Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Robert Westall

In addition to Charles L. Grant and Gahan Wilson, another author I used to fill out that Better World Books order (this is the last you'll be hearing about it, I promise) was Robert Westall.  I first encountered Westall's work last September, while reading the inaugural edition of the Stephen Jones/Ramsey Campbell Best New Horror, which included the novelette "The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux."  I didn't find that story particularly innovative or spooky, but I did enjoy Westall's dry humor, and thought vaguely that I ought to buy one of his books if I came across a cheap copy.  Later that same month I read Simon Bestwick's fine ghost story collection, A Hazy Shade of Winter.  About a quarter of that book is taken up by the excellent novella "Until My Darkness Goes."  Not only is that novella dedicated to Westall's memory, but a fictionalized version of one of his books is the initial source the ghost.  My interest in Westall was redoubled.  Then came the BWB sale, where I was able to obtain both volumes of a posthumous best-of collection of Westall's "ghostly" stories.

That subtitle, "ghostly," is an apt one, for several of the included tales are not ghost stories in the obvious sense, and some aren't even supernatural.  What links them is Westall's gift for writing about regret, memory, and the weight of the past.  Many of these stories were originally published in books aimed at young adult audiences, but Westall never talks down to his audience and, like all the best young adult fiction, his stories can be enjoyed by a reader of any age.

What I like most about the stories in these two volumes is their range, both of subjects and of sympathy.  Westall can write a fine traditional ghost story about the mysterious residents of a small village and the old church that holds their secret ("St. Austin Friars"), but he can also write with authority about a ghostly soldier who links the first and second World Wars ("The Haunting of Chas McGill"), about a haunted toilet in a disused school ("The Boys' Toilets"), or about a gang of young bikers on a midnight ride ("The Night Out.").  More than that, he is able to write respectfully and kindly about all these characters.  Bikers aren't young toughs who deserve to punished, a cruel, controlling wife can be victim as well as villain, and the man who took an ancient photograph of a dead girl may not be the monster you expect.  It seems to me that too many writers use the ghost and horror story didactically, to complain about this or that group of people, or about the horribleness of "modern times" or "city folk" or what have you.  Westall can sometimes drift in that direction, but his sense of our common humanity is too strong for him to give in fully to that sort of bitter grumpiness.

But enough about humanity-- these are ghost stories, after all.  Are they scary?  Well, yes, I think that many of them are.  "Woman and Home" manages to turn a walk through a perfectly ordinary empty house into something remarkably tense, and "A Walk on the Wild Side" reminds us just how scary even a domestic cat can be.  There are, however, other kinds of atmosphere at which the ghost story can aim than fear, and Westall explores several of them.  Sometimes he writes about friendly ghosts.  Ordinarily I agree with M. R. James' remark that "amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy stories or local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story," but the one in Westall's "The Cat, Spartan" is unobtrusive enough, and the human characters so well if broadly drawn, that it works out anyway.  And the kindly spirits of "Graveyard Shift" are balanced by one who is very malevolent indeed, so that's all right.

Then there are a couple stories with religious themes.  As a rule I'm not big on those either, but Westall isn't preaching anything other than a very general morality, and is willing to accept characters in spite of their frailties.  In "Rachel and the Angel," a young girl's thoughtless wish brings a destructive spirit to her town, and the only way she can save it is to find righteous people.  This modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah plays out along familiar enough lines, but Westall knows how to make an angel frightening, and has a keen eye for the pathetic yet sympathetic sins of ordinary people.  "A Nose Against the Glass" finds an old man in his antique shop on Christmas Eve, from which the apparition of a child leads him out into the snow in search of something that may be redemption.  Now, if you described that plot to me, I'd be making sarcastic gagging noises and vowing never to read such a thing.  The reason I finished it and liked it is that Westall makes the antique dealer feel real.  He's not a Scrooge; he's a tired old man who can be happy or sad or cruel or kind depending on how his day goes, and Westall presents him in all his modes before leading him into strange events.  And the ending, which reverses the expected cliche somewhat, generates a melancholy atmosphere that makes the story infinitely more memorable.

