If you were to break A Cold Season by Alison Littlewood down into a series of bullet points you would perhaps consider it to be a collection of well worn tropes and themes; small village cut off by unnatural elements? Check! Deeply religious, estranged father? Check! Sinister, unfriendly locals? Check! Scary, feral children? Check! However whilst elements of the story are familiar the execution of the narrative and the quality of the prose help this debut novel to rise above these familiar components and provide the reader with a gripping and superbly paced book.
A Cold Season’s protagonist is Cass, a married mother whose soldier husband is missing in action, presumed dead. To combat their grief, and to start a new chapter in her life, she takes her son Ben to live in the picturesque village of Darnshaw, where she spent time as a child when her father was the local priest. Not long after their arrival bad weather sets in and they find themselves cut off from the outside world and having to rely on a selection of local people for assistance. Cass receives particular attention from Mr Remick, the stand-in head teacher at her son’s new school, attention that she does not find unwelcome. As events spiral out of Cass’ control the elements take on an ever-increasing role as she is prevented from leaving Darnshaw and is forced to confront the evil present in the village and fight it for her son.
Littlewood’s prose is crisp and descriptive without going over the top, which gives the reader plenty of scope to fill in the details and provides the story with a cracking pace that really propels you through the story. Cass’s past and the history of Darnshaw are well handled and slide quite seamlessly into the main narrative, Littlewood giving the reader just enough whilst maintaining the focus in the present. The characters rise above their familiar roles to become believable, flawed individuals. In particular Remick has just the right blend of smarminess and confidence to enable the reader to be carried along by his words and actions in much the same way Cass is. The foreboding elements that surround the village are a necessary plot device in our modern age of instant communication but it is well handled and Littlewood’s knowledge of the countryside comes through strongly.
There are a couple of scenes that are worthy of singling out for particular praise. The first can be summed up simply by the word ‘Rats’ and will be especially disturbing to readers with children. The second makes great use of a collection of snowmen; the reader perhaps guesses what they may be protecting from view but the skilfully crafted scene ratchets up the tension and the ultimate reveal is still shocking even if it is expected.
Not everything works however, in particular the coda at the end of the book which lends a rather low budget, horror-movie-of-the-week twist to what was otherwise a very satisfying and well handled climax. There are also a couple of instances where Cass fails to ask the obvious question of another character when they try to offer warning, but these don’t harm the story to any great degree.
This is a remarkable debut novel that deserves to stand amongst some of the other great debut horror novels of recent years such as Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill, Meat by Joseph D’Lacey and in particular Through a Glass, Darkly by Bill Hussey which similarly raised itself above familiar tropes through the quality of its prose and characterisation. Alison Littlewood’s skill and craft ensure this book really is more than the sum of its parts.
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