Andrew Michael Hurley is something of a genius in how he amps up the creep-factor in his writing about isolated rural traditions and village secrets. His phenomenally-successful novel “The Loney” was certainly one of the most atmospheric novels I read last year. New novel “Devil's Day” also produces that unsettling feeling which makes you fearfully look over your shoulder late at night. The narrative artfully plays upon superstitions and anxiety to draw the reader in. John returns to the remote Lancashire sheep-farming community he was raised in for the funeral of his grandfather “The Gaffer” and the annual local Devil's Day celebration. This is a ceremony where the devil is at first tempted in to spare him ravaging the sheep and then expelled back out into the barren moors. Meanwhile, John's pregnant wife Katherine is frequently bothered by a persistent rotting smell, there's a sick ram in the barn, local girl Grace exhibits psychic powers, an act of arson burns a large plot of land and a father recently released from jail has gone missing. This accumulation of details all build to make the reader frantically wonder what's really happening. Is there something supernatural about this environment or are these bizarre occurrences merely messing with our perception? The story builds to fantastically tense scenes and an eerily climatic ending.
This wouldn't be possible if it weren't for Hurley's talent for suffusing his story with a rich amount of detail. The landscape is magnificently described and the intricacies of farming life are vividly rendered. There's a certain beauty to this age-worn setting and its proud community, but there's a sense of ever-present dilapidation to it as well: “Living on farms was one endless round of maintenance. Nothing was ever finished. Nothing was ever settled. Nothing. Everyone here died in the midst of repairing something. Chores and damage were inherited.” The author describes the physically-taxing nature of farming life and how little profit there is in it. He also renders how this creates a long-lasting effect on people over time: '“The valley made placid men stubborn, just as it made ageing men older.” Hence, it's little wonder that John was drawn to move away and make a life for himself elsewhere. But his return to his homeland makes him to reconsider his family legacy and whether he should continue established traditions.
The thing which elevates this novel into being something other than a finely-rendered spooky story are the heartfelt questions about family life that it raises. Are we obligated to honour our ancestors by carrying on with their work or are we free to set out on our own? This is played out through John's narrative but his story which sifts between the past and present comes with hitches which gradually make us question his motives, viability and certain facts about his personal history. There are beautifully poignant moments when he considers how few details we can actually recall in our memories: “Like salt boiled out of water, these things remain. Everything else has evaporated.” We can draw multiple conclusions out of the fragments we get from John's past and the ending of the story. Like all the best riveting narratives whose exact meaning remains elusive, this novel has left me wanting to discuss it with other people so we can collectively try to tease out an answer for what really happened.