Stranded on the moors

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - M John Har­ri­son

Devil’s Day by An­drew Michael Hur­ley John Mur­ray, 304pp

“The prob­lem is that in the End­lands one story begs the telling of an­other and an­other,” ad­mits John Pen­te­cost to his 10-year-old son Adam, “and in all of them the devil plays his part.” The obliq­uity of this state­ment, per­haps our ear­li­est in­di­ca­tion of John’s self-de­cep­tion, will be re­vealed as things de­velop. He is telling Adam the devil’s own story, while An­drew Michael Hur­ley is telling John Pen­te­cost’s. They are in­ex­tri­ca­bly en­twined.

The End­lands are a clus­ter of weath­er­beaten small­hold­ings lo­cated deep in the Lan­cashire up­lands: less a place than a habit, a node of obsolete hu­man ac­tiv­ity. Up there, con­trary to their name, noth­ing is ever fin­ished: farm­ing is a never-end­ing fight against en­tropy, with no out­come. The sheep wan­der off. The build­ings rot and de­cay. Ev­ery­one dies “in the midst of re­pair­ing some­thing”. Equally, though, the moors bring forth a kind of stilted gen­eros­ity, gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion: hard work though they might be, the End­lands are a com­mons, never be­long­ing to an in­di­vid­ual, “al­ways in the act of be­ing handed on”.

No one who lives there spends money on life in­sur­ance. They have chil­dren in­stead. It’s back to this prim­i­tive ar­range­ment that Pen­te­cost, bored and un­ful­filled by life as a teacher in Suf­folk, brings his preg­nant wife Kather­ine. “I was cer­tain,” he tells the reader, “that when she saw the End­lands for the first time, she’d … see that the place was as pre­cious as the baby she’d be hold­ing in her arms next Har­vest.”

The reader is equally cer­tain she won’t. John, full of guilt at hav­ing aban­doned the way of life of his buck­led and age­ing fa­ther, now throws him­self into the af­fairs of the farm. Kather­ine just wants to go home. The End­lands women de­ride her frag­ile sense of pur­pose, her veg­e­tar­i­an­ism (“How long have you been like that, love?”) and her south­ern mid­dle-class stylings. Mean­while, she hal­lu­ci­nates a foul smell – in the yard, in the house, on her clothes, on her skin.

And the dark is ris­ing. The Pen­te­costs pre­pare for Devil’s Day, a yearly rit­ual that marks how, a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions ago, the fam­ily sur­vived an oc­cult event they call “the Bliz­zard”. At the same time, down in the near­est vil­lage – sit­ting in its val­ley, “dark and cramped like some­thing buried at the bot­tom of a bog” – the lo­cal slaugh­ter­men seem to be act­ing out an old grudge against the End­lands fam­i­lies.

This is a story with pull. Its lively, build­ing sense of evil is thor­oughly en­tan­gled with the as­sump­tions of the way of life de­picted, that ap­par­ently time­less re­la­tion­ship of the small­holder and the moor. As the young Adam soaks up his fa­ther’s tales of the devil, he’s also learn­ing how to man­age the lo­cal land­scape, how to live in, iden­tify with and take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the End­lands. Like his fa­ther, all Adam wants is to feel “his grand­fa­thers at his back” and imag­ine “his sons walk­ing be­fore him”. In the end, what he is given turns out to be a lot less de­sir­able. The devil flick­ers and dances in the woods and John Pen­te­cost’s self-de­cep­tions are bared for the reader in a hor­rific cli­max.

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