenious, the characterisation and the plotting were tremendous, but it just was not scary. With House of Small Shadows, Nevill might not be 'Britain’s answer to Stephen King' - yet, but he can certainly do scary.
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