As A Cold Season opens the novel’s protagonist Cass is driving in heavy fog with her son Ben accompanying her. The illusory nature of the mist-laden atmosphere coupled with unfamiliar terrain gives the impression the car is on a dip when it’s actually an upward slope. So it is with some immediacy, like an avalanche victim, that one’s sense of the certain becomes tested – even sense of obvious directions put under strain.
This theme of disassociation with the environment, and the people in it, continues to be weaved throughout, and makes for an unsettling backdrop to what’s a strong first novel by Alison Littlewood. As Cass returns to her childhood village with her son Ben following her husband’s death, the idyllic memories which she held appear to be as questionable as initial sense of horizon in the opening pages.
Hoping for a fresh start, Cass almost immediately feels that something is not quite right in Darnshaw. She wants things to be fine of course, who wouldn’t – having rooted up and travelled back in the hopes of giving her son a fresh start. Things seem like they should be fine; the framework for a supporting network for her and her son is there – but one gets the idea that the friendliness hinted at is false, and ethereal, and so it is.
Littlewood excels at driving home a feeling of discomfort, whether in feint and early hints at the paranormal, or in even mundane things such as a lack of internet access. Creaks and bumps in the semi-isolated apartment building she finds herself living in are handled as masterfully as lingering, deceitful sneers from the locals, and similarly the emergent miscreant behaviour of her son.
The town of Darnshaw is well constructed, and although it does introduce the stalwarts one might come to expect from such a vehicle – outsider hating local, strange old man walking dog etc. – avoids clichÃ© and over reliance on the familiar bogeymen and instead directs our attention to the rot of the whole as opposed to merely just the constituent parts.
A Cold Season is an intelligent, sensitive book. Its chills are delivered with precision certainly, but in subtle yet equally terrifying manner it’s the parts that aren’t scary which speak as loudly as the parts that freak you out. You wonder what’s out there in that cold, white beyond, and know that it’s not nice. Far better to be inside with a nice hot mug of cocoa then.