I’m not exactly an avid reader of Horror Fiction, but do enjoy the occasional foray into that area. When I do, one of the things I find fascinating about it is finding out what it is the author wants his reader to perceive as frightening. That’s not always as obvious as it might seem, but in the case of Adam Nevill’s novel House of Small Shadows, it’s fairly clear pretty much from the start: dolls and taxidermy – two things whose high creep factor will be obvious to most people.
What both of those have in common is that through artifice they dress up something dead or lifeless to appear alive, and can be very successful at it – so much so that it seems but a tiny, almost natural (but at the same time, of course, profoundly unnatural) step for appearance to become reality, for the doll to stir, for the stuffed animal to move, for the supposedly dead to become alive.
One might delve deeper here, might even attempt some psychoanalytic analysis – and House of Small Shadows would undoubtedly offer ample opportunity for this. Essential for the immediate experience of reading the novel, however, is that sensation of creeping unease we feel peeking into the dead eyes of a stuffed animal or a doll, involuntarily wondering whether there might not be a spark of alien life hiding somewhere in their depths. Neville uses this unease and heightens it to a dizzying intensity over the course of the novel, starting on a note of slight discomfort and slowly but relentlessly building on it – leaving the reader profoundly unsettled and disturbed by the time they close the book. This is not a novel of neatly wrapped endings and tied-up threads; in fact it is a novel of frayed-out edges and blurry margins where all kinds of dreadful things lurk, only visible in brief glimpses caught from the corner of the eye.
I have read three previous novel by Adam Nevill, and in every single one of them he has proven himself to be a master at conjuring up a creepy atmosphere and of infusing his readers with a sense of impending dread creeping up on them, but I think he really has outdone himself in that regard with House of Small Shadows. Nevill might not compose the most beautiful prose, but he is obviously a very intelligent writer, and he does an excellent job of keeping readers disoriented, of throwing them off-balance by unexpected twists and turns of the plot, of constantly shifting the ground underneath them by messing with chronological not just on the chapter and paragraph level but down to sentence structure. As a result, it costs a bit of an effort to really get into the novel at first – one is never sure where one is at or what the heroine is on about, but gradually, and almost without the reader noticing, you get drawn into the novel; and once it has you grabbed by the neck, it won’t let go again, possibly not even after the ending. And if the ending is not tied up neatly with a pretty bow, then that is not lack of skill on Adam Nevill’s part but quite clearly his intention – by refusing to explain everything by the novel’s conclusion, he opens it up, lets it spill out and resonate in the readers’ minds even after they have turned the last page of House of Small Shadows.