More about that in a moment. But as well as that, this week I’ll be reviewing and discussing THE LONEY from Andrew Michael Hurley – not just because it’s a chilling and enthralling tale of the supernatural macabre, but because this too, very appropriately for today, is mostly set in the wild bleakness of Northwest England.
If the Hurley review is all you’re here for, no worries. You’ll find it as usual at the lower end of today’s blog. Scoot on down there right now. But if you’re interested in this latest volume from the TERROR TALES series, stick around here for a bit and check out …
Terror Tales of Northwest England
I won’t waste any more time than I need to here. With luck you’ll already realise that each book in this series focusses on a different corner of the UK, offering ‘true terror’ anecdotes (from me) and original horror stories from some of the best authors in the dark fiction business.
Here is the back-cover blurb, a full table of contents, and some whistle-wetting extracts:
England’s majestic Northwest, land of rain-washed skies, dark forests and brooding, windswept hills. Famous too for its industrial blight and brutal persecutions; a realm where skulls scream and witches wail, gallows creak and grave-robbers prowl the long, black nights …
The hideous scarecrows of Lune
The heathen rite at Knowsley
The revenge killings in Preston
The elegant ghost of Combermere
The berserk boggart of Moston
The malformed brute on Mann
The walking dead at Haigh Hall
And many more chilling tales by Ramsey Campbell, Stephen Gallagher, Sam Stone, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Cate Gardner, and other award-winning masters and mistresses of the macabre.
Table of Contents
Normal Bones by Jason Gould
The Lost Lads of Rivington
The Mute Swan by Cate Gardner
The Resurrection Men
Factory Rook by Simon Kurt Unsworth
Night Falls Over Pendle
Tights and Straw and Wire Mesh by John Travis
The Lancashire Boggarts
A Weekend Break by Edward Pearce
Lord Combermere’s Ghost
Writer’s Cramp by David A Riley
Wet Jenny by Christopher Harman
Land of Monsters
The Drain by Stephen Gallagher
Only Sleeping by Peter Bell
Of Gods and Ghosts
Peeling the Layers by Sam Stone
The Borgias of the Slums
Root Cause by Ramsey Campbell
The Horror at the Gatehouse
Formby Point by Anna Taborska
Hill of Mysteries
Below by Simon Bestwick
The Vengeance of Bannister Doll
Old Huey by Solomon Strange
A Vision of His Own Destruction
The Upper Tier by Paul Finch
That’s a big word, isn’t it … ‘ethos’? Is it too grand a claim to make of a horror anthology series, that it has its own ethos?
Well, I hope not, but you must judge.
In the case of this series, the ethos has always been to evoke the atmosphere and mystery of different corners of Great Britain, examining them culturally, historically, geographically and in terms of their folklore and mythology, and indeed, jacketing them with similarly representative images.
So, for example, with TERROR TALES OF NORTHWEST ENGLAND, the idea was not simply to tell scary stories that happen to be set in the Northwest. They must be scary stories about the Northwest, either that or deeply immersed in that region. The same applie to EAST ANGLIA, CORNWALL, the COTSWOLDS, the LAKE DISTRICT, WALES, LONDON and all the other areas we’ve so far visited (and the many areas we have yet to visit).
And as I say, part of this is the inclusion of snippets of non-fiction – local legends and terrifying tales believed to be true (or at least believed to possess a kernel of truth).
Will this series restrict itself solely to the British Isles?
TERROR TALES OF THE OCEAN … but we don’t want to run before the horse to market. I’d like nothing better than to list all the regions of the world that I’d love to visit in TERROR TALES, but let’s focus on the here and now.
So, I reiterate that the latest volume in the series, TERROR TALES OF NORTHWEST ENGLAND is now available for pre-order. As well as all the usual online outlets, it can also be acquired direct from TELOS BOOKS.
