Robert Westall (1929–1993) was an English writer who made a considerable name for himself with many novels aimed at a teenage audience. A measure of his success is demonstrated by the number of awards which he received during his lifetime, starting with his very first book, The Machine Gunners, in 1975, which won the prestigious Carnegie Award for best young adult fiction, as did his 1982 work, The Scarecrows. Interestingly, no author has ever won the Carnegie Award more than twice, but Westall was runner-up two other years, for The Devil on the Road (1979) and Futuretrack Five (1983), as well as being “Highly Commended” for The Kingdom by the Sea (1990) and Gulf (1992). Among his other awards were the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize for Blitzcat (1989), the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize for The Kingdom by the Sea, and the Dracula Society’s Children of the Night Award for the novelette “The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral” (1991).
Of his 30 or so novels, broadly a third were set in World War II, the era of Westall’s own youth, and another third were science fiction, supernatural, or fantasy; the remaining third covered historical and contemporary adventure, cat stories, and love stories. Although these were books for adolescents, some of them did incorporate certain features that drew criticism of their author, namely violence, mild bad language, and sexual situations. This did not detract from their popularity, and Westall himself has been quoted as saying that he “wanted his writing to have a realism which ordinary teenagers—the sort he was so familiar with after decades as a teacher—could recognize and relate to.”
As well as the 30 novels, Westall wrote around 75 short stories and novelettes. The bulk of these were supernatural in tone, and it is in this area that Westall really excelled. His novels are literate and readable, written with a young audience in mind and, as such, lack significant mature depth as far as most adults would be concerned, limiting their lasting appeal. However, the tales of the uncanny are another matter; relatively few of them involve children as protagonists. Only one of the collections was designated as being specifically for adults (Antique Dust), but there is little that is juvenile in the content of most of the others, apart from perhaps a handful of stories that interestingly tend to lack any real weird element or where that weird element is incidental to the plot. In contrast to the novels, Westall was, in his demonstrably spectral works, writing for an audience of anyone who enjoyed the genre, and he was exceptionally good at doing that.
In his best short fiction, he capably evokes an eerie atmosphere with few words; his descriptive prose can be spare but is tellingly effective, compounding its effect over the pages to complement the flow of events rather than distract from them. The plots are consistently imaginative and interesting, peopled with strong characters interacting in fast-paced and convincing narratives. There is a forceful drive to the writing that gives it a substance and depth that provides an accessible reading experience, marked by the author’s ability to seize the reader’s attention from the first paragraph and immerse them in the unquiet aura of his perceived reality and its disturbing experiences.
Westall wrote with authority and conviction, whether from the point of view of the steeplejack in “The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral,” the wireless operator of the World War II bomber in “Blackham’s Wimpey,” the young schoolgirl of “The Boys’ Toilets” or the frustrated housewife of “Henry Marlborough.” In all of these instances—and there are many more —the characters become real and interesting with tales to be shared and savored.
His stories covered a multitude of themes in a straightforward manner from haunted airplanes to predatory houses, from vampires hiding in plain sight in an industrial city to an alien incursion at a seaside resort, from lustful cadavers to dolls possessed by evil, and an Angel of Destruction who wants to bring the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah to a sleepy town. Time travel and end of the world scenarios are not overlooked nor are bleak views of dystopian futures. The only thing that is predictable about these works is their consistent capacity to entertain.
Westall’s first published short story was “The Night Out” in the July 1980 anthology Love You, Hate You, Just Don’t Know, a non-supernatural account of humor and tragedy within the ranks of a quartet of motorbike riders. It was followed by “The Creatures in the House” in You Can’t Keep Out the Darkness (October 1980), a very good story about a vampiric essence that feeds not on blood but on the memories of its victims, taking decades to draw the last of their life force from them. Well established in an old house where it preys on single women, it meets its match when stray cats aid the new occupant to combat the horror lurking in the shadowed corner of the upper room. In his first supernatural tale, Westall depicts the creature with an impressive power.
