Thursday 21 November 2019

Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley: Unnerving novel blends a modern drama with deep, ancient dread

Fiction: Starve Acre

Andrew Michael Hurley

John Murray, hardback, 241 pages, €14.99

Rising reputation: Andrew Michael Hurley. Photo by Hal Shinnie
Rising reputation: Andrew Michael Hurley. Photo by Hal Shinnie
Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley

English novelist Andrew Michael Hurley caused a minor sensation when his 2014 debut, The Loney - originally published with a tiny print-run of 278 copies - caught fire and was rereleased by a major house, winning Costa and British Book Industry awards and earning rave reviews.

Film rights to his third novel, Starve Acre, have been sold, cementing a rising reputation - although it's hard to see how this story would transfer successfully to screen.

Starve Acre is a very fine novel, and quite a singular reading experience; but it's strange and oblique, almost drifting into a feeling of reverie at times. While that works extremely well in the reader's mind, it's tricky making such things explicit through visual images.

Anyway: the action takes place in the Yorkshire Moors, where Richard and Juliette Willoughby live in his ancestral home, Starve Acre. It's a rambling old pile, filled with not-always-happy memories for Richard, cowering on the bleakly beautiful moorland.

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He's an academic, she's a Scottish-born nurse. Increasingly anxious about city life in Leeds, they'd moved to Starve Acre when Richard's mother died - his father had gone mad, then passed away, a few years previously - hoping to fill the place with children, new life, happier memories.

The couple had a son, Ewan; and then he died, aged five. When we enter the Willoughbys' story, it's the bleak midwinter, half a year since the tragedy. They're still dealing with grief; to be precise, Richard is attempting to deal with it, Juliette has slipped into a sort of coma of apathy and suffering.

She's quit work and spends her days and nights in Ewan's room, convinced that his spirit haunts Starve Acre. Richard has taken leave of absence from the university and thrown himself into digging their land, searching for a possibly mythical oak tree which once stood there.

There's something off about Starve Acre; nothing grows in the soil, despite surrounding farmland being fertile. Local folklore suggests that the vanished oak could be to blame: it was used as a hanging tree during brutal medieval punishments, and some of the evil of both perpetrators and executioners may have seeped into the earth. Gordon, a nearby friend, implores Richard to leave the land, and oak, alone. Rationalist Richard is sceptical, though, especially as Gordon is involved with The Beacons, a spiritualist group who visit Juliet and ply her with "let in the light"-type bromides. Hurley surprises the reader as Ewan's life and character are revealed. He wasn't an innocent angel, but a profoundly damaged boy who did some horrific things: the worst when he stabbed a pony's eye out with a stick.

Ewan blamed his actions on Jack Grey, a bogeyman figure in the locality. Richard remained sceptical, but cleverly, Hurley stirs in a queasy hint of ambiguity. Old wood-prints reveal that historical crimes were also blamed on Jack Grey. The Beacons' leader is spooked by something in the house. There's certainly something uncanny about the place.

About two-thirds of the way through, Hurley makes the supernatural manifest. I won't detail exactly what form it takes, but the novel evolves from unsettling psychological drama to genuinely frightening horror story.

I'm not sure if I liked this or if it was an authorial misstep. On one hand, the earlier creepy uncertainty was tantalising and left room for the reader's own imagination to invent or rebuff phantoms. On the other, the final third of Starve Acre is one of the most unnerving things I've ever read - that's a compliment, by the way - and perfect reading for this season of Samhain.

I suppose you'd place this, broadly, within a genre of "rural Gothic" or, more geographically specific, "English Gothic". There are few of the usual staples of the form - castles, bats, carriages thundering through the fog - but we have the moors, a dilapidated old house, gloomy histories (both family and regional) and an unrelenting air of dread and weirdness.

There are hints of Nicola Barker's Darkmans and the 2011 movie Kill List in how Hurley blends modern realism with suggestions of older, darker, more elemental forces, buried beneath the surface of England and waiting for some unwitting dupe to unearth them. You'll think twice about digging in the back garden after reading it.

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