If it had another name, I never knew, but the locals called it The Loney — that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune.… Dull and featureless it may have looked, but The Loney was a dangerous place. A wild and useless length of English coastline. A dead mouth of a bay that filled and emptied twice a day and made Coldbarrow an island. The tides could come in quicker than a horse could run and every year a few people drowned. Unlucky fishermen were blown off course and ran aground. Opportunist cocklepickers, ignorant of what they were dealing with, drove their trucks onto the sands at low tide and washed up weeks later with green faces and skin like lint.
Sometimes these tragedies made the news, but there was such an inevitability about The Loney’s cruelty that more often than not these souls went unremembered to join the countless others that had perished there over the centuries in trying to tame the place. The evidence of old industry was everywhere: breakwaters had been mashed to gravel by storms, and wooden jetties reduced to rotten black struts way out in the sludge. And there were other, more mysterious structures — remnants of jerrybuilt shacks where they had once gutted mackerel for the markets inland, beacons with rusting fire-braces, the stump of a wooden lighthouse on the headland that had guided sailors and shepherds through the fickle shift of the sands.
Such is the description that Andrew Michael Hurley uses to characterize the ghostly stretch of land in his debut novel, The Loney. Hurley’s work is full of complexity as it defies the standard taxonomy that we usually find in dark and imaginative fiction. It’s equal parts Thomas Hardy and Robert Aickman, and yet so much more. His work is a paradox of sorts; it’s a slowburn that remains engaging, it challenges religion but also deeply sympathizes with it, and it contains supernatural elements that are realistic and believable. To those about to read The Loney, I say have patience. You will be rewarded. The book’s plot revolves around the relationship between two brothers and their family’s trek to a Catholic shrine, but from the beginning – starting with that portrayal of the eerie expanse of coastal land – one can tell that not all is as it should be. This unsettling mystery culminates into a very satisfying and cathartic climax. We at Weird Fiction Review got the chance to talk to Hurley about his writing, how it was working with Tartarus Press, and of course about his new release, The Loney.
Weird Fiction Review: You have been a writer for at least 10 years, I believe. Tell us about your past works, how you got into writing, and so forth.
Andrew Michael Hurley: I’ve always written stories, but it’s only relatively recently that I’ve had the confidence to send them out. I began to have a few successes and a handful of short stories were published in magazines and anthologies, which led to self-publishing two collections, Cages and The Unusual Death of Julie Christie. But I knew that I really wanted to write a novel and so I started work on The Loney about five years ago.
I suppose I’ve been taking writing seriously – with a view to making a living out of it, I mean – for the last ten years, but like most writers, I’ve lived in two worlds for as long as I can remember – the real and the imaginary. I’m not sure that I’ve ever grown out of the feeling I had as a child that the real world was somewhere else, slightly disconnected in some way, a place for other people. And perhaps writing has always been a way of making sense of that gap.
WFR: How did the idea for The Loney come about? How long were you working on it? Is The Loney a real place?
AMH: I lifted the name, The Loney, from a patch of wasteland in my home town of Preston. It extended down from the back of a council estate to the River Ribble and had a reputation for being the haunt of drunks and other strange folk. It was a place that children were warned away from and therefore, naturally, went to explore. I just thought that it was a wonderfully evocative name and seemed to encapsulate the strangeness of the novel’s setting.
Although in the novel, The Loney is placed quite precisely between the Wyre and the Lune (two rivers which empty into the Irish Sea on the north west coast of England) it is really an amalgam of a few different places in that area, such as Cockerham, Silverdale and Morecambe Bay. In fact, it was spending time in Silverdale a few years back that really inspired the novel. It’s a very strange, quiet place. The lanes are overhung with oaks and beeches and the woods full of ancient yew trees that split great spines of limestone. But it was the coastline that interested me the most. Morecambe Bay has a reputation for being a dangerous place and the whole place is riddled with channels that shift and collapse after each tide. It’s capricious and unknowable, a place to avoid. There’s a line in the novel that describes the place as being ‘primed’ in some way, as though something was always about to happen – and it seemed very much like that. Every time I went there I would find something new, something unexpected – a path through the woods that I hadn’t noticed before, a meadow where no one ever went. It’s a place that hasn’t really moved on very much. It’s still very old. It could be any time there. Anything could happen.
WFR: I’ve been talking about The Loney for the past month or so, and I find it’s quite hard to describe it to others. It seems to defy categorization. How do you describe it?
AMH: That’s a hard question. No one description of The Loney seems to fit. It’s about family, faith, love, fear. I didn’t particularly intend to write a ‘horror’ story as such but I think that it ended up as one even if the ‘supernatural’ element is pretty restrained. The most realistic – and therefore the most unsettling – horror comes predominantly from the real world. There is nothing more disturbing than the lengths humans will go to in the name of some belief or other – whether that’s a god or money or politics. In the novel, there’s horror in Mummer’s unyielding religious belief, horror in the demands of family, horror in desire.
The Loney has been compared to The Wicker Man and I think that to some extent it’s a good parallel. I think it may have been the screenplay writer, Anthony Shaffer, who said that much of the horror in The Wicker Man comes from the fact that for everyone but Sergeant Howie the culture of the island and the ritual sacrifice is perfectly normal and necessary. It’s the same in Shirley Jackson’s, “The Lottery,” too, for example, this normalization of brutality. In The Loney I think that’s evident with both the pilgrims, particularly Mummer, who are so convinced that God will cure Hanny that they aren’t aware of the psychological torment they are inflicting upon him, and with the characters on Coldbarrow who see nothing wrong in what they are doing either. Any voices of reason are quickly drowned out.
