Andrew Michael Hurley’s first novel, The Loney is an unforgettable experience. With elements of Gothic horror, it’s a haunting one too. But that doesn’t mean it should be pigeonholed into a specific genre, because it’s narrative transcends any of those constraints. Part thriller, part horror, part family drama, it’s also a rich reflection on the nature of faith and (dis)belief, and the lengths to which both will drive the faithful and the unfaithful alike.
The Loney’s narrator, Smith, recounts the events surrounding one of his family’s many pilgrimages to the Lancashire coast of England (known as the Loney) during Easter 1976. It’s a trip they’ve taken several times, in part, to seek a “cure” for Smith’s mute, mentally disabled brother, Hanny. Their mother (Mummer) believes that, like Lourdes, the place possesses restorative powers. Their new shepherd, Father Bernard McGill, dutifully leads the pilgrims, but their memories of his predecessor (and rumors about his mysterious and untimely demise) complicate his ministry. Mystery lies at the heart of Hurley’s novel, so it’s best not to unveil much more of the plot. It should be said that the Loney is every bit the vibrant character as those that live there and visit. It’s equally awe-inspiring and terrifying and takes and gives life as it pleases.
Reading initial descriptions of The Loney, especially the emphasis on its setting, put me in mind of Wuthering Heights. Reading it, I began to think of classic horror and thriller films like Straw Dogs and Rosemary’s Baby, as Hurley causes us to question reality as he builds an overarching sense of dread. Smith reflects, “I took everything that was offered that morning—the warm sunlight, the soft shadows on the fields, the spangle of a brook as it wound under some willows towards the sea—and managed to convince myself that nothing would harm us. Such naivety makes me laugh now” (173). The strength of Hurley’s novel lies both in the beauty of what he gives us (Smith’s longing to protect Hanny, for example), which gets to the emotional core of the story, and what he leaves out (descriptions of potentially graphic elements), thus allowing the reader to piece together the tragedy that may or may not have lead to a miracle.
When it comes to faith and the faithful, Hurley is biting and incisive without feeling heavy-handed. Consider two passages, the first in which Smith reflects on a troublesome religious concept: “Hell was a place ruled by the logic of children. Schadenfreude that lasted for eternity” (110). Later, Smith describes an interaction between his mother and Fr. Bernard:
‘All the same. I think we’d rather do things properly, Father, even if it means eating things cold.’
‘As you wish, Mrs Smith,’ he said, looking at her with a curious expression.
I’ve thought about that look quite often as I’ve been getting all this down. What it means. What Father Bernard had let slip just at that moment. What he really thought of Mummer. A line of dominos, spinning plates, a house of cards. Pick a cliche. He had realized what I’d known about Mummer for a long time—that if one thing gave way, if one ritual was missed or a method abridged for convenience, then her faith would collapse and shatter.
I think it was then that he began to pity her” (145).
Though an atheist, Hurley presents the tension between believe and disbelief as a very real struggle in which, on either side of the aisle, truth is formed and managed in community. Those communities incapable of questioning their beliefs are Hurley’s ultimate target. Commenting on the narrative, he adds, “Religious certainty encourages and permits a cruelty that is dressed up as love and devotion.”
Reading The Loney in a time and place much different from its setting, the relationship between nature, humanity, and God feels even more effective. Hurley reflects, “It is because nature is so detached, so unpredictable and alien in its motivations that it can be so intimidating. […] I wanted nature to say something about faith. […The] Loney is not only an expression of God’s power, but also a place of communion between man and God, a place where one is revealed to the other.”
The Loney (304 pgs.) provides stirring revelations indeed. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it is available on Amazon.