The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley was first published by Tartarus, a small independent publisher specialising in limited editions of literary supernatural fiction, and is currently only more widely available as an e-book. It appears, however, to get a 'proper' release in hardback in August, and I sincerely hope it then goes on to become a mainstream paperback, because it's brilliant.

The Loney is a bleak, largely deserted stretch of flat, rural coastline in Lancashire, where a group of devout Catholics from the congregation of a London church travel every Easter on a sort of retreat, their priest in tow. Among them are the Smith family and their teenage sons, the younger of whom narrates the story. The older, Hanny, has significant learning difficulties and is entirely mute - and it's Hanny for whom the Smiths travel to The Loney every year, in the hope that he will be 'cured' at a small local shrine. Accompanying them are Mr and Mrs Belderboss, Miss Bunce, employed as housekeeper to the parish priest, her fiance David, and finally Father Bernard, who has recently taken over as a parish priest from Mr Belderboss's late brother. Father Wilfred.

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It soon becomes clear that there is something very strange about The Loney - the sands are notoriously treacherous, the house in which the group are staying has an odd and unsettling history, and their arrival coincides with that of a peculiar couple and a very young, heavily pregnant girl, who move into a long-empty house only accessible at low tide. I don't think it's an accident that the group are from the church of St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

Plenty of what goes on is the familiar stuff of British folk horror - weird objects are found, local people are threatening or fearful by turns, and the very landscape itself seems to have a draining effect on the mental and emotional state of the group. The story of the retreat is interspersed with flashbacks to the events leading up to the death of Father Wilfred, whose sudden deterioration of health began shortly after the previous year's trip.

However, while The Loney is atmospheric, eerie and unsettling, and becomes increasingly so (albeit slowly) as the novel progresses, this is far more than a horror novel. It deserves to be reviewed as mainstream literary fiction, and would easily hold its own on the shortlists of literary prizes. It is a novel about faith, guilt, jealousy and sacrifice, among other things. It is remarkably observant, sometimes amusingly so, and at times deeply sad. Like many books and films of its type, it compares religious ritual to other, darker forms of superstition and magic, but it is perhaps more interesting in its portrayal of the different ways the group adheres to Catholic doctrine. Mrs Smith, desperate for Hanny to be able to communicate, clings to religious ritual as the only means she knows of keeping up hope that he will learn to speak, yet her constant concerns over the strict observation of Lent and timetabled prayers appears to be closer to obsessive-compulsive disorder than faith. It's actually Father Bernard, recently arrived from a challenging stint in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, who is the most relaxed Catholic of them all - and it's also kind, reasonable, capable Father Bernard who saves The Loney from being an extended diatribe against the Catholic church.

It's also a sensitive portrait of the relationship between the two brothers, Hanny and the unnamed narrator. As Father Bernard observes, Hanny seems perfectly happy as he is; it's his mother whose undeniable love for him is channelled into a conviction that he would be better off if he could speak. Nobody understands this better than the narrator, devoted to protecting and understanding Hanny in a way that later in the novel. when we revisit them both in middle age, becomes uncomfortably poignant.