Anyone who has walked England’s moors, particularly those in the northern part of the country, knows their mesmerising mix of majestic beauty, layered cultural heritage and frequent fickle extremes in weather. They are both breathtakingly alluring to tens of millions of visitors and lethal to the unwary and unprepared.
In many parts, traditions dating back centuries are still actively maintained. Like the well-dressings common in many of the smaller villages in counties such as Derbyshire and Yorkshire. There, elaborate floral displays are created, paraded through the streets then fastened to the local well. These are said to celebrate the purity of the water supply after the devastating Black Death ravaged the country. Or perhaps, helping survive past droughts. It can depend on to whom you speak.
In his best-selling debut novel, The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley used a windswept length of coast in an unnamed part of the north west of England, as backdrop for an unsettling story, centring around a Catholic retreat in the ‘70s, lost innocence and forces well outside the normal quirks of nature.
Now, in Devil’s Day his recently released follow-up, it is the bleak Lancashire moorland that is his backdrop. Each year John Pentecost returns to his childhood home, the remote Briardale Valley, to help the family with the annual sheep roundup. It’s a place where apparently random events are treated as nature’s portends – the jackdaw that flew into a house and killed itself trying to escape, the dropped glass of wine – may be scorned by many. Deeply respected by others.
For John, leaving the valley after he had finished school was his escape from a life he saw as asphyxiating. For the rest of the family, particularly his father, it was a betrayal of a centuries-old heritage; understood but not forgiven. This year, for the first time, John’s wife Katherine is making the journey with him, to attend the funeral of his grandfather, known to all as the Gaffer. The visit also coincides with Devil’s Day, a series of rituals to keep the sheep herds safe from the ever-present threat of the ‘Owd Feller’.
Slowly, revealing itself like the high moors through the mist, is John’s realisation that there is a dark secret the family’s future in the valley. Yet, just as the newly pregnant Katherine finds herself repelled by the pervading air of menace, John seems increasingly entwined by the family’s deep roots, caught between his past and his future.
As with The Loney, Devil’s Day unfolds slowly (perhaps sometimes just a little too slowly). But Hurley is an elegant, poetic writer with an artist’s view of landscape. He draws in the reader, revealing the social complexities of small communities while gradually enveloping everything with a thickening cloak of unease. This is super, slow-burn, creepy.
Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley is published by John Murray and by Hachette Australia. Hurley won the Costa First Novel Award for his book The Loney.