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Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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In her provocative debut, Carmen Maria Machado demolishes the borders between magical realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. Startling narratives map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited on their bodies, both in myth and in practice.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the mysterious green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague spreads across the earth. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery about a store’s dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted house guest.

Bodies become inconsequential, humans become monstrous, and anger becomes erotic. A dark, shimmering slice into womanhood, Her Body and Other Parties is wicked and exquisite.
~~~~~
Carmen Maria Machado has been publishing stories since 2012, to great acclaim in both literary and genre circles, and in both literary and genre markets, including Granta and Strange Horizons; finally, she has brought out a debut collection of a precise collection of her tales.

Her Body and Other Parties is a collection with a definite theme; it is about the liminal horror, the strangeness that exists around the edges of the world as it is, and it is about women. Every story in this collection also centres on a woman, and in most cases a queer woman; some are unsubtly autobiographically inspired, while others are much less so. Given the constraints of choosing stories to fit a theme, many collections can become rather samey and uniform; Machado’s collection avoids that by taking very different approaches to the same issues.

The collection opens with ‘The Husband Stitch’; this is Machado’s retelling of the traditional story of the girl with the ribbon around her neck. Here, Machado follows the traditional structure, in some regards; every woman has a ribbon somewhere, which cannot be untied. Men are very curious about these ribbons; indeed, the taboo around them is one of the gender differences in this world. Machado subverts the normal story, though, by having the husband push his wife’s wishes, but never actually break them; the analogy for sexual relations and power relations isn’t subtle, but it is powerful. The way Machado invests her characters with personality and a full life is beautiful, making the end of the story all the more tragic, whilst also feeling intensely right.

‘Inventory’ is a shorter story, and a strange one; it’s an episodic story, chronicling a series of encounters of a woman as an apocalypse happens around her. Machado builds up the sense of impending doom to an absolutely fantastic climax, while also investing her central character with life; we see her through meetings with people, which tend to include sexual encounters. These are powerfully and erotically conveyed, whilst not being voyeuristic or pornographic; and the variety of sexual relationship models shown is brilliant, in the different ways people relate to each other.

‘Mothers’ is a weaker story, however. Whilst still emotionally resonant, the story of imagined futures blending into the real world feels a little messy; there are too many things going on, and while Machado portrays the lesbian relationship and the abuse in it powerfully, as well as portraying the single-minded devotion of a single mother beautifully, the way she matches these two together, and then adds a magical element, simply does not connect. The story feels like it’s trying to simply do too much at once.

‘Especially Heinous’ is similarly a little bit messy; told episodically, it’s inspired by Law & Order: SVU. Machado digs into the gendered horror of crime procedurals, and of the treatment of sex and sex workers in particular, through a kind of spectral lens; there are a couple of plot strands which just seem to fizzle out, and the story falls apart slightly as it progresses, but there are some incredibly striking and powerful moments and images in there.

‘Real Women Have Bodies’ moves back to the territory of absolutely heartwrenching stories. Machado’s simple, unexplained premise of women simply fading away from the physical realm is explored beautifully and powerfully, in the context of male attitudes to women but also in the context of women’s ability to take up space. The story is powerful and painful to read, and the love affair that emotionally anchors the climax of the story is truly moving and wrenching.

‘Eight Bites’ takes on similar territory, but more explicitly; it is very much about fatness and one’s attitude to one’s body. There’s some absolutely beautiful imagery in here around food and eating, as well as some fantastic metaphorical work around embracing one’s own body; Machado writes powerfully about familial relationships between women as well as their relationships with their own bodies, and that gives a certain weight and heft to the story that otherwise might have been a little Doctor Who.

‘The Resident’ is the most obviously autobiographically inspired story; Machado has done a number of residences herself, so a story about a writer at a residence feels like it must draw on her own experience. The sense of strangeness and unease that permeates this story is powerful, and the disjointed nature of the experiences of the protagonist are a very effective device in emphasising the weird state of being withdrawn from the world into oneself to Do Art.

Her Body and Other Parties closes on perhaps its darkest story, ‘Difficult at Parties’, which is about a survivor of an unspecified crime. It’s a dark, strange story, with trauma at its centre, and the reaction to that trauma. Machado doesn’t try to make her protagonist especially likable; instead she makes the reader empathise directly with her, get in her head, and experience part of the trauma recovery process. It’s a strange tale, and the way Machado weaves a supernatural element in is both particularly effective and strangely voyeuristic.

Her Body and Other Parties meanders a little in the middle, with a couple of stories that feel like they could be tighter; but on the whole, Machado’s selection of her work is absolutely stunning, and incredibly strong. The themes shine through clearly, and Machado’s facility for language and turn of phrase is absolutely unmissable. The emotional and intellectual impact of the vast majority of stories in this collection is such that I had to stop and pause between each one, an unusual practice for me, to simply let it sit with me for a bit, to let it impact me and to let me think about it. Machado’s debut is a fantastic, and important, collection.

Disclaimer: Her Body and Other Parties is published by Serpent’s Tail in the UK. Serpent’s Tail is owned by Profile Books, whose managing editor is my uncle.

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Chalk by Paul Cornell

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Andrew Waggoner has always hung around with his fellow losers at school, desperately hoping each day that the school bullies — led by Drake — will pass him by in search of other prey. But one day they force him into the woods, and the bullying escalates into something more; something unforgivable; something unthinkable.

Broken, both physically and emotionally, something dies in Waggoner, and something else is born in its place.

In the hills of the West Country a chalk horse stands vigil over a site of ancient power, and there Waggoner finds in himself a reflection of rage and vengeance, a power and persona to topple those who would bring him low.
~~~~~
Paul Cornell is perhaps best known for his work on Doctor Who, both as a novellist on the New Adventures years and as a TV writer for New Who; although his brand of urban fantasy, showcased in the Shadow Police and Lychford series, is also gaining popularity. Last year also brought us Chalk, out from Tor.com, a very different beast…

