Okay, HUGE amount of SPOILERS, so don't read. You shouldn't be here anyway.
I have now read three of this author's novels in relatively close proximity. Both Last Days and The Ritual are fixated with rites and actions of transformance; that is, there is a higher achievement in the antagonistic machinations than mere pain, evil, loss and copious amounts of fear and terror for the victims. In the previous reads the locations are expansive as the seeker heroes pursue the monster—or run from it—while The House of Small Shadows is geographically myopic as it gobbles up the unfortunate characters that come to it. Any higher purposes are muddled amongst the plot tracers that charge through the work, becoming knotted in the third act as reality slips from this novel's lead character's grip into incredulity, taking the hamstrung reader with her.
Okay, the setting is full-bore creepy. There was this gifted eccentric—M. H. Mason—who was considered the greatest taxidermist of his time. He also amassed an aberrant collection of antique dolls and hand-crafted puppets put into bizarre Punch 'N Judy productions that were considered works of technical genius. Back then, no one could puzzle out the locomotion method, let alone guess Mason's motivations. But his chef-d'oeuvre was elaborate dioramas involving hundreds of posed and costumed rats depicting gory slaughterfests from the trenches of WWI battlefields. But, nevermind, these mini-landscapes of man's carnage to man don't charge the plot in any conspicuous way.
M. H. Mason has been gone now for fifty years, but his legacy remains safe in his grand estate over toward Wales called Red House, outside the tiny village of Magbar Wood, which "boasted at least two square miles of wild land circling itself and the house like a vast moat"(p.3).(1) His niece, the now 93-year old Edith Mason, who is described as "the slyest and cruellest [of] dragons"(p.41), still lives in Red House along with a lone servant/housekeeper, Maude, another old shrew constantly in a state of "morose disapproval"(p.38). Edith has hired a local firm run by a Leonard Osberne—a natty fogie himself, with a fastidious nature and a bad rug on his head—to catalogue her uncle's treasures while dangling their sale like the proverbial carrot. Leonard sends his new girl he dubs "Kitten" for the task.
So, meet your third-person, limited narrator, Catherine "Kitten" Howard. She's more of a ruse, a sidetrack, than a lead character. But wait, you'll see.
Catherine's had a tough time of it, and her past and present syllabi are floated in the beginning chapters. Adopted, and teased because of it, she deems her first six years as a "thoroughly miserable introduction to life"(p.15). Then, her only friend named Alice Galloway is disappeared. The controversy of a missing child is complicated by Catherine impossibly seeing "a Mongol, a retard, a thicky"(p.214), children from the special needs school, which was abandoned years before. She thinks Alice joined them for a happier life. Her adopted parents move her away from her beloved "nan". Hallucinations become trances; therapists are called in; zanax takes up residence in her medicine cabinet. Catherine's depressive rationalizations don't win her any normalcy: "If the only real friend you ever had went missing, you just made up the rest"(p.23).
As an adult, she gets three things going for her, a career, a love relationship, and "a great haircut"(p.25), all of which are in question during the current time of this story. Well, maybe not her stylist's work. Anyway, job-wise she's flitting around antiques and auction houses until some alpha uber-bitch(2) cuts her off and hoses her down, leading to breakdown crisis and moving back home at 36 years of age. Then, her boyfriend Mike Turner breaks up with her, mumbling cowardly non-descripts, and choosing his low-life message be delivered in a high-class restaurant. He walks, leaving her stranded to pay the bill. Mike: scum of the earth or Catherine's embellishments? Cliche, or brilliantly-devious covert plot logistics? At any rate, she's now working for Leonard, who is like a wheelchaired, old sage of a grandfather to her.(3)
Edith—don't ask how—talks Catherine into staying at Red House while she audits Mason's grotesqueries. Catherine's journal notes are soon filled with scenes beyond just moldy rats fighting through mustard gas. There's the puppet nursery, where ten child beds house the troupe's nightmares of sewn-together abominations with altered animal heads—hare, badger, fox—and God knows what else under their bedcovers. Mason and his sister—that'd be Violet Mason, Edith's mother, who also sewed the wardrobes and designed the sets—performed what they called "cruelty plays"(p.130) around the countryside after WWII. Not quite the draw of, let's say, Howdy Doody or The Pipkins, Mason's marionette entertainments had names like The Magician's Fate or The Beauteous Sacrifice. Edith projects the only celluloid copy of these puppet plays for Catherine, documenting the torture-ravaged death of a "condemned, executed, dismembered, and now martyred man"(p.138) named Henry Strader from the 17th century. Catherine may not have seen a drawn breath rise the sheets in the nursery, but she should've researched this Strader character further, as he turns out to be addressed as The First Martyr. It is about this time that Catherine loses faith in the salability of Mason's oeuvre; it is nothing more than an "unpleasant curiosity"(p.144).
It is also about this time Catherine feels "she was being tormented, unwound, and rewound to times and feelings she'd long tried to forget"(p.185). Her trances have come back, somehow entered through dreams. She feels ill, she feels drugged, she feels illusion cloaking reality. She begins to think of herself as a "hapless marionette in a cruelty play"(p.234). But Edith insists she stay. After all, it is time for the pageant, "the highlight of our local calendar"(p.206). Catherine, however, sees it as a chance to escape.
