Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney was one of the surprise stand-outs of last year, and a worthy winner of the Costa First Book Award. His new novel, Devil’s Day, is equally good, even though its similarities slightly muffle the surprises. Like his debut, it is a work of gooseflesh eeriness. The Loney artfully described the north-west coast of England; Devil’s Day as proficiently conjures the fells of an area hazily between Lancashire and Yorkshire. The Loney featured a damaged family on a religious retreat encountering old paganisms; Devil’s Day has our protagonist, John Pentecost, returning to the family farm for the funeral of his grand-father, the Gaffer, which coincides with a ritual for placating the devil before the flock is brought in for the winter. Bad things, of course, happen in both.
Devil’s Day is more chronologically fractured, in that as well as the home-coming, funeral, wake and then Walpurgisnacht, we shuttlecock between John’s childhood and the years after the events. This cleverly complicates cause and effect. We know there is something significant in a classmate bully who died in a mill-lade; we are intrigued by John’s descriptions of his son’s blindness; and there is a beautiful ambiguity about whether John’s newly pregnant wife, Kat, who comes with him to the internment, is the ‘Mam’ mentioned as having put on the lights at home inthe future.
Though John feels drawn to give up teaching and carry on the family traditions, Kat seems ill at ease with the rural poverty and relentless weather. She’s also not mad about the child relative who seems to know too much; the creepy nursery rhymes; the unsettling stories about the Gaffer and the prevalence of dog-attacks. These are braided together quite excellently.
The Loney managed a brilliantly unresolved ending — or rather one where two interpretations were possible. Devil’s Day plays the same game. At the outset we are told a story about the devil flitting around, shape-shifting the whole time. On one hand the reader wonders if the devil is at work. On the other, the reader wonders through whom the devil is at work. The ending gives us a multiple choice series of possibilities.
Hurley’s work is like a reincarnation of novels such as John Buchan’s Witch Wood or the stories of M.R. James. His prose is precise and his eye gimlet. But I hope he expands upon the themes and tropes in which he has already excelled.