A while back in the summer I read Andrew Michael Hurley’s debut novel, The Loney (review here). I was left feeling pretty frustrated by this novel; the writing and the scenes Hurley wanted to create were spot on, but the entire novel fell pretty flat in my opinion, lacking a clear sense of cohesion. When I saw that he had a new book out, Devil’s Day, I was immediately intrigued by it. Both the title and the book’s stunning cover immediately aroused my interest, and I couldn’t help but want to see how it fared in comparison to his first novel.
Devil’s Day centres upon the Endlands, a small farming community deep in the valley. The Endlands has a strange history, a story passed down from generation to generation, a warning against the devil himself. The belief is that a century ago the Devil killed an ewe, tearing off her fleece to hide himself among the flock. Disguised, he made his way through the farmlands, infecting all that stood in his path. By the end of his torment, after a heavy blizzard was lifted, thirteen people were dead. Years later, after growing up with the tradition of Devil’s Day passed down to him, John returns to the valley with his pregnant wife Kat. They say if you’re from the valley, it’s in your blood, but John also knows that it’s important to remember the traditions your grandparents have passed down to you, the very real reasons why such things actually exist . . .
I was immediately hooked by the premise of this novel. I’m fascinated by anything to do with the Devil and the idea of an evil presence, and the book’s blurb seemed to be saturated in such traditions and beliefs. The novel itself actually starts with a retelling of the fateful day that the Devil himself first enters the Endlands, and the atmosphere it produces is superb. We have this brilliant mix of tradition/folklore weaved into this well established communal history. The opening ends with our narrator stating that ‘The problem is that in the Endlands one story begs the telling of another and another and in them all the Devil plays his part’ (p. 8). It’s quite oppressive, this sense of inescapability from the main symbol of evil himself, a technique which captures the readers attention all the more firmly. If you’re not immediately invested in the novel after this unsettling opening then I really don’t know what more you could ask for from this book!
I would say that this book is more on the slower side in its approach. It never dragged at all or felt tiresome, but you can see that the author feels no pressure to rush, and so we get a very natural pacing. I actually think this pacing mirrored very well the harsh, quite rhythmic life of the Endland farmers as the face the daily struggles of the environment. Likewise, the pacing is also mirrored by the plot, which feels very organic. In Hurley’s first book there was quite a clear tension between the present and the past; the events which happen and the aftermath of such things. This is something which he has resurrected again in this book. We have a present day linear timeline in which we see John teaching his young son, and then we have the more frequent occupation of the novel in the past, where we see John returning to the Endlands after leaving the valley to further his career. Because the book is narrated by John himself, these memories of the past feel extremely personal. As each one is recollected it’s almost like we are being told the story through the oral tradition of passing on tales, conjuring images of scary stories told by the fireside. This thread of tradition suffuses the entirety of the novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The tension between the past and present is not the only technique which our author has carried over into his latest work. Whilst I wasn’t that impressed with his first novel, I could freely admit that its atmospheric nature was brilliant. The same can be said of this novel. If there is one thing which I think Hurley can get incredibly right it is definitely his locations. The setting in this book focuses largely on the environment, producing a very vivid, quite Gothic imagery which reverberates very clearly in the mind. Even though this story focuses on this small community of farmers, a group of people who understand one another, a sense of loneliness is present throughout. This is especially prevalent when the author depicts the countryside around us, the idea that the devil could be lurking in wait playing heavily with our imaginations. Strange incidents seem plausible because of the atmosphere produced. This also adds to the feeling that the inhabitants of the Endlands are trapped in their own lives; trapped under traditions which must be passed down from generation to generation.
Whilst I enjoyed this novel far more than its predecessor, there were still certain aspects of it which I had issues with. One of the smaller more trivial things was the way in which the novel would flick back in time occasionally, further than John’s own memories, to an older time where John would discuss more historical characters. I got that this allowed the sense of history and tradition to be brought further forwards, but I did often find that it interrupted the bigger plot at play. A far bigger issues I had though was with the character of John himself. John made the decision to leave the Endlands and begin a life elsewhere, yet as soon as he returns he seems possessed by this urgent desire to return home. I never could quite understand where this need to reclaim his former life came from, and the utter force of his wishes felt quite forced and heavy-handed in places. It was almost too much. Likewise, I had serious issues with the way in which his character often treats his wife, mainly dismissing and belittling her fears and worries, yet expecting her to understand the strange traditions of his home. He brushes aside her hatred of relocating their lives to such a place, arguing that he’s ‘not trying to persuade her’ as the ‘decisions made’ (p. 250). I hated that arrogant, patriarchal display of power over his wife, and though his blindness to her was ridiculous. I understand this was possibly to done to show the pull that the Endlands exerts over him, but I just could not get on board with it.
Having read both of Hurley’s books I think there are clear similarities between the two. Both focus very much on natural, quite brutal locations, providing room for an atmosphere which heavily evokes the Gothic and the supernatural. Both books have an eerie setting, a small community of closely gathered characters, and these small yet unsettling and often morbid moments of terror or unease. Out of the two novels, I think this new one is by far the greater of the two. I felt that the plot flowed much smoother than his first novel, with a much closer sense of direction. Mostly, I think this book is far cleverer in its approach than his debut. I think this is very self evident in the ending of this novel. Whilst both books end with a great sense of ambiguity, the ending in this book seemed more decisive, despite the possibilities still left open to us. Were the events of this book truly supernatural, did the Devil really enter the valley? Or can we explain them away? Whereas in the first book I felt as if the ending had been left purposefully vague, almost speeding up and halting with an unnatural abruptness, this ending was much more enjoyable.
I find the idea that there are still communities like this, tightly banded groups of people who are so influenced by traditions and beliefs, to be extremely engaging. I think that’s what made the difference in this book, and I am so glad that I made the decision to pick up something else by Andrew Michael Hurley. If you’re looking for a book with great settings, a sense of history, and a steady but quick pacing, then this could be the one for you!
Publisher: John Murray
Disclaimer – I was very kindly sent this book in exchange for a review. I will only ever post my own honest opinions and will NOT write a favourable review in exchange for a complimentary book.