And now, just to whet your appetites a little further. Here are several snippets:
A part of my rational brain tried to tell me that it must be a man – the farmer playing a trick, standing up there all day dressed as a scarecrow waiting for somebody to frighten – but God help me I knew that it wasn’t. With nowhere to hide I ran down the track …
Tights and Straw and Wire Mesh
A crooked figure moved with a see-saw motion over the road from the church; twisting with repulsive gait up the garden steps; a wan grinning face tilting up towards the window; an awkward yet deliberate plodding down the long dark corridor, its abominable approach slow but inexorable …
Robert turned his eyes to the door …
I got one other brief impression, of the beast that was bearing down on him from the deeper shadows and it was everything we’d feared it might be; the Hydra, the Gorgon, the Big Bad Wolf, a tunnelful of viciousness thundering toward Spike with the momentum of a train, eyes like baleful headlamps and teeth like knives …
All Hallows Eve
On a not unrelated note, I’m very happy to announce that I’ll be participating in a special HORROR FOR HALLOWEEN panel at Waterstones, Kendal (in the southern Lake District) on Halloween Night this year, where I’ll be reading something spooky of mine and taking questions and answers. It won’t just be about me, of course. I’ll be in company with two other august names from the realm of spooky fiction, Simon Kurt Unsworth and Ray Cluley. For full info on this event, follow the link.
As far as I’m aware, most of my titles will be available for purchase on the night. Certainly all the Heck and Lucy Clayburn novels, along with various titles from the TERROR TALES series, TERROR TALES OF NORTHWEST ENGLAND especially, but also the paperback version of SEASON OF MIST, a recent novella of mine, which tells an autumnal tale of murder and the supernatural in a Northwest coal town during the 1970s. Childhood horrors abound in a story of Halloween, Bonfire Night and ritual slaying.
Hoping to see a few of you there.
THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …
An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.
by Andrew Michael Hurley (2016)
by Andrew Michael Hurley (2016)
We open in the present day, when a misanthropic Londoner known simply as Smith becomes concerned about the discovery of a child’s bones on a remote beach in Lancashire. Smith, we suspect, knows more about this than he should – as does his older brother, a much more contented and grounded character called Andrew.
Andrew is a reasonably successful author, and happily married. He even works as a lay pastor in the Catholic Church, and in so many ways has a better life than his younger sibling, who is an unlikable loner. However, it is Smith, not Andrew, whose narration now takes us back 40 years to the actual start of our story.
It’s the mid-1970s, and each year at Eastertime, Smith and Andrew, young teenagers at this point, (Andrew called by his nickname, ‘Hanny’), are part of a small group of devout Roman Catholics who uproot from their London parish of St Jude’s, and under the humourless leadership of the stern Father Wilfred, head north to the bleak Fylde Coast, specifically a stretch of it known locally as ‘the Loney’, where they lodge in a one-time taxidermist’s home-turned-hostel called ‘Moorings’ (which each time they visit has deteriorated even more in the harsh coastal weather). It’s a form of Christian retreat, wherein they make full penance and follow prayerful rituals, but every year the purpose of the trip is the same. Young Hanny, a far cry from the well-rounded adult he will become, is mute and has severe learning difficulties. The highlight of each trip is therefore a visit to the nearby shrine, or holy well, where it is hoped that God will cure the afflicted lad.
In 1976, the group make what will become their final trip to the Loney. It almost doesn’t happen, because Father Wilfred – to everyone’s horror – has died in circumstances that might conceivably have been suicide, and his replacement, the happy-go-lucky Irishman, Father Bernard, has a less muscular approach to religion. However, Esther Smith, or ‘Mummer’, Smith and Hanny’s devout alpha-female mother, manages to persuade the new guy that everyone wants to keep going to the Loney, and so the small group heads north again.
This time, though, things will be different.
From the very beginning, we get the feeling that, somehow or other, time is running out for this small band of pilgrims. Under the unofficial leadership of Mummer (that name alone, not to mention ‘Farther’, which is how Smith’s dad is referred to, suggests they have isolated themselves for too long from modern society), they are determined to stick to the esoterica of older and more robust religious practise, which even Father Bernard tacitly disapproves of. But it isn’t just that. Other things have now changed at the Loney.
An atmosphere of … dare I call it ‘evil’? lurks on the encircling marshes, summoned by a mysterious tolling bell. A locked room is discovered in the house, where it looks as if a child was once held prisoner. They also find jars filled with urine, nail-clippings and other odious bric-a-brac, which quite clearly have been used in protection spells. They are continually menaced by a group of rough-hewn local men, who are never to be seen without their vicious dog.
