“Spectral Shadows” is a collection of three novellas by Robert Westall. Each novella is a tale of horror: basic, primitive, overwhelming horror.
This isn’t the fear of werewolves and vampires- humans in another skin – but the deep, involuntary dread of the dangerously wrong that raises the small hairs on your neck, causes your body to tremble and changes the way in which you see the world and your place in it.
“Blackham’s Wimpey” published in 1982, starts the anthology. It’s the slightest of the three tales but still compelling. It is a first person account by the young, barely out of his teens, Radio Operator of a World War II Wellington bomber (the Wimpey of the title) of an extraordinary haunting of and RAF plane.
What I liked about this story was that, in the process of creating a plausible and chilling haunting, Robert Westall also gave a vivid insight into the life of a bomber crew, flying a slow, cloth-skinned plane over German guns night after night in the freezing dark. Hearing the brittle, superstition-boosted bravado with which the young radio operator faced his daily opportunity to die was sad. Understanding that what happened in Blackham’s Wimpey scared him much more than flying over Germany was chilling.
“The Wheatstone Pond”, published in 1993 is the second novella. This time the first person account comes from a confident, self-aware, North London antiques dealer in his thirties who makes his living tarting up clocks and bits of furniture and selling them on, much improved, but not quite as antique as the buyer believes them to be.He is a man already balancing his genuine love for old things with his instinct for doing what it takes to turn a profit.
Against his better judgement, he allows himself to become involved in retrieving objects long-buried in the black slime at the bottom of the Wheatstone Pond in a nearby Park, which is being drained and filled in because of its notoriety as a suicide spot. The pond, once a proud feature of the Park, used by the rich to sail their model boats, has now fallen into decay and reaks, not just of foul mud at its base but of the despair of all who have dies there.
I was fascinated by Robert Westall’s ability to make a pond a source of horror. Bit by bit, this sensible, grounded man sinks into the horror of the pond’s true nature and exposure to it starts to change him. By the end of the tale, he and we have travelled deeply into a fantastic but completely credible evil from which there seems to be no escape.
“Yaxley’s Cat”, published in 1991, is the final novella and perhaps the best. This time the story is told in the close third-person but the intimacy is just as intense as with the first-person novellas.
Rose, thirty-something mother of two scarily competent children just entering their teens, is trying to find her way out from under the dominant influence of her austere and often absent husband. During a holiday with her son and daughter that her husband has arranged but is not taking part in, Rose gives way to impulse and rents a remote, broken-down cottage, with no electricity and and no indoor sanitation, so that she and her children can have an adventure.
Rose is not entirely welcome in the local village, where she is seen as a Yuppie outsider but as she starts to explore the cottage and to understand what happened to the old man who lived there until he disappeared seven years earlier, the village becomes hostile and Rose finds herself and her children under threat.
Robert Westall builds the suspense with great skill, weaving local myths and superstitions with a kind, liberal-minded woman’s inability to recognise evil when she meets it.
As her isolation grows and the sense of threat escalates, Robert Westall amplifies the unease by making Rose’s thirteen year old son into a young patrician warrior who, raised on war movies and expert with the airgun his father gifted him, is ready to deal fatally with the peasants at the door. This seemed very credible and very disturbing.
Throughout it all, Rose remains her kind-hearted but ineffectual self, raising interesting questions about whether evil should be met with mercy or lead pellet form an airgun.
Robert Westall is best known as a writer of books for children (when he was writing, the term “Young Adult” had yet to be marketed), for which he won the Carnegie Medal twice. His horror stories have not seen the light of day for some time but this year, Valencourt Books, who are bringing out of print genre classics back to life, brought these three novellas together in “Spectral Shadows” for the first time.
I will be going back for more of Rober Westall and more revivals from Valencourt Books.
I found this remarkable anthology thanks to a review on “Char’s Horror Corner” Take a look at her other horror recommendations.