Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley

Andrew Michael Hurley seems to have carved out a niche for himself as a writer of thoughtful, literary folk horror set in isolated rural communities. His third novel Starve Acre - fittingly, due to be published on 31 October - is a shorter, perhaps less ambiguous example of the genre than The Loney and Devil's Day, but it's every bit as chillingly sinister.

Richard and Juliette Willoughby have inherited Starve Acre, Richard's family home in a remote Yorkshire village. At the start of the book, they are grieving for their little boy, Ewan, who has recently died and whose presence Juliette is convinced she can still feel in the house. With the help of their friend Gordon, a local antique dealer, they agree to a seance with the Beacons, an occult group who suggest they can help release Ewan's spirit.

Meanwhile, Richard is also determined to find the roots of an old tree that used to stand on his family's land, and digs obsessively for them. Some woodcuts in his father's study seem to hold a clue to what sinister purpose the huge tree might have been used for before it was cut down, but why is the soil devoid of invertebrate life? And what's the significance of the skeletal remains of a hare that Richard discovers during his excavations?

Starve Acre has every element you'd want from a folk horror story - rural isolation, insular villagers ostracising newcomers, an unsettlingly creepy child, ancient folklore and a landscape seemingly acquiring a sentience of its own. The sections of the book that are told in flashback, in which we learn a little of Richard's family history at Starve Acre and about the events leading up to Ewan's death, are every bit as dark and unnerving as the subsequent occult scenes. It's also a painfully believable portrait of a couple wracked by grief - a grief that's complicated, for Juliette in particular, by Ewan's disturbed (and disturbing) behaviour in the months leading up to his death. Is the couple's insurmountable sorrow somehow feeding whatever supernatural presence lurks at Starve Acre? Or is it the other way round?

Starve Acre is a short read at around 250 pages and as such, it's a more concise piece of storytelling than Hurley's previous novels and almost feels like a haunting, dreamlike BBC Play For Today from the 1970s - think Robin Redbreast or Penda's Fen. Like all Hurley's work it's beautifully written and pervasively foreboding and atmospheric - the perfect read for Halloween.

My thanks to John Murray Press for sending me a copy of Starve Acre via Netgalley to consider for review. This review is my honest opinion and I wasn't paid or otherwise compensated for it.