Chalk is a straight up rural horror novella of a very particular era in British history. Cornell conjures Wiltshire in the 1980s very powerfully, with the grip of Thatcher on a fraying, impoverished nation, with the failing old order and aristocracy, with the rising punk youth. He also conjures a sense of the ancient in conflict with the modern; the old order rising in new forms in conflict with the new, although he very much does not map these onto political or pop cultural movements neatly. Instead, the zeitgeist is a powerful force wrestled over by modernity and the ancient, as the old seeks to influence the new in dark and bloody ways.

This is a dark and brutal little story; Chalk starts with a violent sexual mutilation of a teenage boy by a group of others, and only gets more graphically violent from there. Cornell continually blurs the lines between the real and the metaphorical throughout, so that the brutality is at once incredibly close, and slightly distanced by the possibility of Waggoner lying; the reader is invited repeatedly to question the truth of the narrator’s account by the narrator himself, in a curious approach to the story that is incredibly effective. Everything is a set of different narratives seen differently by different people; is this just the self-justifying story Waggoner tells himself later, or is Andrew telling the truth about what happened throughout? The subtlety of that question and the openness of its answer, because Andrew Waggoner is our sole narrator and viewpoint, is central.

That ambivalence also extends to the characters of Chalk. This is a viciously honest book: no character is innocent and in the right; everyone is, in their own way, stained. Andrew commits violent, vile acts, including sexual harassment (which he, reflecting on his past, describes as such); but he is also the victim of vile and violent acts, which do not justify his own acts. His tormentors are in similar positions. The whole novella is an exercise in awful people doing awful things for awful reasons; Cornell makes it somehow compelling despite there not really being a single character to root for. A couple of the women of Chalk, namely Angie and Elaine, come closest to being sympathetic characters; but Elaine is too much a cipher acted on by others but barely herself acting, and Angie is too objectified by Andrew to really grow into her own character.

I’m not sure, in the end, how to feel about Chalk. What it is, is masterfully executed; but I’m not sure that the masterfully executed thing is worthwhile, especially given some of what it includes. This definitely shows the breadth of Cornell’s writing ability, though…

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The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

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In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.

These are the facts.

Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
~~~~~
Brooke Bolander’s work has garnished any number of nominations, including multiple Locus, Hugo, and Nebula awards, among others. The Only Harmless Great Thing is her first solo volume; a slim novella out of Tor.com, it’s already picked up a lot of interesting buzz and an excellent marketing campaign… but does the novella bear out the speculation?

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a very odd book; it marries together alternate history with a science fictional future, in two parallel narratives, with a third, folkloric deep-history narrative running alongside those two. Bolander’s choices of narratives are not pleasant ones. The Only Harmless Great Thing is the story of an elephant, Topsy, brought with a little alternate history into the story of Regan, a Radium Girl. In Bolander’s world, elephants are discovered to have language and a degree of sentience in the 1880s, and so when the effects of radium were discovered, US Radium brought elephants in to paint the watches – one of whom is Topsy. In a parallel narrative, much later, Kat is trying to persuade elephants to allow humans to make them glow near nuclear waste dumps as a lasting warning about the presence of radiation, as a ten-thousand-year warning sign.

Bolander slips between the different narratives, registers, and narrators of The Only Harmless Great Thing with a skillful grace and ease that ties the whole thing together; the voices are very distinct, and that helps to distinguish between the stories as we slip between them. At times, it can be a little confusing for a few lines, but on the whole which narrative Bolander has the reader in rapidly becomes clear. The alternate and future histories are intertwined seamlessly with reality, and on the whole their revelation is well done; there are moments Bolander relies on knowledge that she hasn’t given the audience yet, but they’re few and far between.

This is a sparsely characterised novella; The Only Harmless Great Thing has a grand total of nine characters, which includes two pachyderms, one character who only speaks once and that through a post-mortem letter, an interpreter, a supervisor, an academic, a corporate executive, and a bitter Radium Girl. Of these, three are at various times viewpoint characters, and the rest appear only briefly; Bolander doesn’t make their characters much more than the flat necessities for the advancement of the plot, but her three core characters, those whose viewpoints we follow, are far better realised.

Each has a very unique voice and thought process, from the slangy dialect of Regan through to the mythopoetic style of thought of Topsy and the straightforwardly modern Kat. The Only Harmless Great Thing does a fantastic job of showing how Topsy’s and Regan’s lives parallel each other and how their struggles with forces outside and larger than themselves change them. There is a strong streak of radical politics on display in the work, and a class anger, that Bolander infuses with a kind of bleak despair at the state of the treatment of the working classes and of nature; and the way she uses that and filters it through her characters is incredibly powerful. The problem is Kat; Bolander’s treatment of her is uneven, and her character veers sharply between profoundly empathetic and profoundly disconnected, growing from one to the other and back again, and without any real sense of who she is as a person outside the project she proposed.

Finally, and almost without characters, is the deep-history myth-narrative that runs alongside these two core narratives. Bolander tells this in something akin to the style of a Just So story; and her style for these sections is absolutely beautiful and perfect, and the story itself is dark, moving, and painful. The Only Harmless Great Thing takes this extra piece of the jigsaw and moves, suddenly, from a two dimensional to a three dimensional puzzle, a complex narrative of interlocking parts with multiple messages; it’s only at the end that the relevance of this story becomes obvious to the others, in a very neat bit of writing.

The Only Harmless Great Thing isn’t a perfect novella, but it is a fantastic one; Bolander’s continues to go from strange, dark strength to dark, strange strength, and this continues that trend.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC provided on request by the publisher, Tor.com.

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The Fisher of Bones by Sarah Gailey

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The Prophet is dead.

The eyes of the Gods have turned to his daughter. But she isn’t ready. Not for the whispers in her ear, for the divinations… for the blood. Her people’s history and their future, carved by ancients into the bones of long dead behemoths, are now her burden. Only she can read them, interpret the instructions, and guide them to the Promised Land.

Their journey is almost at an end, but now, without the Prophet, she must find a way to guide them to the place they will call Home. Through blood and through sand, against the will of her own flock, against the horrors that haunt the darkness, only she can bring her people Home.

The Prophet is dead. Long live the Prophetess.
~~~~~
I’ve already reviewed Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo duology on the blog, so the author needs no real introduction; The Fisher of Bones was published for free in serialised form at the fantastic Fireside Fiction, as well as in a collected edition that came out halfway through the serialisation; this review is of the collected volume.

