Date finished: August 30th 2016
I’m not much of a horror aficionado. Outside of a bit of Stephen King, some H.P. Lovecraft and a smattering of M.R. James, I’m a bit of a dunce. But Andrew Michael Hurley’s debut novel The Loney had a bit of a buzz about it: it won the Costa First Novel Award in 2015 and was released to critical acclaim. Sometimes you have to just cave and give these things a go.
The Loney is a stretch of beach in a remote area of Lancaster which the protagonist, nicknamed Tonto, visits most years as a child. He, his family, the Father of their church and a couple of other parishioners make the Easter pilgrimage to this desolate stretch of coastline in the hopes of “curing” Tonto’s brother, Andrew, who has special needs. However, Father Wilfred dies and the somewhat less stoic Father Bernard, takes over from his parish. They make the pilgrimage again with their new Father, determined that this year is the year. But something strange is going on at The Loney this year…
If there’s something everyone can agree on about this book it’s that Hurley knows how to create an atmosphere: the fanatical faith of the pilgrims, the gloomy moors, the unsettling nods to heretical history and the foreshadowing slips of the tongue all contribute to a febrile, desolate atmosphere which pervades every page of this story and slowly begins to strangle the reader. Hurley writes with authority and perfectly pitches each sentence with a literary craftsmanship impressive in such a new author. All it needs is a payoff to deliver that crucial, final blow and this is where The Loney unfortunately disappoints. Hurley delivers the climax with admirable nuance but fails to fan the flames promised by the story’s obvious spark. It’s by no means bad, but it just falls a little short. This is a tense, macabre and bleak tale; unsettling, perhaps, but never what I would term “scary”.
That said, I’m conflicted and can’t decide whether this is a valid criticism. Horror – true horror – is often understated. Despite everyone’s fascination with Cthulhu, the eldritch beast rarely appears in Lovecraft’s stories, the author preferring to dwell on the details of the unearthly tombs of forgotten cults; Stephen King, a modern practitioner of the genre, can be as subtle as his predecessors as he’s shown time and time again (the short story The Dune in his recent collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams was deliciously cliched when it came to its implicit killing blow). It’s only mass-market modern horror, with its reliance on explicitness and jump scares, that seeks to explain itself; to let us know that the killer was insane, or the vengeful ghost was the victim of the protagonist’s murderous second cousin. Traditionally, horror relied on the power of the unknown to disturb, and The Loney maintains that trend. It just does so a little tentatively, like a newborn animal that hasn’t quite found its feet yet.
Nonetheless, Hurley has crafted an intriguing plot that pays homage to the best of Gothic literature. It’s a story that begs to be read to the accompaniment of a blustery, autumnal storm or, failing that, to the work of the most Gothic artist in your preferred genre of music. As a debut, The Loney is an engrossing and lucidly-written tale which falls a little short of expectations but still manages to impress on multiple levels, ensuring that Andrew Michael Hurley becomes a name to watch out for; here’s hoping the best is yet to come from this incipient talent.