Andrew Pentecost is a 30-something schoolteacher who returns to his family farm with his pregnant wife to bury his recently deceased grandfather, to observe the annual Devil’s Day ritual and to perform the annual duty of gathering the sheep after Devil’s Day.
The folk tradition of Devil’s Day involves the slaughter of the first lamb of the season amid singing and ritual to keep away the devil or the “Owd Feller”.
It is practised by the few locals of the Pentecosts’ desolate valley in a remote rural community called the Endlands on the border of Yorkshire and Lancashire.
Devil’s Day commemorates the devil’s visit to the Endlands a century or so ago, causing a spate of premature deaths during a blizzard, before he was tricked into banishment for the season.
So now “all stories in the valley have to begin with the Devil”.
Most of Andrew’s knowledge of the devil is derived from his late grandfather The Gaffer who had imparted his folk wisdom of how to spot him: “Look for an animal trying to be an animal, Johnny lad, and it’s probably him. He can’t always get it right. That’s why he likes to hide himself in a flock so no one notices.”
Apart from those who, like the Pentecosts, scratch out a living from the land, the only source of local employment is the abattoir.
But though poor the Pentecosts have lived on the site for several generations and Andrew feels a powerful impulse to return to his ancestral home permanently.
However his wife Kat, an affluent vicar’s daughter and an outsider, is resistant to the idea.
And it gradually becomes clear that there is more to the tradition of Devil’s Day than meets the eye.
The Pentecosts and their neighbours harbour secrets and as the novel progresses it emerges that Andrew does too.
As with Hurley’s first book the real star is the menacing landscape that “looks as if it hasn’t changed since the glaciers retreated and yet no two days are the same”.
The Pentecosts’ world is one in which rain falls “with violence”, tree roots are “thick, misshapen bones” and the leaves are “gently mouldering in the ditches”. Life in the Endlands is mostly nasty, brutish and, for the less fortunate, short.
Hurley is adept at building a claustrophobic crescendo of dread as truths emerge, local animosities are pursued and the line between superstition and savagery becomes blurred.
Although some of the secondary characters would benefit from greater depth of characterisation, Devil’s Day is evocative and unsettling, exploring the potency of tradition, place and allegiance in a brutal rural environment.