The subgenre of folk horror draws upon legends, superstitions and folk beliefs for inspiration. It depicts a world in which the further we get from urban centres, the more likely we are to encounter places where witches still place hexes, where the old gods are still worshipped, where sacrificial victims are burned in wicker men, and where fairies continue to work their mischief on mortals.
This last theme is a recurring subject in the folk horror of Alison Littlewood. Having made her debut with the 2012 novel A Cold Season – in which a woman moves to an isolated village that turns out to be the home of devil-worshippers – Littlewood has written a number of stories exploring the darker side of fairy lore, taking us on a tour of the locations favoured by England’s little people.
“In the Quiet and in the Dark” sees a teenage girl visit the Rollright Stones on the Oxfordshire-Warwickshire border, which have attracted their share of legends relating to fairies, witchcraft and paganism. There, she meets a mysterious stranger and learns that there may be truth to the old tale about the stones coming to life when no-one is around to see. “On Ilkley Moor” has a pair of childhood friends visit the Yorkshire moorland of the title; as they discuss local legends of ancient giants and sacrificial rites, they face up to a painful incident from their own pasts.
“Boggle Hole” takes its name from a beach in Yorkshire. The main character, Tim, visits the shore with his grandfather, who regales him with tales of the boggle (“a sort of goblin. Some call ‘em brownies, or hobs”) that lives in a nearby cave. Here Tim finds a shining gemstone… and then learns the hard way that when you take something from the boggle, he will take something from you in return.
Littlewood’s longest treatment of fairy lore to date is her 2016 novel The Hidden People. A period story of the Victorian era, The Hidden People begins at the Great Exhibition of 1851, where the wonders of modernity are on show for all to see. Here, a London boy named Albert Mirralls encounters his cousin Lizzie for the first time in his life. Albert’s strict father prevents any further meetings between the two children, but the memory of Lizzie remains lodged in the boy’s mind.
The story picks up eleven years later, when Albert is an adult and married to a woman named Helena. He is horrified to learn that his cousin Lizzie – whom he has not seen since that day in 1851 – has since been killed, burned to death by her own husband.
Albert goes to visit Halfoak, the Yorkshire village in which Lizzie lived and died. A long way from the modern world heralded by the Great Exhibition, Halfoak is a hotbed of rural superstitions. Dolls made from corn husks are buried in the ground to ensure good harvests. Milk is poured on hillsides as offerings for fairies. Children stay away from the water for fear of encountering Peggy Greenteeth. The village is also a place where communal intrigue runs deep, with seemingly every resident having a secret to hide.
Visiting Lizzie’s old home – which is located at the top of a hill supposedly inhabited by fairies, and consequently deemed unlucky by locals – Albert is shocked to find her body still unburied:
I could not stop my eyes from stealing towards the horror that lay there: the charred, cracked skin; cheekbones gleaming through shreds of burned flesh and black cinder; rivers of crimson wending through their desolate landscape. The effect of each individual atrocity combined to render the features unrecognisable to my eye, and I was grateful for it.
The image of the uncanny corpse is one that recurs in Alison Littlewood’s fiction. A Cold Season has a chilling scene in which a group of misshapen snowmen turns out to be the bodies of murder victims, hidden under a layer of snow. Her crime novel Path of Needles, meanwhile, involves a serial killer who murders women and then dresses them as fairy tale heroines such as Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood, forming macabre tableaux.
In The Hidden People, the motif is represented by the charred body of Lizzie, laid out on her bed and subsequently shunned by the villagers, with only Albert interested in giving her a decent burial.
It turns out that the circumstances of the murder are steeped in rural folklore. Lizzie’s husband, Jem Higgs, killed her because he believed that fairies had spirited away the real Lizzie and replaced her with a wooden stock, fit only for burning. A local “wise woman” known as Mother Crow was the one who advised him to carry out this murderous deed.
Albert’s wife Helena comes to see him while he stays in the village, announcing that she is pregnant. She at first believes that a trip to the country will do her good, but tension begins to mounts between the couple. Albert notices that a change has come over his wife:
I had never before seen such an expression on her sweet face. I had never seen her so out of temper, all her cool equanimity quite evaporated. I gathered myself before I spoke. ‘I am sorry, my dear, that you are so sadly unlike yourself. So—’ Changed, is what I had wanted to say, but I found I could not form the word. ‘So troubled.’
As Albert becomes engrossed in Lizzie’s journal, which he found hidden away in her home, Helena accuses Albert of searching for “a lost dream” of his dead cousin. In the face of this hostility, Albert recalls a particular aspect of local beliefs: that fairies can cause a good wife to be replaced with a shrew. Distraught at the change of personality that has come over his wife, Albert becomes torn between his rational-minded disgust at rural superstition, and a nagging suspicion that there is truth in the local legends of changelings — that Helena’s shift in character may have a supernatural origin, and that Lizzie may still be out there somewhere…
Here we have another recurring theme in the stories of Alison Littlewood: a sudden change in personality, bringing with it the disruption of a relationship.
