by Andrew Michael Hurley
Hardcover, 304 pages
May 10, 2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Not quite horror but more than just a mystery or historical fiction, The Loney is certainly a Gothic something. Filled with descriptions of grey skies and bleak seascapes, the Loney is more than a setting; it becomes a character itself. A desolate stretch of the English coast, it is home to the village of Coldbarrow and a house known as the Moornings. It is this house that serves as a home away from home to a group of pilgrims from England who intend to visit the local shrine. This group, led by the new priest, Father Bernard, expect to experience a religious awakening and witness a miracle.
Hurley’s descriptions of the villagers, the town, and the houses along the countryside are tinged with a sinister sheen right from the start. There are suspicions of a priest gone mad, rumors of a suicide, and hints and whispers of witchcraft. The story actually feels much older than it is, with only cultural references placing it in the 1970s. The narrator feels the dread emanating off the place and you can’t help but shiver as he describes it:
I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn’t leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.
The narrative framing is brilliantly done – the narrator, as an adult, is sharing a memory from his childhood with his therapist. This allows just enough of a disconnect from the action for the reader to feel a sense of helplessness that comes from knowing that the story will continue to tumble toward it’s inevitable end. It also serves to add a hint of unreliability to the story, since childhood memories aren’t always complete or accurate in their understanding. Our narrator is unsettled and unsure of himself and he passes that emotional unrest onto the reader. Interestingly, the most disturbing elements of the story aren’t supernatural, but rather just brief peeks into unsettling aspects of life in Coldbarrow. Traditions that feel foreign to those from outside the village, a young girl who is unsettlingly blasé about the situation in which she finds herself, and witnessing the violence of nature are just a few things that leave the reader on edge.
Religion has weight in this story. The friendships between the pilgrims exist only because of their shared faith, which is an old faith, heavy on ritual and resistant to change. The conflict between the Catholicism of the pilgrims and the paganism of the villagers mimics the conflict between the pre- and post- Vatican 2 Catholicism practiced by the adults and that of the narrator and new priest. Faith also plays an interesting part in the way this book ends – a character’s faith is awakened for life after a miracle occurs, but I won’t say more than that to avoid spoilers.
I cannot believe this book was a debut. The writing and plot are as near to perfect as I could expect from a novel like this, the plot was perfectly designed, the pacing is spot on, and the tension builds steadily as the book reaches it’s final pages. Hurley has a new book due out in October of this year ( I suspect the lucky ducks in the UK already have it) and I’ll certainly be picking it up as well.
What to drink: Nothing says “miserably cold English coast” to me like a hearty English cream ale, like a Boddingtons. If you nurse your drinks like I do, you’ll finish both your beer and this book in an hour or two.
Backlist bump: Wuthering Heights is the obvious choice here, but I’ll suggest another as well – The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. It features a reclusive family, a house that becomes like a character in the story, and an unreliable narrator who is unsure that what he’s seeing is real. It’s modern Gothic at it’s best.
(Thank you to NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)
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