The Moorstone Sickness (1982) by Bernard Taylor

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The quiet English countryside beckons once again, luring unwary strangers into an ancient trap. After the loss of their son, Hal and Rowan leave the smog of London and by curious accident end up buying a house in a remote village somewhere in Devon. The real estate is cheap, the people are welcoming and even witnessing the suicide of a disturbed old person isn’t initially enough to ward off these newcomers eager for a new start. And look, aren’t those sprinkles of folk horror floating by in the lovely country air…?

The warning signs keep accumulating, and soon there’s a pattern: people move into town, stay with one of the older locals, who quickly goes crazy and is locked up in a mental asylum while the newcomer gives up his previous profession and takes over the old person’s house and lifestyle entirely. An actor somehow suddenly became a composer, like his benefactor, and an accountant decided he wanted to become a doctor, like his benefactor, and so on. There’s no spoiler here: Taylor telegraphs the situation very early on in this short novel, and still somehow gets away with it.

The Moorstone Sickness is written with beautiful precision and clarity, and there’s a pervading atmosphere of bad things to come hanging over the town and the novel throughout. Taylor makes all the right choices in keeping the suspension turned to 11: a notable moment comes early in chapter 1. After witnessing the aforementioned suicide, Hal doesn’t tell Rowan about it, and for a while things go on as if nothing had happened, only for problems to seethe under Hal’s cool surface.

And the town is so nice it’s too nice, the people somehow far too gentle and caring. But then the cracks begin to show and all the friendly smiles don’t feel that friendly anymore. All the characters are well written, especially the main characters, but even some of the lesser ones, like Tom the gardener, former man of the world reduced to returning home to a town he hates, whose sorrow in the end feels surprisingly touching, considering the circumstances. Of course the strategy of the townspeople is slightly suspect, as in wouldn’t it be easier to lure people who aren’t completely different from themselves, but then again we wouldn’t have a novel if everything was so simple.

It doesn’t really come as a huge surprise that one of the characters in this 1982 novel utters the line “Get out!” at one point, somehow predicting the title of one of the biggest horror films in recent years, which happens to have a fairly similar plot, although both probably share common ancestry in The Stepford Wives (1972). Unlike Jordan Peele and Ira Levin, Taylor opts for a fairly serious approach instead of a satirical one, where the explanation isn’t a crazy scientific experiment, but unexplained ancient mysticism and magic as represented by the looming stone from which the town gets its name. The result is a good old-fashioned horror novel, where the overall delivery is more important than all the bells and whistles. The Moorstone Sickness is an excellent, even if a very short novel, by one of the most underrated authors in the horror genre.

***** (5/5)