I had no plans to leave this long between blogs! I have plenty to tell you about, books-wise (you'll have no more from me, you curious kids). From Great Expectations to Mrs Bradley to Sexton Blake to Virginia Graham, I've turned enough pages in the last couple of weeks.
I really wasn't happy with how much I read last year. Everything seemed to coalesce around my studies and related books, so that reading for myself sometimes felt like a strange, self-conscious thing to do, like a hobby, rather than a habit. I wanted to spread my wings a bit more this year, so I've been managing my time more carefully. I'm taking a longer commute into work, through the frosted London streets, and I'm clearing some space before I go to sleep.
It feels like it's working. This weekend, in Brighton, I even allowed myself to buy a brand new secondhand book (that's the Sexton Blake) (because I don't want to read Obverse's Zenith Lives! before reading some of the original material, you see - oh yes, reading involves a lot of planning and pre-planning and thinking and re-thinking and day-dreaming and listing and stacking and re-shelving and crawling about in the dust and evaluating newspaper reviews and doodling possibilities while at work and googling possibilities when at home.
One thing I read in the first few days of the year was by a writer suggested by my research, but who is probably still outside my core interests: Robert Westall. I read his Devil on the Road last summer because my supervisor talks about it in her own book, and I was impressed and unnerved and slightly thrown by its feints and double bluffs with gender, sexuality and witchcraft. Children's fiction of the supernatural, more than the fantastic, usually treads carefully to ensure it still looks 'literary' and therefore age-appropriate (or it goes the Point Horror / John Bellairs route, and to hell with looking classy and composed). But there have always been scary children's books - and sometimes the more subtle spooks have the strongest effect.
On the evidence of Devil on the Road and The Watch House, Westall wants to have his spooky cake and eat it. They are both novels in which young protagonists are benighted, manipulated and more often freaked out by supernatural forces. A coolly pragmatic tone is taken - particularly in Devil, narrated by a romantic but technical-minded young man, but also by Westall himself in the Watch House's orders of belief and reality.
Why would the Old Gentleman, a usually benevolent spirit, used to jogging the elbow of a Watch House crew member as he lines up a shot on the billiards table, choose to ask for help from Anne, the young Londoner staying in this sleepy seaside town while her parents feud over money? Well, why - and how - and what could you do about it? Will Anne's efforts to tell the story of this antiquated outpost, perched on the clifftop, bring the help he needs? Westall even introduces two young clergymen - Roman Catholic and Church of England - to help take apart the idea of the unquiet dead. A human being, says one character, is a ghost plus a body, so why should we worry about them so much? And yet - and yet - this was a deliciously unsettling read. I would finish a chapter desperate for the next one. It was evocative, clever and made a rare success of the ghost novel.
It is, perhaps, too much of a stretch - the sensation novel deconstructing itself, with the drama of Anne and her parents too. There was something ultimately a little unsatisfying about the book, as it pulled in these two directions. But that feels like quibbling - and perhaps it's just that guilty feeling about a book you've sat back and enjoyed for a week. And I know there is other Westall out there that I should have read by now - The Machine Gunners of course, and The Call (an overdue Christmas present) and The Scarecrows, with its absolutely sublime premise.
And before I go, has anybody seen the TV adaptation of The Watch House...? Adapted by William Corlett (author of the Magician's House books, and Two Gentlemen Sharing)...?