Starve Acre – Andrew Michael Hurley
Starve Acre is a folk horror tale full of menace and fuelled by guilt. Richard and Juliette Willoughby, and their young son Ewan moved to Richard’s family home in the Yorkshire Dales following the death of his parents. The house known as Starve Acre has unhappy memories for Richard as he recalls his father’s mental breakdown. The unfriendliness of the house and the surrounding fields haven’t changed and the main field that folklore tells of homing the legendary Stythwaite Oak sees nothing ever grow there. The barren field of dirt is vividly drawn and the huge Oak tree is imagined as it may once have dominated the landscape. The tree carries a supernatural history that radiates evil where it was once used as a hanging tree. Although it no longer exists above ground, Richard is convinced its root system is still there and infecting the surrounding area. As he digs to discover any evidence he uncovers wooden carvings and the untouched skeleton of a hare.
Ewan dies at 5 years of age after a period where the community witnessed episodes of his cruelty to animals and other children. The story deals with switchbacks in time to Ewan’s activities and he insisted that it was Jack Grey telling him to do those evil things. Richard and Juliette are dealing with the bereavement of their son in different ways but Juliette is riddled with guilt and we wonder what may be the source of those emotions.
“It seemed to Richard sometimes that Juliette had actually brought twins into the world: Ewan and Guilt. The latter had always been the stronger of the two. It fed more, weighed more, demanded more of their attention. When it had outlived Ewan, it had grown larger still.”
Juliette insists she can still feel Ewan’s presence in the house but his spirit is drifting away. She calls in the Beacons as mediums to communicate with Ewan and identify what she is feeling. The Beacons leave abruptly, shaken and frightened, and advise the Willoughbys to move house immediately.
The ability to start the story with the suspicion of evil, introduce paranormal folklore, and continuously ramp up the horror and dark content to a shocking aberrant conclusion, is convincingly achieved in this novel. The suspense of lurking peril adding to an evil foreboding atmosphere is masterfully crafted by Andrew Michael Hurley. The location is vividly portrayed with an air of warning hanging on every scene and the well-drawn characters fit the story perfectly. I enjoyed the mix of the guilty parents, Juliette, whose mind is slowly slipping into madness or compliance with the supernatural, while Richard feels the frustration and despair of not accepting paranormal signs and being unable to convince his wife that her behaviour is irrational and they need to get away from this abnormal environment.
If I had one issue it is that I expected a bit more horror or trauma from this story even though I appreciate the threat of horror is often greater than the horror itself.
I recommend reading this book and I’d like to thank John Murray Press and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC version in return for an honest review.