Saturday 6 April 2019

Dead and buried: "Starve Acre" by Jonathan Buckley

Starve Acre by Jonathan Buckley

An Eden Book Society Edition

Book review

A few weeks back, cult horror writer Andrew Michael Hurley announced the forthcoming publication of his third novel: “Starve Acre”.  It is, he revealed, a work “very much in the folk horror tradition”, about “how grief strips the world into two”.  Its protagonists are Richard and Juliette, a couple who have lost their only son, Ewan, and are trying to get to grips with this tragic, life-changing event.  Whilst Juliette believes that Ewan lives on in their house in rural Yorkshire, Richard becomes obsessed with the sterile field contiguous to this house, and what lies buried beneath its dark soil.

I’m understandably loath to besmirch the reputation of an established author with charges of plagiarism, but the premise of the novel seems uncannily similar to that of a novella, also titled “Starve Acre”, by an obscure figure of English horror, one Jonathan Buckley, born in Ripon, Yorkshire in 1909 – a journalist and writer of books of natural history and two short gothic novels.  Buckley’s “Starve Acre” was posthumously published in 1972 by the Eden Book Society, and distributed exclusively to the Society’s subscribers.   It has just been reissued by Dead Ink Press who has acquired to rights to the Society’s back catalogue…

“Starve Acre” – Buckley’s, I mean – is the fourth book in the ongoing Eden Book Society Series on Dead Ink Press.  It has just been issued, hot on the heels of A Dedicated Friend, and, in reverse order of publication, Judderman and Holt House. Of the four, it is the one which least relies on the metafictional frame story which holds the series together.  And this is hardly surprising.  Like Hurley’s novel, its setting is a house on the outskirts of a remote Yorkshire village, a setting which has hardly changed from the 1970s to today and does not need time-specific props. Indeed, save for some references to the late 1960s, there’s little to show that the story was (at least purportedly) first published nearly 50 years ago.  Moreover, in true folk horror tradition, the evil which lurks within its pages is older still – a timeless shadow which is at one with the landscape and soil, a malevolent folk figure which has terrified the villagers for centuries and which returns to curse the ‘city outsiders’ who naively try to live a dream of a simple country life.   

Buckley’s/Hurley’s protagonists, Richard and Juliette relocate from Leeds to the rural house which used to belong to Richard’s parents. Richard is not too keen on this move, particularly since it evokes memories of his father’s final mental breakdown.  Juliette, however, fantasizes about their little son Ewan playing with the village children, and about raising a family of rascally young Willoughbys far from the hustle and bustle of the city.  These dreams are shattered when Ewan dies in circumstances which remain vague and unexplained.  Juliette falls into a debilitating depression, whereas Richard, like his father before him, spends days digging in the soil of the neighbouring “Starve Acre”, unearthing animal bones and what look like the roots of an ancient “hanging tree”.  A well-meaning friend introduces the couple to a local mystic who conducts a séance-like ceremony in the house.  It all goes horribly wrong, leading to the novella’s chilling denouement. 

The story’s narrative is deftly handled, shifting seamlessly between the grief-soaked present of the Willoughbys, flashbacks to Ewan’s disturbed final months and half-remembered legends of bogeymen of English folklore.  Throughout, there is an aura of dread and menace, occasionally flaring into bursts of graphic, gut-wrenching violence.  What I particularly liked about “Starve Acre” is a sense of ambiguity which it shares with some classic ghost and horror stories including, to name just one famous example, Oliver Onions’ The Beckoning Fair One. Thus, it can be read literally as a supernatural tale or, at another level, as a study of a descent into madness and obsession, its otherworldly elements merely the morbid imaginings of sick minds.  Either way, it’s as creepy as hell.  I'm curious to see whether Hurley will manage to outdo Buckley...   

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