Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral - Robert Westall

Robert Westall's The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral is actually two supernatural stories in one volume. The titular tale is set in the early 1990s, and is a first-person narrative which contains a fair amount of Northern English dialect. The story is recounted by Joe Clarke, a steeplejack who agrees to work on the restoration of the southwest tower of Muncaster Cathedral. As he works, he senses in the very stonework of the tower itself, a sinister force that appears to emanate from one extra demonic-looking gargoyle. Joe's concerns are heightened when he has a nightmare about his eight year old son, Kevin, being trapped up the tower; the nightmare wakes him, screaming in his bed. The next night, Joe's fears are confirmed when Kevin sleepwalks to the tower, but is picked up by the police as he's only wearing his pyjama top. He's taken to the hospital where he's heard speaking in medieaval Latin, although he's never learnt the language, then after he wakes up, he's kept in for a few days observation. In the meantime, Joe and his mate Billy continue their work on the tower, and Joe starts digging into the history of the tower, talking to both the local museum curator and a local vicar, the Rev. Morris, whom Joe initially despises as one of the "happy-clappy" sort. Whilst Joe and Billy are working on the tower, they find the body of another little boy, and Joe realises that something really sinister is going on. He is convinced that Kevin woke up because the tower had found itself another victim.

Joe discovers that the demonic gargoyle on the south west tower looks like the master mason responsible for getting the tower built in the 14th century, and his worries persuade the vicar to do some more investigating. In the meantime, after Kevin is allowed to go home from the hospital, he attempts to go to the tower again, but this time his mum and dad manage to stop him from getting out of the house, and they tie him up and get him into the car to take him to Joe's sister-in-law in mid-Wales. Once they get Kevin across the River Severn, he comes out of his trance; Joe realises that Black Magic is at work when they start to head back home and Kevin goes back into a trance the minute they re-cross the river into England.

With Kevin safely away in Wales, Joe, together with a grumpy Detective-Sergeant named Allardyce and the Reverend Morris, goes through the cathedral's history and establishes just what Jacapo Mancini of Milan did to keep the tower up against the power of the "serpent in the sand" (an underground spring) that kept making the foundations give way as it was being built. The three of them find the knowledge that Joe needs to destroy the power of the bloodthirsty gargoyle for once and all.

The second story, Brangwyn Gardens, is set in London in 1955, where student Harry Shaftoe finds a girl's wartime diary and a photograph in the attic of his lodgings in Brangwyn Gardens. He becomes obsessed with the girl, whose diary reveals that she longs to find a dark and dangerous man somewhere in the Blitz. He convinces himself that she is dead, but he hears her talking with her friends, smells her scent in the house, and even hears the noise of the Blitz outside the house. Harry becomes mesmerised and longs to satisfy her remorseless appetite for a man, but how far can he go without being lost in the past ?

Of these two tales, the first was by far the more chilling for me, whilst I guessed reasonably early on, just what was going on in the second tale.

No comments: