2 September 2015

A Cold Silence by Alison Littlewood

A Cold Silence
Alison Littlewood
Jo Fletcher Books, 3 September 2015
PB, 368pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance copy of this book.

I think A Cold Silence is best read as a coda to Littlewood's first novel, A Cold Season, which appeared in 2012. If you haven't read the earlier book - which in my view is superb - then go and get it and read it before starting A Cold Silence - and before reading any further in this review because there are, inevitably, spoilers for the earlier book below.

And I will now give you a little space to do that.

If you're still following me - A Cold Season ends with Cass escaping from Darnshaw, driving away from that cold, haunted place with her returned husband Pete and son Ben. She believes she has lost her soul to the sinister Remick, but that she somehow may be able to bargain for it using her unborn child - his child - as some kind of leverage.  Remick will, she believes, come back - a day she fears but also looks to with a strange kind of hope.

A Cold Silence answers the dangerous question, "What happened next?". I say dangerous because, when a book ends in as open a way as Cold Season does, there is a risk that any follow-up will disappoint, that it will not chime with how readers expect it to be. And indeed, Cold Silence is a very different kind of book. I think it may divide readers of the earlier story, but that, taking the two together, we do get a much more rounded view of what happened.

The story opens nearly twenty years on. Cass, Ben, and his sister, Gaila, have lived together as a family most of that time, albeit scarred by earlier events, but the children have now moved out. Ben's father, Pete, is absent again from this book. Cass, so active - at least eventually - in the previous book, has retreated into her home, where the consequences of what she did - of what Remick and his coven did - play out. She draws pictures of bleak moorlands and dark churches and insists that there is bad in Gaila: she is less hopeful, more damaged and more introspective than the Cass of Cold Season - which may, I'm afraid, disappoint some readers.

But that has to be the case, doesn't it? There is unfinished business here. Remick never, it seems, came back. Cass battled on, raised her kids, did her best - but nothing has been resolved and this has poisoned relationships, raising questions about the nature of family loyalty, about love and about motivation. (And as we saw at the end of Cold Season, Cass's motivations weren't exactly pure). Much of the book is, one way or the other, a meditation on these questions - so in that respect, too, this book is very different. There is little of the brooding sense of approaching horror that we get in Cold Season (and in Littlewood's subsequent two novels) - although having said that there are some effective scenes early on where Ben, who is the central character here, recalls how Cass would never visit Darnshaw and notes that, when approaching the valley, it was as if winter lurked close even on a summer's day. (Ben is mourning his friend Jessica - one of the characters who appeared as a child in the earlier book - who has killed herself, and he goes back to Darnshaw for the funeral - breaking an old promise to his mother).

Instead, the book signposts early on where the battleground will be: an online game called Archeron which has become notorious for its occult overtones and apparently Satanic aspects. You can ask things of it, but it will name its prices (Jessica's suicide followed immersion in the game). There is a scene in Gaila's London flat where the city is seen through a window, all ready for the taking: all this can be yours...

Archeron itself is a clever device to surface the presence of ancient, brooding evil - the Devil has modernised, come out of the shadows: CS Lewis's Screwtape would I suppose approve - but I have to admit that modern offices and online interaction can lack atmosphere compared to remote moorlands and standing stones, and much of the weight of this book is therefore carried instead by the shifts and compromises between Ben and the other central characters and the gradual revelation of the dynamics of the Cassidy family. It's much more character led, and in that respect a more subtle book (and this is where a reader of the earlier book will be much better prepared to understand what's going on - another reason to see these books as a whole).

The writing is great, there are surprises and shocks and this book still delivers the chills. Like Cold Season, Littlewood has fun dealing with a menace that's rooted in traditional Christianity but using characters who have a very modern ignorance and misunderstanding of the concepts. And we may be being primed for another sequel (please?)

So - a rather different read from the earlier book - still an enthralling and chilling horror story but more cerebral: food for (rather disturbing) thought.



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