Monday, 4 May 2015

Antique Dust: Ghost Stories by Robert Westall

Antique Dust by Robert Westall (1929-1993), first published by Viking in 1989, has just been republished by Valancourt Books as a paperback. It contains seven stories: 'The Devil and Clocky Watson', 'The Doll', 'The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux', 'The Dumbledore', 'The Woolworth Spectacles', 'Portland Bill', and 'The Ugly House'.

Robert Westall is best known as a writer of books for children and young adults; he was awarded the Carnegie Medal twice, for The Machine Gunners and The Scarecrows, and won the Dracula Society's Children of the Night Award for his book The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral. The current volume, Antique Dust, is Westall's only collection of supernatural stories written specifically for an adult audience.

The narrator of each story is Geoff Ashden, an antique dealer whose stomping ground is the market town of Muncaster. Westall's tales truly do capture the atmosphere of the antiques trade, with its unusual characters, some of whom can be decidedly less than honest. In an environment where so many old objects are passng from one pair of hands to another, picking up who knows what along the way, the possibilities for hauntings seem limitless.
'Dealers are undertakers of a sort. When a man dies, the undertaker comes for the body, and quite often the dealer comes for the rest... I deal in dead men's clocks, pipes, swords and velvet breeches. And passing through my hands, they give off joy and loneliness, fear and optimism... I have known more evil in a set of false teeth than in any so-called haunted house in England.'
In 'The Devil and Clocky Watson', Clocky Watson isn't a very nice man; he's not a very honest one either. He used to hang around the antique-sales after the War, tampering with the Viennese clocks so he could get them for next to nothing. Then he set up in old Joe Gorman's shop, which collapsed and burnt to ashes one night; Gorman died from the shock. Ashden's always known that Clocky's a bad lot, and he wants to bring him down. And the means to that end comes in the form of a haunted eighteenth century ebony and ormolu bracket clock.

In 'The Doll', Ashden puts a permanent advertisement in the local paper for china-headed dolls. He hates china dolls (as do I, they give me the heebies), but there's profit in them. Mrs Westover, the widow from the manor house at Westover, has a collection of dolls for sale, but when Ashden arrives to view them they've all been dismembered... for being naughty.

'The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux' is a very atmospheric and genuinely creepy tale. Ashden and Miss Molyneaux, who's a teacher at Barton Road Primary, take class 4C to visit Tattersham church. Ashden, who has a feeling that there is something not quite right about the church, takes photographs of the children taking brass rubbings and tracing various architectural features, but when he develops them there is a face in the shadows in one of the snaps that belongs to neither himself, Miss Molyneaux nor any of the children. Then the eighteenth century tombs inside the church are vandalised... by someone who appears to have known their occupants.

'The Dumbledore' is the only tale in the collection that is not supernatural. It's a poignant tale about the effects of the War on the men who fought in it, and on the women who lost the men who fought. We learn more about Ashden's history in this story, that he served in the RAF, and that his marriage isn't terribly happy. The ghosts in this story may not be supernatural, but the people in it are still haunted.

'The Woolworth Spectacles' is about, well, a pair of spectacles from Woolworth's. Before the Second World War, you could go and buy a pair of used spectacles from the spidery black mass of them on Woolworth's counter for just sixpence. Ashden's cousin, Maude Cleveland, is slightly short-sighted, so she goes and gets herself a pair of specs from Woolies... an antique pair with a chain attached. When wearing them, even if only around her neck, she experiences such clarity of vision and such an alteration in perception that nothing looks quite as it did before. And the thoughts she has... oh, she's never thought anything quite like that before.

'Portland Bill' is a ;promontory at the southern tip of the Isle of Portland, which forms the southernmost point of the county of Dorset. Ashden's there, killing time while his wife is visiting an old friend, when he encounters a young woman who has lost her little boy. He does everything he can to help her, to the point of putting his own life in danger, but there's more to the missing boy's story than initially meets the eye. Ashden is definitely a man driven by his nethers, and they do get him into trouble sometimes. Whilst reading these stories I repeatedly thought of Lovejoy, though I don't think Ashden quite has that character's charm and easy manner.

'The Ugly House' is a tale told to Ashden by a chap from the Council called Dave Dobson. Besingfield Council's putting in an approach road to the new hypermarket, but the road can't be completed until the Ugly House is demolished. Old Burridge, the tenant, won't shift. And Dobson, the new Chief Technical Officer, is determined to use every trick in the book to get him out. But it doesn't pay to cross old Cunning Burridge.

I really enjoyed reading this book. There are no false phantoms conjured up by over excited imaginations or an undigested lump of cheese, or spectres that can be reasoned out of existence by some neat, rational, last minute explanation. Westall's spooks are real, they don't have your best interests at heart, and they can be pretty darned nasty.

Antique Dust costs a mere £10.99 (or $15.99 in the States), and there's a Kindle version for £4.99 (or $7.99). And it's worth every penny. Well done to Valancourt Books for republishing this excellent collection.

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