Friday, 6 December 2013

Building a Spooky Library - Robert Westall

Robert Atkinson Westall (1929-1993) was one of the most prolific ghost story authors of all time. He is probably the best-known British ghost story writer of the 20th century - I'd wager more people have heard of him than M.R. James. Yet his status within the genre has always been problematic, because he was a children's author. For some this consigns his work to second class status - they seem to think that only books for adults deal with 'serious' themes and ideas. For me this is a short-sighted and wrong-headed viewpoint.

In writing for children, who are notoriously exacting critics, Westall had to focus on plot, character, and ideas, and do a competent job - no loose ends, no rambling digressions, and no self-indulgent 'fine writing'. Technically, Westall only wrote one collection of ghost stories for adults - the excellent Antique Dust. But in fact most of his work is entertaining for readers of all ages, and much of what he wrote for young readers is surprisingly mature. It is also full of humour and warmth, while at the same time informed with a very keen awareness of how stupid and cruel people of all ages can be.

If I had to recommend a handful of Westall's books for your shelf, I would go for the following. Antique DustBreak of Dark, The Promise, The Watch House, and The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral. It's worth noting that Westall wrote many short stories and some were collected in more than one volume. Sadly, it's also true that - according to the author's website - a lot of his books are now out of print. However, almost every one of them is a mass-market paperback, so at least second-hand copies won't be too hard to find.

The Watch House, his second novel, is a ghost story set in Tynemouth (Westall's home turf, which he renames Garmouth), and follows fairly traditional principles - something very bad happened in the past, a restless spirit is trying to contact the living to set things right. What makes the book remarkable - apart from the realistic, intelligent characterisation - is the degree of thought Westall puts into the mechanism of his haunting. His ghosts always have not only a good reason for their antics, but in this case a variation on the traditional theme of 'unfinished business' is cleverly devised. No spoilers here!

The Promise is a vampire story, also set in Garmouth. During World War 2 Bob, a working class boy, falls in love with Valerie, a consumptive girl from a middle class home. The social division between them gives a slight Romeo and Juliet feel to the romance. But things rapidly take a Gothic turn as Valerie's condition worsens. She exacts the promise of the title from Bob - if she is lost, he will come and find her. Then she dies. Pale, red-haired, and filled with a desperate, selfish need, Valerie draws Bob to her. If the book has one flaw, it's a finale that has more than a touch of the deus ex machina.

Break of Dark offers some enjoyable examples of what used to be called 'science fantasy', and one superb tale of the supernatural. 'Blackham's Wimpey' is told from the viewpoint of a young RAF airman serving with Bomber Command during the controversial area bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. The descriptions of night bombing operations are compelling in themselves, but the addition of a haunting - and the way it is tackled - make this a first-rate ghost story. It's full of the understated artistic touches that make Westall's best work such a joy, especially the contrast between the cloud base over Germany when the triggering incident occurs and the mist-covered ocean that the crewmen fly over at the end. As with so many of his stories, Westall here stressed compassion and the need for moral responsibility, even to one's bitter enemies - perhaps especially to them. The volume also includes a very creditable vampire story,

Antique Dust, as I've said, contain stories for adults, but in fact there's little to distinguish them in content or quality from Westall's other short fiction. The linking character in most of the stories is an antique dealer who encounters odd items and strange people in the course of business. Westall, a teacher by profession, also dealt in antiques, and the circumstantial details are absorbing. What is arguably the best tale of a very good bunch, 'The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux', is pure M.R. James in setting and theme - unruly schoolkids explore an old church and disturb someone/thing nasty. Old Monty would not have approved of the romantic sub-plot, though.

The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral consists of a novella and a short story, collected in a single volume. It won the Dracula Society's Children of the Night Award, and it's easy to see why. The companion piece is nothing special (by Westall standards) but the title story is strong stuff, even for a 'young adult' audience. A steeplejack working on the restoration of a cathedral becomes fascinated by a gargoyle. A series of disturbing events reveals that this particular house of God was constructed by distinctly unholy means - and the dark forces summoned in mediaeval times are still very active. It is a genuine horror story, made all the more effective by being told in the prosaic, decent voice of an ordinary working man.

So, there are a few examples of good books by Robert Westall. Sadly, the death of a prolific writer usually leads to a fairly sharp drop in awareness of his work. In my late teens the second-hand bookshops I frequented had shelfloads of Dennis Wheatley paperbacks - he was only recently deceased. A few years later, you could seldom find one dog-eared copy of The Devil Rides Out. Some enthusiasts have recently begun publishing new editions of Wheatley's book, but it's taken a generation since his death for his work to be 'rediscovered'. Westall, a vastly better writer, does not deserve to be half-forgotten when all those second-hand paperbacks have finally fallen apart. I hope some enterprising publisher will publish a decent hardback of his best short fiction, at the very least.

Oh, I almost forgot - he liked cats.

6 comments:

Aonghus Fallon said...

I read a lot of Westall in my teens and early twenties, then stumbled across an anthology a few years back, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was surprising to find - after so many years - just how good he is. I remember one story in particular: about a young policeman whose beat is a small seaside town and who realises the stone bath adjacent to a popular monument may not be all that it seems….

I managed to track down a few of his paperbacks subsequently, including 'The Watchhouse'. Unfortunately I haven't got round to reading it yet!

valdemar said...

Yes, a great story! I think it's in Break of Dark. The Watch House is an early book but has all his trademark realism, humour, and occasional acerbic comment on the grown-up world. One scene they left out of the Eighties TV adaptation features two clergymen playing tennis... But I won't spoil it for you.

James Everington said...

Great post - I wasn't aware of his work, but now I am. Looks like I'll be buying yet more books soon...

valdemar said...

I don't think you'll regret picking up a few second hand paperbacks, James. Like Philip K. Dick (oddly enough) Westall is one of those writers whose books I have to be careful with, because if I start re-reading one I have to finish it.

Todd T said...

Thanks for posting this, David. Always loved Westall and he deserves more attention. Have you read THE WHEATSTONE POND? That's one I have never tracked down.

valdemar said...

No Todd, but there was a BBC Radio 4 adaptation a few years ago, which I enjoyed. Also, I think I know which pond he had in mind...