John J. Niven
William Heinemann (http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/william-heinemann)
Released: 2nd August 2012
Donnie Miller has it all: beautiful wife and son, perfect home in the wilds of Saskatchewan and the sort of comfort that comes from having a rich father-in-law who is generous to a fault with his daughter and grandson. It’s a far cry from his poor upbringing in Glasgow and Donnie lives with the constant fear that none of it is real, that it will be taken away from him in the blink of an eye, that it’s much more than he deserves. Donnie Miller has a long-buried secret, a life that he has worked hard to put behind him. As winter settles in, the family dog disappears. When it turns up horribly mutilated, the cracks in Donnie’s life start to appear. When the heavy snows start to fall, cutting him and his family off from the nearest town, Donnie discovers that he’s about to lose more than just the dog.
Cold Hands is something of a slow-burner, to start. Told from the first-person point of view of Miller, we meet the man and his family, and quickly come to understand the dynamics that drive this small family unit. The mutilated dog turns up early on, and seems shockingly out of place in this snow-covered idyll, giving us a glimpse of things to come. The narrative is frequently interrupted by flashbacks – descriptions of Donnie’s childhood, and his friendship with Banny, the school bully – and we quickly learn that there’s a secret, something bad enough to warrant a new identity and a new start outside of Scotland. There is something jarring about these flashbacks – the shift in accent and language, the violence – but it is a feeling that serves the story well, and never reaches the point of distraction or irritation for the reader.
Towards the middle of the book, Niven begins increasing the tension, and the final third is an intense, breath-taking read, that always keeps the story’s main themes in sight, and is never anything less than completely realistic. As many writers have done before him, Niven uses snow as the catalyst for the action in the novel, and the combination of snowstorm and isolation as the enabler for Miller’s persecution (The Shining, anyone? 30 Days of Night?). It’s an old trick, but with fantastic results: a tense thriller designed to keep the reader turning the pages long after bedtime; at its core, a character who does not necessarily deserve our sympathies, but who receives them nonetheless.
At its heart, Cold Hands is a story about parenthood, and an examination of the inherent insanity that comes with it. To what lengths would a parent go in order to protect their child? Or to avenge them? It’s an added dimension that speaks directly to parents, leaving behind an uneasy feeling and a desire to keep the children home, wrapped in cotton wool at all times. Don’t worry, though, there’s plenty here for everyone, and Cold Hands should appeal to anyone who prefers their action heroes more in the vein of John McClane than of Rambo.
Cold Hands is John Niven’s first foray into crime/thriller territory (hence the addition of the middle initial), and shows a writer who is more than up to the task. There were points (particularly during the flashback scenes) where I had to remind myself that I wasn’t reading an Iain Banks novel, but Niven’s own voice is readily apparent for the bulk of the narrative. The settings are beautiful, and Niven does an excellent job of putting the reader in the middle of that cold, snowy Canadian wilderness, and into the heart of the action. It’s also worth noting that he does not pull his punches, and that this is not a book – despite appearances in early chapters – for the faint of heart or stomach.
From its slow beginnings to its violent and blood-spattered conclusion, Cold Hands is a good old-fashioned thriller. With a handful of twists designed to keep the reader on their toes, Niven’s first thriller is an intense and gripping examination of one man’s determination to protect his family from a past he has long forgotten. This is thriller writing at its best, and John J. Niven is definitely one to watch in a genre that can, at times, suffer from saturation of offerings.
|A COLD SEASON
Alison Littlewood (www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk)
Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)
[Also published as a signed limited edition hardcover by PS Publishing (www.pspublishing.co.uk)]
Following the death of her husband in Afghanistan, Cass decides to start anew. Packing up her son, Ben, she heads for the small village of Darnshaw, nestled in the Yorkshire Moors, where she has rented an apartment in the recently-refurbished mill. As they settle in, the snows start to fall and Cass, now trapped, discovers she may not be as welcome as she had hoped; there is something not quite right with this community. As Ben grows more distant and becomes abusive, she discovers that normality exists in the form of Mr Remick, the stand-in headmaster at Ben’s school, a man for whose charms she quickly falls. Isolated and alienated, Cass quickly realises that the move to Darnshaw may not have been the best idea, but with the weather closing in, the roads impassable and the phone lines down, there isn’t much she can do.
How do you measure the success of a good horror novel? For me, it’s not in nightmares, or in hours of lost sleep, but in whether I need to turn on all the lights to walk around the house at night. I like my horror to be subtle, creepy and insinuating, from the school of so-called “quiet horror”. A Cold Season, Alison Littlewood’s first novel, is most definitely “quiet”. As we arrive in Darnshaw with Cass and Ben, there is an immediate sense of wrongness, nothing that we can put a finger on, but something slightly odd all the same. Littlewood builds on this feeling and, as the snow falls and the chances of leaving the village rapidly evaporate, there is a sense of claustrophobia that, when coupled with little details – the downstairs apartment with no windows, for example, and the dolls lying in the dust of that apartment’s floor; the build-up of newspapers under the door of the supposedly empty apartment across the corridor from her own – leave the reader feeling uncomfortable and on edge.
In Cass, Littlewood has created the perfect heroine: a woman with a troubled past trying to do the best for her son in extenuating circumstances. Most of the women in the village seem to take an instant dislike to her, seemingly jealous of her fast friendship with Mr Remick. Cryptic messages from the elderly Bert, and the increasingly odd behaviour of her son are early indications for the reader that all is not well in the village of Darnshaw, while Cass continues to convince herself that nothing is amiss and that her son’s odd behaviour is down to a combination of the loss of his father, and the bad crowd into which he seems to have fallen.
It is easy to see Littlewood’s influences as the novel progresses: there is a Stepford Wives vibe here in the attitudes of the local women towards Cass, and something of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos in the behaviour of the village children. There are also more-obvious homages to at least two other classics of horror fiction, but the mere mention of their titles would constitute massive spoilers. A Cold Season is as beautifully-constructed as any of them, and is a wonderful addition to a fine tradition of horror writing. The old-fashioned feel is helped along by the lack of mobile phones – surely the bane of every horror and thriller writer producing fiction set in the modern world; the remote location and the bad weather conspire to ensure that there is no mobile phone signal, and we suddenly find ourselves in a different time, playing by different rules. It’s also worth pointing out that what Stephen King’s IT did for clowns, and countless books and films over the years have done for porcelain dolls, A Cold Season does for snowmen in a scene that, taken by itself, is worth the price of admission.
Littlewood’s first novel is an assured and finely-crafted piece of work, probably the best horror debut since Joe Hill’s 2007 novel, Heart-Shaped Box. It brings the promised scares without resort to nasty tricks or gore, and proves that it is still possible to write engaging, entertaining horror fiction without zombies or vampires. Earlier I wondered how you measure the success of a good horror novel. I’m not ashamed to admit that our house has been lit up like a Christmas tree for most of the past week; it’s a rare novel these days that can bring the creep factor to a hardened horror fan like me, but this succeeds admirably where so many others have failed. If you are in any way a fan of horror fiction, and have not yet done so, you need to read A Cold Season. Just make sure you know where the light switches are.