A Cold Season by Alison Littlewood
A Cold Season by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher/Quercus, 2013) brings me back to a familiar question. What is it, exactly, that we look for in a supernatural horror story that relies on atmosphere rather than the more obvious gore? The answer has to come through the application of several different criteria. The first is the definition of the subgenre. In a way, supernatural horror occupies an interstitial space which borrows from the gothic which first appears in the work of Horace Walpole, adds in some weird, and watches for the appearance of “beings” or “creatures” having their origin outside the ambit of scientific explanation. For this mixture to conform to the definition, the underlying plot has to be rooted in a romance of some type. In this instance, Cass, our protagonist, has been notified that her husband is missing in action in Afghanistan, presumed dead. As part of her grieving process, she decides to return to the village where she spent some of her childhood. The first time she takes her son to the school, she meets a sexually attractive man. He’s the acting principal and she’s immediately tempted to miss out several of the steps in the grieving process by allowing this man to replace her husband in her heart.
This pitches us into a set of complex emotions as she struggles to reconcile grief with desire, missing out the guilt in sacrificing her husband’s memory. To further complicate matters, she had a difficult relationship with her father and this seems to have predisposed her to be relatively submissive in her relationships with men. In her choice of a man to marry, she picked someone who would, at the very least, organise her life if not actually control her. His loss therefore leaves her rather more rudderless than some other widows. This brings us to the second criterion. The protagonist must be vulnerable. In the right environment, she could cope with her loss and help her young son to adjust to the new reality. But she decides to make a break from the routine of life as a soldier’s wife, moving from one camp to another. This seems a good time to return to “the” village. Her approach in a car gives warning of their situation. They will be cut off from the outside world, first by fog and then by snow. Leaving is not a safe option. This increases the loneliness as many of the villagers shun her. To increase the pressure, her son begins to act in an aberrant manner. Not surprisingly, there are “creepy” children in the village who seem to be engaging her son in some strange kind of game.
Then there’s the oddity of the converted mill where she has rented a flat. In fact she’s the only occupant in an unfinished building. A combination of adverse weather conditions and a shortage of funds has meant the completion of the conversion has been delayed. The ground-floor flats are not yet glazed so rats (and the snow) can enter. Both mother and son hear the rodents in the walls. When she asks a local woman with an interest in history, she hears stories of witches and several deaths associated with the mill. Putting these elements together supplies the raw material for the requisite atmosphere. Of course none of this matters unless the plot is delivered with prose of an appropriately oblique nature. There does not need to be anything too explicit in the first half of the book. It can all be left to deft hints and suggestive inclusions in the descriptions. The art of the horror writer is to enable the reader’s mind to create the potential for fear. This depends on the character of the protagonist being sufficiently sympathetic that we can empathise with her, and vicariously feel the loss of husband accelerate into something more profoundly frightening.
This brings me to the first problem with the book. Our hero lacks gumption. Here she is, committing herself to rebuilding her life with her son, yet she’s indecisive and lacks real rapport with her son. Indeed, she tends to be slightly self-absorbed and not as alert as she should be in dealing with him. Of course, heroes in horror stories are supposed to do all the wrong things so they can find themselves even deeper in trouble. But there were times when I felt her best was not quite good enough. We then come to the second problem. Everything up to the last fifty pages plays the game very effectively. Indeed, although it’s becoming a little bit of a cliché, the use of the snowmen is rather pleasing. But when we arrive at the ending sequence. . . There’s an art to finding the right way to bring all the threads together and, for me, this is too operatic. If this had been left as a kind of Wicker Man (1973) story in which a village plays out certain rituals when isolated from the world during winter, this would have been a winner. That would have kept the scale of the horror manageable and the actions of those involved more credible. But this attempts something far more grandiose and I’m not at all convinced it works. Perforce, I’ll leave it to you to judge. What I will say is that Alison Littlewood is a writer of fine prose. The management of the core elements during most of the book is outstanding (forgiving the hero’s lack of intelligence at times). For me, it all gets a little silly at the end, although the last chapter as epilogue is quite interesting. This means I’m recommending A Cold Season as a very good first novel. It has its faults but it’s still worth reading.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.