This book starts with an intriguing passage from The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions, a very good story which is part of Widdershins, a short book that can be read for free at gutenberg.org. The passage sets the mood for the story to come, a story where disturbing imagery, intense emotions and glimpses of horrors only hinted at merge to create one of the best books of horror I’ve read and also one of the darkest.
The story begins with Caroline Howard visiting the Red House, famous dwelling of M.H. Mason, master taxidermist and puppeteer, whose work had been kept from the public for a long time. Catherine is sent to evaluate the amazing work that has been kept at the house following H.M. Mason’s suicide. It’s an art curator’s dream come true, a project that would bring fame to the small firm she’s working for, and one that would finally reveal to the world the work of an almost unmatched artist.
The Red House is like a museum, rooms of amazing creations that are unveiled one at a time, and while Catherine can appreciate the craftsmanship and can’t stop dreaming of the great opportunity before her, soon enough she realizes this isn’t just a house, but also the home of some strange people – Edith Mason, the taxidermist’s niece, an old lady guarding her uncle’s work with the zeal of a fanatic, living in a house full of exquisite dolls and amazingly well preserved animals, all existing as if in a separate world, a carnival of the grotesque; the housekeeper, Maude, a stout presence, at times acting like an automaton only to be heard sobbing at night.
Catherine is on an emotional rollercoaster from the start. Her own past, with gaps she struggled to fill with the help of therapists, is in itself a great mystery, and it all comes crashing when her boyfriend leaves her for a woman she hates. Desperate, clinging to her work, not wanting to disappoint Leonard, her wheelchair bound boss, she takes on this new task, determined to see it through, despite the fact that she realizes quite early on something’s not right about her new assignment. Her unexplained seizures, the disappearance of Alice, a childhood friend, the mother she never knew, all make her an unreliable protagonist in the drama enfolding at the Red House.
I know next to nothing about taxidermy but reading about rats and kittens being made to look like people, from their clothes to facial expressions, and the settings they were made to inhabit felt like visualizing a disturbing tableau where the artist went beyond creating something for posterity and reached that place where art marries a sort of madness that can repel and awe at the same time. I was intrigued by the details, and while Nevill doesn’t go into lengthy descriptions (or perhaps it was I who wanted more) he made me see it on the page. And I shuddered, and kept reading. It was unexpected, grotesque, horrifying, scary, wonderful. There’s a particularly disturbing scene where Catherine is running through the dark house, pursued by a voice giving a macabre description of how the process of preserving an animal is achieved.
There were quite a few other shockers, and while the story ends on a satisfying note, it also left me with questions, and no matter how much I would like those questions answered, it made me look at the book in a new light and appreciate it all the more. I had hoped there was a sequel. There isn’t. But in spite of the gloomy, dark, oppressive atmosphere of the book, I found myself fascinated with so many things – Catherine’s seizures, taxidermy, Edith’s past, Maude’s story, Leonard’s duality, even H.M. Mason himself. Nevill gives enough detail to satisfy and create good closure, but my appetite was never completely satisfied. The perfect kind of book – always leaving the reader wanting more.
Some favorite passages from the book:
Speechless, Catherine turned about. And saw red squirrels in frock coats paused in the eating of nuts upon the piano. She looked away and a fox grinned at her from the low table it stalked across. A company of rats in khaki uniforms all stood on their hind legs on parade on the mantel.
She turned again and came face to face with a crowd of pretty kittens in colorful dresses, jostling to get a look at her from inside a tall cabinet. Some of them were taking tea. Others curtsied.
A dog that watched Catherine with a single wet brown eye under a raised brow. In the sunlight that fell through the arched windows the dog’s ruby fur shimmered. The dog, at least, must be real.
Unmoving, Catherine looked at them for a while, nonsensically feeling her presence was an intrusion upon a moment of deep intimacy. She also felt the cold shock of carnal betrayal. A disgust at death. And grasped the horribly simple fact that someone could be alive, but go to the wrong place and then not be alive.
*My rating: 4/5 stars
*Read in October-November 2014