Bluemoose Books, 222pp, £8.99
Whatever else he may be, the Durham-born, Yorkshire-based novelist Benjamin Myers isn’t stuck in a rut. Among his publications to date are a 2004 gonzo rant about a music hack, apparently written in a week and entitled The Book of Fuck; Richard, a novel about the disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers’ guitarist Richey Edwards; and 2012’s Pig Iron, a brutal vernacular story about bare-knuckle fighting and the lives of Travellers in Durham. In Beastings, his fourth novel, Myers strikes off in another direction still. This is a grim chase narrative, set in the Lake District at the turn of the 20th century, in which two characters known as the Priest and the Poacher pursue a speechless runaway and her stolen baby across the unforgiving landscape.
There are some conspicuous influences on show, most notably the blood-soaked apocalypticism and the incantatory, comma-deprived prose of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. In McCarthy’s now-celebrated anti-western, first published in 1985, the protagonist is pursued across California and Mexico by “the judge”, a vast, relentless creature of satanic inhumanity and power. Myers’s Priest, with his fingers “long and clipped and gleaming like blades”, his omnipresent vial of chemist’s cocaine and his savage hatred for his flock (“Adultery poverty incest skulduggery interbreeding. Your tawdry animalistic existences in your pigsty hovels”) seems a reasonably deliberate nod to McCarthy’s judge, an impression strengthened by his avid adoption of McCarthy’s signature style. Save for its use of the English dialect word “scran”, a passage of this sort might have been whipped straight out of the work of the American master:
The dog stood by his side until he said get by and then it went through to the other room and lay down and watched the girl watch the baby.
The farmer lifted the ham out of the pot with a fork and dropped a slice onto each plate and then he put the plates on the table. He put the slices of bread beside them.
Scran he said and when the girl didn’t move he sat down and started to eat.
But Myers’s distinctive strengths as a writer soon lift his novel clear of the snarl of influence. The book’s title is a colloquial term for colostrum, the first milk secreted by a pregnant animal, and the narrative revolves with fascinated attention around the operations of the human body and the animal nature of mankind. Dragging herself across the pitiless Cumbrian hills, the abused, illiterate protagonist comes to inhabit a half-mystical world of sensation, reading the movement, sounds and scents of the land and longing to become “a part of the stone and the water and the fell and the stars”, to “stay there for ever half-buried in the dirt”. Myers’s language maintains an almost pagan focus on the body’s interaction with landscape, described with a hallucinatory exactitude that dissolves as the character’s pain and despair increase: “Her head howled and her abdomen burned. Fluids ran then dried then others ran again.”
Set against this account of bestial desperation is a second narrative strand that follows the girl’s two pursuers as they stalk her across the landscape. It is in these uneasily comic passages that the book comes into its own, hitting a pitch of bickering British weirdness reminiscent of the novels of Magnus Mills, or Ben Wheatley’s blackly comic civil war film A Field in England:
How long before you can gather your dog and some provisions?
Don’t need no provisions.
We don’t know how long we’ll
She’ll not have got far. We’ll find her by tea time.
I admire your optimism.
I’m a glass half full fella me.
Strange. Because from here you smell like a glass entirely empty man.
The Poacher stiffened.
That’s as may be. But nature’s my larder. I’ll just need a sit down for a little while first.
Most of the character work is done in these pin-sharp dialogues, which crackle with an energy and asperity that counterbalance the novel’s increasingly doom-laden tone.
Beastings is an oddly balanced book, with a long middle section of undifferentiated hard slog rising to a whirl of demented action in the final stretch, but the wildness and unpredictability of the project are such that the reader is rarely lost in its longueurs. Given Myers’s track record, it’s anyone’s guess whether he will stick with his new genre of Lakeland Gothic, or move on to outlandish pastures new. But this bitter, alarming, occasionally visionary novel of the British wilderness is likely to linger in the mind for some time.