The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral

June 29, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

stonesThe Stones of Muncaster Cathedral by Robert Westall

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After plodding through some of the last few Star Wars books and then tearing through the last few non-Star Wars books (four in less than two weeks), I decided I needed to start mixing things up with my Star Wars reading project. I’d forgotten what it felt like to be helpless to a story, but Cronin and King reminded me that it’s pretty dang awesome. So I’m going to start flip-flopping between projects, reading one Star Wars book and then reading a random book from my backlog. At the very least, it should keep things interesting; at best, it will keep that backlog from getting too big while I finish up the Star Wars books.

The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral isn’t quite a random book. It went on sale through Amazon a few weeks back, and since I enjoyed Michael McDowell’s The Elementals, and since this book has the same publisher, I decided to give it a go. It turns out that it’s a very short book (129 pages), so I made the executive decision to read this one first. I had some slight reservations — Gothic stories tend to take me a bit longer to read, as they require more attention — but they were unfounded. The narrative is modern (the book was originally published in 1991, later than I expected), and the tension in the stories is palpable. Pausing in the middle of the story … well, it isn’t impossible, but it’s not easy.

The book is comprised of two stories, “The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral” and “Brangwyn Gardens”. The first is about a steeplejack, Joe Clarke, a laborer who works in stone high above the ground. Think chimneys and smokestacks and, yes, cathedral towers. He’s accepted a job to repair a tower at the local cathedral, one with an unusual history. Joe finds stone crumbling long before its time, and gets strange feelings whenever he passes a gargoyle high above the ground. Westall gives us plenty of time and space to get as uncomfortable with this place as Joe, and once that’s in place, he starts to give us the tragedy and history of the tower.

Westall excels at creating the atmosphere of the place, imbibing the setting with that uncomfortable feeling and menace most associated with Gothic fiction. He eschews the darkness and claustrophobia, though, instead using the height and isolation of the steeplejacks as the source of that feeling. Joe tells us that steeplejacks are a unique breed, but that once one of them loses his nerve, that’s it. There’s no coming back from it. Of course, when Joe first tells us this bit of information, he’s talking about folks gaining a fear of heights, but we find out as the story progresses that other factors can lead to one losing his nerve.

Of note here is that Westall may not have been a steeplejack in his life, but he’ll make you think he was. I don’t even know if the details he includes in the story are factual, but they may as well be, as genuinely as they feel. Either he did a lot of research, or his insights toward such a job were keen. Either way, it’s convincing.

“Brangwyn Gardens” is a gentler story, but not without its effects. It introduces us to Harry Shaftoe, a college student in the 1950s. He’s a misanthrope, a clearly unlikable fellow, but Westall still manages to make him sympathetic as he gets caught up in the story of a woman whose diary he finds, whom he presumes dead because of the suddenness of the ending of her entries. He’s haunted by her, in mind and in spirit, as he hears voices, finds anachronistic mementos, and discovers other evidence of her trying to break through the divide between them. The story is effective, even if the ending is easy to guess, and somewhat ridiculous.

Regardless, this was my first introduction to Westall, and while I may not rush out to find everything he wrote, I’ll certainly not turn down reading more of his work. His voice is natural and engaging, and he captures atmosphere effortlessly. I’m surprised to see that his fiction was considered juvenile fiction, not only because his choice of language in the two stories suggests he was writing for an older audience, but also because the eeriness of them suggests it, too. Regardless, the stories are effective, and well told, and this collection helps me to trust Valancourt as a publisher.

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