In Haunt

Photo credit: Hal Shinnie

Meet the man whose debut novel delves into the modern Gothic, went from small print-run to big success and teaches at MMU  

Some people may have a conception of ‘Gothic’ in their heads which means antiquated tropes, like creepy houses and twisted towers. Others see the ‘Gothic’ as more of a fluid thing; and that is inherent to its nature – the ability of literature to transgress and turn over barriers, bringing something else alive.

Andrew Michael Hurley’s debut novel The Loney, first published in 2014 does just that. He didn’t necessarily set out with the intention for the novel to be ‘Gothic’ however – basing the subject of the book on ‘The Loney’ itself which is a length of mysterious, muddy coastline on England’s North West edge, not too far from where Morecambe is now.

But the content – including the disturbing discovery of a child’s body, digging deep into familial pasts and natural versus spiritual tensions – give the novel a kind of deliciously dark charge; attracting great acclaim at the time if its publication. In fact, the novel started out on a limited-edition print of just 278 copies with Tartarus Press, before going onto sell hundreds of thousands.

Since then the novel achieved First Novel Award at the 2015 Costa Book Award, as well as two awards at the British Book Industry Awards – but especial attention still remaining with the Gothic, as Hurley was invited onto the ‘British Gothic’ edition of Radio 4’s open book programme and has given various talks on the genre. He previously published two volumes of short stories and his latest novel Devil’s Day was published in 2017; what could be considered a more evident nod to dark and Gothic themes.

Born in 1975, growing up near Preston and still living in North West England, a frequent visitor of the coastal edges - Hurley’s prose is prominently touched by place. His work could appear interlaced with a seam of sashaying, mysterious moodiness moving in from the environs which inclines his writing style and subject matter so well to the Gothic genre.

In addition, during the days in which this interview was composed, Andrew was notified that he was joint winner of the Encore Award of £10,000, which is given by The Royal Society of Literature to mark outstanding second novels. Andrew won with Devil’s Day, sharing the award with Lisa McInerney, author of The Blood Miracles.

Here we talk to Andrew Michael Hurley about his latest achievement, association with the Gothic genre, views on the ‘modern Gothic’ and much more:

Hello, Andrew. Congratulations on The Encore Award! How does it feel to have won? 

“Jointly winning the Encore award was an absolute honour, given the illustrious list of past recipients. Second novels are notoriously difficult to write, so it's great to know that Devil's Day has resonated with readers in such a strong way.”

Devil’s Day considers a remote farming community. Do you think your awareness of/working in cities has affected your perception of the countryside? 

“I don't think it has, possibly for the reasons above. I've never thought of myself as a 'town' or 'city' person and have always gravitated to the outdoors.”

Your first novel ‘The Loney’ has often been described as ‘Gothic’ – why do you think this is and was this your intention? 

“I can answer the second part of that question first and say no, not really. That is to say that even though the novel was influenced by the gothic, it was influenced by a great many other things too and I didn't consciously set out to write something I would knowingly call a 'Gothic novel' or try and place the narrative within the perceived boundaries of that genre. The initial inspiration for The Loney came from the last two lines of the W.B. Yeats poem, ‘The Second Coming’ - "And what rough beast, its hour come around at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" I intended the novel to be a dark re-telling of the Nativity and that conceit, coupled with the shifting, menacing landscape of Morecambe Bay is probably why The Loney has been given the label of 'Gothic'.”  

Does being termed ‘Gothic’ affect your ongoing writing? 

“Not particularly. I don't think in 'gothic' terms about what I'm writing, because that would mean I would have to conceive of where the edges of the genre begin and end and what is and isn't 'Gothic'. But because the "supernatural" plays a part in the stories that I write, it's inevitable that my work is categorised under that umbrella. The 'gothic' is one lens you can use to read my writing, but Devil's Day, for example, is as much about history, family, loyalty, identity as it is about hauntings and demons.”

Can you tell us a little more about the dark Northern landscapes that have inspired you? Why the North in particular? 

“The first novel that I ever wrote was set in London and even though I'd lived there for a few years at the time it still felt like a novel written by an outsider, a tourist. When I started to think about writing another, I knew that I wanted to write something which would feel more authentic to me, something rooted in a landscape that felt more a part of who I was. From a young age, I've spent a lot of time outdoors, walking and climbing in places like the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and North Wales and being fascinated by the wilder, lonelier, more remote places. So I knew that if I were to write something truer to myself, then it would have a rural rather than urban setting.

“My initial plan was to write a trilogy of novels set in places that hadn't really been written about before in literary fiction. The landscape of Morecambe Bay in The Loney was familiar to me from childhood and I grew up thinking of it as a place of quicksands and dangerous tides. And it was that sense of menace that really drew me back there when I was thinking of writing the novel. The sense of things being hidden, too, was very palpable, the way that old shipwrecks would emerge at low tide and then be swallowed up again.  With Devil's Day I went looking for silence and solitude and found it on the Bowland moors. Again, it felt like a place that hadn't particularly featured in fiction before.

“My interest in northern landscapes is partly a personal one but there are other reasons too. In Lancashire particularly, towns and villages sit very close to hills and moorland - I'm thinking of that line of old cotton towns: Preston, Blackburn, Burnley, Colne - and it's the paradox of those landscapes being at once familiar and remote which is attractive.”

Considering the subject of place, would you consider Manchester to be a Gothic city? Why? 

“I think all cities have a darkness and edginess to them which one could associate with the Gothic. Though Manchester does have the Town Hall as a great gothic centrepiece and is, like other northern cities, haunted in a sense by the industrial buildings of the past. Coming in on the train through Castlefield, the Victorian railway arches and criss-cross of lines are reminiscent of Piranesi's etchings; they have that kind of ominous, cavernous feel to them.  

“There is something noirish about the darkness of the stonework in Manchester and the grim weather too. Beyond that, perhaps there's nothing particularly 'Gothic' about Manchester compared with any other place in the north, but I think that in the 'city' in general there can be sensations one might associate with that mode or genre.  Maybe the busyness and the amount of people create a different kind of threat to the caprices of the natural world. In the city there is always the danger of chaos, riot and violence.” 

Why would you encourage people to write about the darker/hidden aspects of landscape and life? 

“It's only relatively recently in our history as a species that the relationship we've traditionally had with 'the land' has been severed on a mass scale. Before the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of people lived either in or close to what we might call the 'countryside' and for thousands of years we've lived off the land, reared animals there, worshipped it, shaped it. In the timeline of human beings, the period we've spent living compressed into concrete and steel and glass in cities is very brief and arguably 'unnatural' actually. 

“But the land - and by that I mean mountains and moorland, seas and rivers and so on - still has a strong pull on our imaginations. Especially in an age where so much of what we experience is virtual, there's a tendency to view nature as something authentic and tangible. The idea of the natural world being a sanctuary from modern life is nothing new, of course, and there is a solace to be found there at times. But the wild and lonely places are also full of old fears, ghosts, unknowns. And it's that duality which, for me, provides an endless conversation.” 

Interview and introduction by Emily Oldfield

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