Interview: Adam Nevill talks about horror, what scares him, and The House of Small Shadows

Adam Nevill’s new book, THE HOUSE OF SMALL SHADOWS, just came out here in the US this week, and he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about it, and more! Please welcome Adam to the blog!

adamnevillI’m very excited that The House of Small Shadows is finally out in the US! I’ve read that the book was inspired in part by your childhood in England. Will you elaborate on that a bit?
Thank you for the anticipation. I’m hoping the range of imagery and folklore in the story will be relevant to North American readers too, as many of you share the same old world culture and history as us. Though the story isn’t autobiographical in term of characters or events, the novel catches a sense of what I found captivating, frightening and grotesque as a child in England, as a toddler and young boy, in the seventies. What I recall affecting me ranged from puppets in television shows and school visits, memories of dolls, museums, including a wax museum, and various trips to castles and so forth, a growing awareness of the past and of the alien. It was a time when I believed quite strongly in magic and the supernatural and observed little superstitions – I often used to smile at dolls to make sure they liked me. So I wanted to cross over into memory and imagination, and where they combine or become confused. I wanted to drill down to my own early strangeness.

I lived in the Midlands and went to university in Worcestershire, where I lived for three years, but Herefordshire is close by and a curious county; quite beautiful and Tolkienesque in the summer for me. It is the kind of place that suggests the presence of old magic, much as Wales does, which Herefordshire borders.

Hmmm…a mysterious house full of antique dolls and puppets…definitely a recipe for scares. Why do you think that dolls are such a source of the creeps for so many people?
When we are children I think they suggest a second and hidden life that occurs either someplace else, or when we are not looking at night. Their antics continue in places we are not privy to. And we invest our imaginations into them and pretend they live. As a child, who didn’t have the fear that dolls and puppets would get up and move at night? A terrifying but an enchanting proposition, particularly if the toys had access to powers beyond natural law.

houseofsmallshadowsPuppets pre Muppet Show furriness, were very curious things too and really seem charged with a strange alternative existence that we only glimpse in theatre – they moved and performed, imparted quite surreal stories, were articulated. Without a puppeteer in sight all of this could border on the supernormal or even the sinister. When the show is over and they are put away, where does that life go, those voices, those personalities?

They have had far more important roles in history as messengers, perhaps as mouthpieces for sedition, and as curators of oral story telling; though most of the common plays that were popular up around the 16th century were never written down and are lost to us now. Only the names of some plays and their characters exist. They may have lasted for centuries and been as well-known as Disney animation is now. I doubt the stories would have been as benign and politically correct as contemporary stories either. So I liked that idea that puppet shows were once one of the most popular forms of public entertainment, and would be feared by those in authority as they could be mouthpieces for treason and heresy, or vehicles for forbidden pagan practices and esoteric knowledge. In times when most people could not read, and books were the preserve of the privileged, theatre and street theatre would have been one of the most significant disseminators of information, opinion and entertainment. And when I had the idea that lost puppet dramas had been revived after centuries of obscurity in one small, isolated part of England, the story came alive. It led me to the creation of the Red House (which I based on William Morris’s home), the Gothic Revival rectory of a former priest devastated by his experience in the Great War, where ancient theatre traditions became mixed with witchcraft, and were revived. These ideas began to set my imagination alight.

Tells us more about Catherine, and why you think readers will connect with her.
Catherine Howard has all the aspirations of her generation – her career is defining and time consuming and represents her identity; the way she sees herself, and the way she thinks the world sees her. Compelled to have it all – the job, the guy, the flat, the lifestyle – her desire to be a mother and have a more traditional life clashes. And then there are the small shadows from her past, the traumas from her childhood that shaped her and are responsible for her lack of confidence and self-esteem. One in four people in the first world are now considered to be suffering from mental illness, and that ranges from depression or anxiety disorders to schizophrenia or psychosis. Catherine is one of the 25%, torn between the past, self-image issues, romantic setbacks, the ticking clock on fertility, professional stress. She’s been in therapy and she manages her mind, she’s a strong woman but one who has bi-polar relapses when anxiety and stress reach a critical point. I wanted her to be an everywoman, functioning but who has her moments of instability. And at times everyone around her, and the world itself, seem pitted against her. For Catherine it’s as if there are forces of fate at work in the universe and she cannot avoid their tidal pull. I take that further and suggest, what if those things she remembered imagining in her childhood were more memory than fantasy?

