I finished reading The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (John Murray, 2015) this
morning and keep experiencing involuntary shaders every time I think about it. Fifty pages in, I would not have expected to be feeling this way; in all honesty, after reading fifty pages a few weeks ago, I wasn’t particularly engaged, so I put the book down to return to another day. Yesterday was that day, and now I am traumatised.
The Loney itself is a strange area, defined in the book as “between the Wyre and the Lune,” which Tonto, the narrator, visits every year on a kind of pilgrimage. His mother is oddly obsessed with this annual trip, even though it sounds like a particularly creepy and miserable experience, and it all centres, in essence, around Tonto’s mute brother, Hanny. There is a supporting cast of alternately odd, irritating and menacing adults, and some incredibly weird plot developments.
It was impossible to truly know the place. It changed with each influx and retreat, and the neap tides would reveal the skeletons of those who thought they could escape its insidious currents. No one ever went near the water. No one apart from us, that is.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I bought this book. I had Waterstone’s vouchers and a limited amount of time in the shop and I was glamoured by the signs proclaiming ‘Costa Winner 2015.’ As is often the case, I was somewhat influenced by the attractive cover (I am very shallow). It is fair to say that, even some way into the book, I still didn’t really know what it was about. I think the first significant events happens around 150 pages in, which means there’s a large amount of not-very-much-going-on to begin with. Once things do start happening, however, they are so grim that they will make you yearn for the uneventful grown-up bickering of the first half.
Something I found interesting in The Loney was the way in which religion was portrayed; Tonto’s mother is devout, looking down on anyone who doesn’t share her degree of faith, which even includes the new parish priest, Father Bernard. I was quite fascinated by Tonto’s narrative recollections of life as an alter boy under the previous priest, who in many ways is the novel’s major presence, despite being dead; I found this to be a particularly clever device employed by Hurley. The conflicts, both overt and bubbling beneath the surface, between Father Bernard and his new congregation, were believable and compelling.
The relationship between Tonto and Hanny was interesting too, in some ways reminding me of The Shock of the Fall, particularly as the story developed. The situations in which the boys find themselves could have been glaringly unbelievable, but the tone of the book, sort of ghostly and quietly menacing, meant that they seemed perfectly plausible (most of them, anyway). I am also a sucker for a creepy setting, and I have a love of mysterious and forbidding houses; The Loney delivers in both these regards, with the characters staying in an archetypal spooky guesthouse, complete with secret rooms, disturbing background and suspicious objects. At various points, the group is warned against staying in the house, calling to mind the early sections of Dracula, when Jonathan Harker ignores the imploring calls of the vampire’s neighbours. In this way, and others, The Loney is worthy of the plaudits it has received regarding its gothic qualities.
The Loney is one of those books in which a lot happens in the last 100 pages, so I’m glad I stuck with it at the second attempt. Much of this late flurry of action is deeply unsettling, and if anyone had been watching me read, I assume they would have believed I had eaten something disgusting or accidentally watched The X Factor, based on my horrified facial expression. It’s an interesting modern addition to gothic and horror writing, particularly in the way that these aspects creep up on you unexpectedly. I definitely want to seek out something a little more pleasant to read now though.