The Fisher of Bones is essentially a religious novella; it is about Fisher, who has taken the place of her father, Fisher, as the prophet of the Children of the Gods leading them from a secular land which has banished its divinities to a Promised Land described in revealed scriptures on the bones of extinct creatures. The plot describes the journey from the point at which Fisher’s father dies to the arrival at the Promised Land; along the way, the pilgrims meet and bring into their ranks outsiders, lose members, and have to deal with logistical problems. And then, of course, they arrive.

The simplicity of the plot is a strength, given what Gailey is really concerned with in The Fisher of Bones: faith and authority. Fisher is, after all, a new prophet to her flock, and Gailey deals with some of the consequences of that, such as the mistrust attendant upon her among some and the lack of faith in her ability to lead. The different manifestations of religious faith are also brilliantly handled; Fisher’s essentially nonhierarchical faith running up against the increasing idea of a hierarchy among some of her flock, for instance, or the way Fisher’s attitudes, and those of others, are permeated by the sense that everything the gods give is a positive gift, even if it is not always immediately apparent as such. The handling of faith is very sensitive and intelligent, and Gailey really embraces the centrality of it to her characters and plot.

The other big theme Gailey deals with is fertility and blood. The Fisher of Bones is one of the few stories centring a woman where periods play pivotal roles in the plot and emotional development of the story; in different ways, and at different times, characters’ periods or lack thereof is key. Similarly, Fisher’s pregnancy is brilliantly described, although the mysticism around her giving birth is a little frustrating; the physicality of the fertile womb is wholly embraced in Gailey’s writing and shown with a rare bluntness.

That isn’t to say The Fisher of Bones is simply a dry exploration of big themes. Fisher is a fascinating character, as is her friend Naomi; both are practical women with faith, whose practicality, faith and friendship can put them at odds or in alliance. The way the two are developed and written across the course of the novella is fascinating and beautiful. Unfortunately, they’re the only two particularly solid characters; the closest to another we see is Marc, the husband of Fisher, whose character is rather two dimensional and undergoes a dramatic revelation part way through to become a very different, equally two dimensional character, with little discussion of the effect of that on the relationship between the two characters.

The Fisher of Bones packs perhaps its best punch at the very close of the novella; Gailey fantastically turns everything upside down in a wholly unexpected way, and reconfigures everything that has come before. To say too much would be to spoil the impact of a brilliant close, though, to a novella that, while not as good as some of her other work, is still a brilliant piece of writing from an excellent author.

Disclaimer: Sarah Gailey and Pablo Defendi, publisher of Fireside Fiction which published Fisher of Bones in both serialised and collected forms, are both friends of the reviewer.

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Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

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Walking through his own house at night, a fifteen-year-old thinks he sees another person stepping through a doorway. Instead of the people who could be there, his mother or his brother, the figure reminds him of his long-gone father, who died mysteriously before his family left the reservation. When he follows it he discovers his house is bigger and deeper than he knew.