In the village she gets swept up in the procession of smallish, teetering, non-vocal, very elderly and bizarre gnomish-like citizenry. They are focused on an effigy in a glass cabinet carried from the church as if it was a funeral cortege. She thought the village abandoned. Where did they all come from? Why does she feel she's playing a part and everybody but her knows it? Mike, her weasel of a coward of a boyfriend shows up, promises help, wails for clemency, then disappears.
Catherine, or Kitten as she should probably be called through this final, third act of the novel, heads back to Red House to find Mike and Tara, who has car keys. Edith tries to explain it to her—she was chosen, what a great gift, "here you are loved", "they are the ones who offer justice now, my dear"(p.311), blah, blah—while Kitten holds palms to temples with incomprehension, then runs away to find Mike and his paramour decomposing together in an ethanol tub of goo, being in "the wrong place and then not be[ing] alive"(p.315).(4)
Kitten discovers more important bodies in the attic, namely the Last Martyr himself, ol' M. H. Mason and, the effigy in the glass cabinet of the procession earlier, "like a satanic version of the Madonna"(p.323), is Violet Mason. Then, "collapsed like a doll with its mouth open" in a leather trunk Kitten'd seen before in other locations, is Edith, with not "a single breath of life inside the woman"(p.326). Kitten goes to Edith's bedroom and takes a nap, one that includes a "profound vision"(p.338) adding more hysterical question marks to her waking nightmare, revealing "the building [as] some kind of doll's house that changed and played out its stratagems with living occupants"(p.341). More theories fill the page, more time spent tiptoeing around the creaky mansion. When she sees the Red House's entourage of "ragged children with odd-shaped heads"(p.344), she cuts herself to break the trance. No go. This is now your reality, Kitten.
Natch, things get worse when Leonard, her kind, old, mentor/boss, shows up, strips off all his clothes and dons a featureless leather mask before entering the house, sans wheelchair. But the most befuddling event is that the house has changed around her. It is now derelict of at least 50 years, with no furniture, no light fixtures, and smelling of "damp wood and urine"(p.352). Maude's still around with her dragging foot and "dour indifference"(p.353) as she joins up with Leonard. Kitten plays cat and mouse with them through the ravaged structure, still trying—along with the reader—to make sense of senselessness.
After finding Tara alive with all the humanity tortured out of her—no eyes, no tongue, no mind left—she books back to Edith's bedroom to find another body sitting up among the rusted bedsprings. Herself, looking like something was forcedfed through a resisting jaw and broken teeth, creating the somnambulistic appearance. So, which is Kitten? Which is Catherine?
Looking out the window, she sees Leatherface Leonard slice open Maude's belly and dig his hand inside while holding the housekeeper upright by the throat,"his other hand unspooling the housekeeper into the overgrown grass". But instead of spilled innards, he pulls out "rags and string and tow and sawdust"(p.367). Another re-birthed horror of a puppet person.(5)
The Mistress has come home to Red House, she realizes, and it is her.
Now admittedly, a second reading of the ending chapters makes the narrative far more cohesive, especially when you don't get bushwhacked in the juxtaposition of dreams, trances, comas, reality. But still, this is a case of too many shiny baubles displayed on the black velvet, their numbers dropping the value or meaning of the group. And, everything is so, so, well, verbose. The prose shouts at you—with good words, though—just over and over again. There is never really any attempt to seek deeper plausibility or the arcana of truth to exactly why the Masons' Red House is a full step into La-La Land. There's a weak toss at the idea that these manufacturings are to protect the helpless, orphaned, and handicapped children. But filling them with sawdust and styrofoam packing pellets through horrible surgery kinda negates that notion. So, why's this goin' down? Where's the reward? Leonard drives off, as if his maintenance job is done. Catherine accepts her position in Neverland as the new nannying governess. Do they get to live forever? Is that it?
That "there was work to be done"(p.370) for Catherine on the penultimate page to closure, hints that she's still corporal until she gets in bed with her effigy and becomes magically transformed. But with so many mysteries inside being solved, it is frustrating to not find an answer to the big cabal of, really, why Catherine? and who is the real god of Red House? and, hell, just why?
Ah, hello, ah, is this Cthulhu? Yeah, hi, I got some questions . . .
1) BTW, a similar setup of Goin' Medieval On Yer Ass was used by Ramsey Campbell in 1989's Ancient Images.
2) She turns out to be Mike's new girlfriend, and one of the "plot tracers" sidecaring the 3rd act into a muddled pileup that detached this reader from any true meaning or direction. On the first read-through, that is.
3) So right for the moment, it can't be true. Supposed conspiracy only stays valid according to size and influence. The bigger it gets the more unbelievable it becomes. Catherine's not a seeker heroine, she's so victim she's got bean cans tied with string to her ankles.
4) Okay, now that the Mike and Tara sidecar show is looped out, why add it in the first place? Sure, betrayal is a huge theme here, but these episodes seem to add more superfluous density to the confusion/misdirection than any worth with its inclusion. Just more noise to an overly clamorous finale. Was it really worth the effort just for the irony of Tara now being Catherine's houseslave?
3/1/15 Postscript: Writing this review caused a re-reading, which I enjoyed far more than this writing suggests. If nothing more, this novel is a barn burner, dude. My main objection still stands, however. The microcosmos around Red House is thorough and rewarding. It's the outer shell holding it in place that I will always question—you know, how it fits into a real world—until author Nevill says otherwise.