Fear makes people do funny things, in this debut novel from Andrew Michael Hurley. The Smith family, Hammy and his younger brother, Mummer and Farther, travel to feral northwest England every year in hopes that THIS time their parish pilgrimage will curry enough favor with God to make silent Hammy speak and be normal. The land is harsh and dangerous, “the locals called it the Loney – that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune…it changed with each influx and retreat, and the neap tides would reveal the skeletons of those who thought they could escape its insidious currents.” The mysterious, lurking locals are even more frightening.
The Loney is an atmospheric gothic folk horror novel, a genre that focuses on the horrific side of folklore, set in ghostly haunted landscapes that defy modern sensibility. There is usually a lot of chanty ritual with people wearing robes, fealty to local deities, and men wearing large rubber boots. Hurley’s book takes this traditional creepfest farther, though, pitting the highly ritualistic nature of the Catholic faith against the even more ancient pagan rituals. They seem very similar, in equal parts mysterious to an outsider and dangerous to take lightly. The narrator knows the Catholic customs very, very well, as Mummer is seriously strict about adhering to every piece of the rituals she knows will “cure” Hammy. The Catholic faith is the traditional protagonist in these stories, but Hurley steps it up a couple of notches and keeps you wondering if he’s vilifying it or simply pitting cassock against rubber boots. Deciding which one wins in The Loney depends entirely on who is reading the book.
During the late 60s and early 70s there was a spate of British folk horror movies, the three classics being Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man. I don’t think I’ve ever seen these, but I do remember a Hammer film in the early 70s that was British and creepy, set in the wild countryside. I remember it being very scary at that age, and I think there were zombies. This book gave me the same sense of unease as that movie.
The narrator’s story jumps around in time, from the present day to that period decades ago when something terrible happened during their pilgrimage. Unfortunately, Hurley begins the book with Hammy’s current state of affairs, so we’re left waiting for nearly all of the book to see what happens to affect him. The story is very intimate with the Smiths and their traveling companions, and we spend a lot of time being fed the bits and pieces of rending secrets and deep distrusts amongst all of them, but only frightening bits of the looming horrors outside their rambling old rental by the sea. The long, spooky buildup comes to an unsatisfying conclusion, for me at least, with not much emotional climax for a book’s worth of set up.
The Loney is well written and the author obviously has a deep knowledge of every aspect of his setting and characters, which he imparts without obvious prejudice on any part. I liked that quite a bit, but the end put a dent in my enjoyment. I recommend the book anyway and hope you enjoy it.