For someone who thought she didn’t read horror/ghost stories I certainly seem to be getting through a few of them recently. To be fair it is October – the time of year when all the creepiest books are released onto readers eager to balance Halloween sweeties with some spine-chilling stories. Of course what I have read quite a lot of in the past are 19th century novels, full of Victorian manners, so how could I not be intrigued by a book which promised to tell me a Victorian tale of suspense (but written in the full knowledge of our twenty-first century world?) Because as well as being an age of rationality, science and moral rectitude the Victorian era was also an age of fairy tales and folklore – culminating in Bradford’s very own Cottingley fairies in the early part of the 20th century. Alison Littlewood seems to be known as an author of horror and ghost stories but I would say this book, The Hidden People, is more of a dark fairy story. Nothing sparkly or delicate but the kind of fairies who think of humans as something to be used and then discarded. If you’ve ever read Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies you’ll know the sort of thing.
We start this book on the rational, scientific side of the age – at the Great Exhibition of 1851 – where young Albie meets hit pretty young country cousin Lizzie. Despite an initial attraction Albie follows his father’s wishes, joining the family firm and marrying a sensible, suitable girl. He forgets all about Lizzie until, shockingly, he hears of her death. In fact, her murder at the hands of her young husband. Albie decides to travel to the little Yorkshire village of Halfoak where Lizzie lived and died and this is where he comes up against what he thinks is superstition and ignorant belief in fairies. Lizzie was killed because her husband believed she was a changeling (and by burning alive because that’s one of the only ways to guarantee killing a fairy). We 21st century readers tend to agree with Albie’s rational view – fairies aren’t real and changelings don’t exist – and yet we, like him, are sucked into an otherworldly atmosphere where the impossible becomes almost believable.
I really liked the way that the reader is kept on edge – Albie, and his wife Helena when she joins him, are changed by Halfoak. Are they bewitched by fairies or do they just suffer some inexplicable breakdown? Early in the story Albie notices that the village clock has three hands so that it can tell local as well as railway time – the whole book leaves us unsure which timeframe we are in: whether we are in a rational or a fantastical world.