Black Harvest – Ann Cheetham (Ann Pilling)

Black Harvest – Ann Cheetham
Armada – 1983


“A novel about a haunted house in Ireland? Yes. I will read that.”

Those were my thoughts when I first heard of Ann Pilling’s Black Harvest. After looking it up, I discovered that it was the first in a series of five “young adult” novels. I’m afraid of commitment, so I don’t really like series, and I’m also a grown man, so I don’t read YA. When I skimmed the reviews on goodreads, I noticed that several mention that this is very scary for a book aimed at teenagers, so I decided to give it a go.

This is not just a horror story set in Ireland. This is supernatural story about the horrors of the Irish Potato Famine.

The worst year of the Irish Potato Famine was 1847. That’s long enough ago that not even my great grandparents would have been directly affected by it. Intergenerational trauma is a real thing, but the Great Hunger of 170 years ago never caused me any suffering until last week when I picked up this book.

Jesus Christ, this was a pile of shit.

I usually get through 2 books a week. This piece of crap is less than 200 pages, and it took me 8 days to finish it. The writing is excruciating. I struggled to read more than a chapter each night. Wretched stuff.

A family decides to spend their holiday in a cottage in the Irish countryside. When they arrive, their baby sister won’t stop crying, and the kids all feel hungry. Every piece of food they bring into their cottage rots immediately. When the kids go outside, they see very skinny ghosts eating muck and trying to trade dead babies for food. Their mom goes crazy and abandons them.

It turns out the house is haunted because some famine victims are buried under it. The kids exhume their corpses, and the skinny ghosts go away.

At the end of the book, the author notes that when she was commissioned to write this novel she was “uneasy about horror novels. Horror was a genre [she] associated with “pulp”, with cheap, overblown writing where the author stands on tiptoe throughout to achieve ghastly effects. [She] associated it with mutants and ectoplasm, a world in which [she] had no interest.” In other words, she didn’t have any understanding of horror whatsoever, but she was convinced that she could do better than the hacks who wrote within that pathetic genre. She then goes on to say, “I decided that any spine-chilling story I might attempt would have to be rooted in reality. In The Great Hunger I found it”

So The Great Hunger is actually a non fiction book about the Irish Potato Famine. Let’s step back and think about what Ann Pilling has chosen to do here:

In Black Harvest, the author takes the suffering of poor Irish people and turns it into the main attraction at her “spine-chilling” fun fair. The events the kids witness in this story actually happened to real people. More than a million people died because they didn’t have enough to eat, and Ann Pilling decided to use their suffering to give her teenage readers a quick scare.

To Pilling, horror is uninteresting because it’s not rooted in reality. Personally, I enjoy reading horror because it is not reality. Reality is way more fucked up than any fiction. Frankenstein isn’t really horrifying. What the Catholic church did to children is horrifying. I don’t mind reading a story about a monster killing a kid, but I absolutely do not want to read a story about a priest doing the same thing. That’s not entertaining. It’s real, and it’s horribly depressing.

Maybe Pilling meant well, but this book fails on every level. I will not be reading the other books in the series. If you find a copy of this book, avenge Skibbereen by tearing it up and recycling the paper.

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