Mystery piles upon mystery. Smith and Hanny chance the dangerous mudflats – this is clearly Morecambe Bay by another name – crossing to a grim islet called Coldbarrow, on which an austere house, Thessaly, has stood empty for years. Now, however, the house is occupied by a curious nouveau riche couple, who seem to be completely out of place here, and, odder still, who are the guardians of a heavily pregnant girl of about 13. Hanny takes a liking to the girl, who is sweet to him – probably the only person who ever has been – but it’s soon made clear to the boys that they are not welcome.
Back at Moorings, things are going from bad to worse. The nervous caretaker advises the group that there are people in the area who don’t want them here. Rowdiness is then heard in the nearby woods at night, and when a search is made, the men of the group discover evidence of a dark ceremony and a hideous hanging scarecrow that has evidently been used in a mockery of Christ’s crucifixion.
And yet despite these ever-more tangible threats, the group are unable to draw strength from within. Esther Smith has faith but no charity and is now in constant if understated conflict with Father Bernard, who she feels is weak and is thus determined to get rid of once they return to St Jude’s. The others, still devastated by the death of Father Wilfred, and unwilling to confront the possibility that some inner conflict caused him to lose his belief, go meekly along with her, which only adds to the glum atmosphere. Even the old religious fixtures on the coastline feel spiritually abandoned: the local church is filled with terrifying images of the Seven Sins and medieval hellfire but offers little in the way of comfort. The church itself is found inexplicably chained up on Easter Sunday. Could God really have abandoned this place?
And yet still the two youngsters, Smith and Hanny, continue to explore their gloomy playground, oblivious to the sinister undercurrents, innocent, naïve, happy(ish) with their lives, and completely unaware of the dark forces that are rising in this drear place …
All kinds of claims have been made about The Loney by a whole range of reviewers. That it’s yet another chapter in the fast-evolving world of British folk-horror. That, even though he takes a distinctly modern slant in this his first novel, Andrew Michael Hurley is reviving the tradition of the British weird in a mainstream format and is clearly the heir-apparent in terms of style and substance to MR James. And above all, that it’s an engrossing, thoroughly enjoyable and at times very frightening read.
That latter point I completely concur with. I hurtled through this book, finding it deeply suspenseful and intriguing, and if, while perhaps not thinking it so scary that it rendered sleep impossible, certainly being disturbed and unnerved by its grotesque undertones, and by two scenes in particular: that moment in the midnight forest when the sacrilegious scarecrow is found, and the unexpected arrival at Moorings of a bunch of so-called Pace Eggers, an old Easter tradition which here is loaded with menace as the mysterious masked performers are unwisely invited inside.
But oddly, especially after making grand claims like that, it’s the bit about The Loney advancing the cause of folk-horror that I would quibble with.
First of all, even though the book carries a generous plaudit from Stephen King, I’m not sure that hardcore horror addicts would consider it to be any kind of horror, or even a supernatural thriller. It’s a deeply introspective tale, worryingly so at times, unreliably narrated and full of mystery. It also skates over the surface of some extreme darkness. But it’s structured more like a literary novel than a work of genre, with an emphasis on place and character rather than plot, and though it’s undoubtedly a quick, smooth read, it concerns itself much with the intricacies of faith and devotion, and certainly doesn’t race towards an explosive or chilling climax (not that there aren’t subtle terrors to be found right at the end of the book, if you look closely enough).
As for the folklore bit, well … I’m half and half on that. Okay, The Loney is set on a wild, windswept corner of the Lancashire coast, with lots of old relics dotted around, strong religious customs still in practice, and a steadily increasing suspicion that some kind of power lies latent in the very ground, and though you may say that this is all it takes to tick the folk-horror box, personally, I think this whole pigeon-holing of genre novels is a bit daft given that so many of them overlap boundaries on all sides. However, if pressed on the subject, I’d argue that The Loney is actually less of a folk-horror and more an occult mystery.
