Starve Acre is a novel wrapped in a woodcut which might, to the casual shopper, suggest some sort of heart-warming tale of rural life, perhaps with a smidgen of mystery and adventure. Reader beware: this great novel might lure the reader with its familiar landscape, but only as a prelude to the creeping horror and startling transgression which lies within.
The Wiloughbys – Richard, Juliette and son Ewan – had moved to Starve Acre to escape the travails of city life. But something has gone terribly wrong. As the book opens their son has been dead for some months, a disturbed child who we discover was prone to hearing voices and bouts of shocking violence.
‘What is it you can hear? he said, holding the boy’s head to his chest.
‘Jack Grey,’ said Ewan quietly
‘He’s come back, has he?
‘He was there at the fair.’
‘Was he? I didn’t see him.’
‘You can’t see him,’ said Ewan. ‘He talks, that’s all.’
‘What’s he saying now?’ Richard asked.
‘He’s not saying anything.’
‘No,’ said Ewan. ‘Now it’s like this.’
He made a strangled sound in his throat.
As we learn more about their little boy, Juliette wraps herself in grief and Richard investigates the land outside their house, barren land which once supported a huge tree from which, it is said, local criminals were hung. One day, while trying to find the root system of the tree, Richard stumbles across the buried bones of a hare, which he excavates and brings into the house. The next day he notices that the bones of the hare seem to be reconstituting themselves…
Starve Acre is Hurley’s third novel and undoubtedly his best. While ‘The Loney’ and ‘Devil’s Day’ proved the author to be a master of atmosphere, a keen storyteller and a commander of the folk horror genre, I always felt there was something lacking: a muffled ending, a meandering plot. Starve Acre overcomes this minor criticism with aplomb.
There is nothing particularly original about Hurley’s novel: there are many hints and shadows of other classic stories – Rosemarys Baby, The Omen, The Wicker Man, The Shining, Nigel Kneale’s ‘Beasts’ (especially the episode ‘Baby’) and one of the BBC’s Christmas ghost stories, ‘Stigma’ all come to mind, alongside the folk horror motifs which litter the text – but Hurley wears them lightly, using them to conjure up a sinister tale which fulfils all of my great ghost story requirements and then adds something which I feel is necessary for all great horror stories (as opposed to ghost stories): transgression.
Transgression, as I see it, is a deliberate perversion of our everyday behaviours, usually something which strikes at the very heart of what we hold decent or sacred. Think about ‘The Omen’ in which our belief in childhood innocence are turned on their head or ‘The Exorcist’ which goes one step further, exploiting our notions of a child’s sexual innocence (not that Hurley goes quite that far). Think of the implied paedophilia at the centre of MR James’ ‘Lost Hearts’.
‘His palm dripped with the pap of some animal’s viscera. But as Richard lifted him to the sink and Juliette washed his fingers they could see that most of the blood was his own. Stuck to his skin were small, sharp bones. Ribs. A spine. It was then that the boy began to speak. He still wasn’t fully conscious and the narrative was somewhat garbled and frenetic but Richard managed to pic out that Jack Grey had told Ewan to some to the wood, that he’d show him how to see in the dark and sit very still and catch mice with his bare hands.’
Hurley’s transgressions work in this novel because he knows the power of space. ‘Starve Acre’ leaves space for the text to breathe into the reader’s mind, to sow seeds and nurture an aura of strangeness and dread which can only come about through this peculiar alchemy, an alchemy which lifts ‘Starve Acre’ into the rarefied atmosphere of the great horror story.