So what does any sensible Ghost Story afficionado choose to read on a bright, yet biting spring afternoon? For the first time this year the dank, morose and brooding atmosphere that this pervading weather system has been imposing, gave way and offered us a chink in its oppressive armour. Did I race outside to eradicate my vitamin k deficit? Did I choose a bright and breezy beach-fest? No. I settled down with Robert Westall. Having thoroughly enjoyed ‘Miss Peregrine’- with its emphasis on the power of stones- my subconscious must have drawn me towards this masonry -weighted tome like a fly into a web. While it is more cathedral than cairn, the end result was the same: top of the to read pile and unrelenting menace.
Normally, any bright sunshine speckling my favoured reading- spot would massively detract from the required brooding atmosphere that the reading of such books are best accustomed to, should you wish to maximise the expectant effect of terror and unease. A dark, shadowy corner in a rickety old pub, with rain battering its exterior, whilst wind whistles through any nook that it can find would be near perfect locale from which to evoke the mood required from such material. No matter for this tome! Despite the sunshine, I found myself completely lost in its isolated, decaying towers. The ordinariness of the narrator and his steeplejack companions neatly contrast the extraordinary experiences put forward: both validating and exposing the uneasy events that follow. Such a no-nonsense character could surely not be prone to flights of fancy- what he proposes no matter how improbable must hold weight…
While such juxtapositions are commonplace within the genre, combining this approach with the unsteady arena of the steeplejack, working away from our known zones of experiences up at cloud-level allows us to marvel at something unsettling without a desire to question its validity (perhaps because we have no experience here with which to measure it). By drawing on the phobia-laden arena of heights, whose dizzying effect only serves to enhance our apprehension: reminding us all too easily that the boundaries between the safe and comfortable exist all too near to our sanitised existences. The uncommon becomes accepted; a suspension of disbelief settles easily. Indeed many fears are ably exploited in our search for the source of unseen menace. Our fears as parents, of the masons, of loss- all exploiting that unseen, yet seemingly collective menace all the more. Feeling that there is a supernatural explanation for the strange magnetic pull the tower has on young boys, in tangent with unexplained deaths and accidents becomes the logical explanation-albeit a deeply unsettling one with a knarled, grotesque face.
Indeed while reading, vertiginous feelings prevailed alongside the even more disquieting sensation of being malevolently watched. If this is Westall’s particular prowess I will certainly have to seek out Valancourt’s other addition ‘Antique Dust’. Especially, when the accompanying story showcased within this collection impressed itself upon me even further than one as powerful as ‘Stones’. ‘Brangwyn Gardens’ adopts a tongue in cheek approach that can only be deemed as verging on some rather black humour. Here Westall clearly delves into his undergraduate experiences, to conjure a disturbing story that borrows from the universal experiences of students: grotty digs and mysterious landladies-as seen through the eyes of a selfish, lazy and unreliable student. Furthermore said male students insatiable lust is lambasted and cured by the implementation of a genius, albeit grotesque, twist involving an impressionable imagination and a very disturbing extended exploitation of the senses. The cathartic release of laughter accompanying the resolution is a welcome release of all the heady tension that is built: perhaps an intentional symbolic summation of the moral fabric of the story! Be careful what you lust after.
In conclusion, you could not wish for two more different but equally as effective Ghostly stories. They hint at the validity of Valancourt’s selection in Westall, to be discovered anew by fresh generation of readers- instilling confidence in their publications, should you be looking for more interesting reads than the mainstream often has to offer. Seek them out, like I do, and you will not be disappointed. Valancourt and Orrin Grey know their stuff! Let’s hope Antique Dust is still in stock….