The worst thing possible has happened. Richard and Juliette Willoughby’s son, Ewan, has died suddenly at the age of five. Starve Acre, their house by the moors, was to be full of life, but is now a haunted place.
Juliette, convinced Ewan still lives there in some form, seeks the help of the Beacons, a seemingly benevolent group of occultists. Richard, to try and keep the boy out of his mind, has turned his attention to the field opposite the house, where he patiently digs the barren dirt in search of a legendary oak tree.
A chilling, folk-horror story packed with a creeping sense of dread and wrongness, Starve Acre will keep you engaged right until the end. Quite simply, I had to know how this ended. Unfortunately, this led to what was my biggest gripe with this.
But, before we get to that, let’s talk about some positives! What was it that made me need to finish this book? It was the atmosphere. It sucked me in and oozed through in every sentence, paragraph and word choice. Michael Hurley clearly has a talent here as everything about this story is filled with an unsettling sense of wrongness and tension that is utterly captivating. Sure, it relies on a few cliches and frequently used tropes – the lonely house on the moors; the unfriendly locals, the grief-stricken couple; the creepy child – but they’re common in horror for a reason: they work.
This strong sense of atmosphere leads to one of the most intriguing aspects of this book, and that is the pacing. It’s quite a short story, right? So, it should be fast-paced, right? Well, not quite. Despite being only 200-odd pages long and having an audiobook length of roughly five hours, it isn’t a book where you feel like the plot races along. Certainly not in the first half, anyway. The opening of this book almost feels languid, and this feels very deliberate. Michael Hurley is letting you soak in the atmosphere he has created. Though, as the supernatural aspects of the story come more and more into play from the halfway mark, the pace does begin to build gradually, until a final confrontation feels inevitable.
Unfortunately, this final confrontation and ending was completely lacklustre. Or so I felt, anyway. I’ve seen other reviews where people loved it. However, in my opinion, nothing felt resolved. I knew some bad shit was about to go down, but I feel like we were cheated out of actually find out what happened. Being brutally honest, this is the first book in a long time which I have put down and sworn for bad reasons. In the end, I gave it a middling rating of three stars on Goodreads, but it was very nearly lower just because of the ending.
Moving away from the ending, we have the characters of the story. It primary revolves around Richard and Juliette Willoughby, and their son Ewan (he might be dead, but he gets plenty of flashback scenes). There are a couple other reoccurring characters, such as a close family friend called Gordon, but they only really get limited page time. And what can I say about these characters? They are done well, they’re okay. None of the characters elicited strong emotions in me, bar Ewan who has some serious creepy child vibes and, despite being five, feels menacing at times. Though, at other times he feels very sweet and innocent. Easily the best written character. Writing these characters, it felt like the author stayed very safe with his horror stereotypes. As such, they don’t bring anything hugely original or unique, but within these cliches they are done perfectly well.
Now, I did listen to this as in audiobook form, so it would be remiss of me to not mention Richard Burnip and his delivery. Which, for me, was superb. His performance undoubtedly adds to what this book’s greatest strength, which is the atmosphere. In fact, his narration during the sample was what clinched Starve Acre as my choice for using this month’s Audible credit – with in a minute or so, I knew he had done a great job and his style fitted this book perfectly.
So, overall, would I recommend Starve Acre? I can’t say. The atmosphere, creeping tension and journey through the plot is enjoyable and kept me wanting more, but I honestly don’t think the payoff is there. Make of that what you will.