The Hidden People is a novel firmly steeped in the Gothic tradition, with Victorian-styled prose that explores the familiar dichotomies pertinent to literature of that era: city versus rural, genteel versus peasant, fact versus fiction, real versus imagined. Unfortunately, the effect it produces on the reader is also one of dichotomy: at times carrying off a fantastic atmosphere and convincing narrative voice, and in other instances, losing its way and falling short of the mark of true catharsis.
Our story begins with an encounter between Albert Mirralls and his cousin Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Thurlston at an exhibition in London, Hyde Park. This encounter, in which Albert clearly develops an affection for Lizzie, is the fulcrum around which the plot is developed. An uncouth remark by one of Lizzie’s relatives causes Albert’s father to drag our narrator away from the exhibition, thus thwarting the budding romance between Lizzie and Albert. Both end up marrying elsewhere: Lizzie Thurlston becomes Lizzie Higgs, and Albert finds himself a wife, Helena who is a distinct contrast to Lizzie in demeanour and physical appearance due to her ‘raven-curls’.
However, as Robert Frost once so profoundly observed, the human mind is want to wonder about ‘the road not taken’. Lizzie remains in Albert’s mind. And so when he discovered she has been murdered, burned to death by her husband for being a ‘changeling’, it is Albert who goes to Halfoak, a rural town in Yorkshire far from the city life he is used to, in order to represent the Mirralls side of the family and arrange Lizzie’s funeral. Aside from these practical reasons, we suspect through what our first person narrator is not telling us, that he is also going to gain a kind of closure on his own longing. During Albert’s stay at Halfoak he begins to become obsessed over Lizzie’s death, the superstitions of the town, and a deeper cover-up of what happened to Lizzie and indeed others.
The story clearly borrows much from an earlier 20th century work Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees, what Neil Gaiman called the ‘forgotten novel’ of the 20th century, one that is by all accounts a masterpiece; in it, the small town of Lud, situated on the border of Fairy Land and subject to infiltration by the fairies, must be liberated from the mysterious goings on by its unconventional mayor, Nathaniel Chanticleer. The Hidden People also conjures such classic Gothic forebears as Dracula and actively references Wuthering Heights (which Helena is reading throughout the story and becomes a key plot mirroring in many respects).
Unfortunately, for me, The Hidden People does not capture the originality or power of these originals because it declines to undertake their epic themes and style.
The Hidden People is certainly fluid and readable in terms of prose style, but there isn’t a single image I can recall or turn of phrase that left its mark. Stephen King once said: ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs’ and by God is he right. Yet, years after the release of On Writing, there are still so many writers out there dropping adverbs into their fiction like there’s no tomorrow. Alison Littlewood ‘s novel showcases passages of chiselled writing which draws the reader into the world of The Hidden People and its narrator, but these are often undermined by subsequent sections of prose riddled with needless, diluting adverbs. In many instances throughout the book, flat writing leaves crucial moments intended to emotionally impact dud. One such moment is when Albie discovers Lizzie’s feelings for him in her journal. That could have been a deeply emotive scene but the language left me cold, with clichéd sentiments such as: ‘Poor, poor Lizzie’ detracting tfrom what I would call something authentic. I wanted to feel with the narrator – tried even – but sadly it did not come off.
Words like ‘abnegation’ and ‘susurration’, while it may be argued were included to cement the verisimilitude of the Victorian aesthetic, in most cases just rob a sentence of impetus. The thing about Dracula which makes it so powerful are the moments when Bram Stoker sacrifices a little of the realism to give over to his sure-handed, hypnotic prose, the bestiality of his imagery, the sensuousness and vividness which captures the underlying eroticism. It is hardly believable a genteel like Jonathan Harker could write such haunting and compelling narrative, but we suspend disbelief because we want to be captivated. Sadly, Alison Littlewood seems to have religiously stuck to her narrator’s uptight, mechanical prose, and the novel suffers for it; it is, in terms of style, relentlessly mundane, populated with detail after detail of Victorian life which is not relavent to the action at hand
The Hidden People is also far too long. At over 360 pages, I felt the story could have been reduced by 20%, if not more. Every scene seemed to have an additional 1000 words to it, often padded with the narrator’s tumultuous thoughts and questions, drastically slowing down the narrative and making even tense scenes tedious. There are numerous repetitious descriptions, sometimes within the same chapter, and often not offering any different inflection. In one chapter the moon is described three times within the space of 5 pages. While this is arguably to create atmosphere, Gothic mood is not entirely dependant on descriptions of landscape: it can also be about how an image unsettles, or a thought seems out of place.
