Andrew Michael Hurley: ‘There’s nothing more terrifying to me than nationalism’
Northern Gothic, folk horror novels explore remote, insular, haunted communities – the kind that might vote for Brexit
Andrew Michael Hurley: ‘Where I live in Lancashire there are lots of empty moorlands and remote places. It’s in these places that superstition and folklore tend to linger.’ Photograph: Hal Shinnie
In Andrew Michael Hurley’s books, the devil is always to be found on the moors, or in the fields.
“The first couple of novels I attempted were set in London,” he tells me on a visit to that city. We sit in an oval-shaped, book-lined room that is part of but separated from the bustle of Hodder and Stoughton’s offices. “They’re in a drawer at home, and they never really felt like they were anything to do with me. I didn’t understand the rhythms of London as I did the places that I came from in the north of England. So when I moved back north I really wanted to focus on places that meant something to me, the people and landscapes that were familiar. Or seemingly familiar. Being from the north of England, you’re drawing on something quite different to other parts of the country.
“Where I live in Lancashire there are lots of empty moorlands and remote places. And even the towns are hemmed in by this dark moorland. It’s in these places that superstition and folklore tend to linger. They have more resonance there. They’re meditative spaces, but there is this sense of otherness which I can’t quite quantify. I think my writing is largely about trying to understand what that otherness is.”
Hurley’s three published novels, which he describes to me as “a very loose trilogy” mostly set in Lancashire and Yorkshire, are frequently termed “northern Gothic”. They pit claustrophobia of one kind against another. A rainy, isolated holiday on a hill against the ominous surveillance of a local community. A village’s mistrust of outsiders against centuries-old feuds between insiders. Tea with the priest and black magic. The supernatural and the desperately mundane. Shadowy landscapes with wide horizons. Tides coming in.
His first book, 2014’s The Loney, had such a miraculous and rare trajectory that it feels as though it could have benefited from the blood rites alluded to within its pages. Published by a small press in a run of 300 after being solidly turned down by agents and publishers for years, it subsequently became a word-of-mouth sensation. Then, scooped up by John Murray for a longer run, it received rave reviews, won the Costa First Novel Award and was praised by everyone from Sarah Perry to Stephen King.
The book itself is unusual and literary but also very conventionally readable. Hurley speaks of himself in the same breath as Fiona Mozley and Benjamin Myers. For me, he also occupies a similar loamy patch to Daisy Johnson, a writer who seems to cast her books from the clay of the places they describe.
In Hurley’s third novel, Starve Acre, Richard and Juliette Willoughby are recovering from the death of their five-year-old son Ewan. Richard is a historian who has been pressured into taking a sabbatical from his university; Juliette is a nurse who has been unable to go back to work, and sits in her dead son’s room in their large, isolated house. Richard inherited the titular Starve Acre from a father who seemed to have a psychotic episode there before he died. The house gives off “an air of unhappiness that even the least sensitive visitor found hard to ignore”, but the Willoughbys moved there to get away from Leeds, where Juliette thought “sooner or later the city would touch them in some awful way too”. Immediately we can anticipate the airless scenario that is prime real estate for the Gothic: a moorland Overlook Hotel where the couple might be unhinged by their isolation and grief.
While Juliette turns to the supernatural for comfort, consulting mediums who claim to be able to see the “light” given off by spirits, Richard buries himself in work. He has decided to excavate his own land which has been barren for centuries, and was supposedly the site of the Stythwaite Oak, a massive fabled tree from which criminals were hanged. In typical Hurley fashion, people who have lived around there longer than this relative newcomer attempt to warn him off disturbing what is buried, or even tampering with the field.
Lancashire is full of all these ghost stories. We have the Pendle witches as well, so the devil looms large in that county
“Haunted, is it?” Richard asks. Ever the hard empiricist, he gives no credence to tales of an old bogeyman called Jack Grey who supposedly exerts his evil presence over that land, or any other talk of the supernatural. Even when the skeleton of a hare he digs up starts to reanimate.