Break of Dark was the author’s debut short story collection, published in March 1982. The five original tales, four of novelette length, further demonstrate his strengths in this format and include one of his very best dark pieces, “Blackham’s Wimpey,” which is set in 1943 and tells of a haunted Wellington bomber. This particular bomber—the “Wimpey” of the title—is involved in a horrific conflict with a German Junkers which leads to the gruesome death of the enemy pilot. On the next mission, the crew are lost, and their leader loses his mind. A subsequent mission in the same plane also leads to mysterious tragedy, and when the third crew take off, they are well aware that there is something very wrong, something that becomes grimly apparent as the hours go by and a deadly mid-air struggle between the living and the dead takes place. This is a first-class story that ranks high in the Westall canon, compelling and disquieting, with a particularly potent depiction of the harrowing realities of the life of the men who never know if their next mission will be their last one.
In “Hitch-hiker,” a student meets a beautiful naked woman in the woods and finds that as well as bringing him exceptional luck and consequent wealth, she has other ideas in mind. When he makes her pregnant, their relationship changes dramatically, and it becomes clear that she is not at all what she seems. In “Fred, Alice, and Aunty Lou,” a practical joke turns nightmarish as the three supposedly invented people of the title become threateningly real and impose themselves on the lives of a married couple with ominous consequences.
“St Austin Friars” is a run-down church in a suburb of an industrial city and the setting for strange events and anomalies that the new vicar can make no sense of. His search for answers leads him to a centuries-old secret that is impossible for him to believe but proves to be true. The enigmatic ending does leave unanswered questions, but it is appropriate to the mysteries that led there. In “Sergeant Nice,” what starts off as a light piece about a conscientious but ineffective policeman develops into something sinister as a simple horse trough in a seaside town becomes the focus of mysterious disappearances, first of objects and then of animals. The police sergeant realizes what is happening and takes matters into his own hands in a satisfying example of superior science fiction, a threatening alien intrusion into an unknowing tourist resort.
Before Westall’s next genre collection, two more of his tales appeared in anthologies, each of them dealing with time travel, but in different ways. The first was “The Haunting of Chas McGill” (Ghost After Ghost, July 1982), which is a clever piece featuring the leading character from the novels The Machine Gunners and Fathom Five. In the first few days of World War II, Chas finds himself somehow propelled back to 1917 and face to face with a deserter from the Great War. His sympathy for the plight of the young man sets in motion something that will have a remarkable impact on the world as Chas thinks he knows it.
This was followed by “Sea Coal” (School’s OK: A Collection of Short Stories, October 1982), in which a workman is transported 50 years back in time to 1932, where life is much harder but also more appealing than the tedium of his life in 1982, leading to a very real temptation to stay in the past.
Westall’s The Haunting of Chas McGill and Other Stories (1983) collected the four contributions to earlier anthologies (“The Night Out,” “The Creatures in the House,” “Sea Coal,” and the title story) and added four originals.
These are “Almost a Ghost Story,” in which a supposedly haunted abbey is the site of a concert which results in a strange occurrence; “The Vacancy,” set in a dystopian future in which the defining attributes of humanity have all become punishable, as a young man discovers to his cost; “The Dracula Tour,” a light-hearted story about a naïve young woman whose loutish husband decides to track down Count Dracula, succeeding all too well, with the result that she falls in love with the count and begins to feel that the lure of the living dead appeals more than her tedious real life; and “A Walk on the Wild Side,” which tells of a headmaster acquiring a kitten which grows into a large and beautiful cat called Rama, who wants more from her owner than he is prepared to give.
There were more anthology appearances over the next two years, starting with “Urn Burial” (Out of Time: Stories of the Future, 1984), a fairly good story about a shepherd who finds the coffin of a dead alien creature in the hills. This idea was expanded into a novel of the same name published three years later. Westall continued the science-fiction theme with “Peckforton Hill” (Spook: Stories of the Unusual, April 1985), an end-of-the-world scenario with humanity seeming to have been annihilated by nuclear bombs, leaving computers seeking survivors and looking to restart civilization. The twist at the end of the tale is unexpected but fitting.
