Updated on April 5, 2018
45. ‘The Loney’ by Andrew Michael Hurley
Last week I went to my first ever book group: a sci-fi and fantasy group in Bath. It was extremely fun, even though the first read (The Loney) was more of a Halloween special and not really sci-fi. Still, I had a fantastic time and I will definitely be going again.
The Loney is set in the North East of England and follows a group of people from the same village church going for their annual holiday/pilgrimage to take the holy waters at a tiny forest shrine. They haven’t been here in years, since their last priest died shortly after their last trip, but one woman (Mummer, the mother of our protagonist) encourages a small group to return with their new priest, because is she is desperate to cure her mute son, Hanny. Our protagonist, unnamed, is Hanny’s brother, and only he can understand him. While the adults go about their days in the rundown holiday cottage they’ve always stayed in, Hanny and his brother sneak out to visit the Loney, a bleak, dangerous stretch of coast which holds a single house and a strange secret.
The main thing this book has going for it is atmosphere. Hurley’s writing is extremely evocative, and he conjures seasons and locations in rich, sensual detail. He is especially good at creating wild countryside and the vast wasteland of the coast, both of which lie at the core conflict of this novel: nature vs religion. The religious characters often look to the landscape for meaning and evidence of God; when this fails them, they choose to ignore the chaos and create their own order. Never is this more true than in the character of Mummer. I loved her – I mean, she’s a terrible person, but she’s so well drawn she gave me shivers. Mummer demands routine with such rigidity that the new priest (who is often on the receiving end of her instructions) comes to realise her entire faith is based on ritual, and without it she has nothing.
(Incidentally, the new priest, Father McGill, is probably the nicest character in the novel. He’s far more laid-back than Father Wilfred, his predecessor, and would much prefer to tramp through the mud to the pub than deliver Mass, to Mummer’s chagrin.)
So how did The Loney make it onto the reading list of a sci-fi and fantasy book group? Well, there are certain supernatural elements in it, although they don’t really become dominant until the end of the novel (and even then, they’re not exactly clear). There are plenty of moments when strange things seem to be happening, but they usually have an earthly explanation. That is, until the end, which involves the house on the Loney and some strange goings-on in the basement. I had to read one of the ending chapters a couple of times because I thought I’d missed something, but it is quite obliquely written. Others in the group agreed – we’re not entirely sure what happens at the end, and even those of us who usually like ambiguity were left feeling a little unsatisfied.
One thing I did enjoy was getting into the head of the old priest, Father Wilfred. We do this through diary entries, which appear towards the end of the novel, and in them he mentions his disgust at homosexuality and abortion. Obviously these attitudes run entirely counter to my own, but because Hurley had done such a good job of putting me into Wilfred’s head, I was able to understand him. I could see why someone who believed in a Christian god and the Bible might be disgusted by those things. For me, it was a masterclass in making a reader sympathise with an unsympathetic character.
Overall, The Loney didn’t blow me away or scare me, and I’m not sure why it’s received quite as much acclaim as it has. I found it enjoyable for its literary elements, strong atmosphere and occasionally powerful chapter endings, but the story left me feeling at worst confused, and at best a bit ‘meh’.
(Incidentally, we also read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s incredible short story The Yellow Wallpaper, which does atmosphere and horror brilliantly.)
“After all, signs and wonders were everywhere.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.