A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
We’re in the 1970s, and a 15 year old boy nicknamed Tonto has been taken on an Easter pilgrimage to the Loney by his devoutly Catholic parents, their new priest, and a small band of fellow parishioners. The main purpose of the pilgrimage is to “cure” Tonto’s older brother, Andrew (nicknamed Hanny), of the learning difficulties that render him completely mute.
The Loney is somewhere in the North West of England, “a wild and useless length” of coastline where many of the locals seem a little idiosyncratic to say the least. The similarity of the ‘Loney’ to the word ‘lonely’ is no coincidence. The motley crew take up residence in The Moorings, a large, remote house that used to belong to a taxidermist, and where the evidence of his work still loiters. Right from the beginning, the atmosphere is uneasy: one of the group hadn’t wanted to come to the Loney at all, while Tonto and Hanny’s mother – Mummer – is suspicious of the new priest, Father Bernard. He is younger than their old priest (the recently deceased Father Wilfred) and doesn’t appear as “hardline” as his predecessor. Mummer wants strictness, and warnings of eternal punishments for sinners.
The uneasiness extends beyond the pilgrims. Tonto and Hanny are very close, and Tonto is often the only person who truly understands what Hanny is trying to communicate. They take as many opportunities as they can to get away from the Moorings, playing down on the beach and in the long grasses and dunes around it. One day they spot an affluent-looking couple in their Daimler, with a young girl of around 13 in the back who, it later transpires, is heavily pregnant, and not for the first time. In addition, two sinister locals keep popping up around them and the rest of the pilgrims. It all appears to be connected, but how? And what’s the deal with that tiny locked room back at the Moorings?
On top of the increasingly ominous occurrences at the Loney, as the pilgrims begin to bicker amongst themselves, more is revealed about recent happenings back home in London. What was wrong with Father Wilfred in the final weeks of his life? Was his tragic accidental death quite what it seemed? And where did his diary go?
The Loney is a difficult novel to catergorize. There are elements of horror, and no less a figure than Stephen King has provided a fulsome quote of praise for the book’s cover (“an amazing piece of fiction,” says he), but that doesn’t quite get to the heart of it. It is gothic, most definitely, and fans of the supernatural will find much to enjoy here. More than anything, this novel is uncanny in the true sense of the word: strange, mysterious, unsettling.
But there are lighter moments too. While Mummer is undoubtedly a zealot whose faith is predicated on ritual and punishment and fear of Hell, the unspoken competition between her and Miss Bunce to prove who is the most devout gets increasingly desperate and ridiculous:
‘Well,’ said Mummer, as we walked back to the minibus. ‘I thought that was a lovely service.’
‘I think moving is probably the right word, ‘ said Miss Bunce. ‘It’s meant to be quite a sombre service.’
David nodded in agreement.
‘Oh, I didn’t enjoy it as such,’ said Mummer.
‘I didn’t say I didn’t enjoy it,’ Miss Bunce said.
‘So where’s this fish feller?’ Father Bernard said, leading Mummer back to the minibus.
The Loney is an impressive, atmospheric debut. It wasn’t perfect; occasionally I found myself wishing things were just a little pacier, and while the majority of the time the author’s use of language added to the uneasy feeling of the novel, occasionally it felt a little too much. That said, I would still absolutely recommend it to anyone who likes a spooky tale, and as the long winter nights draw in, this might be just the time to read it.
Andrew Michael Hurley, The Loney (London: John Murray, 2015). Hardback ISBN 978147361982, RRP £14.99