Some horror doesn’t require jump scares. Sometimes only a rambling country estate, an eternally fallow field and the mountainous grief of a parent mourning a child are needed. Starve Acre is a meditative disaster story, a slow-motion record of life imploding.
When Richard and Juliette Willoughby’s troubled 5-year-old son, Ewan, dies unexpectedly, their lives become a daily struggle to maintain equilibrium. Eventually they stop leaving the titular country estate Richard inherited from his father, nursing their wounds in rural isolation. Juliette continues her descent into bereaved delirium and Richard spends his days conducting archeological research on the ancient oak that once stood in the dead field behind the house. Slowly, it becomes indelibly clear that something is very, very wrong at Starve Acre.
Author Andrew Michael Hurley (The Loney) is a beautiful writer and a clever narrative architect. He doles out information piecemeal in remarkably fluid prose, leaving ample space to dissect his fascinating, flawed characters. Richard and Juliette are coping with Ewan’s death in understandably dysfunctional ways, while Juliette’s sister, Harrie, proselytizes the services of the therapist who rescued her from her own trauma. Were it not a horror novel, Starve Acre would make an excellent Ibsen play.
But Starve Acre is, in fact, a horror novel, and so it inevitably seeks to explain the human tragedies of isolation, mental illness and grief via inhuman foes. In this universe, the normal cruelty of children pales before the fey capriciousness of the spirits hidden in the Willoughbys’ lifeless yard. At times, the novel teeters on the edge of casting aspersions at children deemed “antisocial” and folk spirituality, and strays dangerously close to outdated ideas that psychiatric or developmental disorders were caused by demonic possession. Psychiatry itself also comes out worse for the wear, with practitioners portrayed as rigidly manualized know-it-alls unwilling to step outside the annotated bounds of their anesthetized profession.
Still, Hurley succeeds in crafting a remarkably realistic world where there are no paragons and no ideal institutions. Starve Acre is a beautifully crafted slice of melancholy, a dig through the darker corners of British folklore and a remarkably nuanced portrayal of how grief can linger.