One of the author’s best tales of the supernatural, “The Boys’ Toilets,” came next (in Cold Feet, October 1985). This is an outstanding story about a ghost seeking to set right an old wrong. Told from the viewpoint of the young girl central to events, the tense narrative builds inexorably to a dramatic and gratifying conclusion with the decisive appearance of the specter particularly well-staged.
“The Big Rock Candy Mountain” appeared in Imaginary Lands (December 1985). Set in the real-life town of Northwich in Cheshire (where Westall once lived and taught at Sir John Deane’s Grammar School), this is a disappointing story that one feels could have been much better. As it is, it is clumsily written from the point of view of an American family, perhaps because it was destined for a U.S. anthology, but the style is one with which the author does not seem entirely at ease.
Rachel and the Angel and Other Stories (1986) included three previously published offerings and four original stories. Three of the latter are well-told but minor efforts—in “The Death of Wizards,” a student is granted the gift of seeing the truth in all things but finds that such an ability is less than pleasant; in “A Nose Against the Glass,” a lonely old man is drawn by the apparition of a child from his life of regrets to a meaningful death on Christmas Eve; and “Artist on Aramor” is a science-fiction tale involving a distant planet, a painter, and four sex robots and is notable for the fact that it incorporates far more sex than anything else in the Westall catalogue.
The title story is the highlight of what is frankly a lesser collection. The formidable Angel, vividly portrayed, is seeking to destroy a town for its iniquity, and Rachel is tasked with saving it by finding a “righteous person” among the inhabitants. This proves difficult as all of the people she chooses have secrets that damn them, but there is a pleasing solution as Rachel succeeds without anybody realizing how close they came to annihilation.
Ghosts and Journeys (April 1988) reprinted the fine earlier novelette, “The Boys’ Toilets,” and added five originals for what is in the main an outstanding volume.
In “The Bus,” a young man adventurously boards a strange bus occupied by unusual passengers, which then proceeds to drive back through time. The fare is two pennies, and the driver is Charon, of course, leading an intriguing journey through Death’s Kingdom. “The Borgia Mirror” relates how Lady Copfield buys an antique mirror that once adorned the Palace of the Borgias and realizes that there is something strange about the way it shows images. Her philandering husband is entranced by what he sees. When he disappears—apparently into the mirror—she catches a glimpse of a reflection not of her own bedroom but of something far more palatial, and on the bed is Lord Copfield making love to an unknown noblewoman. But the Borgias were not people to be trifled with, and Copfield pays the ultimate price to his wife’s satisfaction and eventual enrichment.
In “Rosalie,” the ghost of a dead girl benignly haunting the stockroom of a school angrily turns her attentions to more harmful areas when it appears that she may be supplanted by a newly created urban myth. “Journey” features a young man involved in a motorbike accident and near death. He finds himself in a grim limbo hunted by “eaters,” dead people consumed by hatred, and discovers that the only way to survive is to band together with animals and other dead humans. This is an interesting if downbeat take on the afterlife.
The one story that is somewhat out of place in this collection is “The Girl Who Couldn’t Say No,” a mundane non-supernatural account of young love. As a matter of interest, this is one of only two examples in the author’s short fiction where he makes use of the word “fuck” in the narrative, the other being “Yaxley’s Cat.”
Antique Dust (1989) was the sole Westall collection marketed as a book for adults, although its contents are not really significantly different from the author’s previously published short fiction; indeed, none of the contents of Antique Dust are as sexually themed as the earlier “Artist on Aramor.” The seven stories are all related by one Geoff Ashden, an antiques dealer who comes across strange objects and strange stories during his career; this was an area with which Westall was very familiar, as he became an antiques dealer after retiring from teaching, and much of his fiction demonstrated his specialist knowledge and admiration of old furniture and old clocks in particular.
Antique Dust broadly traces the life of Ashden from his youth to his later years, covering marriage, adultery, and ultimately his settling into a comfortable lifestyle at ease with himself. The opening entry is “The Devil and Clocky Watson,” one of Westall’s best stories, telling of an acquaintance of Ashden—the eponymous Clocky Watson—whose underhanded dealings lead to his acquisition of a grandfather clock that terrorizes all who own it, haunted as it is by the ghost of a murdered young woman. Clocky is almost driven to madness, but he finds a solution that proves to be to his advantage, albeit temporarily. “The Doll” is thematically similar, but this time it is an intimidating brown velvet doll housing the spirit of an executed witch that causes the problem.
