“If it had another name, I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney – that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time with Mummer, Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss and Father Wilfred, the parish priest.
It was impossible to truly know the Loney. It changed with each influx and retreat, and the neap tides would reveal the skeletons of those who thought they could escape its insidious currents. No one ever went near the water. No one apart from us, that is.
I suppose I always knew that what happened there wouldn’t stay hidden for ever, no matter how much I wanted it to. No matter how hard I tried to forget.”
After a brief opening chapter set in the present timeline of the book, it is with the above ominous words that the narrator starts describing a certain place and period of his childhood. The events he narrates take place during the early to mid-seventies. He lives with a devout Catholic family comprising of his parents and his elder, developmentally challenged and mute brother, Hanny. The Loney was a place they used to go for a yearly pilgrimage around the time of Easter along with the Belderboss’ and Father Wilfried who was the parish priest of where they lived (somewhere in the North of England, in Lancashire). However, for reasons not yet clear, after Father Wilfried’s sudden death and the mystery surrounding it, they haven’t made the trip in a few years. But, in the days leading up to Easter 1975, the devoutly (at times crazily) religious ‘Mummer’ decides this is the year to make the visit again and hope for the benevolence of unearthly powers to help cure the afflictions of her elder son. The reason (?) for her faith in the place is the presence of a shrine where healing waters are hoped to cure the afflicted. For company they have a new parish priest, Father Bernard, to guide them. Father Bernard has come from humble beginnings and from some troubled previous parishes, and he is not as fastidious or threatening about his face as the erstwhile Father Wilfried. This is a persistent bone of contention that Mummer has with him, his not being Father Wilfried and she makes it known pretty much at any opportunity she gets. For her, faith is a constant test of perseverance and one should not stray from single-minded devotion in its pursuit. While it does make her quite unlikeable a lot of the time, it is possible to empathise with someone who needs to desperately cling on to some form of assurance of the possibilities of a miracle, so much so that one feel it maybe more for her than for Hanny that she wants this dubious cure to work.
The narrator, never actually named in the book other than by the nickname of ‘Tonto’ given to him by Father Bernard, understands the family dynamics remarkably well for a young boy. He has learnt early on to take up the mantle of an elder brother’s protective shroud around his, ironically actual, elder brother, and is extremely close to him. While we don’t get a clear insight to his own religious fervour, it does appear that he is good at maintaining a peace and balance between the fervent religiosity of his parents (especially his mother) and the more easy-going, practical style of Father Bernard. Of course, he can’t refrain from some of the transgressions of youth, such as readily taking up a hiding spot in the gloomily atmospheric house they come to stay at, from where he can quite vividly hear the private confessions of the denizens as they seek succour from a bemused Father Bernard. He also can’t help himself from spying on a mysterious couple and their quite heavily pregnant daughter who have come into the less than sunny neighbourhood. The trips to the house on the incline where they live had to be timed so that they don’t get caught in the tide which comes in and goes out while covering the stretch of land that connects the two places. And who are the menacing looking trio of men who the traveling party come across, initially when their van breaks down and then again in the sparse settlements, each time with a foreboding sense of doom? Why is the simpleton caretaker of Moorings so wary of them, and what is up with his mother, who was quite blind when they had come earlier but seems pretty much alright now?
“I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn’t leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.”
The air of morbid excitement is one which pervades this novel right from the opening pages, when we are introduced to the adult narrator and the incident which happens in the Loney that causes him to retrospect into the past he has been hoping would remain under wraps. It’s brilliant in fact how the sense of gothic tension is played to the hilt and keeps us hooked for a while. The family too is prime source material for this kind of place and theme, especially the characters of Mummer and Father Wilfried who both seem to be one shock or disappointment away from either going crazy with their devotion or completely losing their faith. The bond between the brothers is carefully etched out and we can understand the simple care and tender bonding between the two. In fact, most of the characters are evoked well and it is another triumph of the book that it enables us to care for these characters.
And the atmosphere. I can imagine one of the major reasons this was a feted, award-laden debut was because of the build-up of mood and tension the author manages around this seemingly godforsaken stretch of coastline called the Loney. It engulfs us in the despondent fascination surrounding the place and we can feel the currents and tides and the all-round gloominess our travelers feel. You could ask the very logical question as to why anybody would want to keep coming back to this place for what would probably be their only real vacation in the year, but then when you consider the religious symbolism attached to the place and that Mummer has a way of getting everyone around to her wishes, it becomes understandable.
But after doing so much of the hard work in setting up the place and the characters, where does the story really take us? The sad answer is, ultimately, not far enough. The book spends a considerable amount of time setting up the stage and the atmosphere for a gripping finale, but the denouement is unsatisfactory in both in its execution and its heightened ambiguity. I was not expecting a run of the mill horror story, but I did expect a bit more exposition in the events that were being built up to with so much promise. There is obviously a ritualistic sacrificial practise which is taking place and there are some disturbing elements being alluded to, but I get a feeling this would be more apparent to someone more familiar with biblical and pagan rituals. For me the last part was a bit of a let-down and left me with way too many questions than it should have.
But, I would like to take back the feeling the book most induced in me, the dreaded excitement of something exciting afoot. And for this reason alone, I would still recommend the discerning fan of Gothic fiction to try this. To end with, another beautifully constructed sentence from the book.
“Things lived at the Loney as they ought to live. The wind, the rain, the sea were all in their raw states, always freshly born and feral. Nature got on with itself. Its processes of death and replenishment happened without anyone noticing apart from Hanny and me.”