Hurley’s ability to create a world that’s like ours in many ways and really not in many others is again on full display. So too a sense of place that initially seems to consist of straight natural description, but that soon becomes a lot more threatening. Of course, it may yet be that the niche he has created — in “folk-horror”, to use his term — will turn into a rut. But Starve Acre, leaner and perhaps even more unsettling than its predecessors, may well be his best novel so far.
Through this slow drip-drip of memories, Richard reveals Ewan’s growing fascination with an entity that resided in the vale, his concurrently erratic behaviour and sudden acts of terrific violence, culminating in his mutilation of a pony during a summer fair: “One eye stared at the people standing around, the other had been stabbed to glue”. These recollections are carefully drawn out, while in the present Juliette makes what seems like an extraordinary recovery, and Richard learns more about the gruesome history of the Stythewaite Oak. When the threads begin to fray, Hurley shows a wicked sense of control, masterminding a genuinely unsettling final act that runs to the very last sentence.
Hurley’s understanding of and love for 70s horror is clear. Such a love should not preclude political engagement, however, and from an author as gifted as him I would have hoped for more counter-argument and less mimicry. Most of all, I would have liked the novel to reveal some substance and identity aside from the skilful reiteration of tropes already familiar from the books and films that defined this brand of rural horror the first time around.... Horror is regularly vilified for being a conservative genre. This accusation is often without merit, as recent novels by Catriona Ward, Sarah Perry and Sarah Maria Griffin amply demonstrate. Yet it can still be the case that the very seductiveness of its tropes – the haunted houses, the bleak moorlands, the ancient burial grounds – can prevent writers from sufficiently questioning what they are for. Hurley is a graceful, confident stylist and for this reason alone he is a joy to read. But I would hope to see him being a little more adventurous – and less accommodating – on his next outing.
Andrew Michael Hurley knows his shtick and he is sticking to it. I have given very positive reviews of his two previous novels – The Loney and Devil’s Day – and I still think he is one of the most interesting and eerie writers of contemporary horror. There are certain tropes all three books have in common: a setting within the underwritten middle of England, old tales taking on new lives, religious overtones, and a fear about how those stories will infect children. If you haven’t read his work before then Starve Acre will be a great introduction. If you have, then there may be a note of disappointment. To put it as a metaphor: when you first go round the ghost-train you will leap and shriek at the sudden appearance of a skeleton, or the roar of a werewolf. If you go round it three times, you know exactly when the fairground worker is going to pull the trick. That is not to say that there is not a horrible pleasure in the novel. It is just that it is a pleasure we have felt before.
Evoking Ted Hughes’s style of writing, Hurley is adept at seamlessly intertwining the malignant savagery of nature with abstract use of imagery for horror effect. He has this uncanny ability of bringing the palpable supernatural to life with a neat, serene turn of phrase. All these hallmarks of superlative writing are in full display in this impeccable work of folk horror. Starve Acre is a haunting portrait of what happens in the liminal space between grief and insanity.
Hurley has a fine talent for evoking the menace of his northern landscapes; places where weather, rock and trees embody an active hostility to human endeavour and comfort. Pagan ritual offers a more immediate connection to supernatural forces than well-worn Christian rites here as in his two previous books, and elements of the novel offer a nod to his influences: MR James’s story A View from a Hill, and Baby, from Nigel Kneale’s 1976 ITV series Beasts(the final, vivid page of Starve Acre feels like a direct homage to that episode).
Starve Acre might well have been written in the early 1970s. Hurley’s command of period atmosphere, indeed all the atmosphere that the form requires, doesn’t so much tick the boxes as inter the corpses in them, bury them, then dig them up again, with deleterious results... This kind of book, as with ghost stories from M.R. James to Susan Hill, demands a phenomenal control of language and atmosphere to work at all, and Hurley provides it in spades. It will, at any rate, put you off jugged hare.
Writing of this quality — sensuous, exact, observant — ensures that other scenes, too, pulse with vitality. Eye-catching cameos blaze out: winter’s “fleeting oxblood sunsets”, “wide sunlight that inked the shadows of trees on to the fields”. Hurley’s gothic storylines send spectres of deathliness through his fictional world. His prose brings it vividly alive.
Third novel from the author of The Loney is set in the remote Yorkshire moors where Richard and Juliet Willoughby are grieving the loss of their five-year-old son Ewan. Richard spends his time digging the land around Starve Acre, so named because nothing will grow there, in search of the roots of a legendary oak tree which was once used as a gallows. His wife Juliette, meanwhile, is convinced Ewan's spirit is still there in some form and agrees to a visit from the Beacons, a local group of well-meaning occultists. A deeply unsettling tale, superbly told.