I haven’t posted in a while. For that I’m sorry. There are numerous reasons but none are particularly interesting and far too personal to post here.
Boo-hoo, let’s talk fiction instead, eh?
I’ve read some magnificent books published during 2015 (52 in all) but want to soliloquise about just three stand outs. To be honest, there’s not a lot of books I’ve actively disliked bar the odd one or two; most books I read, I stay with for the duration, some I’ll put down, already cracking the spine of the next without much of a look back, however, these are the ones that have stayed, that invoke a warm feeling just by thinking of them; these are the ones I know I’ll read again.
‘The Loney‘ by Andrew Michael Hurley. This was one that I genuinely can’t wait to read again, one that as soon as I’d finished, wanted more by the same author and bugged everyone I knew to read it.
Its setting is almost a place close to where I called home for 10 years of my life, between Morecambe Bay and the City of Lancaster (I like to think of it as set in a fictionalised version of Heysham). Only those who’ve lived on that stretch of the North West coast know how bleak it can get out there; almost Lovecraftian in its desolation and sense of brooding menace. Hurley has captured the very essence of the place with a stark beauty which he deserves every one of you reading right now to go pick up a copy for yourselves.
A nameless narrator is looking back at a sort of family pilgrimage in the late 70s to this part of Lancashire, specifically a shrine near a stretch of beach known as ‘The Loney’ to cure his older sibling ‘Hanny’ of some form of learning difficulties. The brothers stay at a house known as Moorings, with its sinister hidden room, accompanied by his parents, another two couples and the replacement parish priest for their old parishioner Father Wilfred, Father Bernard, who, in the narrator’s mother’s eyes will never be able to live up to his predecessor . Already the dynamic of the group is tumultuous, its saving grace being the inseparable bond between the narrator and his brother.
(*Pic – Heysham ‘Barrows’)
We know, as readers that Hanny’s miracle cure is simply not going to happen and we are caught in the quintessential and archaic Englishness of acting ‘proper’ and in times of grief and loss, leaving things unsaid.
The Catholic tunnel-vision of the narrator’s parents and the awkwardness of the gentle outsider, Father Bernard in contrast to the narrator’s burgeoning puberty, builds in you a terrible inevitability that nothing of this is going to end well. (Indeed, the Church group where the visitors to the Loney have come from is that of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes!)
The darkness of the novel increases as the two brothers meet the child of a nearby couple, the same age as the brothers, but pregnant. There is something terrible going on here.
The Loney’s power is its subject matter; it is about the things left unsaid, blind faith, hope, the secrets; why Hanny’s mother cannot come to terms with the fact her son is the way he is, why the locals insist on playing grim pranks on the pilgrims and the terrible reason why Father Wilfred changed so dramatically and was eventually replaced.
The horror in The Loney is a brooding, silent one; the horror of loss, of faith and of hope. The writing itself is exquisite and fully deserves its plaudits as ‘a Gothic masterpiece’ and Costa début novel of the year award.
‘We Are Not Ourselves‘ by Matthew Thomas
This one, I was not expecting to like as much as I did; 10 years in the writing, it is the life saga of Irish-American Eileen Tumulty, set in Queens, New York; her childhood, her marriage, the birth of her son and her husband’s steady descent into the horror of Alzheimer’s.
I found myself telling myself I was not particularly enamoured with this novel and that I would put it down soon. Suddenly I was half way through and could not put it down. I found the hours dissolved in what seemed like moments as I joined the Tumulty family’s journey through their mostly ordinary life. This is perhaps what coaxed me in; the struggles of the Tumultys are authentic and believable and that’s what I think makes this such an endearing novel. Rather than great life-affirming leaps, the life of the Tumultys is about real struggles; the financial struggles, the pursuit of a better life and slow burn realization of the Alzheimer’s that, before you know it, buckles the family beyond repair.
I would draw comparison to We Are Not Ourselves with John Williams’ obscure 1965 novel ‘Stoner’ which I was given as a present and changed intrinsically me as both a reader and a writer. We Are Not Ourselves shares in much with Stoner in its unassuming prose, its steady pace thematically; the daily grind of disappointment, the treatment of hope as a rare and fleeting creature and a life where victories are few.
I stepped outside my comfort zone to read both of these novels and feel like I have learned more for doing so.
‘A Head Full of Ghosts‘ by Paul Tremblay
Lastly, I want to heap praise on a horror that deals with one of the genre’s more unconquerable tropes – demon possession. To my limited knowledge, there are few novels that have done the subject justice and I would be so bold to say that nothing, that I’ve read anyway, comes close to Blatty’s The Exorcist, a book that I am actually too scared of to read again.
Tremblay’s novel plays the theme in a smart and contemporary way- using the retrospective narrative of a reality television show ‘Posession’ that dealt with the apparent demon possession of a 14 year old girl.
The story is told from several narrative perspectives ; posess-ee (Merry)’s younger sibling, fifteen years later and from her POV as a child. The final part as blog posts from a horror blogger known as ‘The Last Girl Online’ who offers a critique of the ‘Possession’ reality show.
This book wears its influences unashamedly on its sleeve and all the better for it; the presence of the film crew in the Barrett family’s home cast me back to Playfair’s ‘This House is Haunted‘ and there are huge references to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic tale of insanity ‘The Yellow Wallpaper‘. For me, I like an author to give salutations and there are several mentions of other books that the Tremblay clearly admires, such as Sara Gran’s magnificent ‘Come Closer‘ and Mark Z Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves‘ – two of my personal favourites. Aside from this, there are real scares to be had in the novel. The posession of Marjorie Barrett manifests itself with an overt crawling horror that gets under your skin, using suspense in place of gore or schlock.
“There’s nothing wrong with me, Merry. Only my bones want to grow through my skin like the growing things and pierce the world.”
A Head Full of Ghosts breaks no new boundaries yet it delivers in the sense that it’s a very well written book about a very interesting subject. Tremblay poses the question that is skirted around in many stories of possession, whether it is a religious framing of mental illness?
Why this book stuck with me ultimately is because it took me back to a book that unutterably changed my life and cemented my desire to read and write everything I could concerning the dark side of fiction.
So that’ll be my next blog post (promise it won’t take so long this time, all two of you) and I’ll be back talking about a book that changed my life…
Del-Del by Victor Kelleher.