Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews


a cold season

THE UNQUIET HOUSE by Alison Littlewood


Alison Littlewood (

Jo Fletcher Books (


Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?

It is love at first sight when Emma Dean first sets eyes on Mire House, which she has inherited from a distant, previously-unknown relative. She moves in and soon discovers there is more to the house than meets the eye: the dirty black suit hanging in the wardrobe, and the old man that obviously owns it who she finds standing at the end of her bed on her first night in the house; the muddy footprints that keep appearing in the hall; and, most disturbing of all, the bench in the neighbouring church yard that overlooks the house and is inscribed with the legend "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me? Matthew 27:46". Is the house really, as it seems, haunted, or is it all the work of Charlie, a young man her own age who should have had a stronger claim to Mire House? As we step back through the history of the house, it becomes clear that it is a cursed place, and in gifting it to Emma, Clarence Mitchell may well have had an ulterior motive.

With her third novel, Alison Littlewood returns to the realms of horror that we find in her debut novel, A Cold Season. What at first seems like a straightforward haunted house story takes dark and sinister turns as we learn the history of Mire House and the woman for whom it was built. The story opens in 2013, with Emma Dean inheriting the house from a relative she didn’t know she had. As soon as we see the house, we can feel that there is something wrong, though Emma herself seems completely captivated by it. There is something malevolent here, a sense that the house knows what it wants (look at the colour of the living room through the different eras, for example), and that the people that have died here in the past are still present. We return to Emma at the end of the novel, with a better understanding of what is happening and, more importantly, why.

Between these two bookending sections, we pay visits to the house in 1973 and again during the final stages of its construction in 1939. Frank Watt, a young boy of eleven, is our guide for the former section, while Frank’s mother, Aggie, takes over the reins for the latter. As we proceed backwards through time, we unpeel the history of Mire House as if it were the layers of an onion. Rumours and supposition give way to harder facts: in 1973 we meet Mr Owens, the owner of the dirty black suit that Emma finds hanging in her wardrobe, and catch more substantial glimpses of the lady in the black veil. In 1939, we meet the lady in the black veil while she is still alive, and learn, first-hand, the terrible history behind the curse on Mire House.

The three stories are cleverly intertwined in a way that gives us the information we need as we progress back through history, but still holds enough back to ensure maximum impact for the final reveal. It’s a beautifully-constructed tale that grabs the reader from the very first glimpse of Mire House, and carries us along – uneasy and, let’s be honest, more than a little bit frightened – for the duration. Alison Littlewood once again proves that she is a master (mistress?) of the quiet school of horror. Her writing is pitch perfect, the language changing according to the time period, her ability to induce a bad case of the heebie jeebies in the reader second to none.

The Unquiet House feels partly like an homage to Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black – the big old house bordered by marshland; the cemetery; and, perhaps most telling, the woman in the black veil and her terrible history. Far from a reworking, or retreading of the plot, though, The Unquiet House is a beast of an entirely different species: stripped of all the finery, it’s a haunted house novel and, despite the presence of the ghosts, it is the house itself that instils the greatest fear in the reader. It’s a haunted house novel by a writer of exceptional skill (I’ve said it before, but it does bear repeating) that stands alongside the greats of the genre: fertile ground worked by the likes of Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, against whose seminal works Alison Littlewood can hold her head high.

Returning to the quiet, creepy horror with which her debut novel was suffused, Alison Littlewood’s third novel, The Unquiet House, is the work of a writer whose talent continues to grow with each novel. She has an exceptionally clear voice, a distinctive style that, coupled with an intuitive understanding of which buttons to press and when to get the reactions she wants from the reader, makes each new book an unmissable event. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, I suggest you do so sooner rather than later: you’re missing one of the most exceptional horror authors of the current generation.

#CarrieAt40: A Regular Guy by ALISON LITTLEWOOD


On the web:

On Twitter: @Ali__L

I don’t actually remember the first time I read Carrie. I can remember reading it, of course – I’ve done so more than once – but not the when and where. It would have been when I was pretty young, and busy reading everything I could lay my hands on. Part of that was borrowing my brother’s horror novels, which usually had black covers and big silver foil letters on the front. They were generally by Stephen King or James Herbert, with the result that, for me, those books WERE ‘horror’. Until I stumbled on the Mammoth Books of Best New Horror and discovered a whole new raft of writers, they defined the genre; for many, I guess they still do.

Stephen King is a giant. We all know that. He’s also an incredibly talented writer, and better, he always comes across as a very decent guy. I’ve read many more of his novels since then, and loved the vast majority. He has a great way with characters; the people in his books feel like one of us. We discover the unfolding events at their side, which makes it all the more terrifying when the dark surfaces. Sometimes the fears are supernatural in origin, but all too often they’re human. Carrie’s mother, after all, is one of the scariest things in the book. Her subjugation to a religious idea, the fact that it overrides the human connections in her life, even with her daughter – that’s terrifying. And then there’s the cruelty of children, so vividly portrayed; the claustrophobia of a child who doesn’t fit in, trapped in all the indignities and callousness that school life can offer. What bookish child can’t relate to that?