WFR: I feel like your work was inspired in part by weird fiction and strange tales authors like Robert Aickman and Daphne du Maurier, but also I feel that there were influences outside these traditions as well like perhaps Hardy or Dickens. What sort of influences would you point to?
AMH: Looking back on what I’ve written over the last few years, I think there is generally a weirdness to my stories although it probably swirls about in the background – more like Du Maurier than Aickman. I’d only read a little of Aickman’s work before writing The Loney and so I can’t really claim him as a direct influence, even though a few people have seen similarities. Hardy, however, is certainly an inspiration in the way that he writes about landscape and the subtleties of rural culture. He’s always seemed much more ‘modern’ to me than Dickens, less of a caricaturist and more rooted in the real world and its subtle horrors.
I think I’ve always been drawn to those writers who deal with the dark. I remember devouring James Herbert and Stephen King novels when I was a teenager and trying to write like them (I recently found an old story I’d written about a man who discovers a murderous religious cult operating from the basement of the factory where he works). Nowadays I might add Poe and Lovecraft to the list, Susan Hill, certainly, and some new discoveries like Arthur Machen.
And there are writers that have pointed me in a particular stylistic direction too – Carver, Hemingway, Chekhov, for their economy and directness. But at the heart of everything is the desire to tell a decent story, something which I’ve learnt from experience probably ought to be as free of “literary” gimmicks as possible. I’ve always liked Larkin’s approach – the way he gets down to the horror of living that lies under the everyday. In fact, I’ve often thought that the narrator of The Loney might be the narrator of a Larkin poem. I think he has that same disdain for “everyone else” and yet it’s also possible to detect a yearning to be one of them.
As place was an important element in The Loney, I read quite a lot of non-fiction about Lancashire folklore and history, but also writers such as Roger Deakin, Robert MacFarlane and Richard Mabey who write beautifully about nature and helped me to think about how I might go about rendering the landscape of the novel.
WFR: Tartarus Press seems to be a great place for The Loney–your work seems very fitting there. How did that come about and what was it like working with Tartarus?
AMH: When I’d finished writing The Loney, I wasn’t altogether sure what it was. It didn’t seem like the literary fiction novels in the bookshops but then again I couldn’t readily see it in the Horror section either. I found it hard to know how to pitch it and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if the novel was a little too mainstream for Tartarus – but it was accepted, which took me by surprise. It’s no exaggeration to say that Tartarus have made The Loney what it is through their genuine love of the novel itself and skill at marketing something which is so slippery to define. They’re a very unique publisher in that they’re interested in the physical quality and longevity of what they produce as well as its immediate reception. They have perhaps more of a long range vision than other publishers and want their contemporary novels to become future classics. It’s very flattering to think that The Loney might fall into that category.
WFR: A number of elements like the settings, the relationship between family members and the narrator, and the issues of faith and Catholicism in The Loney seemed very realistic. Your novel is a work of fiction but were parts of it autobiographical?
AMH: Very much so. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic and served as an altar boy for a number of years and so I speak from experience! Though thankfully, the priests were more like Father Bernard than Father Wilfred. I’ve always thought of Catholicism as demanding a very physical type of faith: Catholics genuflect, cross themselves, work their rosary beads, kiss the true cross, eat the flesh and drink the blood. It was that very holistic, involved sort of praise that I remembered from childhood and one that I wanted to explore in the novel as it was a type of worship that seems to hark back to an earlier age of ritual, mystery and magic, where there was a bodily connection with the “supernatural.”
I would describe myself as an atheist, but The Loney isn’t in any way anti-religious or anti-Catholic and I hope that the reader feels a degree of sympathy for the pilgrims, in fact. In the novel, I use Catholicism really to explore intellectual sacrifice, that willingness to give up the right to think freely, or in other words to take the pledge to think only within the confines of religion. I was interested in how that way of thinking squared with the world outside, which constantly changes and threatens to undermine. In the novel, Father Wilfred draws a very distinct line between Saint Jude’s and the “Other” world, as he calls it, which seems to reinforce the faith of his parishioners but actually makes it more fragile because of the pressures it places on them to find God at The Loney. A kind of desperation and self-delusion ensues as a result. And so the novel is really about that frailty, the limitations of the answers that religion provides, the emptiness behind the magic trick. But also about how the human need to believe in something is perhaps the most potent magic of all.
WFR: What do you have planned for the future? Do you plan to keep writing novels or would you like to return to short stories? Also, do you think you’ll revisit the characters and/or setting of The Loney?
AMH: I may well return to short stories at some point, but at the moment I’m enjoying writing novels and see The Loney as the first in a series of books that draw a mythology out of the landscape of the north-west of England. It’s where I grew up and where I live now and so I suppose at the same time as writing about the countryside I’m also writing about my connection to it. I think that the north of England still has its own culture, its own identity, its own folklore – all of which is bound up in the landscape.
I’ve become quite attached to the characters in The Loney but I don’t think I’ll be visiting them again. They’ve told their story.