In “The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux,” Ashden meets his future wife in a chilling and well-told tale of an old church and the locked crypt which is the prison of a revenant that hungers for female company. There is an exciting final confrontation in this tense story. “The Dumbledore” has no supernatural element even if the presence of the dead Big Tex pervades the old cafe and lingers in the lives of those affected by him. Although the War has been over for 15 years, its impact is ongoing as far as the individuals involved are concerned.
“The Woolworth Spectacles” features Ashden’s straight-laced and timid cousin Maude, who buys a second-hand pair of spectacles and finds that they transform her into something of a man-hungry seductress. “Portland Bill” hauntingly recounts Ashden meeting a forlorn woman searching for her missing son, little realizing that she is the ghost of someone dead three years. Her alluringly siren-like appeal draws him onwards until it is almost too late. “The Ugly House” is an old residence standing in the path of a new road, and it is inhabited by Cunning Burridge, who is determined not to move. He has arcane powers that he can bring to bear, which he does with lethal results; he is finally outwitted, but even after death he claims victory.
The Call and Other Stories appeared later in 1989, and three of the six stories were admittedly minor: “Uncle Otto at Denswick Park” is about a time-slip between a modern estate and Regency England; in “Warren, Sharon, and Darren,” a young woman is impregnated by an alien, and her offspring has strange abilities; and “The Badger” starts off well with a monstrous dead badger seemingly terrorizing a man responsible for badger baiting, but it ends disappointingly.
However, the remaining three stories are much better. “Woman and Home” is about a predatory house that protects itself from disturbance by those who wish it harm; the innocence and good manners of a young boy who hides there while playing truant from school enables him to walk free from its clutches. “The Call” is the strong account of a Samaritan call center on Christmas Eve and a woman phoning to say that she is about to be murdered—a call that has come in every year for two decades, ever since she was brutally killed. Finally, “The Red House Clock” is the powerful and intriguing story of a wronged man whose revenge on the money lender who caused his downfall is effected through the medium of an old clock.
The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral appeared in 1991 and consisted of two novelettes. The title story is a first-rate tale of a steeplejack renovating the southwest tower of an old cathedral and finding that the stones conceal a horrific secret from centuries earlier. A malevolent entity is seeking and taking lives as it has periodically done for all of the many years of its existence, and it will not be thwarted except by direct and perilous action. Westall succeeds admirably in his depiction of the vertiginous work being done by the steeplejacks and the desperation of the main character in his bid to stop the killings; there is a spectacular and exciting climax in which the author instills a breathless tension into a scene that would not be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster.
In “Brangwyn Gardens,” a student rents a room in 1955 London and comes across a young woman’s photograph and her 1940 diary. He falls in love with her, even though the abrupt ending to the diary suggests that she was probably killed in the Blitz, and he feels a connection drawing him back to her time. What seems to be a supernatural basis for this clever tale resolves itself into something quite different and unexpected.
The Fearful Lovers (1992) is something of an enigma—the title page shows “The Fearful Lovers” whereas the spine and dust wrapper both state “Fearful Lovers and Other Stories”; but the volume does not include a story called “Fearful Lovers,” nor did Westall ever write such a tale! Several of his collections did bear titles that were not the names of any of the stories included (Break of Dark, Ghosts and Journeys, and Antique Dust, for instance), but presumably the publisher in this instance wrongly assumed that Fearful Lovers was a part of the book’s content. In any event, the book was unsurprisingly retitled In Camera and Other Stories for its US publication in February 1993.
“In Camera” opens the collection well, relating how an old camera somehow holds on to a 30-year-old undeveloped film in perfect condition, enabling the mystery of a death from decades earlier to be resolved once a group of four people engage in amateur detective work; the minor “Beelzebub” has a registrar finding herself registering the birth of the Devil’s son; and “Blind Bill” is a sightless man who solves a crime and prevents a death by use of his other facilities.