Perhaps one of the most concerning problems with the novel is something conspicuous by absence: sexual desire. If we look at three seminal works which have clearly informed The Hidden People – Dracula, Goblin Market and Lud-in-the-Mist – we can see that all three have something in common: the supernatural as sexual. The fairy fruit in Lud, and the eating of it, symbolically represents oral sexual acts; the goblins in Christina Rossetti’s poem effectively gang-rape Lizzie (a name which Alison seems to be slyly alluding to in her own work), forcing their ‘fruit’ against her mouth until it ‘drips’ all down her face; most obviously of all, the seductive vampires of Bram Stoker’s Gothic classic whose penetrative bites and weakness to phallic staking mimic the act of coitus. The sexual dimension to these classic texts is what elevates them to more than simply ghost stories with shock value, but deep investigations of the human psyche: unconscious fears, Freudian repressions returning to haunt us, unspoken desires materialising into the rational world and disturbing it. It is part of what defines them as Gothic, that lends them their unsettling power. All of these supernatural entities reflect us – and perhaps that is why we fear them.
Yet The Hidden People is strikingly devoid of any sense of desirous atmosphere. There is no real attempt to explain why the women are so seduced by Edmund Calthorn, apart from the fact we are told he looks good on a horse. And despite scenes in which Helena appears in a nightdress, there is never a sense of real desire from any of the characters towards her, husband or otherwise. This absence seems odd when the The Hidden People is seemingly all about sexual transgressions: it frequently refers to Wuthering Heights, a ‘wild’ novel that the narrator cannot conceive of being written by a woman. Two characters, Lizzie Higgs and Essie Aikin, are both shamed for having had sex out of wedlock, and at one point Albert suspects his own wife of indiscretion. It is almost as if the author felt compelled to include these sexual themes but was reluctant to go into any great exploration of them, hence, these indiscretions are often revealed in footnotes from journals and in long, rambling speeches about duty. The Victorians were repressed, absolutely, so there is a sense in which the narrator might be a prude, but this should only serve to heighten the reader’s sense of something simmering beneath the surface. The closest we get to Albie confessing to a desire is that he admits to waking up with a feeling of ‘yearning’, but after what is unclear to the point of non-existence.
There are other areas in which The Hidden People works well. The ending unravels in an unexpected way, and subverts what you would expect from a story of this genre, offering a commentary on the nature of human superstition. Again it contrasts with its forebears in this respect, offering a Holmesian moment of anagnorisis, evidence falling into place, rather than a more dramatic or climactic conclusion. There is a significant amount of emotional pain in what is a reasonably well wrought ending: when you realise what the narrator has done and lost, it leaves an intended sense of disillusion. From a personal viewpoint I can’t say absolutely that I was satisfied by the ending, perhaps because it is inherently a negative one, a kind of water-against-the-face wake up call, and to my mind this is not what the story promises nor true to the genre.
There are moments of power in Alison Littlewood’s work where one feels narrative dynamism and has to read on, which is a laudable achievement. These echo the obsessive, claustrophobic movements where Jonathan Harker is trapped in Dracula’s castle, but scaled down to the domestic and familiar of a cottage in the country. However, it also seems that there were some lessons hard learned by Stoker which Alison Littlewood has not taken advantage of. Her use of the phonetic speech to create the Yorkshire dialect is problematic in three key ways: (1) It needlessly makes important information difficult to comprehend (2) It rarely reflects that actual inflections of the idiom in question – which is not a fault with her writing merely with the capabilities of the English written word (3) Although there is some consistency with character here in that the protagonist of The Hidden People is a well-to-do upper class fellow, it still plays into the relentless stereotyping of Northern people and values, i.e. that Northern people are simple-minded and ultimately inarticulate, which is palpably untrue as a roll-call of world-class writers could attest. In addition, in most narratives this supposed ‘stupidity’ of Northern, or dialected folk, is often then subverted when they turn out to be the key source of information, their superstition actually showing itself to be a deeper understanding of the world. Without giving too much away, there’s not such a subversion going on here.
Ultimately, I had many problems with The Hidden People, but there were also triumphant aspects of it. Though I will always prefer works such as Lud-in-the-Mist for its epic beauty or Dracula for its raw power and haunting scenes, The Hidden People managed to tell a story which I wanted to get to the end of and which had its own twists and turns, leaving me with an unanticipated alchemy of emotions.
The Hidden People was published by Jo Fletcher Books on 6 Oct. 2016.
Discover more about Jo Fletcher Books here…
Review by Joseph Sale