Stranded on the moors
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.