Devilishly good return for master of horror
Not many novelists arrive with as much of a bang as Andrew Michael Hurley, whose intensely spooky first book The Loney started life in a 300-copy edition from the small press Tartarus and went on to win the 2015 Costa First Novel award. Its story of supernatural goings-on in a Catholic retreat on the Lancashire coast was suffused with a particular strain of British weird horror and hung about with witchy paraphernalia, strange rituals and dark miracles, but its haunting qualities derived as much from Hurley's wintry descriptions of landscape and his understanding of punitive religiosity as from more overt shocks.
Devil's Day, Hurley's second novel, is similarly stealthy. The setting is a remote clutch of farms in deepest Lancashire called the Endlands, acquired by its residents from the landowners in the early 20th-century and held in common by a bundle of local families ever since. Sunk in a gloomy wooded valley at the end of a one-way track, the Endlands is overgrown both physically and spiritually, and its inhabitants follow their own peculiar rituals: songs, dances and annual observances that are - naturally - as charming, quaint and harmless as old country practices in this kind of story always are.
In the Endlands, we soon learn, the main tradition is that when the winter sweeps down through the valleys, the Owd Feller hops out of the woods and comes down to the village. "It was impossible to know who the Devil would visit next," a passage of local folklore suggests. "It was as if, they said, he was the air itself. The stuff they breathed."
Like Hurley's first novel, this book has a double nature: part ice-cube-down-neck chiller, part lyrical nature-writer's meditation about heredity and connection to the land. It's an unsettling mixture.
The story is narrated by John Pentecost, a 30-something teacher who returns to the Endlands with his pregnant wife Kat for the funeral of his grandfather, a local patriarch whom everyone called the Gaffer. Kat sees the funeral as the sort of family engagement to be suffered before the couple return home, but John is devoted to the Endlands in a deeper way.
While his wife lies asleep, he broods creepily about their unborn son: "The child belonged to the Endlands. Kat and I had a duty to come back and live here."
John knows more than he's letting on about the Devil's presence in the Endlands, too, and it's this unusual set-up - a protagonist who strategically drip-feeds information to the reader, rather than one to whom the events in the plot are new - that gives the novel much of its character.
It also accounts for the occasional narrative misfire: after a few of John's artless oh-by-the-way revelations about the place's horrors (childhood murders, demonic Victorian seances), the book takes on an ever-so-slight air of contrivance that wasn't there in Hurley's indirect, explanation-averse debut.
Even so, he's an extraordinarily atmospheric writer. His haunted Lancashire is unlike any other location in English fiction. Full disclosure, too: there were some set pieces of such bone-freezing horror that I had to go around putting lights on after reading them. Hardier souls may smirk.
But I'd bet that the snow-fogged woodlands, creepy old houses and darkly hinting rustics of the Endlands will lurk in most minds for longer than is comfortable.
Andrew Michael Hurley
Sunday Indo Living