“Charlie Ferber” has a mysterious cat insinuating itself into a young girl’s life and becoming loved and irreplaceable. Its true nature and purpose are eventually revealed in what is a light but rewarding story. “Henry Marlborough” is very good, about a woman who becomes obsessed with the past and in particular the eponymous Henry Marlborough from the 1700s, a man whose presence she strongly feels and who guides her unerringly towards personal fulfilment. An unpalatable truth then seems to have brought her life crashing down in disillusionment, but another door pleasingly opens for her.
Robert Westall died in Warrington Hospital on 15 April 1993 as a result of pneumonia. In a career of less than twenty years, he had continued to sustain his initial popularity, and his death at the relatively early age of 63 was much mourned. Two compilations of his “ghostly best” stories quickly appeared, but there were strange inclusions and even stranger omissions; there was no place for “The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral,” “The Devil and Clocky Watson,” “Henry Marlborough,” “The Borgia Mirror,” or “Rosalie,” and yet such works as “The Making of Me,” “The Night Out,” “Gifts from the Sea” and “Fifty-fafty” were included. These last four are all engaging stories and very representative of Westall’s style and output, but “ghostly” they most definitely are not.
The first posthumous compilation was Demons and Shadows: The Ghostly Best of Robert Westall in 1993, which was reprinted in the UK as The Best of Robert Westall: Volume One: Demons and Shadows in 1998. Of the eleven stories included, there was one previously unpublished, “Graveyard Shift,” which is about a cemetery superintendent who converses with the people he has buried as they wait before “moving on.” When the supposedly dead Dr. Millwrick, much feared and disliked, appears before him, it becomes clear that the doctor is far more than he seems, and that his “death” is not what it appears to be.
The next volume was Shades of Darkness: More of the Ghostly Best Stories of Robert Westall in 1994, and again there was an unpublished tale included, “The Cats.” This is a very good account of a man approaching the end of his life who becomes surrounded by ghosts of the cats that he has admired over the years, the cats that his wife hates but cannot combat.
Although this was the second compilation, it is actually a stronger genre collection than the first, including as it does more of Westall’s very best supernatural fiction than its predecessor. When this book was reprinted in the U.K. in 1999 as The Best of Robert Westall: Volume Two: Shades of Darkness, it was in a revised edition, replacing “The Red House Clock” and “The Call” with “Portland Bill” and “The Bus,” substituting two high quality stories for two that were just as good.
Christmas Spirit: Two Stories appeared in 1994, a short volume that included two previously published novelettes. In “The Christmas Ghost,” the specter of a mill owner dead for many years is instrumental in avoiding a catastrophe, while the non-supernatural seasonal tale “The Christmas Cat” is agreeable and entertaining with an evocative depiction of North Shields in 1934.
“The Beach” was then published in the anthology Dread and Delight in 1995, and it tells how a bored boy on a Suffolk beach meets a dead girl who drowned the day before. She reveals that he has also died in what is an acceptable story but for an ending that is somewhat perplexing.
Voices in the Wind (1997) was published four and a half years after the author’s death and collected the five stories that had appeared in various anthologies during the 1990s together with a further five unpublished stories presumably found amongst Westall’s papers. There were only two supernatural tales. “The Beach,” as previously mentioned, and “The German Ghost,” in which an army exercise in the 1950s sees the men setting up camp in the grounds of an old church and having an encounter with a ghost in what is a very ordinary tale.
Two of the other new stories are notable: “The Shepherd’s Room,” which features two acquaintances camping in the hills who become marooned in a series of blizzards, with their loose friendship turning into bitter hatred as conditions worsen in what is a persuasively distinctive piece; and “Cathedral,” an atmospheric story about a young girl accidentally locked inside a lightless cathedral on Christmas Eve. Perhaps it should be stressed that the location is not Muncaster Cathedral!
Spectral Shadows appeared in 2016. Subtitled “Three Supernatural Novellas,” two of them—“Yaxley’s Cat” and “The Wheatstone Pond”—had originally been published as separate short novels in 1991 and 1993 respectively, while Westley’s first collection Break of Dark included the third, “Blackham’s Wimpey.” The latter has already been mentioned as ranking high in the Westall canon, and the other two are of the same superior quality.