Why horror and dark fantasy? What do you love most about writing, and reading, in the genre, and where do you see horror heading in the future?
You have to write what you love reading, and loved reading as a child, and what you are compelled to imagine. You have to identify what it is that captivates you as a reader. And horror suits my imagination. I can write about everything I want to write about in the fiction of the weird and the fantastic. I would say nothing transports me as much as good horror fiction.

theritualBut taking horror to one side, and I consider myself a writer of supernatural horror fiction, when I consider our lonely place in a vast universe, surrounded by unbreathable gases and intense cold, and the continual threat of sudden and incremental extinction from beyond our atmosphere … and when I think of the horrors visited upon us by nature through viruses, natural disasters, climate change … and when I think of our overall insignificance, as individuals, amongst our own species, let alone time and space, and our incredibly short life spans … and when I think of all of the various tragedies that can befall us at any time in our lives, through crisis’ beyond our control like war, the loss of our loved ones, poverty, mental illness, to name a few very real possibilities … and when you look at our history as a species, then I have to ask, why aren’t all writers writing horror? I think it’s a fair question.

As for the future of horror, I don’t know, I could only guess. It really seems to have amalgamated with other genres in fiction, while purer horror is king in other media, like films, TV, comics and gaming. But it is important that some writers continue and interpret the literary traditions of horror and create new generations and ideas.

What are a few authors that you particularly admire? Are there any that have influenced you significantly in your writing?
I have many influences, but I will only name a few constants: M R James, Algernon Blackwood, Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Robert Aickman, Ramsey Campbell, M John Harrison, Thomas Ligotti and Cormac McCarthy are ever present inspirations, as are James Joyce and Colin Wilson and Shakespeare’s tragedies.

In terms of modern writers, again I have a great deal of admiration for many relatively new writers, and in more recent times, writers of the weird like Laird Barron, John Langan, Richard Gavin, Matt Cardin, Nathan Ballingrud, Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Tallis, and Reggie Oliver have all mightily impressed me.

If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Probably Robert Aickman’s Powers of Darkness. I almost felt as if the way I saw the world changed when I first read it. It also filled me with a sense of possibilities as a writer.

What are you currently reading?
I have just finished VOICES by Frank Tallis, and am now reading Brian Evenson’s short stories in the collections WINDEYE and THE WAVERING KNIFE and some non-fiction about the predicted consequences of climate change.

Your books explore plenty of scary themes, but what is something that truly terrifies you?
We’ll be here all day.

I’m afraid of dementia, cancer, and ultimately death, like most people, and about anything happening to my family. I’m afraid of most every driver every time I take my young daughter out in the car, or if we even walk on the footpath near a road.

lastdaysOf late my anxiety has been building about the consequences of deforestation, soil degradation and erosion, carbon emissions from our continuing and accelerating burning of coal, the thermal heating of the oceans, plant stress, and the impending collapse of civilization. We’ve applied nothing, in any meaningful sense, from what we have learned about the inhabitants of Easter Island.

I fear the unscrupulous and vulpine behavior of big business and organized criminal activity around me. I fear compulsive narcissists too – that’s one in one hundred people.

My own private fears about things happening to me that could be inflicted by other people, I keep to myself. Why give sociopaths ideas?

So, I’m pretty much afraid, all of the time. There’s nothing to fear but fear itself – that’s horseshit because there’s plenty to fear.

What’s next for you? For our UK readers (and hopeful US readers), will you tell us a little about No One Gets Out Alive, the book that you’ve called your first true ghost story? Any news on a US release date?
The book will be published by St Martins Press in 2015. It’s my longest book to date, certainly the most disturbing for me as the author. It may also feature the most hideous characters I’ve yet imagined, who all of my beta readers recognized from life in general, which is a good sign, and I am extending the folk horror themes that begin in THE HOUSE OF SMALL SHADOWS. In some respects it is also a meta-fiction about female victims in horror cinema, and horror media. So there is a connection to LAST DAYS, which was a kind of meta-fiction about true crime, counter-culture, found footage and digital film making. Though I would say NO ONE GETS OUT ALIVE has an affinity to THE RITUAL in terms of me trying to make everything feel at stake, all of the time. After that comes my first foray into something new with horror – the horror of the future as opposed to the past.

Keep up with Adam: Website

Catherine’s last job ended badly. Corporate bullying at a top antiques publication saw her fired and forced to leave London, but she was determined to get her life back. A new job and a few therapists later, things look much brighter. Especially when a challenging new project presents itself — to catalogue the late M. H. Mason’s wildly eccentric cache of antique dolls and puppets. Rarest of all, she’ll get to examine his elaborate displays of posed, costumed and preserved animals, depicting bloody scenes from World War II. Catherine can’t believe her luck when Mason’s elderly niece invites her to stay at Red House itself, where she maintains the collection until his niece exposes her to the dark message behind her uncle’s “Art.” Catherine tries to concentrate on the job, but Mason’s damaged visions begin to raise dark shadows from her own past. Shadows she’d hoped therapy had finally erased. Soon the barriers between reality, sanity and memory start to merge and some truths seem too terrible to be real… in The House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill.


  1. great interview Adam is always a pleasure to “listen” to

  2. Pingback: Links – July 30, 2014 | Martin Rose

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