In Haunt

“How do we process and navigate grief? Do we just drift aimlessly through it? Does it ever stop? Grief is its own landscape: it changes form and changes shape and it haunts people,” says award-winning novelist Andrew Michael Hurley on a central theme of his upcoming novel Starve Acre. It is due to be published by John Murray on the 31 October – Halloween.

Starve Acre

Lancashire-based Andrew – who is also Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University - is no stranger to exploring emotional trauma and its often-turbulent connections to landscape; as seen in his earlier novels The Loney (2014) and Devil’s Day (2017). The former, set along the wild coastline close to Morecambe Bay, explores eerie aspects of faith and belief through place –with the book going on to win the 2015 Costa Book Awards First Novel Award and two British Book Industry awards.

Devil’s Day, which Andrew also discussed at Manchester Folk Horror Festival 2 (held earlier this year, and Andrew was also interviewed on his involvement), encounters rural isolation and themes of folklore, inspired by the wilds of the Forest of Bowland. Highlighting the author’s unnerving skill for nature-infused horror, this book won Andrew the Royal Society of Literature 2018 Encore Award for best second novel.

Yet Starve Acre involves a landscape like no other:

“In terms of this book, I was trying to think about the most awful thing that could happen to a family when they are building a home,” reflects Andrew.

 Starve Acre is an intense encounter with a couple, Richard and Juliette, following the death of their son Ewan at the age of five. From their lonely home in the Croftendale valley – a setting inspired by Andrew’s own visits to the isolated areas around Malham in the Yorkshire Dales – we witness how a landscape interlocks with the turbulence of grief.

Andrew Michael Hurley Rather than the rural idyll of the Dales that is commonly represented in literature, Starve Acre depicts an eeriness in the environment: its ability to overpower us, the sense of its ‘Otherness’.  The perspective of the narrative moves barely beyond the couple’s imposing house, the fields surrounding it, and ‘Starve Acre’ itself – a plot of land owned by the house that seems somehow disturbed, nothing will grow. Even the nearest small village, Stythwaite, seems unyielding – with its inbuilt social codes and distrust of ‘outsiders’.

“A sense that I was trying to strike at in the novel, is that of claustrophobia – the story is after all very much within the house, its immediate surroundings, and the heads of the couple,” says Andrew.

“This is an isolated rural place which seems almost geographically disconnected from the world, it creates a sense of compression – and how do you escape that? In Devil’s Day, I also focused on isolated communities, set up in a place that doesn’t feel easy to escape from – and emphasized how parameters can quickly shrink.

“In terms of Starve Acre, it is the Yorkshire Dales that is destabilising, it contributes to that feeling of ‘Otherness’. There are places there where you can go walking and see no other human life, it is easy to lose the concept of time… this is a landscape that it is hard to quantify. In the same way that grief is a landscape, and the book is about a couple trying to navigate that, for sure… and losing their way quite frequently.”

This is after all a novel about the darkness of grief and guilt just as much as it is a novel about place.

“There is a horror in the death of a young child – it seems such a cruel thing to happen, an unjustified event,” Andrew reflects on the subject matter.

 “It is every parent’s worst nightmare – and for any reader, it registers as a big thing and I wanted the stakes to be high, the tension there. Loss has been like an explosion in the lives of Richard and Juliette, and what I wanted to look at… is that there is no right or wrong way to act. There is no defined way to respond, just as there is not necessarily any meaning or explanation as to why tragic events like this happen.”

The closeness of death and its ability, like that of nature, to overpower us, underpins the book. In a society that seems preoccupied in the strive for meaning and want for information, death disrupts us – often because it feels meaningless, cruel.

“It is one of those key themes in literature: death and afterlife,” reflects Andrew.

 “My mum died when she was quite young - plus as you get older, you experience people dying, bereavement. I wanted to explore the process of dealing with grief. Ultimately there is no start or end point, it doesn’t just ‘stop’.”

It is  this ambiguity over endings which has allowed Andrew to experiment – he has even written two different endings for the book! How so?

“I have been working on Starve Acre for the last couple of years, and the book was originally written for Dead Ink press as part of their Eden Book Society project. In this edition of the book, it was more like a straight-up horror novel from the ‘70s, more violent and brutal. Was it good fun?  Yes, I let myself go, I could revisit the inspiration of those more upfront novels and films that I had lied about not seeing when I was growing up! For the upcoming John Murray edition of the book, the ending is different, more subtle.”

