I know it was the big thing back in 2015/6 but I never read The Loney. I’d never read anything by Andrew Michael Hurley until I read Starve Acre. Although, I did almost buy a copy of his bestseller but I always have so many other things to get through. It definitely sounds like my kind of book. As a fan of traditional gothic fiction, I never find contemporay gothic fiction to be anything special. Whenever a book is described as being terrifying or haunting, I’ve only ever been disappointed. I just don’t know what it is but they just lack that scare factor. Once again, his latest novel has been hailed as a spine chilling read and I was unconvinced. However, so many people on Instagram have been raving about it that I had to give it a chance. Plus, as usual, I really loved the book design. Even it it sucked, I could at least have another pretty book to add to my collection.
Starve Acre is situated in the English folk-horror tradition as it tells the atmospheric tale of two grieving parents. The era in which we find ourselves is never made explicit but there are real 70s vibes to the world. It is a time of record players and typewriters. It was also a big time for ghost stories. Yet, the evil that haunts this story is one much more ancient and terrible. The kind of tale that has been passed down through the generations to scare children. In this case, it is Jack Grey who, local folklore tells you, has been provoking people into committing crimes for years. Crimes that were, in the past, punished using the great oak that used to sit in a now barren field. The old hanging tree is one of the many mysteries hanging over the village and, specifically, over Starve Acre. The home of married couple Richard and Juliette.
The pair are mourning the recent death of their only son, Ewan. He died months earlier and neither of them is coping particularly well. Richard has become obsessed with uncovering the roots of the historic tree and spends his days digging. Juliette hasn’t come to terms with Ewan’s passing and still feels his presence in their home. The woman shuts herself away in his room and only finds comfort in the words of a group of occultists. Against Richard’s wishes, the group enters their home and attempts to make contact with the child’s spirit. Unfortunately, something goes wrong and things start to get even weirder. Have the group unwittingly let an unwelcome presence into the house?
The narrative skips between the past and the presence. We see things from Richard’s point of view and his thoughts often wander back to the time before Ewan’s death. We slowly learn that the family had something of a bad reputation in the village. This is thanks to Ewan’s increasingly violent behaviour and his actions get so bad that his own mother becomes scared of him. His behaviour reminds Richard of his father’s own mental health issues. Though, as an academic, he has a rational and scientific mind, the grieving dad finds it hard to ignore the link between the house and the darkness that infected his son. On one of his digging sessions, Richard uncovers the skeleton of a hare. It intrigues him and he brings it back to Starve Acre with him. But what exactly does the hare have to do with the old hanging tree?
In terms of a horror novel, I have to say that I’m slightly underwhelmed with this one. As a pastiche of 70s ghost stories, there can be no denying that Hurley knows what he’s talking about. It evokes that same spirit and creepiness. However, this reliance on past tropes does sort of weaken the novel for me. It feels less original and exciting. We’ve seen this setup loads of times before and I couldn’t help but wish it was stronger. It felt more like a half-hearted imitation than a fantastic new novel. The use of certain stereotypes also seems a tad unnecessary. As does the village of people who hate outsiders on sight. I understand that this was initially written in the guise of a 70s novel but, for this full version, it could have been updated slightly. Maybe it’s just me but there are things about this novel that distract from the main issue.
Although, I didn’t dislike Starve Acre. It may not have left me terrified but I was still captivated. The language and Hurley’s sense of place are amazing. It draws you in and takes you on a real journey. The use of the desolate Yorkshire setting is perfect and beautiful. The setting really does capture that feeling of being between two worlds both physically and spiritually. It is especially important in this novel as the family initially moved to Starve Acre with the promise of giving Ewan a better upbringing. The dream was to allow their child the freedom and benefit of nature. However, as we can see, nature is more than just a nurturing force. The sense of place that is created here is also a hostile one. At times, it can seem very oppressive and forceful. It contains many hidden secrets and memories that are just waiting to be uncovered. I just wish those secrets had been a bit more terrifying.
Whatever I may think about this as a horror novel. Hurley has great instincts as a writer and a fantastic way with words. This is why it’s been so difficult to rate this book. Part of me utterly loved the writing and that was enough to keep me going. However, as an example of folk-horror, I was left wanting. As that was its primary goal, I had to take it as a negative. What I will say is, I was really glad that the ending was so ambiguous and vague. It really does add to the atmosphere and any other ending would have ruined it. I just wish the preceding pages had been up to the phenomenally high standard of the last few.