A Cold Season by Alison Littlewood is a supernatural thriller set in a small English village of Darnshaw. Cass and her young son Ben are putting their lives back together after the death of her husband in the war. Cass sees the opportunity to return to Darnshaw, the village she spent some of her childhood in though the memories are remarkably fuzzy, and decides to return to enjoy the quieter life.
“…You need to give it a chance. I loved it when I was your age.” Even as she said the words, Cass found herself wondering if that was true. And yet when she had heard the name Darnshaw again, she had pictured Ben here, running around the hills and laughing. Enjoying an idyllic childhood, everything she wanted to give him…”
As Cass settles into the village she begins to remember bits and pieces of her own past and the turbulent relationship with her own father. A father she felt abandoned her but which we later find out had left her and her mother to join the priesthood. With her own sense of loss she tries to comfort her young son Ben. Darnshaw is surrounded by a dense fog and as a wintry storm blows in is covered by snow. Communication with the outside world is down and Cass is left to with her new friends, Sally, Lucy and Ben’s school teacher Mr. Remick. But slowly Darnshaw becomes something different. The past she had blocked out seeps back in. A history of murders and witchcraft and maybe something even worse. But what really changes for Cass is Ben. From a sad little boy into an angry, hateful and violent child.
“…Perhaps it was best to leave him alone for a while, let him calm down. She bent and switched on the nightlight. It cast a pallid glow over the room. Ben shuffled around. His hand snaked from under the covers and snapped off the light. “I don’t need it anymore,” he said, snuggling back under the blanket. Cass drew a deep breath, then turned and closed the door behind her, leaving her son in darkness…”
Cut off from the rest of the world, Cass begins to piece together the secrets of Darnshaw, her past and the true identity of Mr. Remick. She knows that the changes in Ben are not natural and to save her son, she must find a way out of the isolated and snow blocked village.
Cold Season is told in layers. The characters of Cass and Ben are built bit by bit and the loss of her husband is acutely told. They are weakened and flawed and desperate for some stability and strength to return to their lives. This makes them easy prey for the presence in Darnshaw. Cass’s own relationship with her father leaves her vulnerable to be taken in. The village and the people in it are well characterized developed. You are drawn in and as the secrets unravel, you are not really sure if the evil Cass is beginning to sense is real or is she simply going mad. Cold Season is a good story. Well written and delivered. The problem with it is I’ve read it before. A single mom or abandoned mom and child. Isolated by some natural event, unable to communicate with the outside world. A man who may or not be a friend who may or may not become a murderer. An evil presence or just going stir crazy. The Shining is the best example of this but I’ve read many other variations of this tale. In the worst of them the plotting is so slow you can literally walk away. In the best, you begin to feel just as isolated as the characters in the book. You can get a chill from the winter storm and the sense of isolated is so heavy, you need to take a deep breath because you swear you were held underwater for a moment. Its a tried and true formula in horror and thriller novels. I find nothing wrong with using it. Only with the Cold Season there isn’t anything else brought to the table. There is a hint of witches or a coven but are they really? The identity of Mr. Remick is hinted at but not really made clear. There is an abandoned church and a book with names written in blood and a rumor of ritualistic child sacrifice but it doesn’t really ever come about. The one plot twist that I had really had with the book and this is a spoiler so stop or skip this paragraph if you want. The issue I take with it is throughout the novel Cass is fighting this madness of hers or real evil she feels is out there herself to save Ben. Toward the end two characters, though not new but never really in the village at all appear and it is they who eventually save Cass and Ben. And they’re men. So much for the strong woman/mother saving her child in the face of great evil. Sorry but that bothered me. Overall it is a good story. But much too formula driven. Alison Littlewood has the recipe to make a good story, but now she needs to add her own little spices and sweets to make it her own.