This was a strange read for me, as Sam Haysom’s debut novel The Moor (Unbound, 2018, buy it here like) is a delve into a type of book that I don’t think I’ve read on purpose for at least fifteen years: supernatural horror.
That’s right, literary readers, pseudo-smartypants-poet-manboy-dogowner Scott Manley Hadley (me) read a book of supernatural horror. Not a book that aims to teach great cultural or emotional understanding, not a book that seeks to cause crushing fits of unstoppable tears, not a book that seeks to wow and overwhelm with gorgeous snippets of poesy, but a book that aims for something darker: fear, tension, the primal flush of adrenaline and the heart-stopping pump of terror. Ooomf.
I don’t know how to write about this book, because other than the Stephen King novel about a like haunted shop (¿title two words, second one “Things”?) when I was twelve or thirteen, I have never intentionally read a book that aims to terrorise through evocation of the sinister Fantastic. “But Mr Scott Manley Hadley, sir,” you ask, “You mean you haven’t read anything scary?”
Yes, I have read books about horrible things, about cruelty and neglect and selfishness and corruption.
Yes, I have read books of violence and despair and depression and self-destruction, but never have I ever – since my provincial youth – read a book where the antagonist, the threat, comes not from within a person’s mind, but from The Elsewhere, eviscerating its way into The Everyday. Threat and fear is not something I am unused to in fiction, but where I am used to encountering it (in the occasional thriller), that threat is always the result of corrupt humanity. Sometimes in the books I read (e.g. Kingsley Amis’ Colonel Sun), this depiction of corrupt humanity is poorly written and with scant believable justification, but my pursuit of narrative [etc] is always centred on a hunger for a greater knowledge of the world in which we live.
What I’m trying to say, with as much justification as possible, is that – even though I read it through and found it both gripping and intense – The Moor isn’t my kinda thing. Supernatural horror is not my kinda thing. I have so much ignorance of the genre that I don’t really know how to write about it.
I do not know the conventions of supernatural horror, I do not know the expectations a reader has when reading supernatural horror and thus I do not know – to be blunt – how seriously I am meant to take this story, because as scary and engaging as Sam Haysom’s book is, there is absolutely no way that the plot could happen in real life, y’know, and I found that difficult to forget whenever I wasn’t actively reading the book. However I was able to forget the plot’s impossibility when I was reading The Moor, which probably means it was working, right?
The Moor does a great job of creating real fear and real tension, but this fear and tension is rooted in the idea of a gently shape-shifting demon-like presence that sits within the skin of a supposedly safe human, a secretive monster that gorges on flesh. The title – not a shoutout to the subtitle of Othello – refers to Rutmoor1, the fictional setting of the piece. Rutmoor is a desolate, West Country natural park and the site of numerous mysterious deaths and disappearances throughout recorded history. Into its midst, in retro 2002, a group of five friends (all children) and one parent wander in, unaware of the dangers that wait in the darkness and the light, once they’re away from other people’s eyes and – crucially – mobile phone reception.
What happens next involves dismembered rabbits, children being swallowed whole by monsters, skulls, tales of witches, revelatory flashbacks (and flashforwards), multiple perspective shifts as well as sections of fictional press clippings (a la The Blind Assassin) detailing the circumstances of the monster’s other historic victims. Haysom writes the panic of these young boys and the darkness and unknowability of the moor with a gripping intensity, and as sinister forces begin nabbing the kiddies one by one the book becomes a heart-pounding read. When wrapped up in the prose I found myself pretty scared, even though as soon as I put the book down I remembered that everything that was scaring me about it wasn’t real.
I think this is what many readers like about supernatural horror, though, they like the fact that they’re being affected by something that they can put away and forget about when they’re done with it. I think lots of readers like books as escapism, books as a time to forget about real life and be moved and overwhelmed by emotions that they can control. Too scared? Put the book down. Absolutely terrified to the point of rage? Throw it in the sea, y’know.
I don’t read supernatural horror, so I can’t be certain that The Moor is a good example of the genre, but I can make the following guesses:
- Is The Moor scary? Yes.
- Did The Moor have multiple rounded characters? Yes, although – frustratingly for me – the first child to be murdered was my favourite of the gang.
- Did it play with structure in an engaging way? Yes, though a bit of tension was dissipated by a flashforward that made explicit which children survive 2002.
- Is the villain terrifying and unknowable? Yes, but he isn’t human.
And, I suppose, that final clause there is my big issue and I know that it’s a matter of personal taste. Though Haysom writes engaging, clear, prose, he writes it about a villain that isn’t and cannot be real. I am not used to reading books that deal with the unbelievable, I am not used to reading supernatural horror and that isn’t because I don’t understand its appeal, just that said appeal isn’t for me.
I like books that take me to parts of the world, of society, of other people’s experience, that I have never known, as well as books that relate experiences similar to those that I’ve had but evoked in a more impressive way than I could write them. I like real life monsters, hideous demonic villains, like repression and despair and ignorance and hatred and decline and illness and death. I like real life vanquishers of evil like love and respect and hope and personal growth and not doing anything, ever, just because it’s “normal”. (NB These are the themes of my forthcoming poetry collection Bad Boy Poet – not yet available for pre-order.)
I understand that many people want and sometimes need escapism in their leisure time, and I understand why. Maybe, as I become evermore content in my day to day life, I too will want to forget about mortality and prejudice and cruelty and pain when reading prose, but right now, I don’t.
Supernatural horror, sorry Mr Haysom, just isn’t my bag.
So, I suppose you’re wondering, why did I read The Moor? Because Sam Haysom is my friend and I’m willing to try anything once. But like Grindr, all-inclusive holiday resorts, Finnegans Wake and living in Middle England, I know in my heart that supernatural horror is not for me. At the moment, anyway.
It’s a fun novel, though, I enjoyed it. Again, buy it here, support new writing. Especially if you’re into supernatural horror like.
1. Clearly Haysom hasn’t read as much Jilly Cooper as I have. NB I have read one Jilly Cooper and I RUTTING LOVED IT. ↩