joysilence: (Barn owl from thesilvergoth)
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Although I seem to be constantly mentioning Robert Westall in these pages, it's been a while since I reviewed any of his books. So here are my thoughts on The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral, a collection of two unabashedly supernatural novellas.

The first novella is in fact called 'The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral' and is set in an ordinary (albeit fictional) cathedral city of the North of England (think Wakefield or Lancaster.)The narrator, Joe Clarke, is a steeple-jack by trade and lives in the town with his wife and ten-year-old son. One day he and his team are employed to repair the North Tower of Muncaster Cathedral. The experienced Steve is expecting it to be a straightforward job, but after a series of mishaps of growing severity he is forced to concede that his initial, instinctive aversion to the North Tower may be justified. Something has been released by the repair-work, and when that something tries to possess his son Bobby and lure him to his doom on the cathedral roof, Joe decides to put up a fight, even if it does mean revisiting some of the nastier episodes of the cathedral's history...

If you're a fan of M R James, the novella's title may have a familiar ring to it: I suspect the title was chosen in deliberate homage to the splendid James story 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral'. And Westall's novella is Jamesian in nature as well as in name. The series of creepy and potentially lethal cathedral-based events are highly reminiscent of the haunting of Barchester's pews, not to mention several other great James stories such as 'An Episode of Cathedral History' and 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook'. And of course most of the classic pre-war ghost story authors tried their hand at a church-based story at one point or another.

Fortunately, Westall is undaunted by this lofty pedigree, and is confident enough of his own (considerable) abilities as a horror writer to add some crucial modern touches to his ecclesiastical shocker! Although Joe seeks help at one point from a charismatic Vicar (who he gradually comes to respect despite his happy-clappy tendencies) he is definitely not your typical Jamesian narrator. This thirty-something steeplejack speaks with an appropriately rugged working-class voice - a voice Westall (himself a working-class Northerner) is very fond of using in his books. If that voice can occasionally seem almost too salt-of-the-earth (especially if you've read it all before in different Westall books) those moments are rare and Joe is a generally very likeable narrator. We're about as far away from M R James' patronising, "humorous" portrayals of working-class people as you can get, and for that I am truly thankful!

Most importantly, there are some top-flight frights to be had here. Westall may be paying tribute to James and co, but the age-old evil that lurks in the cathedral is truly original, in a "why didn't anyone else ever think of this?" sort of way. And for those as wants it, there's even a clear subtext about the way religious organisations can exploit the poor and their children. Subtext isn't always necessary for a good ghost story - in fact, I've become quite tired of all these recent authors who seem to believe that the presence of a weighty political or sociological Subtext is a suitable substitute for good writing - but Westall has always been good at subtext. I personally liked the way the story about a church becomes a story of the Church and felt it added an extra dimension to the horror. Altogether a cut above most modern attempts at the antiquarian ghost story. Modern members of the "James Gang" take note: this is how you do it!

The second and final story (also more of a novella) is Brangwyn Gardens. It deals with a male student who stumbles on the secret diary of a 40s teenage beauty in his landlady's attic. He reads it in his room in instalments, and the diary's sudden end brings him to the unescapable conclusion that the mystery girl, a London wartime ambulance-driver, died tragically in an explosion. As he progresses through the book, his interest in the dead girl waxes to unhealthy levels, while strange presences begin to occupy the house at night...

Here, Westall revisits a theme dear to him - the second World War, as experienced by the children and young people of Britain. Even the literary establishment, usually too snotty to recognise supernatural fiction, has been forced to acknowledge the quality of Westall's wartime tales (I know several people who even had The Machine-Gunners read to them by teachers at school!) So I was expecting something good. Sadly, "Brangwyn Gardens" falls short of the high standard set by the Muncaster story. While the hauntings are well-staged, Westall is going for creepy and erotic rather than full-on scary this time, and things don't quite gel. He relies too much on the "surprise" twist at the end, which is in fact visible from quite far away. Of course, the original target readership - teenagers - probably wouldn't see it coming as quickly (if they saw it at all) but I've come to expect adult-standard thrills and surprises from Westall, so this reminder of his status as a YA writer feels like a disappointment. The horrors of the war end up eclipsing any less tangible threats, which need not always be the case. It's still an enjoyable story, and with the Aickmanesque erotic element Westall is writing outside his "comfort zone", so I felt he did well in the circumstances!

All in all it's a good way to discover Robert Westall's fiction without committing to a longer novel. I don't know if this book is still in print, but it can usually be had from Fantasticfiction.co.uk for a matter of pence!
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