British horror author Nevill (Last Days, 2013, etc.) goes hard-core modern gothic when he sends a fragile woman to a derelict estate filled with bizarre treasures.
Catherine Howard is a "valuer," an antique dealer’s appraiser. She’s been dispatched to Red House, "a perfectly preserved Gothic Revival house" near the English village of Magbar Wood, which she’s doomed to learn is a "mausoleum that honored loss and madness." The house is crammed with the work of M. H. Mason, a recluse who turned taxidermy into art. Mason's dioramas are "a window into hell," each displaying stuffed rats arranged as soldiers mired in the trenches of World War I. More grotesque, there’s a bedroom crammed with part-human, part-animal marionettes. Edith, Mason’s 90-something niece and only survivor, tells Catherine that Mason returned from WWI missing part of his skull and shut himself away, believing all humanity to be "vermin." Catherine’s back story weaves through the tale, "her memories all waiting in Technicolor with an audio track." She was adopted and raised near an abandoned school where disabled children were deposited. Her village was plagued by kidnappings, one being that of her closest friend. That tragedy sent Catherine into an emotional spiral, and brittleness plagued her early adult life, which was troubled by bullies, deceptions and failed romances. Nevill's setting and pacing are dead-on, and minor characters, like stumpy silent Maude, Edith’s housekeeper, are perfectly creepy. At first blush, Catherine believes Red House’s glories will make her professional reputation. Then come revelations of Mason’s wicked homages to The Martyrs of Rod and String, an ancient marionette morality play with a history that includes the public lynching of itinerant entertainers. Add Catherine’s desertion by her latest boyfriend and the appearance of her London nemesis, and the tale slithers toward a surreal denouement that installs new guardians at Red House.
Nevill's talent for horror resonates ominously in every scene, almost as if the theme from Jaws echoes when a page is turned.