Was ever a book more suited to a grey and drizzly Bank Holiday weekend? (Which it was, when I read it.) Steeped in religious symbolism and quintessentially British bleakness, The Loney is an odd, dreary sort of horror story - the tale of two boys, our nameless narrator and his mute brother, Andrew, known as Hanny. The Loney, meanwhile, is a place - a desolate stretch of northern coast, and one of a number of deliberately evocative place names in this story, along with the village of Coldbarrow and the houses Thessaly and Moorings.
Day after day, the rain swept in off the sea in huge, vaporous curtains that licked Coldbarrow from view and then moved inland to drench the cattle fields. The beach turned to brown sludge and the dunes ruptured and sometimes crumbled altogether, so that the sea and the marsh water united in vast lakes, undulating with the carcasses of uprooted trees and bright red carrageen ripped from the sea bed.The boys travel to the Loney as part of a sort of pilgrimage. They are led by a newly arrived priest, Father Bernard, appointed after the death of the previous incumbent, Father Wilfred. With them are the boys' parents, who they call 'Mummer and Farther'; Father Wilfred's brother and his wife, Mr and Mrs Belderboss; and the church housekeeper, Miss Bunce, and her fiancé, David. The religious aspect of the group's gathering is more than mere exposition: Mummer believes it is here that Hanny will be 'cured' of his mutism and learning difficulties, and it's the perceived power of faith and ritual - ultimately, the insufficiency of faith - that informs the plot's development and the real horror at the Loney's heart.
Originally published independently - by Tartarus Press - last year and now picked up by Hodder & Stoughton imprint John Murray (the new hardback is out in August), The Loney is gathering a buzz in the media and, inevitably, on Twitter. A piece on 'the ghost story's renaissance' in the Telegraph had this to say: 'Modern classics in this genre are rare, and instant ones even rarer; The Loney, however, looks as though it may be both.' The Loney isn't really a ghost story, but it has plenty of the genre's classic traits - such as the framing narrative, in which the narrator is looking back on this period of his youth, and occasionally mentions talking about the Loney with his therapist. There's a pinch of black magic and an inexplicable transformation, but much of the story concentrates on building atmosphere; constructing a nuanced portrait of the boys' really rather grim lives; realising the feverish, desperate sense of hope surrounding the group's presence at Moorings.
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 most disturbing details don't appear to have much to do with anything supernatural: what to make of the heavily pregnant girl the brothers meet - the narrator initially estimates her age as thirteen or fourteen, and later states 'she seemed even younger than I'd first thought' - who says airily of the impending birth, 'it's nothing. I've done this before. It gets easier the more you have' - and is never seen again? The Telegraph piece compares Hurley's work to that of Robert Aickman, and it's easy to see the resemblance in the sheer dread Hurley evokes here, as well as the depiction (indeed, personification) of nature as savage and cruel. Also Aickmanesque is the deeply ambiguous ending, concluding the story with either a stroke of genius or a frustrating cop-out, depending on your interpretation. (I have to say that personally, I was a little disappointed.)
It's apt that the central family has the surname Smith: The Loney is like a Morrissey song made novel ('Everyday is Like Sunday' with shades of 'Yes, I Am Blind' and maybe a bit of 'November Spawned a Monster') and, with a depiction of a poor Catholic childhood central to the story, I was reminded of the earlier parts of his autobiography more than once. The story is set in the 1970s, and it's perfectly redolent of a time not so long ago, but almost unthinkable now, before technology transformed the possibility of any place seeming entirely unknowable. Of course, the inability to 'call for help' is a mainstay of horror stories, and isn't limited to those set before everyone had a mobile phone - but here, it's used particularly effectively to help portray an era, a way of life, a system of belief in its death throes. The Loney is at once acutely bleak and strangely beautiful:
A train rushed past, leaving a skirl of litter and dust, and then the rails returned to their bright humming. In the scrubland beyond, the swifts were darting over the tufts of grass and the hard baked soil with its beetroot-coloured weeds. We watched them turning on their hairpins deftly as bats.I can certainly understand why The Loney might be labelled an instant classic. It's a seriously impressive first novel, and so successful at creating a setting that it's sure to linger in the memory.
Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback (pre-order)