Jo Fletcher Books (Quercus), 10 October 2019
HB, e, 304pp
Today marks publication of Alison Littlewood's latest unsettling horror tale, Mistletoe. I'm delighted to be able to join the book's blogtour and grateful to Quercus for a free advance e-copy via Netgalley.
'The night was filled with thoughts of mistletoe, dreams of mistletoe, the touch of it on her skin, the grasping tendrils entangling her limbs...'
I've loved Alison Littlewood's books right back to A Cold Season and here she is again at her icy best, telling the story of a woman alone, out among the snows of a Yorkshire winter, as Christmas approaches. (This book would definitely make an atmospheric Christmas read - or present - if you're looking for one).
Leah, mourning the loss of her son and her husband, has given up her city life - 'The world of cars and buses stinking of diesel, of towering buildings and grey streets, of all-night supermarkets and corner-shops, of anonymous crowds' - and exchanged it for 'a farmhouse, a barn, an apple orchard and a single field'. She's a 'comer-inner', having bought the (dilapidated) holding and intending to spend her time renovating the house, which husband Josh discovered and set his heart on before his death. Whether Leah is trying to forget Josh and son Finn or, somehow, come closer in this place where she'd imagined a new life with them, isn't clear.
Of course Maitland Farm isn't the rural idyll that Leah hoped for. Between a dirty, uncared for house with no working heating, Arctic weather, her haunting memories, a barn full of sinister junk including the creepiest doll outside Stephen King and a sense of wrongness, Leah's hopes are soon driven out by, not fears exactly (that would be simply sorted: back to the city!) but a growing disquiet.
Littlewood is a master at building up tension - escalating things slowly, springing her trap, then stepping back: oh, it wasn't a ghost, it was a neighbour accustomed to crossing the field rather than using the lane.
Or was it?
Here the tension builds credibly on top of Leah's already low, troubled spirits, the reader never being sure whether, when an odd thing happens, it's actually supernatural or born of her love and longing for Josh and Finn (or her lack of sleep). Perhaps it's impossible to disentangle all these? Suppose there are ghosts at Maitland Farm. Wouldn't that open a channel, a possibility, a way to Josh and Finn? So tempting. So very tempting. But at the same time, given the horrors that Leah begins to suspect - the hints she picks up form her neighbours about a dark past and about revenge and ill-luck on the house - what dangers might wait? The story keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, even as it takes a dark turn.
This book is a brilliantly creepy, atmospheric horror story. It wrings every last drop out of the dark side of Christmas: the bitter mistletoe berries, the cold of ancient sacrifice, the short days and above all, perhaps, the pain of being alone at a time of communal cheer and jollity. It is also a story of loss and vulnerability - there is a real sense that in placing herself where she has, Leah opened up to a real and terrible darkness. We begin to see echoes between events in the distant past - events that are impressed in the crumbling stone and barren soil of the farm - and Leah's own life. And the skin of the 21st century seems awfully thin at Maitland Farm ('Here, the past didn't fade to nothing...') with a potential, a dreadful potential, to draw her into its Midwinter dance, perhaps with a seductive hope.
There is also bewitching, lyrical prose here: 'The snow was constantly changing: now rose-tinted or grey, now golden or lavender, made new with every dawn or noon or evening and yet just as cold...' Littlewood vividly describes not only the horrors glimpsed in the shadows but the colour and sound and the bleakness of a hard winter.
For more information about the book, see the publisher's webpage here. For other reviews of Mistletoe, see the blogs in the poster below. You can buy the book from your local bookshop, including via Hive Books which supports high street bookshops, from Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon (and other places too).