With the publication day of The Crow Garden fast approaching (ten days to go,people, ten days to go!) we thought it was high time we kidnapped Alison Littlewood and sat her down for a little Q&A session. Thankfully, she was very obliging and almost no extreme measures had to be taken in our pursuit of the truth.
Alison is the author of Richard and Judy bestseller, A Cold Season, its sequel A Cold Silence, and the dark Victorian mystery The Hidden People. Her latest chiller, The Crow Garden, is set in a Victorian asylum where mad-doctor Nathaniel Kerner becomes obsessed with his beautiful and enigmatic patient, Victoria Adelina Harleston. But is she truly delusional or is she hiding secrets that should never be uncovered? The Crow Garden is out October 5th.
Both The Hidden People and The Crow Garden are extremely atmospheric books, from the contrasting light and dark of Halfoak to the foggy, oppressive garden at Crakethorne that has echoes of Wuthering Heights (no bad thing). Is this something you focus on while you’re writing or is it aside effect of the story?
I think it’s both a side-effect and completely integral. For me, it’s not something I consciously focus on, but part of the process of imagining the story – certain events and set-ups beg for a particular atmosphere and everything springs from that imagining. I tend to visualise and then write down what I see. Having said that, I love books with a strong sense of place, such as Dark Matter by Michelle Paver or Song of Kali by Dan Simmons. Whether they’re set somewhere real or just feel like it, I really appreciate atmospheric stories, and of course atmosphere can be vital to dark fiction, so maybe it goes with the territory.
The Victorian setting of The Crow Garden draws comparisons to some classic works of literature – Wuthering Heights, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Frankenstein. What is it about that period that fascinates you and why?
Right back when I studied History and Literature, I was fascinated by the history of ideas and the way ideas are shaped by, and in turn shape, their social contexts. The Victorian period was rife with wild ideas and an almost boundless spirit of invention. This was a time when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could create the rational detective Sherlock Holmes and yet believe that new scientific discoveries could prove the existence of fairies – and why not? It wasn’t so long since microscopy had proved that a myriad tiny creatures – dubbed ‘animalcules’ – existed in a single drop of water. New discoveries were rendering the world at once more understandable and yet infinitely more strange. I love that sense of possibility and invention and progress, and the existence of ideas that seem archaic or even alien to us now and yet were perfectly logical in their time. Then, of course, there’s the wonderful tradition of the gothic in nineteenth-century literature, and the absolute joy in the use of language.
Doctor Chettle has a rather strange habit of measuring his patients’ skulls. Was this a common belief in the nineteenth century and can you tell us a little more about it?
Doctor Chettle is a phrenologist who believes that the key to a person’s character can be found by measuring various aspects of their skull. Phrenologists thought that different propensities – such as the intellect, love of family, fearfulness and so on – were based in different areas of the brain and so any enlarged or smaller areas of the skull were suggestive of over- or under-developed characteristics. Doctor Chettle is a throwback in that regard, clinging to a practice that was largely discredited, in contrast to Doctor Kerner and his new ideas about engaging with madness through discussion. Phrenology was influential in the development of psychiatry and represents Chettle’s obsession with finding a physical cause of madness, though some might say his obsession itself becomes rather unhealthy . . .
Mesmerism, hypnotism, the power of the mind to suggest things that may not be real: all feature prominently in The Crow Garden, to devastating effect. Where does your fascination with this subject area come from? Would you ever let yourself be hypnotised?
I’ve always been interested in imperfect point-of-view characters, where the reader at times knows more than they do by reading between the lines. It seems to me reflective of life that people don’t have godlike views over their worlds; everything is filtered by their perceptions, which are faulty at times. Hypnotism represents a further complication of that. As for whether I’d be hypnotised – I’m afraid I rather share Mrs Harleston’s aversion to having my mind messed with. The Crow Garden is equally about issues of control, though – who gets to take charge of whose body, mind and even their soul, and whether it’s a good idea to do so. As a woman committed to the asylum by her husband, Mrs Harleston has little choice in the matter, although it opens doors that had better been left closed.
I always imagine that the author of such fabulously tense and twisted books must write in a cobweb-strewn attic or dank cellar, but somehow I’d guess that’s not the case? Where do you tend to get most of your writing done?
Now I’m wondering if I should relocate! I actually have a study all done out in sage green and oak leaves, which is very serene, although I’m sure there are a few cobwebs around there somewhere. It has plenty of bookshelves, an inspiration wall, a growing collection of fountain pens and ink pots and, usually, a couple of snoozing Dalmatians. There is a very old lock on the door, which is suspiciously upside-down – to fool evil spirits maybe? I also have a desk I put together myself – a twisted writer who turns out to be rather handy with a hammer. Who knew . . .
Hallowe’en’s a-coming – a time of ghouls, ghosties, gobstoppers and gasps. Do you tend to celebrate Hallowe’en at home? How?
Well, it’s a popular time for writing events so I’m sometimes away, but when I’m at home we do like to throw a good Hallowe’en party. Funnily enough, the highlight is our rather dank and long cellar – my partner Fergus puts together a terrifying Cellar Challenge with some ghoulish surprises and blood-curdling sound effects to go along with the spiders. I refuse to go down there for the rest of the year! We also sometimes go along to Brodsworth Hall for an evening with their Victorian undertaker and his collection of ghost stories. You can probably tell I’m very fond of Hallowe’en.