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Andrew Michael Hurley interview: ‘Folk horror debunks the idea that England is a green and pleasant land’

Andrew Michael Hurley’s superb Starve Acre ends his folk horror trilogy of novels exploring the eeriness of the rural landscapes that Hurley has immersed his fiction in since his debut The Loney was published in 2014. In this interview, I speak to Hurley about Starve Acre, genre boundaries, 70s British folk horror, and moving from the rural to the urban in his next novel.

Peter Meinertzhagen: How would you describe Starve Acre to somebody who was entirely unfamiliar with your work?

Andrew Michael Hurley: It certainly has at least one foot in the folk horror genre, and it involves the supernatural to some extent, but I think the heart of the story is about families, about the effects of grief and bereavement, and the various ways in which people try and deal with that.

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PM: What were you trying to say about grief?

AMH: It’s an exploration of the difficulty of grief. The word that kept coming to me when I was writing it was “psychosis”, that it does generate this sense of madness. Being bereaved is very bewildering, it’s very confusing, it’s seemingly endless, and whatever we try and do to get out of it is seemingly futile. The two characters in the novel are being driven apart by the lack of language that they have with which to explain or describe this experience that they’re having. And so without that means of communication, they start to look to the supernatural or the occult as a means of giving them answers.

PM: Am I right in thinking that your stories typically, if not always, start with the setting, and how did Starve Acre‘s setting come to you?

AMH: It really starts with the name. The name came out of research that I was doing for my second book Devil’s Day, and I became really interested in why particular places are given particular names. Mapping was one of the key bits of research that I did for Devil’s Day and it becomes very important to the characters in that novel. During the course of doing that research – the history of place names, really, was what I was looking at – I came across this name Starve Acre, which is a name given to a number of different fields in England. The name just kind of leapt out of the page and so it stayed with me from there. So the novel Starve Acre is really supposed to be a filling in of that backstory, an imagining of what the story behind that name might have been. Why it acquired this name which is so resonant with the images of barrenness and sterility. From there I began to imagine a space that was empty and didn’t fulfil what a field is supposed to do. Nothing grew there, and natural processes are kind of skewed or reversed in the novel as well – various things come back to life from the dead or things that should be alive die, like Ewan for example. So I just wanted it to be a space where natural, linear processes no longer function.

PM: How much of the folklore that we see in Starve Acre is based on fact, based on your research?

AMH: Probably quite a small amount, actually. One of the things that I enjoy about writing and have done in all three books is to invent folklore, largely. Some of it, I suppose, is based on real things. The oak tree that used to grow in the field in Starve Acre is based on other well-known or celebrated trees, like the Selborne Yew and the Tolpuddle Sycamore. They are these trees that have lived for hundreds of years and have become very important to those communities where they grow. I think that the idea of the tree being used for executions probably came from somewhere like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or those old woodcuts from a few hundred years ago.

PM: Even if the folklore is invented, how often is the setting based on your direct experiences?

AMH: Always. I think that with all three novels, the descriptions of a landscape come from being immersed in that landscape, spending a lot of time there, coming to know it as well as you can, and I suppose finding a language with which to describe it as well. I always want the landscape to have the complexity of another character. You have to spend time with it in order to get to know it that well.

PM: Most of us, when we tend to think of the countryside, conjure up settings of serenity and picturesque landscapes, quite similar to Richard and Juliette in the novel who move to the country and think that would be a delightful environment in which to raise their son. But how do you view the countryside? Because you often depict the countryside, as you say, as a character, but it’s often a hostile character, not the countryside we tend to idealise in our imaginations.

AMH: Yes, I would certainly agree with that. And I think that’s probably why all three novels have been put into that folk horror category because I think one of the key components of anything that’s folk horror is to debunk the idea that England is a green and pleasant land and that if you go there you can find peace or sanctuary. And you’re absolutely right, that’s what Juliette at least seems to think, that if they go to this place it will be the perfect place to raise their children and start a family and they’ll have this idyllic lifestyle, but I don’t think that’s what it’s like, certainly the North of England anyway. These are hard places to live. They’re tough because of the weather and the landscape, but also the other people who live there. In Starve Acre Juliette becomes very conscious of the hostility of the villagers as well as the place itself.

I think that’s what folk horror does – it takes our ideas about these rural idylls and the stereotypes we might have about the countryside and reverses them. But for me, I don’t know whether I unnecessarily see the landscape or the countryside around where I live as being necessarily hostile, but I certainly see it as “other”, there is an “otherness” to it. And I wonder whether that comes from being surrounded by living things whose experience of being and experience of existence is kind of totally removed from ours. You’re surrounded by this kind of otherness that feels very separate from you as a human being – it’s a world that we don’t quite understand and we can’t quite quantify.

PM: Do you think the landscape in the North of England has a unique quality that other places in the UK don’t have?

AMH: Yes, I think it does. There’s a different atmosphere to places like East Anglia, the country of M.R. James, for example, with the flatness of the fens or the big skies. We don’t really get that here. It’s more that kind of brooding dark moorland and these old industrial towns and small villages nestled against and into the valleys. I think that there is an atmosphere here. I don’t live that far away from places like Pendle where we have the legacy of the Pendle witches, and I think if you go to those places they seem very unchanged. You feel like folklore still has a relevance and a resonance, it doesn’t quite go away. It’s a really hard question to answer, I’m never quite sure how to explain it because it’s such a subjective feeling. But it feels like there is something contained there, there is something that lingers, but quite what that is or how it stays, I’m not sure. And I guess that’s one of the things I’m trying to explore in my novels.

PM: You’ve mentioned folk horror quite a few times already in this interview. Do you consider yourself a folk horror writer?

AMH: I’m quite resistant to genre really, I don’t start from there at all. But I think if I was going to align my work with any particular genre it would be folk horror, I think, because the interests and concerns of folk horror are the same as mine. What is it about the landscape that makes it eerie? What I like about folk horror is that it describes a totality of place in that you get a sense of a place being layered with history, and memory and folklore, and politics and religion. I think there is definitely a connection between folk horror and what’s been called nature writing as well. They have a similar kind of intention behind them, to capture the essence of a place and to describe those layers of it as well.

PM: In Starve Acre especially I see the influence of a lot of 70s British horror films. Is that fair and would you consider yourself an admirer of these films?

AMH: It’s absolutely fair and yes, I’m a great admirer of those films. Films like The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General, the so-called unholy trinity of folk horror films. I’ve enjoyed them as a fan and found them inspiring as a writer for a long time. But for Starve Acre I did go back to some of those 70s TV programmes as well that were on the BBC and ITV, so Play for Today, Dead of NightRobin Redbreast, Penda’s Fen. I like the spareness of them, they’re very stripped back, the storytelling is very stark, and the places that have been allowed to come forth are very eerie and strange. I think to some extent they found their way into Starve Acre as well.

PM: Are there any other works that come to mind as influences on Starve Acre?

AMH: People like M.R. James certainly remain a big influence on the way that I write and I think that there are particular stories of his that stand out. Maybe with Starve Acre something like “A View from a Hill”, an often anthologised M.R. James story. I love the way that it strips away the idealism of the rural and shows something sort of cruel and brutal. There have been few other recent novels as well. People like Jenn Ashworth who wrote Fell, which is set up in the Morecambe Bay area of Lancashire. Fiona Mozley’s Elmet as well, which I would classify as a folk horror novel. I think there is an interest at the moment about looking at specific British places, and taking them apart, and then kind of examining and exploring them in this layered way.

PM: You mentioned earlier that you admired the stark storytelling in 70s British TV. Your writing comes across that way to me, concise and direct, and horror isn’t exactly always known for its brevity. How much of that comes naturally to you and how much is working with a good editor?

AMH: I think I spend a lot more time editing than writing, but I don’t think that’s unusual amongst writers. My first entry into publishing was through short story writing and I think I’ve taken a lot of the skills that I learned there into novel writing. But I think it comes from the kind of films and novels that I like to read, which are ones that are quite spare and not everything is explained and most of the explanation is down to you as the reader. I like gaps and silences in stories, so maybe that’s influenced the way that I write. I’m pretty ruthless with my own work, I edit things and edit things, and try and take out as much as I possibly can. And hopefully it does have that effect. I want the reader to be engaged in the story and to build some of that story for themselves.

PM: You’ve said before that you consider your first three books as forming a loose trilogy. Do you still consider that to be the case?

