Mistletoe – Alison Littlewood
Review By Alyson Faye
A new Alison Littlewood novel is always a much-anticipated reading event for me. I’ve been reading her fiction for years, tracking her short stories through various magazines like Black Static and anthologies, onwards to her 2011 novel début, A Cold Season, which became a Richard and Judy Book Club recommendation and the ones which followed; my personal favourite being the Victorian Gothic mystery thriller, The Crow Garden, 2017. But I am a total sucker for Victorian Gothic.
However, I also knew I would be attending the début UK Ghost Story Festival at the Derby Quad in November 2019, where Alison Littlewood would be speaking. So I treated myself to a hardback copy of her latest, Mistletoe, (the cover is gorgeous and eery as though the Mistletoe is organic and carnivorous, I thought) and I asked Alison to sign it after her panel talk on Supernatural Shorts. While she signed we chatted after the event.
I asked Alison about how the breakthrough on the Richard and Judy list and TV show had felt and laughing, she answered it had been as though it was happening to someone else, it was overwhelming, as was sitting on the sofa with R&J, like ‘a startled deer’.
During the panel talk Alison referenced her latest book, and talked about ‘headlight plotting’ for her novels i.e. plotting as far ahead as you could see on a dark road with your headlights on. I rather liked this idea, it’s very much me as a writer.
Mistletoe has to be read at this time of year, I can’t envisage it working as a summer read on a beach quite as well. It is a novel very much in the Victorian tradition of M.R.James of a ghost story for Christmas. Indeed I could see it being filmed and shown on BBC1- maybe one day. It’s a very seasonal story, set just before and at Christmas, on a snowbound farm somewhere in Yorkshire (the county where I live), and the landscape is very much another character in the narrative.
Alison makes you, the reader, feel as though you are walking the frozen fields, and living in the run-down farmhouse with her protagonist, the newly widowed Leah, who has also tragically lost her son, too. She has, in haste, bought the farmhouse to start a new life and because Maitland Farm has historic family ties for her which she is desperate to reconnect with.
There are two stories entwined together- the metaphor of the entangling plant, the titular mistletoe is used often- there is present-day narrative concerning Leah; how she came to live on the farm, her past bereavements, which are gradually revealed as Leah faces up to her painful past. Then there is the second underlying tragic story of what happened one hundred-odd years ago at the farm, into which Leah is increasingly pulled. At some risk to herself. In this time-slip story the past can reach out and kill.
Certainly it will not leave Leah alone, as more and more it intrudes into her day -to -day life, until she isn’t sure what century she is living in. The ghosts become her companions; and through the ancient objects left around the farm, like the slaughtering bench (you get a pretty visceral description of what’s slaughtered there by the way) and the creepy cloth doll, which become in the author’s hands, truly terrifying items with their own history and message.
Through holding and touching these objects, plus the discovery of a sprig of dried mistletoe hidden in a dress’ pockets, Leah connects with the violence of the past tragedy and learns what really did happen at Maitland farm that icy long gone winter.
There is the local village’s gossip of what folk thought happened, there is the historic whitewashed account, but it is Leah who learns the real truth, revealed in a series of time-slip vignettes which become dangerously real to her and told, in time-honoured tradition, in reverse. Dropping clues to Leah and the reader as we go on our joint journey into the past. Only at the end is the final piece of this puzzle revealed. So there is a mystery to solve as well.
Who is the ghost here? For it is as if Leah is becoming one herself. These ghosts are not full of kindness; they can hurt and maim. They have their own motives and agendas and one would like to live again. One will not keep quiet, his story must be told and his name cleared. The only way Leah can make the farm her home is to lay these angry ghosts to rest.
Her only human contact is with the neighbours at the next farm, a brother, his sister and her child. They provide the touchstone of reality and company which Leah needs, yearns for and yet fears.
I won’t spoil the ending, but there are a few surprises along the way, all wrapped up in the jacket of the seasonal mistletoe and Alison Littlewood’s evocative, haunting, language which appeals to our five senses.
Leah thought Maitland Farm could give her a new life – but now old ghosts are dragging her into the past.
Following the tragic deaths of her husband and son, Leah is looking for a new life. Determined to bury her grief in hard work and desperate to escape Christmas and the reminders of what she has lost, she rushes through the purchase of a run-down Yorkshire farmhouse, arriving just as the snow shrouds her new home.
It might look like the loveliest Christmas card, but it’s soon clear it’s not just the house that needs renovation: the land is in bad heart, too. As Leah sets to work, she begins to see visions of the farm’s former occupants – and of the dark secrets that lie at the heart of Maitland Farm.
If Leah is to have a future, she must find a way to lay both her own past and theirs to rest – but the visions are becoming disturbingly real…
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This is a collection of stories, both long and short, set around Christmas and the winter’s chill, where the dark lurks.
Meet Krampus, go night skating, visit haunted Halifax in West Yorkshire, spend a night in Cliffe Castle, Keighley where something evil waits and drop by Undercliffe Cemetery in Bradford where stone angels rule.
There is a bonus hithertoo unpublished story as an early Christmas gift, the Gothic chiller, When Dead Eyes Weep.