Friday, 14 July 2017

Recommendation: Cottingley by Alison Littlewood

"Dear Sir Arthur Conan Doyle..."

So begins this new novella from Alison Littlewood, the second in the 2017 NewCon press horror range. And it makes a nice contrast with the first, Case Of The Bedevilled Poet by Simon Clark. Clark's novella played with the fictionality of Sherlock Holmes; Alison Littlewood's Cottingley offers a fictionlised version of Holmes's creator.

Doyle himself does not appear onstage in this story, but it is based around a well-known chapter in his life, that of the Cottingley fairies. Famously, Doyle was taken in by these fakes, but in Littlewood's novella fairies are real; but they aren't as innocent as those in the famous photos. Instead, this tale explores the darker side of fairie lore. Littlewood's fairies don't seem evil or good so much as alien and other: beings that might entrance or harm us for their own unfathomable motives.

The story is told in the form of letters written by a Thomas Fairclough, a resident of Cottingley, who lives with his daughter in law and grandchild (his son having perished in WW1). They encounter shinning beings near the local brook, and despite the beauty of what they encounter even here there's traces of the unease to come. An unease only heightened when Fairclough returns home with the dead body of one of the creatures for reasons (he says) of science. Despite the story being related entirely via Fairclough's letters to Doyle and his associate Mr. Gardner (we never get to read their replies) we see both the good side of his character and his foibles—a certain vanity, perhaps, in his being the one to discover of the fairies, and a desire for the respect of great men like Conan Doyle. But Fairclough is a brave man, too, and it isn't long before he is put to the test...

It will be no surprise to long time readers of this blog how much I like Littlewood's fiction, and Cottingley is no exception. It expertly evokes both its setting and the characters' emotional lives; it's impeccably paced, perfectly structured, and a genuine page-turner. I devoured it in one sitting. Make sure you pick up a copy.

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