What means the most to me though, when I think of Carrie, is the story of how it came to be written and published. There was the young Stephen King, battling to keep his family afloat – hey, just as if he was a regular guy! And he penned the first few pages, no doubt had a stern talking-to from his inner editor, and chucked them in the bin. And there the story of Carrie may have ended, if it wasn’t for his wife digging them out and telling him he needed to finish it.

Stephen_King_On_WritingI reiterate: just as if he was a regular guy. Because, for a long time, I hardly dared to put pen to paper. I’d built writing up to be something big and scary that other people did. I surely couldn’t do it; I’d better not even try. And then I read On Writing, in which, among other things, King tells the story of writing Carrie. That book was like getting a damn good talking to. And it’s full of hope; the discarded manuscript didn’t just get published but ended up being sold into paperback, for a fairy tale figure. (King rushed out to buy Tabitha a gift: he picked a hair-dryer. It was the only thing he could find in his local store. For some reason, that little detail always makes me smile and want to cry at the same time.)

Soon after reading that story, I went out and joined a local writing class. I started putting words on paper. And it took some time, but I’d actually started out on a little fairy tale of my own.

So thank you, Stephen King – not just for writing a wonderful novel, but for sharing the story of its birth. It’s meant a huge amount to me, as I imagine it has for a great many other people. And it’s good to know you’re a regular guy – but many of us still know that you really are a giant.

Alison Littlewood is the author of A Cold Season, published by Jo Fletcher Books. Her second novel, Path of Needles, is a dark blend of fairy tales and crime fiction, and her latest, a ghost story called The Unquiet House, is set for release in April 2014.

Alison’s short stories have been picked for the Best Horror of the Year and Mammoth Book of Best New Horror anthologies, as well as The Best British Fantasy 2013 and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime 10. Other publication credits include the anthologies Terror Tales of the Cotswolds, Where Are We Going? and Never Again. Alison lives in West Yorkshire, England, with her partner Fergus.

PATH OF NEEDLES by Alison Littlewood

45851_Path_of_Needles_PBO.indd PATH OF NEEDLES

Alison Littlewood (

Jo Fletcher Books (


PC Cate Corbin is one of the first officers on the scene when the body of a young girl is discovered in rural West Yorkshire. Seeing something familiar in the way the body has been posed – the gown, mirror, partially-eaten apple – Cate is immediately reminded of the tale of Snow White. Her insight earns her a place on the investigation, and she brings Alice Hyland, an expert on fairy tales, on board as a consultant. When a second body is found, this one bearing the more obvious cape of Little Red Riding Hood, it becomes clear that Cate’s instincts were right. Both scenes contain elements found in obscure variants of the well-known tales and suspicion immediately falls on Alice.

Following last year’s stunning debut, A Cold Season, Alison Littlewood moves into the realms of straight police procedural with her second novel, Path of Needles. It’s a surprising move, and I will admit to being slightly dubious through the early sections of the book. But, as with its predecessor, there is a pervasive sense of creepiness that sets it apart, makes it difficult to slot into one genre pigeonhole or another.

At the centre of the story are Cate Corbin and Alice Hyland, two very different women who form an instant friendship upon meeting. Alice has been visited by a strange blue bird that she believes is, in some way, related to the deaths that she has been called upon to help with. Cate, at first a staunch defender of the other woman, soon begins to call her own judgement into question as she grows more suspicious of Alice’s motives, ultimately viewing her as a prime suspect as the fairy tale references grow ever more obscure with each body found. The novel’s strength lies in the characterisation of these two women: on the one hand, the ditzy, mysterious Alice, whose actions make her a suspect in the mind of the reader from the outset; on the other Cate, insecure and fickle, her relationship with Alice driven, in large part, by her relationship with her boss, and her constant need to impress him.

The fairy tale references, the strange blue bird that turns up from time to time – and plays an important part in the novel’s denouement – and the rural, wooded setting all combine to give the reader a sense of unease, a lurking dread that there might be more to this than a series of related murders, something sinister waiting in the wings. This is what I want from an Alison Littlewood novel and Path of Needles delivers in spades. It’s where she excels, those elements of quiet horror that insinuate their way into the mind of the reader to unsettle and unnerve. Littlewood uses the West Yorkshire countryside to her advantage, and the deeply embedded sense of place that comes as part and parcel of the story is as important as the characters who drive the story along.

At first mildly disappointing (“ugh, another police procedural; where’s the horror?”), Path of Needles quickly sets itself apart from the run-of-the-mill police drama. Very different to A Cold Season, it does share some of the themes and elements from the earlier novel: strong central female characters and the beauty of rural England being the two most obvious. The disappointment disappears quickly enough, as we find ourselves sucked into the mystery. Legitimate suspects abound, including Alice herself, and Littlewood does a fine job of keeping the reader on their toes until the surprising final revelation.

Alison Littlewood’s second novel serves to cement her position as one of Britain’s finest living horror authors, while proving that she can also turn her hand to a credible whodunit. Well-researched and impeccably-plotted, Path of Needles will keep you turning pages long after bedtime while making you wish you’d stuck to daylight hours. If you like your fiction dark and uncomfortable, then this is definitely one for you. I can’t recommend book or author highly enough.

A COLD SEASON by Alison Littlewood

a-cold-season1 A COLD SEASON

Alison Littlewood (

Jo Fletcher Books (

[Also published as a signed limited edition hardcover by PS Publishing (]


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.

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