It’s fairly evident that when the church group arrives at Moorings, they antagonise certain folk because they are so religious, and this being the ‘New Age’ 1970s rather than the atheistic 21st century, this dislike probably stems from some local people having an alternative belief system – pagans or Wiccans you might think, except that they exude a genuine, overt threat, so perhaps more likely it’s a coven of Satanists. The totem in the woods is near enough proof of this, though Andrew Michael Hurley is a restrained and sensitive writer, and even through the observant character of Father Bernard, he resists making any obvious statement to this effect, though he works some subliminal suggestions into the narrative: for example, after Hanny is cured by this mysterious alternative group (even though his visit to the Christian shrine failed), the priest advises that Smith should not be fooled by the work of ‘tricksters’ whose power will invariably fade, and indeed, towards the end of the book, we get a slight hint – very slight in fact, almost subliminal – that Hanny’s new happy life may lack longevity.
It may not be an out-and-out horror novel, but The Loney has certainly got that neo-Gothic vibe, and there are some stomach-curdling moments (a baby lamb torn apart by a savage dog, the discovery of a sheep’s skull with the optic nerves still dangling out, etc). Just don’t expect constant blood and thunder, and likewise don’t look for anything as remotely on-the-nose as MR James (despite the witch-bottles with which the old house has been protected by former tenants – those are very effective and chilling moments).
Some, of course, would argue that such subtlety is one of Andrew Michael Hurley’s great strengths. Another is the excellence of his writing.
In The Loney, every detail of land and sea is delicately observed. You can almost feel the raw salt wind. You can hear the relentless drum of rain on the crabby slate roof. Two particular interiors are astonishingly evocative. Moorings, that strange seaside hostel, which is almost a byword for dreariness, with its dark, dank passages, its stuffed animals, its dismal closed-off rooms still scattered with toys left behind by children doomed to die from TB. And then the nearby shrine: little more than a rank cleft in the earth, the putrid, peaty waters pouring into which are supposed to be sacred, and yet are “black and silky-looking with a smell of autumn deadfall and eggs”.
And this brings me neatly onto the subtext, the culture clash – not just between the small church group and their Devil-worshipping opponents, but between the group and the rest of society.
Even though this is the 1970s, when more British folk had faith than they do now, Esther Smith rules her people with a rod of iron. Taking her lead from the grim if deceased figure of Father Wilfred, she’s way past the stage where a genuine desire to do good has simply clouded her judgement, and has now become a zealot of the worst sort, a mean-spirited bully who displays none of the love that Jesus taught but is so convinced that righteousness stems purely from belief that she tolerates no opposition, no dissent, and lays the law down on every matter.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is Andrew Michael Hurley putting Christianity under the microscope and finding it wanting. More, it’s Hurley putting all extreme versions of belief under the scope, disapproving particularly of that moment when hardline faith, whatever it might be, morphs into harmful superstition (the moment when Esther tries to make Hanny drink the water in the shrine is quite horrible), and when idealism becomes ideology, which of course leads to isolation and echo-chamber. Esther Smith personifies this, but it’s also exemplified in the contrast between Father Wilfred and his replacement, Father Bernard, the former a harsh disciplinarian (and maybe worse), who reflects almost none of the lessons taught in the New Testament, the latter, who, while not necessarily a hip or modern priest, has served in Northern Ireland, and so understands that right and wrong are separated by shades of grey.
I sincerely hope that I’ve not put off any genre fans with this assessment of The Loney.
Okay, I say again that this is not Night of the Demon, and if anything it’s a deep and absorbing study of religious over-insularity, of the problems and complexities that can result, and ironically, of how poorly it may then gird you for that ghastly moment when real evil appears in your midst. But yes, it is unnerving, disturbing, distressing – all those words apply – and it leaves you pondering it long after you’ve finished reading, which is surely proof that this is dark fiction of the highest quality.
Often at the ends of these reviews, I, very foolishly, suggest the cast I would choose should the book in question be translated to film or TV. Not so on this occasion. The young leads, Smith and Hanny, carry the bulk of the plot, and I have no inside info whatsoever about our best juvenile actors. Even so, here’s hoping that this one gets made. In the light of recent subdued but also very macabre horrors like Hereditary or Midsommar, I feel it could work very well.