The house is the kind of wrong place where you can lose yourself and find things you’d rather not have. Over the course of a few nights, the boy tries to map out his house in an effort that puts his little brother in the worst danger, and puts him in the position to save them . . . at terrible cost.
~~~~~
It’s after Halloween, but still time for one last good chilling read…

Stephen Graham Jones’ Mapping the Interior is an odd little novella, about culture, about family, about love, and about the lengths one will go to for those we care about. Jones’ story is about a family of Native Americans who left the reservation after the death of the father of the household, moving to a poverty-stricken exurb; their physical environment is as much a source of horror as the supernatural elements that appear in the story.

Jones brings this environment into the stark foreground incredibly powerfully; Mapping the Interior is as much concerned with mapping the prefab house the family lives in, in all its different parts, as anything more interior to the family, and indeed, the unfolding mapping of the house plays a major role in the unfolding strangeness and horror of the plot. Jones describes the house in detail, through the eyes of a child; it’s a very effective approach, as we build a complete picture up only in snapshots, and somewhat impressionistic ones, as much emotional as physical.

The main horror of Mapping the Interior is built up slowly; Jones starts the novella off looking like one kind of ghost story, and then turns around and writes a rather different, darker, more horrifying kind. The way this is achieved is through the dawning realisation of a child of the reality of his dead father’s return; at first, he thinks of it as a blessing, his father come back to him, but the cost of this return becomes increasingly clear as the novella goes on, even as the benefits are shown. It’s a dark story, and Jones doesn’t shy away from its darkest elements; the gut physicality of violence is painfully clear, as is the familiarity with it of our twelve year old protagonist and narrator, Junior.

There are also banal horrors around; Jones doesn’t overlook the effects of racism, or of ableism directed at a developmentally delayed child, Dino, on a Native American family. Indeed, one of the biggest horrors of Mapping the Interior comes from a violent pack of dogs kept by one of the neighbours, who seem more like coyotes than domestic canines; their desire to eat the children of the family is powerful and brutal, and Jones really brings the fear of them home, with a visceral reality. These horrors are the backdrop to the supernatural horrors, and indeed almost an alternative to them; they make the supernatural seem more benevolent at the start, before its true nature becomes clear.

This isn’t a perfect novella; Mapping the Interior has a tendency to treat developmental delay as a comic relief motif or as the effect of supernatural agency, although Jones is fundamentally writing about Dino with sympathy. Some of the key plot points turn on his unspecified condition, and the way it is treated is at times deeply frustrating. Furthermore, Jones’ tendency to cut away at key moments, for various somewhat contrived reasons, cuts the tension a bit, and makes the novella more convoluted than it has to be.

In the end, though, despite these problems, Mapping the Interior is a powerful, dark, and moving novella, with a real chill at its heart.

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A Small Charred Face by Kazuki Sakuraba, trans. Jocelyne Allen

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What are the Bamboo?
They are from China.
They look just like us.
They live by night.
They drink human lifeblood but otherwise keep their distance.
And every century, they grow white blooming flowers.

A boy name Kyo is saved from the precipice of death by Bamboo, a vampire born of the tall grasses. They start an enjoyable yet strange shared life together, Kyo and the gentle Bamboo. But for Bamboo, communication with a human being is the greatest sin.
~~~~~
Vampires are a mainstay of horror, and have been since before John Polidori wrote The Vampyre in 1819; they’ve also long been a subject for reclamation in fiction, whether in that model or from other cultures. A Small Charred Face caught my eye as another entry in that long tradition of humanising monsters… Kazuki Sakuraba’s book is somewhere between a single novel and three separate, linked novellas collected into one volume; the marketing suggests it be read as one, and so I will review it as such.

A Small Charred Face is fundamentally a wistful, sad set of stories; it is about fading, aging, changing, and memory. The first two parts of the book are very intimate in scale, following single individuals; first, a human child taken in by a pair of Bamboo, who raise him until he becomes an adult; and second, a Bamboo who had befriended him briefly in his childhood, who later took in the child he took in shortly before his own death. They focus in very deeply and intently on the emotional relationships, and the idea of growing up; in the first part, of how a child does not understand the importance of growing up, and in the second, the problem of not growing up while those around one do.

A Small Charred Face is beautiful in both these parts; the characters are so well realised and so deeply, painfully human, in all their flaws, that their fights, their struggles, and their loves are all intensely touching. Watching Kyo age, and realise what he has forgotten, is a profoundly painful experience; while watching Mariko remain a perpetual child, while those around her age and die and maybe even forget her fundamental traumas, is similarly brutal. Sakuraba’s grasp of voice is vital here; the shifting first person narration is not only incredibly individual, but also ages with the characters, and shows their emotional development, in a very real way. Sakuraba’s writing also draws the reader through with great pacing and style, demanding one reads on to find out what happens to these characters, making it a fast book to read, and one hard to put down.

