Our appetite for ‘folk horror’ appears to be insatiable

26 October 2019

9:00 AM

26 October 2019

9:00 AM

This eerie, shortish book apparently had an earlier outing this year, when it purported to be a reissue of a 1972 ‘folk horror’ novel by Jonathan Buckley. Now John Murray reveal it as the third novel by Andrew Michael Hurley, whose gothic debut, The Loney, received widespread plaudits.

Folk horror, a term popularised by the actor and writer Mark Gatiss, is one of those definitions, like ‘new weird’ or indeed, science fiction, useful to and immediately understood by those already familiar with the territory, but harder to nail down. It’s largely British, rooted in landscape, in isolated rural communities, in the subversion of religious practice and the suspicion that older, pagan forces are at work, sowing discord, suspicion, mayhem and death. Robin Hardy’s film The Wicker Man (1973) is usually considered the ne plus ultra of the genre.

Starve Acre might well have been written in the early 1970s. Hurley’s command of period atmosphere, indeed all the atmosphere that the form requires, doesn’t so much tick the boxes as inter the corpses in them, bury them, then dig them up again, with deleterious results.

This kind of book, as with ghost stories from M.R. James to Susan Hill, demands a phenomenal control of language and atmosphere to work at all, and Hurley provides it in spades. It will, at any rate, put you off jugged hare.

Richard and Juliette live in his parents’ remote farmhouse in the Dales, near a sterile patch of soil, trying to cope with the death of their young son, Ewan. Richard, a lecturer in prehistoric landscape, is obsessed (as was his father before him) with digging in the adjacent field for evidence of the enormous Stythwaite Oak once there, on which people were hanged. His wife welcomes into the house local mystics promising release from the torment she has suffered from her loss, and in the end, something worse.

This is a wonderful story of its type, which is why it’s impossible to say much more about it. But its most admirable aspects are the consistency of tone, the understatement, and the mastery of language to convey atmosphere. Of the dead child, Hurley writes: ‘It seemed to Richard sometimes that Juliette had actually brought twins into the world: Ewan and Guilt. The latter had always been the stronger of the two.’

That has all the qualities of unease, nastiness, terror, psychological trauma and implied physical revulsion one expects from folk horror. But it’s nothing to the denouement it foreshadows.

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