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Jo Fletcher Books, 6 October 2016
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book
I've come to look forward to a new ghost or horror story from Alison Littlewood as an Autumn treat, timed to come alongside the smell of bonfires, falling leaves and of course the darkening evenings. The Hidden People - while set at the height of Summer, indeed, in a place where it is always Summer - doesn't disappoint although it's a departure for Littlewood, being set in the past, the mid Victorian age.
Albie Mirralls is the son of a prosperous family, working at his father's firm in the City. Early in the book we see the two visit the Great Exhibition of 1851 along with Albie's cousin, Lizzie, and her father. A connection is made between the two that endures, albeit sleeping, until after her death a decade later.
When Lizzie is horrifically killed by her husband, who has come to believe that she's a changeling, a fairy, Albie sets off for the Yorkshire village of Halfoak, to investigate...
So the main story begins. It's an ambiguous tale, on several levels. First, what does Albie make of events? He's presented as a great rationalist (introduced, remember, at that most modern and scientific of celebrations) and he confidently scorns the Yorkshire locals and their strange beliefs (for example opening the curtains of his inn room despite the warning from the landlord that it's unlucky to gaze on the full moon: lots of things in this story are said to be unlucky and Albie makes a point of doing most of them). What, then, can there be for him in Halfoak? The husband is imprisoned and will no doubt hang, the funeral is soon arranged (none of the villagers will attend), what more, as rationalist, can he do? He surely can't expect that, somehow, Lizzie, that girl he met so briefly, will come back from under Pudding Pye Hill?
This is all the more inexplicable given that Albie has a wife, Helena, who soon arrives from London, clearly feeling somewhat neglected. The relationship doesn't seem to be very healthy. As Albie mopes around, investigating ever stranger and more tangential angles to the 'mystery', Helena begins to get... strange.
The attitude of the villagers is also shifty. They clearly accept and even welcome the eruption of the supernatural into their lives, yet it also drives them to dreadful ends - the murder of Lizzie, the boycott of her funeral - and to a degree they seem to have the same relationship with the modern world: Albie, arriving from London is as much an over-worldly intrusion on their centuries old way of life as the fairies are, or would be if they were real.
This reality of this last is a matter which Littlewood also keeps hidden - there is no out and out splurge of horror or the supernatural here, only things (such as Helena's midnight walks, her strange use of the local dialect, or the cleaning of the house) which are suggestive. I'd go so far as to say that she writes the book in such a manner that neither a purely rationalistic explanation nor a clear supernatural one quite fits. This produces an unease throughout the story, paralleling the odder and odder behaviour of Helena and, especially, Albie. It's clear that there has been more going on in Albie's mind with regard to Lizzie than is healthy for the state of his marriage and I'd suspect it's been going on longer than he admits. (Another way the unease is heightened is through numerous references to clocks and other timepieces, to time lost track of, to the fact that the summer ought to be ending but isn't: most notable, to the church clock with three hands so it can show not only London but local time - what is the time, really? Perhaps we're not in 1862 any more...)
So the horror comes not only from a straightforwardly supernatural threat but from a real sense of unease at what seems to be a relationship fragmenting slowly before our eyes, and the fear of what that might lead to (the book exposes, without being heavy handed, how the belief in child-swapping fairies is helpful in legitimising not only wife but child murder) as well as a loss of hold on time itself, which becomes slippery and inconstant.
All of Littlewood's previous books had some sense of ambiguity, of being between two worlds, but The Hidden People makes it much more perfect, producing a story that's exquisitely unsettling rather than out-and-out Gothic (yet also, clearly at least second cousin to all those tales of mistreated wives shut up or driven to an early grave which were so popular in the period described here).
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