Dark waters: Andrew Hurley on faith and death in The Loney

Inspired by Robert Macfarlane's nature writing and gothic yarns set along the wild Lancashire coast, the Costa First Novel Award winner pitches modern pilgrims into a desolate landscape

The Loney recounts the Easter of 1976 when a group of Catholic pilgrims from London journey to the wilds of Lancashire for a retreat, during which they hope to cure the narrator’s mute, mentally disabled brother, Hanny. The trip is led by a new priest, Fr Bernard McGill, who struggles to overcome the lingering presence of his predecessor who died in mysterious circumstances shortly after the last visit. The late Fr Wilfred haunts the novel and the place of pilgrimage.

But then the north Lancashire coastline is full of ghosts.

Lashed by the winds that barrel in from the Atlantic and over Ireland, it has been the site of countless shipwrecks over the centuries and the short descriptions of the tragedies on Fleetwood’s Maritime Heritage website are stories within themselves. “Unknown 1660”, says one, “Thought to be a plague ship. Lost near Fluke Hall.” Another entry reads: “Unknown 27/10/1775. Drove ashore at Blackpool. All crew except two lost.” Other disasters seem all the more harrowing for how close the vessels were to their destination: “Ruby 10/10/1777. Inbound from Jamaica and lost on Walney Island.” “Lavinia 12/12/1809 Inbound from New Jersey to Liverpool. Wrecked at Lytham.”

Most of these ships were lost completely, broken up by the sea or engineers at one of the docks along the coast; some became temporary tourist attractions such as Nelson’s flagship, The Foudroyant, which was wrecked on the beach opposite Blackpool Tower in June 1897, and more recently in 2008, the Riverdance – driven aground at Cleveleys. Some simply lie out on the mudflats of Morecambe Bay or on the banks of the Ribble or Wyre estuaries as barnacled hulks, or wooden rib-cages slowly rotting.


And there is no less danger for the shell-fisherman or the beachcomber. Perhaps more. The Arnside tidal bore races over the sands towards the Kent estuary with the sound of a freight train. High waters and winter storms tear at the coastline, muscling great mounds of sand and stone into a new littoral landscape. Every year, there are stories of people venturing too far and finding themselves marooned or stuck in the quicksand. The worst incident in recent history being, of course, the 23 Chinese cockle pickers who were pincered by the tide and drowned in February 2004.

There is certainly a presence there, a sense of imminent menace or dormant power hidden just under the surface of what is often a bleak, featureless landscape. Something which the narrator of the novel seems to feel when he returns to the Loney with the other pilgrims.

“A sudden mist, a mumble of thunder over the sea, the wind scurrying along the beach...was sometimes all it took to make you feel as though something was about to happen. Though quite what, I didn’t know.”

I began to visit this part of Lancashire about six or seven years ago and quickly became spellbound by its wildness. For writers who have spent a lot of time outdoors in all weathers, walking hills or climbing mountains or swimming in lakes there is a deep emotional connection with the natural world and an instinct or even a need to write about it. Inspiration came from several places – the nature writing of Roger Deakin, Robert Macfarlane, Richard Mabey – as well as those gothic yarns in which the coast features prominently: Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, MR James’s O Whistle and I’ll Come to You.

And so the genesis of The Loney lay in trying to find the language to express the physical and the psychological, the internal and the external. But descriptions of water and wind don’t necessarily make a novel and so I began to think about how the landscape might be used to explore religion and belief – a subject which had been niggling away at me for some time and perhaps was always going to form my first book. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic and although any belief has long since lapsed its rituals and language and expectations remain vivid. I remember it as a corporal kind of worship in which the body is an important part of the Mass. In the transubstantiation the wafer and wine literally become the flesh and blood of Christ. There are moments set aside for crossing, genuflection, kneeling, and in certain circumstances the thumbing of rosary beads or the kissing of holy relics. The spiritual is the physical, as it is at the top of a high mountain or alone on the moors.

In many ways the Loney seemed exactly the kind of place in which people might test themselves and their faith in a very physical way. Retreats or sites of pilgrimage are often by their nature located in remote, isolated places and while there is a stillness and a peace to be had in that removal from the world, there is also a necessity to be resilient in the face of the elements. A necessity that the pilgrims in the novel welcome. Penance and hardship, after all, are roads to God.

As Fr Wilfred says: “It was through pain that we would know how far we still had to go to be perfect in His eyes. And so unless one suffered, Father Wilfred was wont to remind us, one could not be a true Christian.”

For them the landscape becomes not only an expression of God’s power, but also a place of communion between man and God, a place where one is revealed to the other. The sea and the weather are viewed through a biblical prism and therefore become meaningful, part of divine, loving purpose, a personal journey. But in one of the most pivotal chapters of the novel – one that I enjoyed writing the most, in fact – Fr Wilfred understands that the Loney is utterly indifferent to him, to his flock, to human life in general. It becomes drained of its poetic, religious meaning and he sees it for the wild, feral place it is.

The Loney has been called a horror story and while it certainly draws on some of the gothic tropes – the lonely house, the gloomy weather, witches and transformation – perhaps the greatest horror of all lies not in the ghosts of the dead and drowned but in the realisation Fr Wilfred has of his own insignificance.

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley is published by John Murray, at £7.99.

“The Loney is not just good, it’s great. It’s an amazing piece of fiction” (Stephen King)