“The Wheatstone Pond” is a very good story that would not have been out of place in Antique Dust, narrated as it is by an antiques dealer with a very similar personality to Geoff Ashden. A pond in north London, the scene of several suicides, is being drained, and some unusual discoveries are made, the more disquieting of them being linked to an old and deserted house uphill from the pond. It becomes clear that there is an ancient and evil presence in the cellar of the house, still capable of exerting its malign influence and seeping slowly downwards to the waters of the pool, causing madness and violence. A group of people find themselves combating a menace that is very capable of defending itself in an exciting and compellingly written narrative.
“Yaxley’s Cat” is another excellent tale. A mother and her two teenage children rent a run-down house on the outskirts of a remote Norfolk village and find that they are uncovering secrets best kept hidden. The house was once the abode of the local “cunning-man,” a practitioner of magic who disappeared seven years earlier whose strange cat still lurks in the overgrown garden. Westall paints an admirable picture of an insular community hostile to outsiders and builds the tension relentlessly to a powerful climax in a plot that is well-paced and absorbing.
All of Westall’s work is written in the same comfortable style with colloquial references and much British vernacular; one suspects that there is a significant element of the autobiographical in many of the stories, such as “Fifty-fafty,” “The Making of Me,” and “Gifts from the Sea,” all of which provide evocative depictions of an impressionable Tyneside boy, local color being consistently strong in these stories. Cats also play important roles, and to find that Westall was a cat lover and the owner of many of them throughout his life is no surprise at all. The dust wrapper of Antique Dust indicates that his hobbies were “nosing round old buildings, studying cats and looking for the unknown,” and these are all areas that find their ways into his writing as does his interest in old furniture, which as noted did culminate in his becoming an antiques dealer.
Virtually all of the short fiction is set in the British Isles, usually in real places. The only significant invented setting that is in any way ongoing is the industrial city of Muncaster, located in the northern England county of Cheshire. Its cathedral is featured to momentous effect in “The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral” and also appears in “The Devil and Clocky Watson,” Antique Dust’s Geoff Ashden living in that area of the country. Muncaster was also the setting for the earlier “St Austin Friars” although its cathedral was not mentioned in that story.
In the author’s worlds of fiction, the commonplace can quickly take on menacing overtones with ordinary people being put in a position of confronting the unknown. There is little or no graphic horror, for as the author himself is quoted as saying in Demons and Shadows: “Horror disgusts me... But there is a freedom in ghostliness. You break the boring surface of life and let the underside out.” He did edit one collection, Ghost Stories from 1988, in which he makes the interesting observation that “We are all haunted houses, full of rooms that time has shut off. To wander sometimes through such rooms can be agonizingly rich and sweet.”
Robert Westall’s multi–award winning fiction for teenagers secured him a firm niche in that area, but his supernatural tales have been neglected. A writer who produced such fine works as “Blackham’s Wimpey,” “The Devil and Clocky Watson,” “The Boys’ Toilets,” “Yaxley’s Cat,” “The Wheatstone Pond,” and “The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral” among many others, should be far better remembered in the field of the unusual and the uncanny.
Mike Barrett lives in Wilmington, Kent.
Robert Westall Collections that Include Weird Fiction
Break of Dark. New York: Greenwillow Books/William Morris, 1982.
The Haunting of Chas McGill and Other Stories. New York: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1983
Rachel and the Angel and Other Stories. New York: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1986.
Ghosts and Journeys. New York: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1988.
Antique Dust. New York: Viking Books, 1989.
The Call and Other Stories. New York: Viking Books, 1989.
The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral. London: Viking UK, 1991.
The Fearful Lovers. London: Pan Macmillan, 1992. (American title: In Camera and Other Stories. New York: Scholastic Books, 1993.)
Demons and Shadows: The Ghostly Best of Robert Westall. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1993.
Shades of Darkness: More of the Ghostly Best Stories of Robert Westall. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994.
Christmas Spirit: Two Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994.
Voices in the Wind. New York: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1997.
Spectral Shadows. Richmond, Virginia: Valancourt Books, 2016.