Demons and Shadows: The Ghostly Best of Robert Westall

16 Oct

Robert Westall (1929-1993) was best known as a writer of books for children and young adults, often involving cats and themes surrounding his experiences growing up during World War II. He was twice honoured with the Carnegie Medal, the foremost British award for children’s literature. He was only the second author ever to win the medal twice, and no one has ever won a third. Westall’s most famous work is probably The Machine Gunners – for which he won the Carnegie Medal in 1975 – but he also produced a substantial body of ‘ghostly’ tales throughout his life, starting with his third novel The Watch House. It was the infinite strangeness of the supernatural that fascinated Robert Westall, not the horror, and in the opinion of some he remains one of the best and most undersung practitioners of the genre, and an obvious successor to that godfather of the English ghost story, M R James. Westall’s 1989 collection of supernatural short fiction Antique Dust was dedicated “To M R James, most economical of writers, who could coax horror out of a ragged blanket.”

Like the man himself, Westall was a master of what James referred to as ‘a pleasing terror’. Those cold fingers up the spine, that creeping flesh which James says is the goal of “all writers of ghost stories.” The horror of the supernatural may not have been what fascinated Westall, but he possessed no shortage of aptitude for it. And like James, Westall’s spooks are rarely as simple as what H P Lovecraft once dismissed as “a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule.” The ghosts that populate Westall’s stories are more than merely the restless spirit of someone with unfinished business; they are the remnants of old angers, hatreds, lusts and hungers, often given an altogether too tangible form. And yet, Westall also offers us something else, something that is often missing from tales of this sort: humanism. Westall said “there’s a freedom in ghostliness. You break the boring surface of life and let the underside out.” Strangely enough, it’s that ‘boring surface’, as much as any spectral happening, that makes Westall’s supernatural tales work so well. By establishing a world that feels utterly genuine, often including places and things drawn from Westall’s own life, populated by characters who are immediate and real, he makes the inevitable supernatural breach of that ‘boring surface’ all the more affecting.

First published in 1989, Antique Dust takes the antiquarian protagonists of M R James one step further by making Geoff Ashden, its narrator and sometime protagonist, an antique dealer himself, no doubt inspired by Westall’s own dabbling in the trade. An antique dealer proves to be the ideal lens through which to view this septet of ghostly tales. As Ashden says in The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux, “dealers are undertakers of a sort. When a man dies the undertaker comes for the body and the dealer comes for the rest.” In most of the stories in Antique Dust it is some part of that ‘rest’ that triggers and serves as a locus for the spectral goings-on, whether a fiendish clock in The Ghost and Clocky Watson or a pair of antique glasses in The Woolworth Spectacles. Ashden sums it by saying, “I have known more evil in a set of false teeth than in any so-called haunted house in England.” All the stories in Antique Dust share a sense of the past, not as something departed, but as an immediate and inescapable part of life, one that continues to be felt down intervening years and even centuries (unsurprising in a series of stories centred around the antiques trade). They also share Westall’s fascination with the “infinite strangeness of the supernatural,” and his sure grasp on the humanity of his characters. While his tales are likely to give you a few uneasy nights, it will be that ‘infinite strangeness’ and the deeply human heart of the stories that stick with you long after you’ve finished reading, not the horror.

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