AMH: Yes I do, and that was sort of my intention, really, when I first started writing about Lancashire, or about the north of England, I wanted to try and write three books about places that hadn’t really been written about before. So it does feel like Starve Acre is the end of that process. I feel like I have said all that I want to say about rural landscapes, at least. It’s something that I will go back to maybe at a later stage, but I feel like I want to explore somewhere different for the next novel.

PM: What does this mean for your next novel?

AMH: I’m becoming more interested in writing about urban spaces, so kind of the opposite of what I’ve been doing so far, to populate the novels a little bit more and to write about claustrophobia in a different way. Quite where that’ll take me yet, I’m not entirely sure. I’m also conscious of not wanting to be pigeonholed or typecast as a particular kind of writer. I don’t want to be seen as just writing folk horror so I want to branch out and try different things.

PM: One area that seems to cross over a lot with nature writing and folk horror is psychogeography, which I thought of when you said you wanted to write about urban spaces more. Is that an area you are interested in?

AMH: Yeah, certainly. I’m interested in the way that people navigate urban space and how it’s used and how people live there. Situationism was something that caught my attention a while ago and that might find its way into my writing in the future. What urban space means, how we use it, how people interpret it, how people feel like they have a sense of ownership or agency over it, or whether they feel alienated by it. Those are the kinds of questions that I’ll probably be asking in the next book.

PM: You’ve said that you don’t wish to be typecast as a particular type of writer, and I guess you’re specifically talking about folk horror. What about just being a horror writer? You may not go into it planning to write a horror novel, but do you think your next book will also have horror elements? Or will you try to distance yourself a little bit from that?

AMH: Until I start writing it, I don’t know. I would let the characters and the place dictate what the story becomes, but I’m certainly not resistant to things like the gothic or folk horror or just general horror. It’s largely my interest and motivation to write about a completely different place.

PM: The examples of novels you brought up earlier one wouldn’t normally categorise as being horror novels. One thing I mention in my review of Starve Acre is that I find it fascinating that you started off as being marketed as a horror writer, but you’ve gone very much beyond that. To what extent do you think that horror is creeping into literary fiction? Is this a new thing, or has it always been this way?

AMH: I do wonder whether some of those genre barriers are breaking down, slowly, and whether or not publishers or readers are necessarily as conscious of or bound by those definitions. I mean, the George Saunders novel that won the Booker Prize [Lincoln in the Bardo] not long ago is effectively a ghost story, but it’s also literary fiction. And something like Ishiguro’s book, The Buried Giant, that has elements of fantasy in it. One thing I’ve always liked about my own books is that no one quite knows where to put them in a bookshop. When I first started writing, I felt that that was maybe a problem, but actually, I think the reverse is true, that maybe it’s made the book accessible or of interest to people who wouldn’t necessarily read horror or the gothic or folk horror or whatever. I think those ideas of categorisation are maybe starting to become less meaningful.

PM: Because your writing doesn’t always categorise neatly, it must get exposed to a wide variety of audiences, some of whom would consider themselves to be horror readers while others wouldn’t. Do you notice a difference in the way people respond to your work depending on their reading background?

AMH: Yeah, I suppose I do, and it’s interesting what different people get out of the novels. Sometimes with horror fans, when people come at the novels from a purely horror angle they can be slightly disappointed that it’s not what they were expecting. And I think sometimes people who come at them as literary novels are, shocked is maybe not the right word, but they don’t expect the horror elements. But I think one of the greatest compliments that people can pay me is when they say, “I don’t usually read horror, but I really enjoyed your novel”. I quite like that it’s challenging people to read different things and they’re getting something out of it that they didn’t expect.

PM: How much time do you spend out in the landscapes you write about?

AMH: As often as I can. My writing day, when I do sit down and do some writing, is built around being able to go out into the countryside and those landscapes. With the books that I’ve written so far, it has been very much part of the writing process, I don’t necessarily feel like it’s a treat for doing a day’s work or a reward for sitting at a desk. Even when I’m not physically typing at the keyboard, I’m still writing and creating things, creating parts of the novel in my head. I just feel like if you’re going to write about a place, you have to spend a lot of time there.

PM: And will you do the same for your urban work?

AMH: Absolutely. Once I decide on exactly where it’s going to be set I’ll treat that space exactly in the way that I treated the rural spaces of my novels.

Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley is published by John Murray. Buy the book.

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