There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Wet velvet: Antique Dust by Robert Westall

Antique Dust by Robert Westall (1989) is a collection of seven supernatural stories.

The reader who appreciates the UK voice in the genre will find much to appreciate in Westall's collection. 

The milieu is for the most part the antiques trade, with dealer (and our narrator) Geoff Ashden confronting both wily competitors and darker forces.

Westall does not skimp on characterization, incident, and complication. Most of the stories are novella-length.

In "The Devil and Clocky Watson" Ashden tries to teach the eponymous bounder Watson a lesson by giving him a clock that radiates malignity. He finds it for sale in the basement of a market:

....‘Geoff,’ came a low voice from the shadows behind us. My wife’s voice.

‘Geoff, what are you buying?’ 

‘A genuine Pike – got it for twenty-five.’

‘Then you can just get your money back. I’m not having that thing in the house.’

‘What . . . ?'

‘Can’t you see what it is? Are you blind?’ She dropped her parcels and scrambled up on the chair. I couldn’t help noticing her legs; which was odd. My wife has very pretty legs, but I’d lived with them for eight years. But now, as her black skirt rode up with the effort of scrambling, I noticed the plump smoothness of calf, the dimple behind the knee. I was seized with a fantasy of dumping the clock in the car, and driving home like a maniac and making love to my wife with the black clock ticking in the corner of our bedroom....

But nothing could have been further from her mind. She turned to me with a pale and outraged face. 

‘Can’t you see the feet?’ I looked closely, and was surprised. Instead of the usual lion’s foot, they were gilded cloven hoofs. Her hand moved upwards, caught between a desire to show me and snaking revulsion. The gilded mask above the dial wasn’t the usual goddess or lion’s head, but a goat’s head with tight-curled horns and oval eyes. On the silvered dial was engraved the number thirteen – XIII – below the usual number one. And the corner-spandrels round the dial contained . . . miniature male genitals. Well-draped with vine-fronds, but definitely gilded male genitals.

In "The Doll" Ashden purchases a collection of dolls, one of which harbors a very nasty spirit, the familiar of a witch executed centuries before by Mathew Hopkins.

"The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux" is, I think, the most Jamesian (or Campbellian) story in the book. There are a dozen characters and a compelling plot. The off-balanced nature of the local church where sitings occur is well-conveyed:

....This church felt wrong. I do not say this lightly. Dealers are undertakers of a sort. When a man dies, the undertaker comes for his body, and quite often the dealer comes for the rest. How often I have been left alone to break up the home a man has built up over fifty years, and sell the pieces where I can. As I break up the home, I know the man. I have known a cracked teapot yield enough evidence of adultery to satisfy ten divorce-court judges. I learn that he was mean from his boots; that trapped for ever inside the sepia photographs are seven of his children. From his diary, that he believed in God or the Devil or Carter’s Little Liver Pills. 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.

....I couldn’t keep still in that place. It wasn’t just the cold. I thought I’d come prepared for that, with a quilted anorak and three sweaters. No, I kept having, not delusions, not even fears, but odd little anxieties . . . preoccupations. I had the conviction the walls weren’t vertical . . . or was it the floor, that seemed to slope down towards the middle of the nave? Certainly the floor was hollow; no one could walk on it and listen to the echo of his footsteps without realizing that. Then . . . the windows didn’t seem to be letting in as much light as they should. I kept going outside to check if the sky was getting cloudy, but it was still bright and sunny, thank God, and I went back feeling the better for it.

Then I stared at the cross in a side-chapel. It just looked like two bits of wood nailed together. I mean, it was just two bits of wood nailed together; but though I’m not a religious sort, I tend to see any cross as a bit more than two bits of wood nailed together.

And that smell. Or niff, as Henry would have it. It wasn’t strong, but it was everywhere; you never got it out of your nostrils. The only thing I can liken it to was when I got in a new lavatory-bowl at the shop; it had to be left for the sealant to dry overnight, so the builder stuffed wet paper down the hole, but the biting black smell of the sewer filled my shop and dreams all night.

"The Dumbledore" is a flash-back to World War Two and a Royal Air Force base. But I wonder why Westall seems to suggest that UK and U.S. fliers served together. Or does he? The sharp outlines of previous stories in the book give way to a certain fuzziness here. And more than a little self-pity on Ashden's part.

"The Woolworth Spectacles," on the other hand, is a perfect and mirth-filled story of possession (or is it liberation?) by an inanimate object. Maude, thirty and still living at home with her widowed father, puts on the spectacles perhaps once used by Catherine de Medici. And that makes all the difference.

"Portland Bill" descends into predictability, but achieves notes of real poignancy. Its depiction of place is singular.

"The Ugly House" is a far more assured story. It draws on folklore to give us a story about a local devins-guérisseurs who is also an obstinate thorn in the side of his local government's Chief Technical Officer. Their battle of wits has many whimsically queer touches.



Antique Dust can be purchased here:

http://www.valancourtbooks.com/antique-dust-1989.html


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