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Starve Acre: brilliantly written work of folk horror

Andrew Michael Hurley sketches grief, belief and the supernatural around a child’s death

Starve Acre
Starve Acre
Author: Andrew Michael Hurley
ISBN-13: 978-1529387261
Publisher: John Murray
Guideline Price: £12.99

Andrew Michael Hurley has carved a niche for himself in contemporary literature with his sublimely eerie novels that deftly tread the line between folklore and gothic fiction.

Authors of horror novels are usually quickly pigeonholed as commercial writers but I don’t think any of the other writers right now are in the same league as Hurley. His sophisticated stories usually broach ethereal themes, steeped in the traditions of supernatural and psychological realism.

Starve Acre is the story of bereaved parents, Richard and Juliette Willoughby, who are mourning the inexplicable death of their five year -old son Ewan. They had moved from Leeds to Starve Acre, Richard’s isolated family home in Yorkshire Dales, after Juliette decides that a village would be a healthier environment for a child to grow up in.

Their house is described as a desolate place, “On the edge of the moor, it was like a lighthouse, conspicuous and solitary.” Now with Ewan gone under mysterious circumstances, the spectre of his death looms heavily upon the house and its inhabitants.


Richard’s stoic way of dealing with his grief is to continue with his lectureship but he is told to take a sabbatical at work, with his colleagues probably anticipating the crushing wave of grief imminent to engulf him.

Now to fill his days, Richard starts rummaging around the house and in the neglected library he stumbles upon the woodblock prints of the Stythwaite Oaks, a tree used in ancient times for hanging. The land around Starve Acre is undeniably sterile and according to local legend it is because of the cursed Stythwaite Oaks.

Mystic group

On the other hand, Juliette has a harder time distracting herself from her agonising loss. Her grief is as devastating as it is palpable, leading to frequent discord with Richard.

Juliette believes she can still sense Ewan’s presence around the house and has set up equipment to detect it. Richard is frustrated by Juliette’s inability to fathom the finality of their son’s death. Adding woe to their marital strife is the unwelcome arrival of Juliette’s overbearing sister, Harrie and their neighbour, Gordon, who has introduced Juliette to the local mystic group The Beacons who claim to make contact with the dead using nebulous ways.

To draw away from Juliette’s absurd ways of coping with grief, Richard busies himself with digging around the house, searching for the roots of the diabolical tree but instead finding a hare’s carcass. This is where the gothic horror aspect of the story comes to life which will eventually take centre stage in this gripping supernatural drama.

The narrative then flits back to Ewan’s truncated life as a troubled young boy. A docile child, Ewan would later become prone to sudden violent outbursts towards his classmates and erratic whims. He becomes increasingly haunted by a local folklore legend which he calls Jack Grey, who asks him to do things.

As Ewan grew up, his behaviour became frighteningly strange, casting doubts in Juliette’s mind – her maternal instinct eventually picks up on her son’s disconcerting ways.

Once she asked Richard if he liked Ewan as a person. He said of course but when he asks her the same, she candidly replies that she genuinely doesn’t know. The way in which Hurley sincerely articulates this ambivalent aspect of motherhood calls to mind the disquieting brilliance of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Lens of religion

Similarly, parental guilt eats away at Richard who assumes the blame for how Ewan turned out. He is consumed by the thought that Ewan could have been made better and his abhorrent actions rectified. Now however, Ewan’s transgressions will remain etched in the minds of people around the village, his death rendering his actions perpetuity.

Faith and human condition lock horns in all of Hurley’s novels and while this is the case in Starve Acre, here the pagan aspect is more pronounced with its relation to ancient myths. One aspect of the dissonance between belief and the human experience addressed in the narrative is how grief is legitimised through the lens of religion.

After Ewan’s death, the Willoughbys are inundated with Christian pamphlets for mourning parents preaching how all suffering is ordained. Richard has a sceptical take on the matter. He thinks that people cannot fathom that any event that occurs is utterly devoid of goodness and that cruelty exists.

The condolence letters they receive from their acquaintances seem hell-bent on convincing them that their grief has forged a strength in them that would be of help to them for the rest of their lives. This implication that their tragedy is a sort of blessing in disguise and that their bereavement has somehow granted them a privileged status is repugnant to Richard.

Evoking Ted Hughes’s style of writing, Hurley is adept at seamlessly intertwining the malignant savagery of nature with abstract use of imagery for horror effect. He has this uncanny ability of bringing the palpable supernatural to life with a neat, serene turn of phrase. All these hallmarks of superlative writing are in full display in this impeccable work of folk horror. Starve Acre is a haunting portrait of what happens in the liminal space between grief and insanity.