Horror writer Alison Littlewood’s latest novel is set in the Victorian era and tells the tale of Albie Mirralls, a Londoner finding himself in rural Yorkshire. He visits the cottage in which a younger cousin, whom he met only once years hence, died at the hand of her husband. Whilst there to attend to legal matters, he comes to believe that the cottage must hold some clue as to his cousin’s demise, the details of which remain enigmatic.
Mirralls is told that the cottage, halfway up a ‘faerie hill’ is considered to be unlucky by locals, as the fae-folk come visiting the human realm via a particular tree on the hill and have a tendency to carry off anyone they take a shine too, (‘pretty ones,’ especially). The faeries then replace them with a changeling—a golem-like facsimile of that person, fashioned from enchanted wood. The husband of the deceased woman alleges that he believed her to be a changeling, and that he had to kill her to prove it. Mirralls, far too sensible and sophisticated to believe in the superstitions of country folk, investigates further, against their wishes.
The central friction in the book revolves around whether the faeries and their malevolent magic are real, or whether the tales of their actions is superstition covering for human erring. Or is it an excuse for murder wrapped up in folklore, or perhaps locals deliberately misleading the husband for their own reasons? Or just maybe the rumours of the faeries predilections are true. . .
The author maintains a delicate balance between these possibilities, leaving the reader to vacillate between belief and disbelief. Mirrall’s wife joins him in Yorkshire and soon starts to exhibit out-of-character behaviour akin to that reported of his deceased cousin, giving rise to the suspicion that she might also be a changeling. At this point, the prejudices of both Mirralls are challenged and the reader is pulled more deeply into the story: the momentum gathers, the mystery deepens and the potential for jeopardy is more acute. Until that moment the novel feels a little distant, with the protagonist too stiff, (though historically apt) to engage with, but as the pages turn the tale becomes more compelling.
In terms of the style of language, Littlewood hits the mark, accurately recreating both the formality of Victorian modes of address and the idiosyncrasies of Yorkshire dialect. Mirralls, in recalling events as they happened, even mimics the writing style of the period, with its propensity for over-detailed description and inadvertent condescension. A side-effect of this is a slight pull-back on pacing; mostly this is not at the cost of readability but does give the characters a more rounded sense of class and context.
In every aspect, it is painstakingly researched, recreating the period through phrases, attitudes and descriptions of cultural history. That time-stamp is delivered most directly through the narrator, who will not be to everyone’s liking. To begin with Mirralls seems a rather archetypal Victorian Gentleman, at least to a contemporary sensibility: a priggish, uptight and insecure man who has little inkling of his privilege or his patronising attitude towards both the rural community and his wife. But don’t let that put you off—his determination to uncover the truth about his wronged cousin against mounting odds, his genuine concern for his wife’s health, and his sense of being conspired against all help to reveal the humanity underneath his rigid faҫade. The more he unravels the more empathy he generates and equally, the more frenetic it becomes, the more engaging the book is.
It relies on an eerie sense of uncertainty rather than going for outright scares, so is a recommended read for those that like their folklore served chilly. The focus on faerie-myth will draw comparisons to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and that is not inaccurate, but there are residual echoes of both The Woman in White and The Woman in Black as well as The Wicker Man in here too, and of course Wuthering Heights (itself referenced repeatedly in the book), suggesting a more-layered narrative than is immediately apparent. All told, it is well worth staying with the slow-burn first half for the more engrossing second act.