Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Loney

Folk horror is an interesting term. For cinephiles, it covers the Seventies British horror films The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, and Blood on Satan's Claw. As a telephile (if that's a word) it also embraces rather a lot of Nigel Kneale's output - especially the episode 'Baby' from the classic series Beasts. Those dramas are all products of the Seventies, as was the Play for Today Robin Redbreast and the cult classic Penda's Fen. Even children's television got in on the act - check out Children of the Stones and the Doctor Who adventure 'The Daemons'.

There was something about that decade, when the late-Sixties counter-culture collided with old-school British cynicism and what had seemed a fairly stable, if very imperfect world started to seem a bit out-of-kilter. But it should be noted that folk horror, in literary fiction, has been around a while. M.R. James, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood all had different takes on local legends and traditional beliefs. One can also find folk horror in Robert Aickman's nightmarish tales, the ghost stories of Robert Westall, and the myth-driven novels of Alan Garner.

Which brings me to The Loney, a folk horror novel with a strong supernatural component. It has a Seventies setting, which can't be entirely coincidental. Here's the author, giving us a bit of background and some extracts.

The story begins with Smith, the adult narrator, learning from the news that the body of a child has been found in the remains of a house, Thessaly, which stood on a remote stretch of the Cumbrian coast. The 'wild and useless stretch of English coastline' is the Loney of the title - a bleak, ambiguous place offering the beauty of nature, but also a sense of intense isolation. Smith knew the body was there, and realises the investigation will have consequences for himself and his older brother Hanny.

Cue a leap back in time to the Seventies, when the very Catholic Smith family made repeated Easter pilgrimages from their London parish to the Loney, which has an ancient church and a sacred well. All but one of these expeditions were made under the aegis of Father Wilfred, an 'old school' priest whose died in slightly odd circumstances. Hurley evokes the control that the priest exerted over his congregation, and the approval Smith's mother feels for his methods.

The main reason for the pilgrimages was to achieve a miraculous cure for young Hanny, who was born with serious learning difficulties. It's obvious from the start that Hanny has been cured and become something of a religious celebrity as a result. But, as the narrative unfolds, it also becomes clear that the cure was down to something other than conventional piety.

Smith's account of the final trip to the Loney brings in the folk horror elements. Father Wilfred's replacement, a young Irishman, is less rigorous and more amiable, and fails to win the approval of Smith's mother. There is an encounter with some locals who fall into the conventional surly yokel format - at first. Venturing across the mudflats to Thessaly the brothers find a pregnant teenage girl in the care, or captivity, of some questionable adults. And Thessaly is, according to local legend, the former home of a powerful witch...

This a well-crafted novel that never plonks its horrors gracelessly in front of the reader. Instead, Hurley offers a believable narrative in which a boy has to face the fact that not only are adults sometimes ignorant of the world's perils, but can seriously delude themselves about the most basic truths. The central clash in the book is between an 'old religion' that offers mortals the opportunity to bargain directly (and brutally) with dark forces and the Christian belief in a loving God who supposedly works in mysterious ways, but sadly fails to work in ways that are all too apparent.

It's a fairly low-key story, as I've said, but there are some splendid scenes. Perhaps the pivotal moment is a genuine bit of Seventies telly weirdness that Kneale himself would be proud of. An amiable friend of the family discovers a mysterious jar in the old sanatorium where the pilgrims are staying. The jar is broken, and its unpleasant contents reveal it to be a witch bottle, a charm against malign forces. Its destruction heralds the arrival of the local Pace Eggers, folk dancers with a distinct Wicker Man whiff about them. Soon Hanny and his brother are back at Thessaly, and the 'miracle cure' is underway.

The Loney is a British horror novel that fits into the tradition of the ghost story while not being entirely bounded by it. I found it an absorbing read, with credible characterisation and an intelligent, satisfying plot that evokes the sense of mystery that abounds in the shadier, wilder parts of our little islands. On the basis of this debut, Andrew Michael Hurley is a considerable new talent.

Please note - this review is of the ebook.