Monday, 21 April 2014

The Master of the House


John Gaskin's third collection from Tartarus is also his last, according to the author's introduction. Gaskin, a retired professor of philosophy who lives in Northumberland (not too far from where I'm typing this) has, presumably, written himself out. This is a pity, as at his best he is a masterly storyteller in the great tradition of the British weird tale.

The subtitle 'Tales of Twilight and Borderlands' sums up the appeal of the strongest stories collected here. The Borders, the region that was once the northernmost frontier of the Romans and later became the nucleus of the kingdom of Northumbria, is little-known and ill-defined. It has a rich and strange history. Gaskin captures the beauty and the oddness of the border landscape, as Sarban did in 'Ringstones'. And like Sarban Gaskin tends to shun the obvious horror story device of 'monster and/or maniac' as menace in favour of less well-defined entities.

Thus in 'Night Music' some young archaeologists decide to investigate the site of a Roman fort. A series of accidents cuts the party from four to two, who end up staying the night in a run-down bothy. There is a sinister watcher, and strange flute music is heard. The denouement reveals, albeit in strange form, an essential truth - that history is not dead, but is always nearby. It lies in wait, stalks us, can capture us. 

A similar theme in a similar landscape is found in 'The Pit', though here the execution is very much that of a traditional ghost story. There is also a conventional protagonist in the form of an unpleasant businessman who comes to a country house for grubby, dishonourable reasons and falls foul of... well, let's call it a good example of a not-unfamiliar spirit.

'The Double Crossing' concerns shenanigans at a college of a venerable university. (Might it be Oxford? Surely not!) But here, too, Gaskin can't resist having his shady Principal head north to see his sister in the wilds of Northumberland. Here the author's sardonic humour - no doubt born out of many years spent surviving academic life - tends to overshadow the spookery. A quasi-sequel, 'The New Inn Hall Inheritance', is by contrast a tale of lost love, of hopes dashed and regret that can never be wholly neutralised by such traditional British understatement such as 'Perhaps we'll exchange Christmas cards.'

'Party Talk' is indeed about a conversation at a party (one held in Northumberland, of course), and is a good example of what might be termed the Weird Narrator sub-genre. A man is asked whether he believes in ghosts, and admits that he does not, with certain reservations. His interlocutor, an elderly woman who looks somewhat the worse for wear, then tells a story that is a fine hybrid of the Jamesian tale and a between-the-wars horror story of the Wakefield/Burrage school.

The same might be said of 'Addendum to a Confession', which evokes the age of pre-Beeching, steam-powered travel. The tale concerns the aftermath of the murder, in a railway's canteen, of an unpleasant character who apparently possessed occult powers. The arguably un-dead villain is well-realised, his return - while expected by the reader - is very effective. (I also found myself wondering if the baddie's name, Harding, is a sly nod to poor old Gilbert of that ilk?)

A rather different visitation occurs in 'Where Shadows Lead', in which the dangers of a genuinely wild landscape are brought home to a man who - at first - feels he has little to live for. A flat battery, driving snow, and the sudden realisation that nature can kill you as easily in England as it might anywhere else provide an efficient build-up to an encounter with genuine spirits of place.

Perhaps the best of the Northumberland tales is 'Wolvershiel', in which the narrator's personal history is interwoven with that of the eponymous house. As in the tales mentioned above, a sense of the Northumberland landscape and its history is perfectly evoked. There is also a central scene worthy of the classics, with a glimpse of 'a child in white pyjamas too big for him, playing blind-man's-buff'. 

The collection's title story is perhaps the most conventional - a haunted house narrative, complete with a readily achieved means of laying the ghost. That said, the careful accumulation of detail makes it a solid example of its kind. The same can be said of 'Empty Places', with its clever twist on the theme of precognitive dreams.

The overall feel of The Master of the House - like that of Gaskin's first two collections - is of nostalgia for better times, and most stories off us that 'haze of distance' recommended by Dr James. The traditional, carefully-crafted ghost story is well-represented here. I suspect this book will remind many of us why we first fell in love with the genre. 

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