The different endings seem to reflect one of the most unnerving aspects of grief and death itself – there is no predictable or defined course, there are so many ways it can unfold. Andrew reflects on why this fascinates him:

“We live in a technological, largely secular age– and yet I still think some of the biggest questions are still unanswered; especially concerning life and death. We want definitions and explanations… and there are none. Like the character of Ewan himself, there seems to be something ‘wrong’ with this little boy, but there is no set definition, despite Juliette seeking this from the Doctor. It is often hard to accept there is sometimes no set meaning as to why things happen.”Branches

Even for the reader, Ewan’s presence seems to haunt the book, especially as the narrative revisits the course of his childhood. He enjoys imaginary games, playing in the outdoors. Yet he also struggles to make friends, seems uncannily older than his years and is even, at times, violent.

During his short life, Ewan often plays in the field of Starve Acre – yet it seems that his interactions with this place, and ultimately that of the whole family, seem increasingly sinister over time. After all, whispered stories and local legends surround this dark plot of land which does not yield.

“In nature there is that feeling that there is something bigger than us, something beyond us. Almost like a monster we can’t describe, it is capable of drawing up a deep, intuitive fear. There are certain places that can make us feel like that, and Starve Acre is one of them,” considers Andrew.

“I think there is a folk horror element there too – modernity and modern life clashing with an older system of living. Like in The Wicker Man a lot of the horror stems from the characters coming face to face with an older version of the landscape somehow… there is an unnerving effect that arises when a local, indigenous community seems to understand the land better than you do, the implication that they have some kind of unknown communication with it.”

In the novel, the insular community of local people keep away from Starve Acre, whilst Richard increasingly tries to find meaning in it - even examining Pathold woodcuts which seem to suggest something particularly dark about a tree that once stood there. It is in turn we realise, that his grief is taking a whole different form, and involves some rather unusual encounters.

Also pursuing the search for meaning is Juliette, but instead through latching on to the ideas of afterlife and superstition represented by the mysterious Mrs Forde and her followers ‘The Beacons’. As these different desperate quests for meaning clash within the confines of the domestic space, Andrew maps out the multitudinous nature of grief, how it is intensified by place and how it has a very human impact:

“In terms of Richard and Juliette, the grief has deeply affected the dynamic of their relationship. They are always trying to guess what each other is thinking – and in a way become estranged from each other psychologically.

“Whilst Richard is attempting to look forward and plan for the future, Juliette is in a retrograde position looking back – thinking about all those possibilities that never quite came, even trying to relive them.

“This is just as much a novel about guilt too, especially with Juliette thinking over and over her previous actions. Feeling guilty is a kind of haunting, it makes us re-experience the past. And in the course of the novel, it keeps the characters stuck in a sort of loop.”

The path to progress through grief is unclear – and this is something the book emphasizes; tragic death is a circumstance difficult to make sense of. This too links to the title choice of the book, and its location:

“Starve Acre – believe it or not, I got the title from an old book in the library on historic English field names,” says Andrew.

 “I just saw  ‘Starve Acre’ and I thought that seemed brilliant name as well as quite bizarre, difficult to understand… the concept of land that is meant to grow things, yet has never given anything up. It is sterile in some way, and there is something then sinister about a field that doesn’t do what it is supposed to do.”

Just as we feel that human life is not supposed to end in childhood. In fact, the book contains a number of instances where situations don’t always unfold the way they would be ‘supposed’ to. A particularly disSkullturbing example is how Richard and Juliette each react to a wild hare that has come to be in the house under strange circumstances.

“There isn’t anything particularly horrific about the hare itself,” Andrew reflects.

“The horror arises in what it means, what it becomes. Juliette appears to develop feelings for it that are maternal – though I purposefully didn’t show her thought process. It is after all our relationship to things which can be sinister, rather than the things themselves.”

It is the human relationship with nature which is complex and can even be frightening, especially in terms of animals.

“What really interests me, is that we can live in close proximity to other beings whose experience of life is completely incomprehensible to us,” Andrew adds.

 “We can be surrounded by living things that have lives that seem totally unfathomable  – there is something quite eerie about that, I think. Even in the green spaces in cities,  there will be animals and trees, living in a completely different way than we do.”

“Another key interest of mine is in the spirit, energy, presence – whatever you want to call it - of the land itself. All three of my novels have that thread running through; looking at how a place makes us feel and the sense of ‘Otherness’ when responding to the land as an individual.

“This ‘Otherness’ seems to arise from a kind of communion that is happening underneath the obvious and literal in certain landscapes. The wild setting of the book. It is beyond us… and therefore to interact with it is like passing through a kind of portal, you do feel differently, have  to deal with it differently, as a result. That is what makes places like that fascinating to write about.”

By Emily Oldfield

Photograph of Andrew Michael Hurley thanks to Hal Shinnie. The rest of the photographic imagery: Andrew's own

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