Come Dance with the Devil: A Waterstones Exclusive Interview with Andrew Michael Hurley
The follow-up to his Costa Prize-winning The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley’s eagerly awaited Devil’s Day is a haunting tale of community, family and ritual, set against the beautiful isolation of the Lancashire moors. We caught up with Hurley to talk about storytelling, folklore and why he is drawn to fiction's hinterlands.
A barren landscape the colour of slate and bone, flecked with hovering rooks overhead, a single tree stretching skeleton arms to the sky; the cover of Andrew Michael Hurley’s Devil’s Day will feel eerily familiar to the legions of readers entranced by his Costa Prize-winning first novel, The Loney. To head off the obvious first question, Devil’s Day is certainly not The Loney Part 2 but neither is it a complete departure from it. Rather these might be seen as two novels in conversation, speaking to one another. In painterly terms (and Hurley’s novels feel in some ways like paintings with words), an artist’s interpretation of two very different landscapes with some echoes of the same palette.
Set in a remote valley, hunched beneath the Lancashire moors, Devil’s Day is narrated by John Pentecost. A child from the valley who has made a life for himself elsewhere, John is the prodigal son returning to a changed world on the eve of a local ritual known as Devil’s Day. As he finds himself drawn inexorably back to his childhood home and the community he left behind he becomes gradually more in thrall to its beauty, power and menace.
There’s a different kind of subtlety exhibited in Devil’s Day from that in Hurley’s previous work, an atmosphere of more light and shade than The Loney but still walking that delicate, precarious line between the familiar and the fearful unknown. Many of the themes of Hurley’s earlier novel resonate here too: ideas of family, community and superstition, all rooted in a powerfully realised, immersive landscape that is both familiar and chillingly, unutterably strange.
“There are definite parallels between the pilgrims in The Loney and the farmers who live in the Endlands in Devil’s Day”, Hurley acknowledges, “both in their being an insular, inward-looking community but also in that the kind of sacrifices that these two groups of people have to make are similar. It’s a relinquishing of certain things, a ransom of the individual to something greater. I think that both groups feel that is an attractive thing, in some ways, but it is also imprisoning as well.
“When you put people together in a confined space, you find out very quickly how we deal with each other and where loyalties lie. Being in a valley, the environment has a kind of natural claustrophobia to it too. When you’re living in a closed off, close community like that, it is incredibly alluring and attractive in one way because you’re part of a tribe and there’s a protection there and you all know each other and you help each other out - as you would in a family - but it can also be an absolute nightmare because everyone knows your business, there’s no privacy and your life isn’t really your own - the individual doesn’t really matter.”
As in Hurley’s previous novel, the landscape here is indivisible from the story – a constant thrumming presence that envelops characters and reader alike. If anything, Hurley feels even more at home in the isolated, outlying setting of Devil’s Day, it’s a locale for which he evidently feels a strong affinity.
“I think you can, perhaps, only really write about that landscape in that way if you spend a lot of time there”, he says, “which I did when I was writing the novel; walking along the edges of moorland and down valleys. That kind of descriptive writing came out of many, many hours of experiencing the place at different times of day, in different weathers, and over different seasons as well.”
Hurley’s setting – the aptly named Endlands – is a borderland, a closed and close-knit community poised between human territory and a fiercely untameable wilderness that shapes and moulds the character of its inhabitants. It’s a place that’s defined by contradiction; a mesh of beauty and brutality, at the mercy of the elements and the ever-changing climate,
“I’m drawn to those places,” Hurley muses, “partly for reasons I can articulate - for escape and freedom and solitude – but also for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe spiritual is the closest word I can find, not in a religious sense but in a sense of otherness and being in the presence of something that is, in some ways, beyond you. It is a place that, in some ways, feels very familiar but it doesn’t take much to make it feel alien - when the weather comes down, or if you go there at dusk and you hear strange sounds, the echoing of the water. I’m interested in those liminal, transitional spaces because they’re a meeting point between a known world and a world that is beyond you.”
It’s this enduring sense of the relationship between geography and character which partly lends Devil’s Day its haunting quality. Names, places, people, take on a totemic significance in this world; a constant reminder of how close the community lies to something more primal and dangerous.
“Names are really important to me when I’m writing,” Hurley explains, “particularly names for parts of the landscape. It’s something that’s always really fascinated me, when you look at a map and the names of fells and places on the moorland. They’re amazing names, with a rich, obscure history and you wonder how these things become fixed into the landscape.
Snaking around the landscape of this novel is a secondary, equally potent, atlas of storytelling, folklore and mythology. Far from being cosy fireside tales, in Hurley’s hands these age-old stories become eerily present and prescient; talismans that keep the wolf from the door but never let you forget that the wolf is there and that he bites.
“It interests me”, Hurley says, “having a community living on the cusp and how they would deal with the elemental forces that they can’t control and part of the way they do that is by inventing myths and telling stories about them. There’s that kind of folklore that exists there. It’s another way of mapping a different kind of territory, not just a mapping of topography but a mapping through storytelling.
“The devil is a manifestation, a personification of these forces, so it’s a way of explaining and understanding them. It seems a very archaic and ancient tool but it persists as an idea even now. It doesn’t take much for us to believe in superstition, it’s still part of our speech and tradition without us consciously thinking about it. There are so many things that are still unexplained. I don’t believe in ghosts and demons or the supernatural at all – any more than I believe in God or angels – but I still think that there is an otherness to existence that we don’t quite know how to articulate and explain and superstition fills those gaps for us.”
There’s a timelessness too to Devil’s Day, driven, in part, by John, Hurley’s ever-present narrator. A natural storyteller, he is pulled in equal part by the land and it’s stories, mythologizing his own life within its tradition and seeing its earthy simplicity as the antithesis to his own more sanitised, desensitised life. “He kind of reveres the place”, Hurley agrees, “the dirt under your fingernails. That’s how you live and how you die in that place, by the work of your own hands.”
“This novel very quickly became a novel about storytelling, the more I wrote about the place and the characters the more it just seemed abundant with stories, there were so many to tell. That layering of time and history and storytelling, it has the effect of all time somehow existing in some ways at the same time, of one story leading into another and then into another. These people live out of their time, living in the past or the future but never the present.”
Like The Loney, Devil’s Day will doubtless be cast as a gothic novel, it’s a label that instantly conjures a pricking-of-the-thumbs sense of unease and certainly there is plenty of that here. Yet, what marks Hurley’s writing is his ability to walk a line between fear and awe, finding the meeting place between the unknown in the world beyond us and the potential, unacknowledged strangeness within ourselves.
“I think that the reason why The Loney was labelled as a gothic novel” Hurley considers, “is because it does stray into that territory of the unknown, because the Gothic tends to stray into that liminal territory. I’m a big fan of Shirley Jackson and her writing tends to do that an awful lot. It’s a world that you sort of recognise but from time to time, moment to moment, the edges of that stretch into something that’s not quite normal, that’s not quite ordinary. It’s that sense of the uncanny and I love that. As a writer it allows you into really fascinating space where you’re not constrained by reality and you can wander into these other spaces. As soon as you do that, it means that the characters expand in a unique and different way and they are faced with and have to contemplate strange things. Maybe it’s just a way of engaging with the darkness and helping us to understanding it. It’s always with us, the Gothic is always there.