Alison Littlewood – The Unquiet House

alisonlittlewood-theunquiethouseMire 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?

I’ve wanted to read Alison Littlewood’s books ever since reading reviews for her debut novel A Cold Season. For some reason or another, I never picked up that one or her second novel A Path of Needles, despite having review copies for both of them. But after meeting Alison at WFC last year and reading the synopsis for The Unquiet House, I was determined to read it come publication time and here we are. What I found inside its pages must be one of the creepiest novels I’ve read in ages, together with Sarah Lotz’s The Three. I read this book with my heart in my throat for large swathes of the story and it even invaded my dreams. So what made this book so successfully creepy? 

It’s the sense of encroaching danger and dread that lingers around the house. Littlewood manages to hit each possible beat to ramp up this feeling of unease that sets in shortly after the start of the book. She crescendos each part of the story expertly and uses these moments to jump off into a different time line. The house is full of character and foreboding, without actually feeling alive or sentient. It’s clear that whatever is happening, it’s not the house itself that responsible. But if not the house, then who or what?

The story starts with Emma Dean’s arriving at Mire House, a house she inherited from a relative she didn’t even know she had and falling in love with the place. Emma is a sympathetic character and her romantic notion of starting over in this new and imposing place is one we’ve all felt at one time or another, to just get away and start over. She’s in a vulnerable state when she moves to Mire House, having just lost both her parents and her feeling of being alone in the world makes her instant connection to Charlie, a purported cousin-far-removed, far more believable. Charlie is an attractive character; he’s kind, funny, and seems to genuinely care for Emma. At the same time he seems off, though during the narrative especially in the first part of the book it’s not clear whether he’s truly got hidden motives or whether Emma is being paranoid. Especially as she starts seeing ghosts. When Emma really seems to be losing her mind, we jump back in time in the next part of the book.

Thirty years back to Frank’s story and we discover more about the history of the house and the identity of the old man whose ghost we encounter in Emma’s time line. I really loved Frank and I was properly horrified at Sam’s treatment of him. I kept wanting to reach in and tell him no no no, do not do it! His striking up a friendship with the old man living in Mire House was touching and the way it ends broke my heart, both because of the betrayal of said budding friendship and because of the chain of events it triggers. We also get the first inkling that there is tragedy connected to Mire House in more ways than one and that its origins are complex and reaching further back in time.

Thirty-four years further back and we land at the start of the Second World War with Aggie. Aggie is the daughter of the farm that overlooks the grounds where Mire House is then being built, the same farm where Frank lives thirty-four years later. In fact, Aggie sees Mire House as her escape from the farm as she’s to go in service to its mistress, Mrs Hollingsworth, as a lady’s maid. It is in this part of the book that we learn of the House’s tragic past and the curse that has been placed upon it. We unravel the intricately interwoven ties that bind all of our main characters together, be they of blood or fate. Littlewood cleverly links people together in a way that is unexpected and in some case almost accidental, which leaves the reader to consider all the implications of ‘What if?’ What if Aggie hadn’t been about to go into service, what if Arthur hadn’t been evacuated to Mire House during the war? What if Sam had never challenged Frank to knock on the door of the House? But nothing is as random as it seems and events are steered in this direction, but by whom?

In the final part of the book we return to Emma’s timeline and discover her fate. It’s in this part of the book that Littlewood pulls the rug out from under you and adds in such a twist to the narrative that I was just stunned. I hadn’t foreseen it at all and I was taken fully by surprise. It was masterfully executed and the way Littlewood ends the story, left me filled with foreboding and worry for both Charlie and Emma.

The Unquiet House is a superb ghost story, filled with dread and foreboding, but it is also a tragedy in three parts, in which we see how one event can influence the lives of all who are connected to it far into the future. I loved this first taste of what Littlewood can do in long form – I’d already encountered her writing in short form – and it’s made me want to go and read the other books as soon as I can fit them into the reading schedule. If you like a good ghost story and really creepy horror without any gore, then please do pick up The Unquiet House, because it’ll get under your skin and won’t let go.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


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