Exploring the Strange Case of Starve Acre
A novel published twice in six months, by two ‘authors’ with different endings!
By: Tony Jones
If you head to Amazon you will find two books called Starve Acre, the first published last March authored by Jonathan Buckley and the book I am reviewing today by Andrew Michael Hurley released at the end of October. A closer look will show the books have identical blurbs; confused? Buckley is a pseudonym for Hurley who originally wrote this short and very powerful story for The Eden Book Society a series of short novels or novellas all written with pseudonyms by distinguished dark fiction authors of today. The series has a very clever marketing strategy which packages them as ‘rediscovered’ works by a long defunct and mysterious book society which specialised in weird fiction.
The excellent Dead Ink Books is behind this ingenious publishing gimmick and this is what their website said when the project was announced to the book world:
“Dead Ink Books is pleased to announce that it has secured the rights to the entire Eden Book Society backlist and archives. For the first time, these books, nearly a century of unseen British horror, will be available to the public. The original authors are lost to time, but their work remains and Dead Ink will be faithfully reproducing the publications by reprinting them one year at a time.”
If we play Dead Ink’s game Starve Acre was published around 1972, which is pretty funny as Andrew Michael Hurley was not yet born. The lovely mini paperback even includes a very convincing fake biography for ‘author’ Jonathan Buckley. I am not entirely how successful the series has been thus far or whether the other 1972 ‘authors’ real identities have been outed, but it is no surprise this book is being republished under the author’s real name it is just too good to remain hidden in an independent press. But giving the indie press the first bite at the ‘literary cherry’ is a very nice gesture and an appreciate nod at the quality of books Dead Ink are currently publishing. Ink Heist recently reviewed Lucie McKnight Hardy’s Water Shall Refuse Them, another example of their excellent track record.
I tracked down Nathan Connolly Publishing Director at Dead Ink books who had this to say: “The Eden authors were always intended to be an ‘open’ secret. We didn’t put too much effort into hiding them and the point was always to make it that readers can engage with the project by suspending their disbelief.” Also, with the arrival of the John Murray hardback the Eden Society version will go out of print, Nathan goes onto say: [This is] “something I’m quite happy with as I always wanted elements of rarity and mystery to come into play with Eden editions.” So, if you’re after this version buy one of the final copies on the market before the second-hand price skyrockets!
In the UK, Hurley is a major force in the revival of interest in Folk Horror, with his outstanding debut The Loney being both a huge commercial and critical hit (winning the Costa First Novel) after initially being released on a tiny print-run of under 300 copies. His second novel Devil’s Day was equally startling and this third effort has all his trademarks condensed into 250 riveting pages with an undiagnosed sense of the uncanny in an isolated Yorkshire country house with a family failing to cope with an overwhelming tragedy.
As there is nothing in particular to date the book, even if it does feel slightly more modern than 1972, it could very well have been written-to-order for the mythical Eden Book Society and if their promotion is to be believed “Prompted an outcry when it garnered the fury of the British press who described it as obscene and grotesque.” I love that type of hype!
Before getting to the plot, it is worth noting that the lovely Dead Ink paperback has chapters and that the John Murray ARC did not. Numbered chapters are a strange feature to omit from an ARC, and I hope they are reinstated for the release of the Hurley hardback as they are crucial to the story which is told in two timelines which are relatively close together and without them it is significantly harder to follow. The only factor which differentiates them is the single tragic event which the book revolves around.
Set in the wilds of remote north Yorkshire Starve Acre revolves around the death of a child, so the story is ultimately even bleaker than the location. The first narrative follows the events leading up to the death and the second a few months afterwards. Both are harrowing reads, especially as the death itself dominates both threads but is described in only the vaguest of terms. On one level, the book is a study of the grief felt by Richard and Juliette Willoughby and how they cope with the death of their five-year-old son Ewan, but there is much more to it than that. I know, and with good reason, many readers avoid novels which centre upon the deaths of children, but this gripping tale is a powerful study and equal to Andrew Cull’s masterful Remains which was published recently, dealing with a similar subject.
This exquisite novel has several layers and like everything Andrew Michael Hurley has written the location is absolutely critical. Richard and Juliette inherited Starve Acre from his parents and although he did not particularly wish to return to his childhood home, his wife persuades him to do so. Not long afterwards the behaviour of their son Ewan becomes unpredictable, with signs of cruelty, and there is a brooding sense that something is not right. What makes this even more powerful is that the reader knows right from the off about the death of the boy and what follows centres upon the journey towards this horrific event and the latter disintegration of the family.
The house resides beside a patch of ground which in previous centuries was used for hangings, where a legendary oak tree once stood and which Richard develops an unhealthy interest in, whilst his son is fearful of the location. Developing bad dreams and fear of the dark, Ewan claims to hear a man called ‘Jack Grey’ who sounds like a bogeyman from English folklore, however, I could not find any reference to him except for as a character in other ghost stories. These sequences simply crackled and the fear experienced by the child was palpable, especially as the reader knows what calamity awaits around the corner.
Throw in an outstanding séance scene, shocking animal cruelty, Richard and Juliette’s inability to help their child despite his cries for help and isolation at the local primary school, you have a multi-layered and outstanding story. Much of the supernatural element is incredibly subtle and kept very low key and just do not get me started on the hare in the pram. That was quite simply breath-taking imagery.
The pacing is exquisite which heads towards an outstanding ending. But which ending? The John Murray release has a completely different conclusion to the original Eden Society finish. I’m not going to reveal which I preferred, but the final shocking vision in the John Murray version is very hard to forget.
A highly recommended read and the sake of picking up something different I would recommend trying to track down the Eden Book Society Edition before it disappears from print, so you can marvel at their efforts to recreate 1972 and introduce ‘Jonathan Buckley’ (deceased 1970 after a heart attack) on an unsuspecting world.
2019 also saw the rerelease of these 1972 ‘releases’ who knows which modern-day horror maestros lurk behind the mysterious pseudonyms?
JM McVulpin – Plunge Hill: a Case Study
LG Vey – Holt House
Chuck Valentine – The Castle
DA Northwood – Judderman (an excellent novella by the ‘outed’ Gary Budden after it was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award.