“I based Jack Grey on fictional woodland deities prominent in folklore, like the Green Man or Robin Goodfellow,” says Hurley. “Not far from where I live there’s a church where a witch is buried. She was called Meg Shelton. There are lots of local stories about her changing shape into various animals like a goose or a cat, but also into a rabbit or a hare. And I think that’s partly where the idea of the hare being a symbol of something malevolent came from. Apparently she was killed in an accident in her home. When she was buried in this churchyard she tried to claw her way out, so they buried her again face-down to stop her crawling back up and put this enormous boulder on top of her grave which is still there. Lancashire is full of all these ghost stories. We have the Pendle witches as well, so the devil looms large in that county.”
Does he ever scare himself with his own lore? “I know too much about the mechanics of what’s going on for that. I do think, though, that the stuff which goes on around the writing can be strange. While writing Starve Acre my wife was out for a walk and she said, ‘I’ve found this pristine dead hare.’ How many times have you seen a dead hare just lying around? Hardly ever. So she took lots of photos and sent them to me. And at the time when she sent these photographs I was in the midst of writing a description of this dead hare. She saw a number of them while I was writing the book.”
Hurley’s prose is also exceptionally precise in its naturalism. It can sometimes feel as if Robert Macfarlane has decided to write horror. I talk to him about writers in the non-fiction camp such as WG Sebald, who spent their lives dealing in the uncanny resonance of the natural world and the past, and whose work is sometimes labelled psychogeography or hauntology. “I read as much of that kind of writing as I do fiction,” he says. “And it’s something that I’d like to do myself: write some creative non-fiction about the natural world.”
He mentions Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and Connemara by Tim Robinson. “Those books are touchstones for me when I’m writing: the intimacy those writers have with the places they know well, and the language that they use to express that intimacy. But I think what I’m really interested in is the layering of meanings of history. That’s something I’ve tried to do in all three novels: represent that stratification of folklore and history and mythology and human history and mapping. All those come together to make a place.”
The protagonist of Starve Acre is a historian, and spends his time digging on his own land. He and his own father were haunted by the past, if not explicitly by spirits. And it’s a common motif in Hurley’s previous books that characters warn each other about uncovering things. Does Hurley think there is something dangerous or spooky, even, about nostalgia? About the impulse to recover the past?
I think there’s a problem in communities that are mistrustful of outsiders. They are xenophobic, they’re inward-looking
“I think that’s what folk horror plays on. On the one hand people seek a route back to the old ways, seemingly a more simple way of living in a community where it feels more coherent. But I think if we do go back and live with the landscape more closely, we have to accept that the landscape comes with often violent history. With folklore and mythology, but also insularity and maybe xenophobia as well. So it’s not a simple act of returning. It’s not idyllic return.”
He speaks of Paul Wright’s film Arcadia, which he describes as “a cut-up of documentary footage of merry England. There’s the thatched cottage, the chickens by the door. People haymaking. Then it starts to get interspersed with the weird and bizarre, and you see what’s really there beneath this romantic imagery and the pastoral.”
Does he think it is the very suspicion and insularity which he depicts so well in his fiction that made British people vote a certain way in the EU referendum?
“People have asked me whether my novels are Brexit novels before: whether they are in fact about Brexit. Particularly Devil’s Day, my second. It’s not a conscious thing, but then again I don’t live in a bubble either. I do think there is a danger in insularity. I think there’s a problem in communities that are mistrustful of outsiders. They are xenophobic, they’re inward-looking. They derive their identity from their own heritage. In Starve Acre, you’re always an outsider unless you can trace your family tree back hundreds of years. There is a danger as well in finding your identity in romantic ideas about ‘the land’: it’s our land and therefore it obscures other people.
“And you can magnify that from a very local level to a national level. There’s nothing more terrifying to me than nationalism. It’s difficult to uncouple the current climate in this part of the world, the divisions that we have, and the problems that arise from those sensibilities from the kind of communities that I write about.”