Pretty Lizzie Higgs is gone, burned to death on her own hearth—but was she really a changeling, as her husband insists? Albie Mirralls met his cousin only once, in 1851, within the grand glass arches of the Crystal Palace, but unable to countenance the rumours that surround her murder, he leaves his young wife in London and travels to Halfoak, a village steeped in superstition.
Albie begins to look into Lizzie's death, but in this place where the old tales hold sway and the hidden people supposedly roam, answers are slippery and further tragedy is just a step away...
In the beginning, a bang: a promising and potentially explosive prologue, or a scene that's suggestive of all the fun to come. That's a fine way for a story—especially a scary story—to start. But you've got to be smart. You don't want to give yourself nowhere to go by starting the show with the showstopper, and I dare say that's exactly what Alison Littlewood did with her debut.
Chilling and thrilling in equal measure, and at once creepy and weepy, A Cold Season was a hell of a hard act to follow, and although both Path of Needles and The Unquiet House were reasonably well received, nothing Littlewood has written since said has surpassed its macabre mastery. Certainly not last year's tedious sequel. Happily, her newest novel rights almost every one of A Cold Silence's throng of wrongs. I'd go farther than that, in fact; I'd assert that The Hidden People is the aforementioned author's most accomplished effort yet—if not necessarily her most accessible.
Albert Mirralls—Albie to his nearest and dearest—only met his lovely cousin once, at the Great Exhibition of 1851 that saw the unveiling of that transparent marvel, the Crystal Palace, but little Lizzie Higgs, with her sweet songs and her sure steps, made such an impression on our man in those moments that when he hears of her murder more than a decade later, he immediately leaves the life he's built behind in order to address her death.
In Halfoak, a superstitious village arranged around a great, twisted tree, Albie is told the whole of the sordid story his sophisticated father had only hinted at. Little Lizzie had gone on to marry James Higgs, a shoemaker, and though they had been happy in their house on the hill, their inability to bear children became the talk of the town in time. Higgs, for his part, had an unusual idea why: he thought his wonderful wife had been replaced by a changeling. As the local publican puts it:
"The good folk, as they call them—mainly from fear, I think—the quiet ones, the hidden people—they're fading, you see? [...] Their race is weak. And so they take changelings—human children, or women who can bear them, to strengthen their lines. And in their place they leave one of their own, worn-out and old, bewitched to look like the one they're meant to replace, though of course they do not thrive; they soon sicken or die. Or they leave a stock of wood, similarly enchanted, and with similar outcome. These changelings can be identified by their weaknesses, or some disfigurement, or by a sweet temper turning of a sudden into querulous and unnatural ways. They might refuse to speak or eat. A child might become a milksop or a squalling affliction. A good wife may be transformed into a shrew. There are many ways of telling." (p.89)Tragically, the recent disappearance of a wooden broom and the entirely understandable turning of Lizzie's temper was all it took to convince Higgs that his wife was not the woman he married. To wit, he tried to drive the fairy from his home. He tried iron; he tried herbs; and, all else having failed, he tried fire. "And she was consumed by it." (p.13)
So it is that Albie's first task is to arrange for the burial of Lizzie's horrifically burned body, but when no one from Halfoak comes to her funeral, he realises he has to find out why. "Could any good be the result of such delving? I had come here to gain some sense of her life. I had come to say good-bye." (p.51) But surely Lizzie, the first love of Albie's life, deserves better than the bare minimum. She deserves, he determines, to be put to rest properly, and for that to happen, the man who murdered her—a man who may escape the noose on account of his fairy-mania—must pay the price for the wicked things he did.
Written as it is in period-appropriate English, The Hidden People isn't the easiest of reads, and the dreaded dialect that dominates its dialogue makes it doubly difficult. But as the author asserts in the afterword, Yorkshire "is a place full of richness and beauty and bluffness and odd words and wonderful sayings, even if, as Albie discovers, it may sometimes be a little short on consonants." (p.372) and Littlewood's decision to depict the narrative in this fashion does wonders for The Hidden People's sense of place and time.
Halfoak in particular is terrific. On the surface, it's an idyllic little village, "quite charming in its rusticity" (p.20)—rather like the arched stone bridge that leads to Lizzie and her husband's hilltop cottage—and home to a close-knit community of serious, if simple souls. It has its history and it has its traditions, does Halfoak, and at the start, that adds to its charm. But as painterly and quaint as Littlewood's fictional village is, it's also isolated, and that last has allowed some strange beliefs and behaviours to become the norm. The Wicker Man comes to mind, and indeed, in Lizzie's killing, practically comes to pass.
But what if there's a good reason for the villagers' wariness of the fairies? That's a question Albie initially dismisses, with a shake of his head "over the stubborn ignorance in which I had found myself mired," (p.84) but as time goes on, he starts to see certain things himself: things he can't easily explain away. Then, when his wife surprises him by leaving London to keep him company, a familiar suspicion grips him:
This could not be my wife. This thing possessed her form, but everything she had once been was absent. I knew then, as certainly as I knew myself, that this was not the woman I had married. (p.277)The same suspicion, then, that's already driven one man to murder. That it might yet lead to another affects a sense of tension that makes The Hidden People deeply uneasy reading, and it's to Littlewood's credit that she sustains this uncertainty so cleverly, without landing on one explanation or the other till the whole of her tremendous tale is told.
It might be a little overlong, and its sentences somewhat stiff, but work at it and it will, I'm sure, work on you. As mesmerising as it is magical, and as quickening as it is at times sickening, The Hidden People is, at the last, an excellent successor to Littlewood's darkly-sparkling debut.