Friday, January 29, 2016

FFB: The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral - Robert Westall

THE STORY:  Joe Clark is a steeplejack and stone mason who has been tasked with repairing the crumbling stonework and damaged weather vane atop the towers of Muncaster Cathedral. The southwest tower presents some trouble for Joe and his partner Billy with its imposing gargoyle. Soon after Joe begins to have disturbing nightmares, his son starts sleepwalking and a demonic force seems to be taking possession of young boys in town.

THE CHARACTERS: Reverend Morris is Joe’s employer and is a particularly resonant character type these days. Morris is a proselytizing zealot ever ready to talk about God and faith.  Non-churchgoers are his favorite target of course. Rather than a friendly “Pleased to meet you” at first meeting Rev. Morris almost always begins a conversation with “Are you a Christian?” Very off putting to Joe (or anyone I should imagine), an unapologetically irreligious man who prefers to seek out the sacred in the natural world rather than sitting in a church and being told what to think and believe. The dichotomy of the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the secular plays a crucial role throughout the tale as the increasingly inexplicable supernatural forces threaten to wreak havoc not only on the cathedral but on Joe’s family and anyone who visits the southwest tower.

THE ATMOSPHERE: Westall has got creepy down to a science. From Joe’s nightmares to the possession sequences and a genuinely frightening section high atop the cathedral towers The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral does what all good horror and supernatural tales are supposed to do – give you a good scare or two. You’ll never look at a gargoyle the same way after reading this original spin on a familiar horror motif. And there is a nice mystery element that Rev. Morris helps uncover which I will not elaborate on. This is one of those rare books in which the less you know the better the reading experience.

THINGS I LEARNED: The novella is a crash course in the art of stone masonry and the life of a steeplejack. Joe’s down to earth narration make these sections true examples of didactic writing in that we learn and are entertained at the same time. He treats his job as more of a lost art than hard labor. Joe shares his love of his profession with his curious son Kevin and we get all sorts of side commentary touching on the legends of the Freemasons and their secret rituals which really did grow out of the world of stone masons and the tutelage of their apprentices. Jealousy and envy could trigger violent reactions when a senior mason encountered a younger apprentice with a artistic talent far greater than his own. Joe tells stories of rage filled vandalism and even murder.

THE AUTHOR: Robert Westall made a name for himself in the juvenile fiction world winning several awards for his supernatural and adventure stories geared to young readers. To capitalize on this market The Stones of Muncaster (1991) also seems to have been published as a young adult novel and all older 1990 editions seem to indicate this publisher’s aim. But with a very mature worldview and Joe serving as narrator I can see it only as intended for grown adults and not kids. Had it been told from Kevin’s point of view I could understand it being marketed as a young adult novel. In any case, it will appeal to both older and younger readers alike. For more about Robert Westall and his large body of impressive work visit the writer's tribute website maintained by his literary agent.

EASY TO FIND? The Stones of Muncaster has been reprinted by Valancourt Books in a new edition that also includes a second novella by Westall called “Brangwyn Gardens” and an introduction by horror fiction writer Orrin Grey. My edition is an older copy therefore I didn't have a chance to read the other novella.

9 comments:

  1. Bob Westall was a fine writer, and his ghost stories for adults are recommended. He was my art teacher when I was 11, long before either of us were published writers. Many years later he came to live in our village and was a kindly member of the local writers' group. I remember him with appreciation.

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    1. Easy to believe he was a kind man based on his depiction of Joe and his devotion to his wife and son in this story. Valancourt has also reprinted those ghost stories you mention in a volume called Antique Dust. And they have planned another volume of supernatural novellas which should be released later this year. Westall is certainly getting his due!

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  2. Sounds like one I should be looking for! Thanks, John.

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    1. Westall belongs to the traditional British ghost story school, Peggy Ann. No gore, real thrills, and an absence of cliche predictability. More good news: You can easily find very cheap used copies of this book (as I did ) if the newer edition is too expensive for your budget.

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  3. Thanks for the earworm, John. All I had to do was pronounce the name "Muncaster Cathedral" to hear the melody and the rest of the words arose: You're bringing dowwwwn, you stood and you watched as, my baby left towwwwwn...

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  4. Oh, through a megaphone, no less.

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  5. I love it when a book teaches me something about a world I wouldn't think I had an interest in—even if it's stone masonry.

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  6. Thanks very much for this John - sounds great and (as ever) a new author to discover - yay!

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  7. Though as you will remember I'm not much for ghost or horror reading, this does sound quite appealing.

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