Alison Littlewood’s debut novel “A Cold Season” hit book shops and online stores in the US today from Jo Fletcher Books. The novel was released lasted year in the UK, selling over 65,000 copies, and receiving some high praise from critics.
Littlwood draws upon her own experiences driving the winding roads of the English moors. The novel follows a recently single mother, Cass, and her son Ben who move to the remote village of Darnshaw to begin a new life. Unfortunately, the town harbours some sinister secrets, dark forces of evil, and strange villagers who will stop at nothing to ruin Cass’ happiness.
Alison took the time to chat with Bloody-Disgusting about her horror novel debut, her influences, and advice for young writers. Jo Fletcher Books also hooked us up with and exclusive excerpt from the novel that you can check out below.
BD: I know you’ve done it a thousand times, but give us a quick pitch for A Cold Season.
AL: A young mother, set to build a new life for herself and her son after the loss of her soldier husband, returns to her childhood home in search of the rural idyll. Instead, she uncovers long-forgotten promises as well as Darnshaw’s own secrets – a background of sinister ritual that now threatens to engulf her. When the village is marooned by snow, Cass is pitted against forces she can hardly comprehend in a fight to protect her son.
BD: From the opening pages, the novel feels deeply personal, dealing with the fears of parenthood. It seems this is something all parents experience at some point or another. Why do you think that is? How much of this comes from your personal life?
AL: For me the horror genre isn’t so much about blood and guts as about facing our worst fears. Loss is one of those for me, as I imagine it is for many people – losing someone we love has to be one of the worst things we could face. Having a child character hopefully intensified that because Ben is an innocent and entirely dependent on the adults around him. I’m not a parent myself and so it was daunting to write a mother-child relationship, but I drew on the emotions I had around those issues.
BD: You also deal a lot with the fears of childhood resurfacing with Cass. Do you think we tend to bury our childhood fears naturally? Are they bound to resurface eventually?
AL: I do think they tend to stay with us, forgotten perhaps, until something comes along to remind us, or they just lurk in the background, making their mark on our psyche in subtle ways. Of course, some we just naturally outgrow or come to laugh at. I do find it interesting though that the idea of death and loss, that are ever-present in the horror genre, seem like adult fears – but I remember the thought that people could die being quite terrifying when I was a child. It’s such a momentous thing to try to understand at that age.
BD: This book is being called a horror story, but it’s also a family drama, a romance at points, and a psychological thriller. Did you intend for it to be seen as a horror story? How do you feel about it being labeled as such?
AL: I’d written short stories for some time before I tried a novel and they tended to be horror or dark fantasy, with just a smattering of crime and SF along the way. So I didn’t feel like a stranger to the genre or its writers – I love reading books by Stephen King, Gary McMahon, Joe Hill, Sarah Langan, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Sarah Pinborough, Adam Nevill and many others. So I’m happy to wear the label, though I think for many the idea of ‘horror’ is formed by slasher movies, which is only a small part of it. I tend to enjoy more psychological horror, though I also love dark fantasy and twisted fairy tales.
BD: I got a very distinct Silent Hill vibe throughout, and maybe it’s just the fog and the sinister small town, but was the Silent Hill series an inspiration for the novel?
AL: It actually wasn’t – the eeriness of driving over the moorland in thick fog came from experience. I was commuting over some quite lonely countryside at the time of writing, and being up there in the fog was particularly atmospheric, like being adrift in a sea of whiteness. I’d quite often switch off the radio and wind the windows down to really experience the eeriness up there. I started writing the book in the middle of a bad winter, when the landscape was incredibly beautiful but also bleak and a little frightening. That definitely found its way into A Cold Season.
BD: A lot of writers don’t like talking about themes in their novels, but were the themes intentional from the beginning, or did they only begin to surface once you started writing?
AL: They only really surfaced as I was writing. I didn’t set out to write a book about a particular issue, but the things that concern us can’t help but find their way into our work, I think. When I started writing, though, all I really wanted to do was to try to tell the best story I could. I’ve always loved books and that sense of being caught up in a story, so that was my aim.
BD: There’s an almost Roman Polanski vibe to the story as the apartment itself is so eerie. What is it about moving into a new apartment or city that helps to creates that sense of dread?
AL: I suppose it’s the lack of familiarity, the not knowing whether you’ll fit in, or what the neighbours are like, or if things will turn out OK. Again though, the mill in the book was based on experience. I lived in a place that was very similar for six years, and was one of the first to move in. It was quite odd knowing that the rest of the building was unoccupied, and that many of the doors had empty shells behind them. The only difference was that I made Foxdene Mill smaller – I didn’t think a place with 80 empty apartments in the middle of nowhere would be believable in a book, although that was where I lived for a while!
BD: It seems occult practices are becoming more and more popular in contemporary fiction. Why do you think it’s making a resurgence?
AL: I’m not really sure why that is. For me, in fiction, I tend to be fascinated with those things we can’t quite explain away or understand, but then I always have been. Even as a child, I remember loving fairy tales, and the sense that there’s a little bit of magic at the heart of the story. The occult is perhaps the flip side to that – something frightening and dark, but still magical. Maybe it’s something to do with austerity – wanting to find something that’s still extraordinary or even supernatural, in a tough old world.
BD: It’s obvious you did a lot of research about the occult. What’s your research process like? How much of it made it into the novel?
AL: I did do quite a lot of research, though only the tip of the iceberg made it into the novel. There was plenty of information on the internet, though much of what I used came from spending a lot of time in the area, or snippets of information I’d squirreled away at the back of my mind over the years, such as the pagan symbolism found in churches. One of the things that drew me was the story of the Pendle witches, which happened fairly near to where A Cold Season is set, though in the end it was a little too far geographically to include. The circle of bones found by the side of a path came from something that I saw while out walking one day. I told myself the local foxes must be very neat in disposing of their prey, but it must have seemed odd enough to stick in my mind and find its way into the book years later.
BD: This was your debut novel. What advice can you offer to writers out there who are working on their first novel?
AL: Keep going, finish it, keep learning. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself – do it for the love, and enjoy it. I think every writer tends to expect themselves to get it right first time, but it’s best to leave perfectionism aside until it’s time to edit. At some point in the first draft, most writers tend to hit a wall – that’s where the determination and dedication comes in! It’s important to push through to the end.
BD: What’s next for Alison Littlewood?
AL: My next novel, Path of Needles, is wrapped around those fairy tales I used to love when I was young, but me being me, it predominantly looks at the darker side of some of the original tales. It has a police procedural element too, so it’s really crossing the crime/horror/fantasy genres. I’m also working on book three, which is more of a traditional haunted house story looking at the fates of one family through different generations. I have a few short stories underway too and have started looking at ideas for book four, so I’m having a lot of fun with it at the moment!