Catherine is a 38-year-old antiques appraiser with a history of mental problems dating back to childhood when she was abandoned at birth, adopted, and then narrowly avoided being abducted. Or perhaps "spirited away" would be more accurate. After a violent meltdown in London, she's found some peace working for an eccentric antiques dealer and reconnecting with a long-lost boyfriend.
Alas, things will begin to go horribly wrong on the day her boss sends her to a preliminary meeting with ancient Edith, who owns The Red House, near Hereford. Nothing sinister in that name, is there?
The Red House contains the life's work of post-WWI taxidermist and puppet-maker M.H. Mason: massive, exquisitely detailed tableaux of animals recreating WWI battlefields, strange dolls, and child-sized puppets of unusual design. None of it has ever been sold. If sold, the collection could bring in millions, though Catherine believes that perhaps the material should go to museums instead.
However, once Catherine enters the world of the Red House, Edith, and her laconic housekeeper Maude, events start to get a little odd. And progress towards greater oddity and horror.
Catherine believes her mental state to be precarious, fragile, easily disturbed. As strange things begin to happen, and as the fugue states of her childhood and early teenage years suddenly return, she believes that the cause is interior to herself. To survive the mental barrage, she believes she must acknowledge that her problems are the problems of a diseased mind and cling thus to reality.
Of course, if these things are not the products of a diseased mind... well, that could be a problem for someone who fears the consequences of believing in many of the things she's experienced since she was a little girl, in Hereford... disturbingly close to The Red House for a couple traumatic years of childhood, she soon realizes.
Neville's portrayal of a mind besieged from within and without by the seemingly impossible reminds me a lot of many horror stories and novels by genre great Ramsey Campbell. An extended sequence in which Catherine attends a puppet show in the small village near the Red House is the most Campbell-like thing in the novel, a masterpiece of horror achieved through environmental description and the accumulation of disquieting details, partially glimpsed.
The character of Catherine has been a problem for some reviewers of this novel. I find her a compelling figure. Her mental problems are sympathetically and convincingly portrayed, as is her lonely battle to remain sane in an increasingly tilted and sinister world. Also, those goddam puppets are terrifying. Highly recommended.