Musty Books: “The Nature of the Beast” by Janni Howker (1985)

What is “The Nature of the Beast”? Literally speaking, it’s the identity of the mysterious animal that is slaughtering livestock on the hills above Haverston, a remote moorland town in North-West England. But it equally applies to the simmering fury that threatens to overwhelm the book’s central characters – teenage narrator Bill Coward and his father Ned – as well as being a remarkably philosophical dismissal of the whole sorry situation by Bill’s beer-sodden grandfather, Chunder.

Surely written during (and inspired by) the troubled fury of the 1984 miners’ strike, the book is a damning condemnation of the economic policy of the era. Haverston’s main employer, Stone Cross Mill, is closing down, forcing the bulk of the town’s working population – including Ned – into redundancy, and robbing an already-depressed area of its main identity. Bill, effectively sharing a home with both his father and grandfather, sets out his stall early on: confiding, with best friend Mick, that his long-term plan to escape a seemingly hopeless future is to live in a cave on the moors, shooting rabbits and grouse with his air rifle and raiding allotments during the winter months.

Into this situation comes “The Beast”, whose arrival – surprisingly late in the tale – at least gives Bill a sense of short-term purpose. Brutally slaughtering the hens that Chunder has acquired in a vague plan to build a lucrative cockfighting empire (yes, the book is that bleak) and picking off the sheep of windswept moorland farms, it naturally excites the headline-writers of the town’s sensationalist Gazette newspaper (“HAVERSTON BEAST STRIKES AGAIN!”), and the paper’s offer of £500 for a clear photo incites Bill and Mick to steal a camera from their well-meaning teacher “Oggy” Oglethorpe’s car and head to the moors, seeking both glory and brief financial respite for their families.

The exact setting of the novel might be left a little vague (there are mentions of Lancashire, but also of Border TV and seagulls, so my educated guess is somewhere close to the Lancashire/Cumbrian coastline… if I had a map, the pin would be hovering above Barrow-in-Furness) but the sense of place and landscape, and indeed of a very distinct and depressed era of social history, is almost overpowering. This a town seemingly permanently shrouded in darkness, with a strong community huddled into pubs and houses virtually unchanged since the 1940s. Indeed, the occasional intrusions of modernity – the TV crews, for example, that cover the Mill’s closure – seem starkly incongruous.

And the moor itself, a black deathtrap of peaty marshland and bare-boned sheepfarms, smothers the town and effectively as effectively as the prevailing economic climate. Bill – a perceptive and intelligent teenager – is trapped in Haverston in every conceivable sense, and his righteous fury at this situation threatens to increasingly overpower him. I was even a little disappointed when a rational, believable explanation for the presence of “The Beast” is ultimately offered: it works so well as a metaphor for Bill (and Haverston’s) anger, a physical manifestation of their rage, its nocturnal raids on livestock and livelihoods effectively an act of self-harm.

But nevertheless, what a book. It effortlessly weaves the desolation of its setting and situation with the charming internal monologue of a typical smalltown teenage boy. The friendship between Bill and Mick – hiding in ramshackle dens, adding to the pointless graffiti (‘MOOR MODS RULE OK’) in bus shelters – is touchingly and believably portrayed, and given an extra depth by the revelation that Mick’s father is Stone Cross Mill’s put-upon Union Rep, blamed by the community for not making a firm enough stand for their jobs, and himself bitter about what he perceives to be his own workforce’s apathetic lack of militancy.

The ending is shocking and heart-rending in so many ways. Bill finds personal vindication in his quest to uncover the identity of the moorland killer, but his story is characteristically written-off in favour of the local media’s preferred narrative. Even in triumph, he has no voice. And you may even find some sympathy for The Beast: I did. Janni Howker wrote only three books and a handful of short stories, and – as far as I can see – there’s been nothing since 1997. But she rightly earned the Whitbread Literary Prize for Childrens’ Books for this, her debut novel, and you’ll rarely find a book that reflects the anger and hopelessness of the 1980s Northern industrial experience in such a devastating fashion.

Update: Read the comments below for a wonderful development… regular blog reader Mark Holden was the boy who posed for the cover of this book, back in 1985. His family was a friend of artist Stephen Lavis, who often based used images of people he knew for his cover illustrations!

In April 2020, Mark kindly agreed to restage the cover picture 35 years on, with photos taken by his nine-year-old daughter… needless to say, I’m delighted with the outcome.

Mustiness Report: A fragrant 3/10. My copy is a 1987 reprint, so there’s time yet for for it to achieve its full Mustiness Potential. The pages, though, are the colours of an old-school pub ceiling, which is pleasing: for sake of argument, let’s say it’s the Hare and Hounds, in nearby Kirkby Haverston.