Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy

Water Shall Refuse Them: Amazon.co.uk: Lucie McKnight Hardy ...
I picked up my copy of Water Shall Refuse Them back in October when Lucie McKnight Hardy appeared with Andrew Michael Hurley at an event in Manchester to talk about their respective novels and the influence of folk horror on their work. However, I didn't actually start reading the book, which Lucie kindly signed for me, until June. As it's set during the blistering heatwave of 1976, summer felt like the right time to read it.

Needless to say, as soon as I picked it up the weather turned into a solid fortnight of rain and cold and I'm writing this in July wearing a fleece-lined sweatshirt dress, sheepskin boots and leggings and drinking a mug of Bovril. But no matter. Water Shall Refuse Them is so strongly atmospheric that I could still practically feel the sun beating down and the sweat trickling down my back as I read it.

The story begins, as many of the best folk horror stories do, with a family moving from a town to an isolated rural village, this time in Wales, where they are viewed with suspicion and hostility by the close-knit community of locals. The story is told by 16-year-old Nif, the eldest child, and we soon discover that the aim of the move is for the family to take an extended break from the scene of a tragedy which has left them shattered by grief. Nif's mother, in particular, is in the grip of severe depression, withdrawn, distant and heavily dependent on medication. Nif's father is a sculptor, trying to hold the family together, and her little brother Lorry, who is four or five but perhaps behaves like a child somewhat younger, seems to rely primarily on Nif rather than his parents for care, attention and reassurance.

Nif is not, however, simply a teenager struggling through a difficult family situation. She is also preoccupied with the Creed, a ritualistic belief system seemingly of her own devising that relies on special items she has collected - birds' eggs, wings, skulls. Central to the Creed is the notion that when something bad occurs, only another a bad thing can balance it out, even if that means Nif has to be the one to make it happen. When Nif meets Mally, a teenage boy who is similarly ostracised by the rest of the village, she seems to have found a kindred spirit, someone who shares her fascination with witchcraft and ritual, and has some strange collections of his own.

Water Shall Refuse Them is as much a portrait of a family falling apart as it is a psychological horror story and a coming of age story. The sheer hopelessness of Nif's mother's all-consuming grief, the inability of her father to help or understand, and the casting of Nif in the role of what is essentially her brother's de facto carer all amount to a simmering emotional pressure-cooker that seems on the verge of exploding in the stifling heat and claustrophobic isolation.

A lot of the more traditional horror in this book comes from an unsettling sense of menace that seems to permeate every page. I love fiction that derives horror from bright, warm settings - sun-baked, tinderbox-dry landscapes shimmering with heat-haze can be every bit as sinister as the damp, grey fogs of many a ghost story, and rarely has sunshine felt as bleak as it does here. Also disturbing are the moments of sudden, shocking cruelty, which serve to unseat the reader every single time. At no point are we allowed to get too comfortable.

Published by Dead Ink, a small press based in Liverpool that focuses on literary and experimental work by new authors, Water Shall Refuse Them is an extremely evocative, well-written novel that really does transport the reader to a particular time and place. Nif is a lonely, troubled and vulnerable narrator, and yet she's also a far from reliable one, who will constantly subvert your expectations.  and every character in this tense, brooding novel is astutely and convincingly drawn. I look forward to reading more by Lucie McKnight Hardy.