The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood

April 10, 2014

Mire House is dreary, dark, cold and infested with midges. But when Emma Dean inherits it from a distant relation, she immediately feels a sense of belonging.

It isn’t long before Charlie Mitchell, grandson of the original owner, appears claiming that he wants to seek out his family. But Emma suspects he’s more interested in the house than his long-lost relations. 

And when she starts seeing ghostly figures, Emma begins to wonder: is Charlie trying to scare her away, or are there darker secrets lurking in the corners of Mire House? 

Who hasn’t dreamed of inheriting a rambling old house hidden in the heart of the countryside? I know I certainly have, even if it has seen better days and is a bit worn round the edges. It sounds like the perfect rural idyll. When the reader is first introduced to Emma, the sadness that permeates her character is quickly established. She has suffered recent loss and that trauma has left its mark. She is keen to escape the past, to find somewhere new where she can build a life and really belong. The opportunity to start again at Mire House seems almost too good to be true. As she starts to settle into her new life, she begins to experience phenomena that she can’t explain. There is a presence and it has its sights set firmly on Emma.

The book is split into four distinct parts set during three different time periods; 2013, 1973, 1939 and then back to 2013 again. Each feels almost like a self-contained novella in their own right. As the years roll back the author reveals the layers of the history surrounding Mire House and all of its previous occupants. During the seventies, Frank and his younger brother Mossy discover how a game of dares can lead to tragedy. Meanwhile, on the cusp of the second World War. Aggie dreams of escaping the farm and going to work at the grand new house down the road. Littlewood does a terrific job of weaving these multiple plot strands together. They work well in isolation, but brought together as a whole they’re just perfect.

Personally, I’ve always liked the idea that old places and buildings have the ability to retain echoes of events in their history, the suggestion that when you leave a place behind something can be left behind appeals. The deeper into its history the narrative goes, the more it feels like Mire House is almost a character in its own right. It’s the spectre that connects everything, always there, sinister and brooding in the background. Throughout the years people can’t help but continue to be drawn inexplicably to it.

It struck me as kind of ironic that in a book called The Unquiet House, silence plays such an important role in events. There are many key scenes that play out wordlessly. It feels as though any sound would be wrong, like some sort of horrible intrusion. This technique is most effective in the chapters set in 2013. Emma spends quite a lot of her time alone and this makes her a rather introspective sort. Her solitary existence means that, in these initial chapters at least, there is very little dialogue* Instead, the reader is treated to direct access to Emma’s innermost thoughts and feelings. The author really knows her characters and takes time to ensure that the reader also knows exactly what makes them tick.

For me a truly effective ghost story needs to work on multiple levels, The Unquiet House manages to pull this feat off with aplomb; the air of subtle disquiet, an ever-growing sense of tension and just enough ambiguity to leave a reader with as many questions as answers. The plot certainly builds to a satisfyingly unexpected and shocking conclusion.

Littlewood’s evocative writing does a splendid job of pressing all of a reader’s emotional buttons. In particular, Emma and Aggie’s respective journeys feature some truly breath-taking moments. At certain points in the plot, the sadness and anger in both women feels palpable. I defy anyone not to get caught up in such emotive writing.

Mixing elements of modern and traditional horror seamlessly, Alison Littlewood’s latest novel proves she is a writer of undeniable talent that has the ability to engross and unsettle in equal measure. This is an excellent example of how well plotted psychological horror manages to be many things all at once, part ghost story, part thriller, part character study. I’ll be honest and admit that, with the exception of a single chapbook, I’ve never read any of her other books. I will be remedying this horrific oversight immediately.

The Unquiet House is published by Jo Fletcher Books and is available now, and comes highly recommended.

*Actually I checked (call me curious) there is not a single word of external dialogue in the first four chapters.

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