Reviewed by Jeanne
When Albert (Albie) meets his young cousin Lizzie at London’s 1851 Great Exhibition, he’s quite taken with her shy manner and blonde curls. Her country manners are even charming, though Albie’s father makes it plain that he is less than enthused with this visit from their Northern relatives, with their thick accents and familiar manners.
Several years pass. Albie has married well, and joined his father in business. Then one evening at dinner, his father announces that Lizzie has died—and at her husband’s hand. Even more shocking is the method: she was burned alive because her husband thought she was a changeling.
Absolutely horrified, Albie sets out for the village of Halfoak to find out what really happened to that beautiful young woman.
Having just finished one book with a changeling theme (The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell), I was a bit bemused to find yet another new book with that motif. The two are quite different, however. Campbell’s story is set in the present, and told from the point of view of Luke, a young man who discovers he may not be who he thought he was.
With The Hidden People, the narrator is a Victorian gentleman venturing out among the rude country folk. He finds it difficult to believe that the villagers truly subscribe to beliefs in fairies, potions, and spells and yet regards them with a great deal of condescension. He vacillates between being rapturous at the beauty of the countryside in the hot, lush summer, and feeling that he’s trapped in a hellish backwater. His investigations lead him into a tangled web, until he himself is not sure what he believes—and neither does the reader.
With a lot of twists and turns, many details of Victorian life, and vivid descriptions, the book is better suited for those who enjoy historical novels than modern horror readers. There are some definitely unsettling parts, but the book’s leisurely pace would make an impatient reader skip over to the end. Littlewood has certainly done her research and I enjoyed the nineteenth century feel of the tale. I also liked the folklore brought into the story. The author skillfully shifts perceptions, sometimes through Albie’s changing views but also allowing room for a more objective reader’s vantage: I found myself holding my breath at points, wondering if Albie was losing touch with reality or if he was finding greater truths.
There was some resolution at the end but a few doubts remain. Perhaps that’s as it should be.
Fans of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley would find much to like in The Hidden People.