In A Cold Season, the main character notices that her young son is showing an unpleasant streak, and wonders whether demonic activity is responsible. “Boggle Hole” ends with the protagonist’s grandfather becoming cold and despondent; as punishment for the boy taking something from a goblin, the story hints, the goblin took away the boy’s relationship with his grandfather.
Littlewood’s short story “Black Feathers” also plays with the theme. The main character, Mia, is a girl with a head full of fairy tales. She has spent most of her young life coming up with fanciful methods of doing away with her little brother Davey, such as kissing him to turn him into a frog or giving him a potion made from foul ingredients. One day, she makes a cloak for him out of an old skirt and raven feathers, in the hopes that it will transform him into a bird and he will fly away. Davey then miraculously survives a serious accident; it turns out that this gift is accompanied by a transformation, but not what Mia expected. After his experience, the once-cheerful boy becomes withdrawn and distant. Mia too has undergone a change: she no longer believes in fairy tales.
Each of these stories plays with a degree of ambiguity as to whether the changes are supernatural in origin. But with The Hidden People, there is much less uncertainty. The reader will be a few steps ahead of Albert, and able to see where he has gone wrong.
Helena has become hostile because Albert is neglecting his pregnant wife in the rural retreat. He is instead obsessed by the memory of his dead cousin. Albert even has a dream of disinterring Lizzie’s body to see whether it has returned to the wood from which the fairies built it… only to find that she is alive and well, returned to her fleshiness, reaching out to embrace him.
The irony of the situation is that the wife whom Albert suspects of being a fairy is, in fact, flesh and blood, but the woman he idealises exists only as a memory in his head: a child-woman, a ghost-woman, a fairy-woman.
Although the sad tale of Lizzie Higg is loosely based upon an actual murder case – that of Bridget Cleary, an Irish woman killed in 1895 on suspicion of being a changeling – the setting of Halfoak is fictional. However, Alison Littlewood returned to her practice of weaving stories around England’s hotspots of fairy lore with her 2017 novella Cottingley.
This story takes its name from the Yorkshire village where, in 1917 and 1920, two girls forged photographs of fairies that succeeded in fooling a number of adults, including Arthur Conan Doyle. Cottingley makes for an interesting companion piece to The Hidden People as it touches upon a number of the same motifs, but from a totally different angle: while The Hidden People is on the side of rationalism, Cottingley is on the side of the fairies.
The novella is epistolary, written as a series of letters from the protagonist Lawrence H. Fairclough to Edward Gardner – the latter a real-life individual who was involved with the affair. The narrative begins with Lawrence visiting a glen near Cottingley with his granddaughter, Harriet, where they see a band of fairies.
As well as taking photographs, they come across the body of a dead fairy (the image of the uncanny corpse once again) which they take home with them after the other little people have departed. The corpse quickly decomposes, the flesh falling away into dust and leaving only a tiny, winged skeleton, which Lawrence keeps inside a box.
Then, one day, the skeleton goes missing. The house is subsequently plagued with poltergeist-like phenomena, and the images on the photographs fade until the fairies look like mere drawings – similar to the photos that inspired the story. Lawrence’s letters, once full of excited talk about spiritualist concepts such as thought-forms and ectoplasm, begin to show far less faith in such pseudoscientific notions in the face of unknowable phenomena.
The worst comes after Harriet’s mother Charlotte goes looking for the fairy skeleton in the glen. When she comes back home, she is blind in one eye and reluctant to discuss what happened to her. Her return is marked by – once again – an unpleasant change in personality:
I hurried into the passage to see Harriet staring up at her mother, her eyes wide, and not saying a word. Charlotte in turn stared at the child, her eyes a fixed gleam in her awdl thin face. She never once shifted her gaze to me. She clutched the knife in her hand and blood dripped from it to the floor, but I was the only one who noticed.
Then Charlotte leaned over her daughter, and she raised the knife and said, ‘I shall put both your eyes out of your head.’
Characters in horror stories routinely face physical violence. But in Littlewood’s folk horror, it is often personal relationships that sustain the most grievous wounds. While the theme of personality change turns up regularly in horror, particularly in possession and vampire narratives, Littlewood’s stories are notable both for their avoidance of the clichés associated with the motif and for their rich grounding in English folklore. The folk horror of Alison Littlewood shows a world where the fragile and often fractured human relationships exist against a landscape of age-old legends.