Much has been written of late about the genre of folk horror, or what Robert Macfarlane recently dubbed “eerie England”: those depictions in modern culture of an ongoing fear of the rural. It’s no coincidence that this resurgence has coincided with the growth of a digital world that harbours anonymous foes lurking in dark, new territories. There is perhaps some comfort to be found in those old, mythological fears evoked by strange reckonings in rural backwaters; often unexplainable, yes, but at least recognisable.
The move from an agrarian to an urbanised society and a financial recession have played their part, too. The more interconnected we become, the more detached we are from the soil that spawned us – and the more portentous our indigenous myths seem. In essence, the appeal of folk horror is its challenge to modernity. YouTube offers a plethora of post-Wicker Man cinematic delights, while the influence of the genre is evident in The League of Gentlemen on television, the films of Ben Wheatley (Kill List, A Field in England) and the continued interest in writers such as Alan Garner and Robert Aickman, as well as in a wealth of contemporary music.
Andrew Michael Hurley’s debut novel taps in to all this to great effect. First published in 2014 by the Yorkshire Dales-based Tartarus Press, which deals in elegant editions of supernatural works from writers such as Arthur Machen and Edith Wharton, The Loney belongs to the same Victorian tradition of fireside storytelling. All the tropes of the genre are here: a decaying house, hostile locals, restrained Englishness and a malevolent sense of doom that pulses through the prose to quicken the heart rate and have readers licking their thumbs. Yet this is neither homage nor pastiche but rather an updating of an age-old narrative approach.
Set in the 1970s, the novel concerns the annual pilgrimage of a stuffy collective of London-based Catholics to the damp, nowhere coast of Lancashire, somewhere “between the Wyre and the Lune”, known as the Loney, where the tide perilously rushes across dangerous sands. The group is led by the likeable Father Bernard, who has replaced the recently deceased Father Wilfred, and is dominated by the devout and overbearing matriarch Mummer, the mother of the story’s teenage narrator, Tonto, and his mute brother, Hanny.
They head to the remote house of a former taxidermist. Cut to an outhouse full of stuffed animals in various states of disrepair. The portents and tropes continue: there are jars filled with urine and toe clippings to ward off witches, a climactic evocation of voodoo and a diabolical effigy swinging in the woods:
From inside a dark cowl, a sheep’s skull rubbed with boot polish lolled against the pull of the rope by which it had been strung to the bough, its snooker ball eyes knocking against the bone.
Like so much horror and suspense, at its heart The Loney pitches the urban against the rural and conventional religious belief against something darker and more ambiguous. It is a supernatural story about faith and, in the case of both the teenage narrator and the mildly sadistic Father Wilfred, the loss of it. For the latter, faith disappears in one fleeting, catastrophic moment on a grey English beach as he stands “watching the gulls flocking for the crustaceans left behind, and the clouds slowly knotting into new shapes, and the parasites warming in the carcass of some thing”. Life, he realises, is “all just machinery”.
Such is the strength of Hurley’s prose that even though not a great deal happens, the sense of foreboding is enough to pull you in. He summons a suffocating elemental tension, in which even the pages start to feel damp with swirling sea fret and the tide that rushes in across the sands is as much a threat as the scowling, church-desecrating locals. Here, perhaps, the characterisation resembles a little too closely those pitchfork-waving archetypes of 1970s folk-horror TV productions such as Robin Redbreast and Murrain. Hurley writes well, however, about the myriad rituals of Catholicism – evoking “the smells of benediction and snuffed candles” – and its foundation of fear and guilt. As in the best of Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh, it is the challenging of Catholicism’s core tenets by external forces that forms the biggest tension here.
Does The Loney disturb? Not especially. But it’s a tale of suspense that sucks you in and pulls you under. As yarns go, it rips.
The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley is published by John Murray (360pp, £14.99)
“Beastings” by Benjamin Myers is published by Bluemoose Books
This article appears in the 23 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left