This week I have continued reading Robert Westall with The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral: Two Stories of the Supernatural (Valancourt Books, 2015).
"The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral" (1991) is a magnificently ambitious novella about steeplejack Joe Clarke confronting the rotten stones of Muncaster Cathedral's notorious South-west tower.
Westall excels at rich depictions of work where men of skill get their hands dirty. As Joe and his assistant begin their work on the tower, evidence of its wrongness accumulates. Reverend Morris, the vicar, begins researching its past: recurring waves of noisomeness and tragedy every twenty years when the stonework has to be redone. The tower also acts as a beacon, attracting two young local boys to their deaths.
Joe, the vicar, and Inspector Allardyce form an ad hoc alliance to deal with the tower's increasingly destructive evil.
....The spiral stair had little landings on it, every complete twist through three hundred and sixty degrees. And on the landing, under the lancet window that lit the stairs by day, was a stone ledge jutting out of the wall. And I began thinking of that word cella that had been in the Latin writings the Reverend Morris had translated. Those cellas must've been left where the masons could reach them easy; why not on the spiral stair?
'Hang on,' I said, and inspected the next ledge thoroughly.
The top was a stone slab; and on the slab was a mason's mark; several mason's marks, and none of them known to me; they had a foreign look.
'Something?' asked Hughie. His voice seemed to echo away up the stone spiral. Something, something, something, something, coming back off every turn of the wall.
'Maybe,' I said, and got as good a swing on the hammer as I could, in that confined space, and hit the jutting-out corner of the ledge.
Sparks flew; the slab broke free from the surrounding stonework and moved out a couple of inches, leaving a wedge of darkness below. And out of that wedge of dark came a stink, the like of which I'd never smelt in my life.
'Dead rat?' gasped Morris, gagging on his own breath.
'Dead rat nothing,' I said, reversing the sledgehammer and using the handle as a lever to widen the crack of darkness.
Then we shone a torch down; down a deep narrow slot about ten inches wide.
Something shone in the light of the torch. Something round and white like an oversized billiard-ball, only with strands coming out of dark holes, strands of shining grey that seemed to grow into the stonework. Like a spider's web, but with much thicker strands. More like the roots of some plant. But the round billiard-ball thing . . .
'A . . . skull,' said Hughie Allardyce. 'A little . . . child's . . . skull.' And hardened policeman that he was, he turned away and threw up, down the spiral stair. You could hear the spew splashing away, down below.
But I looked further. There was more than a skull; there was a whole tiny skeleton wedged down into the narrow slot, still sitting with its knees forced up near its head, and its arms folded in between. And down below, the grey shining strands grew thicker and thicker through the bones, tying the tiny form to the stone.
'The miracles of Jacopo of Milan,' said Morris in a very small voice.
'Aye,' I said. 'The Abbot got what he wanted. At a price. No wonder they smashed his face out of that stained-glass window.'
'He could never have known . . .'
'He never even bothered to find out. He got his tower. That was enough for him.'
'I can't believe . . .'
'Oh, c'mon,' I said. 'Any cathedral was built on the deaths of children. Where d'you think the money came from? How else could they afford to build, in a country where half the people nigh starved to death every winter? The money came from the workers, and the workers' children starved. Every stone must be a death, nearly. To the glory of God. This Jacopo just had a new recipe, that was all.'
But he wasn't listening any more. His face, in the torchlight, was an agony of pity. 'This child . . . can't have been more than eight or nine.'
'Maybe older. You stay small, when you're starving . . .'
'This . . . stuff . . . growing on it. It's like a plant. Is it dry rot?'
'No, it's not dry rot. I've seen dry rot at its worst. It's never like this. I reckon it's taking the goodness out of the child, feeding it into . . . the stone. All these years . . .'
His hand reached down into that dreadful space. I think he had some thought of rescuing the tiny frail bones. Something . . . the very look of the strands warned me.
'Don't touch it!'
But it was too late. He was trying to pull the thick strand from the tiny knees.
The next second, he screamed.
I grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back. His shoulders were as rigid as a board. The strand tore, and came away with his hand. The torn piece writhed, as if it was trying to dig into his flesh. There was blood on his hand, then red raw flesh, then a glint of white bone, as he held it up before his face. Then the piece of broken strand writhed once more, then curled up rigid and fell back into the slot where the child lay.
'God,' said Hughie, 'half the flesh of his hand is gone.'
'Get him out, quick! Get an ambulance! He could lose that hand. Go on, get moving,' I shouted.
'What about you?'
'I'll be all right,' I shouted. 'I know now. I know!'
He gave me a white-faced look, and led the stumbling Reverend Morris back down the spiral stair.
I listened to their retreating footsteps, until there was silence. Then I went on up that stair, by the light of my solitary torch, with my sledge-hammer in my other hand.
'All right, mate,' I said to the walls. 'Don't you worry. I'm coming, I'm coming. I'm coming as quick as I can, you bastard.'
"The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral" is a peerless third-person supernatural thriller. It is completely modern in its milieu, but strongly evokes a heritage of evil in a way reminiscent of novels like John Blackburn's Bury Him Darkly (1969).
"Brangwyn Gardens" (1991) begins with a young art student moving into an all-but empty rooming house in 1955. He finds the diary of a previous renter who lived there in 1940. The diary seduces him, and he begins to suspect the house is haunted by her spirit, and by the voices and sounds of 1940.
He was sitting in a daze on his bed, holding the diary, when he remembered he had seen something about 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square' in it. Not in a part he'd read properly. He'd just noted it in passing, because she had put it inside double inverted commas, instead of single inverted commas, which was the correct thing to do. While he was skimming through, the first time he'd opened the diary, he'd noticed it. He'd sneered a bit, and passed on.
Now he searched for it desperately, so that he was a long time in finding it. But he found it in the end.
'February 11th. Last week, I got a record of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square". Sung by Judy Campbell. From the West End show New Faces. It is all the rage at the moment, so with the shortages and all, I was very lucky to get it. I took it home and played it and played it. I'm afraid I wept, because it reminded me of London in happier times. Well, if I'm to be honest, not just that. It is so romantic. I thought it would make me think of poor Ben, out in Egypt. But it didn't. It made me want some other man, whose face I can't even see – a man who lives only in my mind, a man who will sweep me off my feet like poor Ben never did. A dark, secret man, with whom I will do dark, secret things. I sometimes think I am going crazy. But it is just the War. London is full of men, and, in the black-out, dark, secret things going on in dark, secret places. All the husbands and wives apart and alone; it is as if some Great Being has shuffled the pack of cards all over again, and the game can be won by anyone who dares to play it. But I don't dare to play it. The worst poor little innocent me can do is to change into my virginal nightdress and play my record over and over again and wish. While that mood is on me, I seem to go out of time altogether. Well, not tonight. Tonight I will drink cocoa, and go to bed early and sleep sound.'
It was lying in bed that night that the whole thing seemed to become clear to him; on the very verge of sleep. As things so often do.
She was still in the house.
She had never found her lover.
She was calling to him.
But she was like a bird, timid, shy.
And yet she wanted him so much.
"Brangwyn Gardens" is a spare and intimate story. In its early pages the ethereal atmosphere recalls "The Beckoning Fair One." The final revelation and climax is breathtaking.
10 May 2021