Ask a horror reader which book of 2019 they’re most excited about and one might reasonably answer with King’s The Institue or Tremblay’s Growing Things, to give two notable examples. In other words, new books from mainstays of the horror genre. I would answer with Andrew Michael Hurley’s Starve Acre. I would say this not only for the simple reason that Hurley is one of my favourite contemporary novelists writing horror fiction but for what Hurley represents.
Cast your mind back to Hurley’s debut, The Loney. Originally, this superb piece of coastal gothic was published by the specialist indie publisher Tartarus Press in a limited run of 300 copies. It was subsequently picked up by John Murray and won the Costa First Novel Award – an award at a ceremony usually reserved for “literary fiction”. In a way that doesn’t often happen, a book originally marketed as a horror novel was being hailed as a literary masterpiece.
Hurley is, of course, not the first horror writer to write a book of such a high literary standard that it was able to straddle that literary/genre boundary. But – and I say this as someone who quite obviously loves the genre – horror, even great horror, doesn’t frequently set itself to standards as high as these. In part, I set up Sublime Horror to celebrate horror that manages to achieve this level of mastery, especially as some of these novels wouldn’t necessarily get picked up by traditional horror websites. The first review I published, of Andrés Barba’s exquisite novella Such Small Hands, is a prime example.
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This is a long-winded way of saying that writers such as Andrew Michael Hurley are special and Starve Acre does not betray the legacy he’s established with his previous two books.
Starve Acre is the story of a couple, Juliette and Richard, who, having moved to the husband’s family home of Starve Acre in the remote Yorkshire Dales, lose their first and only child Ewan at the age of five. The book weaves multiple narratives across its 241 pages.
The first is the story of Ewan and how he came to lose his life and how, since moving to Starve Acre, his behaviour became increasingly unpredictable, worrying, and sometimes frighteningly violent. Ewan believes he can hear the voice of Jack Grey, a local folktale legend, who frightens him and tells him to do the things he does.
Then we have Richard, a university lecturer who takes a leave of sabbatical following the death of his son. While away from the university, Richard picks up the work left behind by his dead father who was trying to locate the roots of the fabled Stythwaite Oak, a huge tree that once played an important part in the communal life of the area, in Starve Acre’s nearby field. While out in the field, digging up dirt in search of the tree’s roots – against the advice of a superstitious local – Richard discovers a key part of the area’s history. As for the tree, it is said that the tree – once used for hangings – cursed the land around it, a divine punishment for the human lives cruelly ended on one of its thick trunks. We also learn how Richard’s father became increasingly unhinged during the final stage of his life in Starve Acre.
Juliette copes with the death of Ewan less well. She believes that she can sense Ewan’s fading presence still in the house and becomes obsessed with trying to locate it, filling Ewan’s old bedroom with mirrors and recording equipment in order to see or hear him again. She is encouraged to seek the advice of the Beacons by family friend and local shop-owner Gordon. The Beacons are a group of mystics, like cunning folk, led by Mrs Forde who Gordon insists will help Juliette cope with her loss.
Unlike Dale Bailey’s In the Night Wood, which also tells the story of a couple who lose their child, the father turning to work while the mother becomes a psychological wreck, Starve Acre centres on Ewan’s story so we care deeply about the couple’s loss. Above anything else, Starve Acre is a story of grief, of coping and not coping, and of the cycle of life akin to the changing seasons of nature.
Like Hurley’s previous two books, and in the gothic fiction tradition, Starve Acre is rooted in its setting – this is where Hurley begins and without the setting, there is no story. What makes Starve Acre such a superlative piece of folk horror is that Hurley is as good a nature writer as he is a horror writer and manages to give the environment a sense of identity and presence that goes well beyond merely describing a picturesque scene. And the scenes are often not welcoming: the environment is almost hostile, a presence to be battled with. Richard and Juliette moved to Starve Acre to provide a country lifestyle to raise their son – the environment growing as he grew. But the environment did not care, it did not prevent Ewan’s death.
Also like the books preceding it, Starve Acre is slow, almost gentle, as the horror gradually builds – its subtlety and sophistication reminding me of some of the great 70s British horror films.
Starve Acre is a haunting tale of grief over the loss of a child, as well as how nature can both be a comfortable haven from life’s petty problems and absorb, like the roots of a tree, humankind’s cruelty – the memories of which are carved like scars on the landscape.
Be careful what you start digging up – there are more than just bones buried under the surface.
Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley is published by John Murray. Buy the book on Amazon or from your local indie bookshop.