Sakuraba also shows romantic love beautifully; Kyo is raised by Mustah and Yoji, a pair of male Bamboo, and their mutual love and adoration is never shown as a sexual matter, but is shown as utterly pervading everything about them. A Small Charred Face, for half its length, shows some truly beautiful romantic writing; and the confusion of feelings of Kyo towards his adoptive parents is painful and beautiful to behold, as is the way his feelings about his past change and develop.

The third story in A Small Charred Face is rather less strong; it explains how Bamboo society in Japan came to be, in exile from China. Focused on a narrator who is a smart, dedicated, driven member of the royalty of the takezoku (the name the Bamboo called themselves in China), it looks at persecution and at discrimination. Sakuraba takes on a lot of themes across the sixty pages of this story, and tries to grapple with them all; while the despair of a brilliant woman forced into hiding her intelligence because of the needs of society are incredibly moving, other emotional elements don’t ring true, in part because the story is just too rushed, and relies too much on the way it plays on references to events in the future of the story that happened in previous episodes of the book.

In the end, A Small Charred Face reminded me very strongly of Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling; both intensely emotional and beautiful books using vampires to talk about humanity, Sakuraba’s is much more wistfully sad, but, for the most part, just as brilliant.

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Cottingley by Alison Littlewood

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In 1917 the world was rocked by claims that two young girls – Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths – had photographed fairies in the sleepy village of Cottingley. In 2017, a century later, we finally discover the true nature of these fey creatures. Correspondence has come to light that contains a harrowing account, written by village resident Lawrence Fairclough, laying bare the fairies’ sinister malevolence and spiteful intent.
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Cottingley is a historical engagement with Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous folly, The Coming of the Fairies, published in 1922; whereas Doyle’s work was supposedly nonfictional, and about the glory of the fairies, based on the since-admitted fakes of Wright and Griffiths, Littlewood’s takes a somewhat different tack…

This is a horror novel, pure and simple, and takes part in many of the standard conventions of such. Cottingley is one of those books that very directly aims to chill the heart with rendering the familiar and cosy, strange and dark; in this case, Littlewood takes on the comfort of the woods, the idea of the fairy at the bottom of the garden, and makes it increasingly sinister and destructive as the novel goes on. The creeping horror is mountingly effective as the narrator is willing to believe in the fairies from the beginning, but becomes increasingly disconcerted by their natures; these are not the gentle fairies of Conan Doyle but a rather more sinister, bloody group of beings, more linked to earlier folklore. Littlewood builds up the atmosphere in stages, with minor malice and fascination growing by degrees across the course of the novella, with the hints of the evil right in the very first encounter but unwilling to be believed, before Cottingley changes entirely.

The entire novella is epistolary, correspondence from Lawrence Fairclough to Edward Gardner, who helped Conan Doyle investigate the real Cottingley Fairy photographs. Cottingley suggests Lawrence is an ardent admirer of Conan Doyle’s fiction, and drawn into the great writer’s obsession with fairies, seeks to investigate himself; the relationship between Edward and Lawrence changes and alters over the course of the book, although Littlewood only gives us Lawrence’s side of the correspondence, leaving the reader to try to fill in the gaps oneself, and attempting to work out what the other side has said to prompt certain parts of the letters.

The solipsistic nature of this approach has its drawbacks. While Lawrence’s daughter in law, Charlotte, and granddaughter, Harriet, are fleshed out somewhat, they remain relatively elusive and idealised in the letters themselves; Cottingley really only has one complete character, and even he is very limited as we only see him in retrospect of times of crisis. Littlewood distills the plot down to its utmost drama, but at the sacrifice of individuality; Harriet is a good, dutiful, bookish girl, while Charlotte is the model of a good wife grieving a husband lost in the First World War now looking after her father in law. Even Lawrence is little more than a caricature, a man looking for something to cling to after losing his son, and finding the fairies; Littlewood makes him somewhat sympathetic but largely this is by the forces raised against him, not on his own account.

In the end, Cottingley is a good piece of literary horror, and an excellent engagement with one of Conan Doyle’s weirder obsessions, but as fiction goes, Littlewood has sadly forgotten the importance of character.

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