The Cottingley Cuckoo
Horrified’s Ally Wilkes reviews The Cottingley Cuckoo by AJ Elwood, a deeply chilling literary horror novel for fans of Rosemary’s Baby and dark fairy lore...
AJ Elwood’s new book The Cottingley Cuckoo is an unsettling Gothic novel which switches effortlessly between a modern setting and the familiar – yet unfamiliar – world of England’s pastoral post-War fairy-sightings. Elwood has created intensely memorable characters in the story-hungry Rose and the uncanny, subtly malevolent Mrs Favell, and a vein of deep cruelty and ancient horror runs through the book from beginning to nightmarish end. I found it absolutely impossible to put down.
Rose works at Sunnyside care home for the elderly: it’s an instantly recognisable place, with residents working on white knitted baby clothes, and walls painted peach: ‘a colour someone must have imagined would look homely, but doesn’t.’ The room of one of the residents, Charlotte Favell, is different. It’s severe and crisp, Gothic in its furniture and atmosphere, and Mrs Favell is timeless: sharp of eye and straight of spine, she seems to see right through to the heart of Rose’s (shattered) hopes and dreams. Rose doesn’t belong at Sunnyside, but she’s been forced to return to this town by the death of her mother and the resulting abandonment of her English Literature degree. When Mrs Favell starts sharing strange letters with Rose, the two of them – both outsiders – seem to form an uneasy alliance. But it’s more like grooming; the letters are written to Arthur Conan Doyle, about fairies seen in Cottingley Beck, and Mrs Favell is undoubtedly harbouring a chilly, disturbing secret.
This is a Gothic novel given an unlikely modern setting, although the care home is also portrayed as a disturbing, off-kilter space. Breaks are carefully timed, loitering in private areas discouraged, its staff and residents highly surveilled – all harking back to the Gothic’s preoccupation with the institutionalised lives of women. But there are flashes of natural beauty found within Sunnyside by both Rose and Mrs Favell, presented in Elwood’s unpretentious prose: outside Mrs Favell’s window ‘all the colours are intensified with that odd, warm light that presages rain, everything draped in long shadows.’ It’s this fascination with light and nature that offers the novel a natural route into the world of Mrs Favell’s letters and the fairy kingdom they describe.
Writers presenting the Conan Doyle / Cottingley Fairies affair have to grapple with how twee that 1920s conception of fairyland sounds to modern ears: all babbling brooks, lovely creatures with gauzy wings, and the harmless frolicking of the ‘little folk’. The Cottingley Cuckoo manages to imitate this style perfectly without straying into pastiche. The reader grasps instantly that there’s a sinister side to the fairies encountered by the letter-writer (Lawrence Fenton, chronicling their increasing intrusions into his life and that of his granddaughter Harriet and daughter-in-law Charlotte), and they’re certainly unsettling: black, soulless eyes, clicking noises, and strange bite marks on the child’s hand. A particularly disturbing scene has Harriet insisting on keeping her eyes shut when visiting the beck, as the fairies don’t like to be looked at, telling Lawrence that: ‘she thought the fairies ugly… they did not truly dance at all; and she would not be drawn further on the subject.’ The letter-writer even addresses how fake the famous Cottingley Fairy photographs look to modern eyes. But we can understand that the desire to believe – Conan Doyle’s desire to believe – dictated what was seen.
Rose is a sympathetic and carefully drawn protagonist. From the start of the book, she places herself in contrast to the other girls working at Sunnyside – ‘sod Mandy. She’s probably never believed in anything in her life…’ – with her stairs full of her mother’s story-books and her desire to travel and ‘see it all’ before settling down. She’s adamant that everything about her current life is temporary, and it’s her deep hunger for stories, particularly fairy stories, that drives the novel forwards. The reader unravels the true import of the letters – and the identity of Mrs Favell – along with her. It’s a brilliant ‘hook’ at the book’s heart, and I suspect many readers will find its subject matter as relatable as I did.
Mrs Favell, the book’s other main character, ruthlessly exploits Rose’s greed for fiction and escapism. She’s presented to us as a mysterious, glamorous figure – existing temporarily in Sunnyside like an intruding time traveller – and this sense of her uncanny presence is expertly dialled up as the book progresses. She’s breathtakingly cruel; it’ll take me a long time to forget the scene in which she punctures the foolish, half-held hopes of a vulnerable fellow resident, and Rose’s resulting horror – but also instinctive assent. The Cottingley Cuckoo is at times a vicious book, drawing on a deep well of cruelty, perfectly in tune with its subject of fairies as ‘beings composed of caprice and vindictiveness.’
In a well-paced and meticulously plotted second act, the fairies described by Lawrence tip over into spooky abduction horror, and Rose – now pregnant – meets Charlotte’s daughter, also expecting. The comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby are well-earned (to which I’d also add the horrendous and ancient ‘little people’ of Machen and Buchan) and Elwood draws a wholly justified continuity between pre-Victorian fairy folklore and the more familiar demonic fare of modern horror films. Rose’s pregnancy is imbued with a great sense of dislocation and powerlessness, ‘not even an ache where my feelings should be’, and the reader’s sympathy is torn between her child and partner (described aptly as the classic ‘woodcutter’ character from fairytales, living perfectly in the moment) and the knowledge that now Rose is trapped in her new life, just as she feared she would be.
I’ve always been fascinated by the parallels between post-partum psychosis and changeling lore, which often insists on harm being done to the baby in order to save the mother’s ‘true child’ from a lifetime of captivity in the fairy brughs. The Cottingley Cuckoo escalates in a tight few chapters to a truly nightmarish series of confrontations, asking the reader whether Rose’s hunger for stories has in fact become her downfall. It’s the sort of denouement which is tricky to pull off – relying on a dense succession of revelations and wrong-footing – but here it’s successfully done.
The Cottingley Cuckoo started life as a novella from Newcon Press containing Fenton’s increasingly desperate letters about the increasingly dark fairy activity around his home. However, the story is significantly upgraded in the novel form, allowing for the extraordinary malice and intrigue of Mrs Favell, and the insertion of a vulnerable modern protagonist as the reader’s avatar. Elwood’s writing is confident, crystal-clear, and deeply evocative; I found the book deeply chilling, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for literary supernatural horror with an interesting and unusual use of its period setting.
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