Reversals of expectation are another of Westall's virtues.  One of the stories in Shades of Darkness makes you imagine evil that isn't really there, while another suggests a stock ghost story ending only to reject it in a way that sent a genuine shiver down my spine; a third mixes the ghost story with another genre to generate an unexpected conclusion.  And "The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux," which was included in Demons and Shadows and which I liked a bit more this time around, has a nice little trick up its sleeve too.  A few stories feel too traditional-- "The Death of Wizards" offers the well-worn notion that being able to read others' thoughts wouldn't be much of a blessing-- but even in those cases, you can find small touches to enjoy.

Westall is also a master of what you might call the non-supernatural ghost story.  What is that, you ask (assuming you didn't give up two long paragraphs ago)?  Why, it's a story that achieves the atmosphere and literary "heft" of a ghost story without having anything definitely unnatural.  Glen Hirshberg's The Snowman's Children is a fine novel-length example; Oliver Onions' "The Honey in the Wall" is a shorter one.  Westall here offers several.  I've already mentioned "The Night Out," but there's also "The Making of Me" and "Gifts from the Sea," two haunting stories about what war, or a relative's memories of war, can do to young children.  And then there's "Fifty-Fafty," in which a folk tale about a tragic, ironic murder is the hinge for a meditation on injustice, history, and collective imagination.  The opening to that story is such a fine example of Westall's way with words that I'm going to include two pages of it:

Friday afternoons, my mother picked me up from school and we went shopping down the town. Out of our leafy suburb, down into the smoky jungle. Wondrous shops were there, full of dinky toys and pink ladies' corsets. But the poor were there too. Beyond the shops, all down to the river, they got poorer and poorer. In the lower depths they Drank, and had no drains; emptied their soapy washing-up water and worse straight into the furrows of yellow clay paths that trickled, in the end, into the black waters of the Tyne, iridescent with the sick beauty of oil and awash with broken fish boxes, where only the inedible blackjack swam, caught by boys who had no boots or shoes, and left lying to rot on the cobbled quays. Where dirty women hung out of windows and shouted incomprehensible things as you passed, and did incomprehensible things with sailors, then cut their throats as they slept and lifted their wallets and dropped their bodies straight into the river through trapdoors in their houses.
I don't remember how old I was. I know I had sadly abandoned hope of dragons. I had checked for wolves under the stairs and found only a sack of musty potatoes, and a meter with the faint exciting whiff of gas. But there were still monsters. The lamplighter walking in front of us was a minor wizard. He put up his long pole to the gas lamps and created darkness. It was broad daylight till the gas lamps flared instantly, night gathering around them like smoke. My own headmaster was a fabulous monster of sorts. Tiny, bent, wizened and silver-haired, we loved him. But the boys said that he had once been a six-foot sergeant major in the Welsh Guards, broad as a house with a voice like a bull. Till the gas got him, in the Battle of the Somme. And down the town there were much more satisfying monsters like Happy Ralph, who lurked at the bottom of Borough Road and rushed out at you with outstretched arms and incoherent cries, whether to embrace you or strangle you nobody ever lingered to find out. On Sundays, Happy Ralph went from church to church, roaming the aisles and terrifying the vicar in his pulpit and the spinsters in their pews.

A trackless safari into the dusk. But not without waterholes. First my Aunt Rose's house, only a little way into the jungle, where people still holystoned their doorsteps and polished their knockers daily. But Aunt Rose was definitely a denizen of the jungle, her living room long and dark as a dungeon, only a pale ghost of daylight trickling in past aspidistra and lace curtain, over the massive overstuffed three-piece suite crowded like cattle in a byre.

She gave us tea, which we balanced on our knees. She stayed on her feet, solid as a bullock in her flowered pinafore, hair in a tight black bun, and railed against God.

Like many YA writers, Westall is good with direct, accessible language that nonetheless offers a tinge of the poetic.  And-- I have to say it again-- he's very good with human foibles.  "The Red House Clock" offers a rough, illiterate father and his more intellectually inclined son, but their strained relationship avoids stereotype; "In Camera" features a strong-minded young policewoman, but she's not Tough-As-Nails, and Westall shows that she's as aware as anyone of her own short temper.  His characters are clear enough that younger readers can grasp them, but subtle enough that adults won't be bored.

So, strong prose, strong characters, and a deft hand with the ghostly in all its forms.  What's not to like?  As far as I can see, hardly anything.  If you enjoy YA fiction or ghost stories, do yourself a favor and add Robert Westall to your reading list.

1 comment:

  1. What's not to like? The fact that he died at least a decade too soon.