If it had not been for discovering Valancourt books or discussions with my good friends on goodreads I would never have heard the name Robert Westhall and indeed his contribution to tales of the ghostly and supernatural. Spectral Shadows is a compilation of three short stories previously published as individual works. If you are a reader who prefers your horror to be bloody and visceral then these stories may not appeal , but if you are a discerning reader who enjoys intelligent well crafted tales with an underlying horror that slowly, unexpectedly and expertly reveals itself...then you will enjoy the delicious little gems within the pages of Spectral Shadows.
"Blackham's Wimpey" is the story of a second world war bomber, its crew, and the supernatural forces prevalent within the claustrophobic surroundings of the bomber's interior. So many of Westhall's writings, and in particular the 40 or so books that he published for young readers, drew for influence and ideas on his boyhood adventures during the war. This story in particular creates a picture of the constant dangers that being part of a bomber crew involved and the overwhelming camaraderie that existed between the crew..."We found out that Matt had been the top pilot of his course, and Kit top navigator. Mad Paul, the front-gunner, and Billy the Kid were top stuff, too; reaction times like greased lightning." I found myself fascinated and intrigued by the constant dangers that these young men endured and accepted as part of everyday routine..."Suddenly, light-flak tracer is Morse-coding past the windows. And then rods of pure white light, leaking in through every chink in the fabric. We're caught in a searchlight. Then a throbbing through the Wimpey's frame; a light, rhythmic throbbing; our front guns firing." What happens when the crew is given a change of aircraft, a bomber that is seemingly indestructible but contains a deadly secret that will affect all those who come into contact with it?
In "The Wheatstone Pond" Jeff Morgan as an antique dealer is interested when he learns that the pond is to be drained. It is a locality with a dangerous reputation and rumoured to be accountable for the disappearance of a number of residents. The local council must be seen to take action and therefore the Wheatstone Pond must be made safe by drainage and filling to ensure that no one ever again disappears below its murky surface. As the drainage proceeds a number of valuable model ships are revealed under the muddy deluge, one in particular containing three small, and possibly human skeletons. It is nice to mention that the author, at a period in his life, had been an antique dealer and no doubt this story pays homage to that profession. A number of interesting characters pervade this excellent and colourful tale; Hermione Studdart, beautiful partner in crime to Jeff Morgan; J Montague Wheeler entrepreneur, responsible for the creation of the model ships; Mossy Hughes the loveable cockney always at hand to buy you a drink in the Duke of Portland..."I decided to drop in to the Duke of Portland. It was always rather nice and quiet, before the pre-lunch mob dropped in. I'd buy an observer on the way and...Mossy Hughes saw me the moment I poked my head round the swing-door. "Mr Morgan. What you havin? Guinness Bitter, innit? He smiled, pleased with himself for remembering. Fetched the two pints to a sunlit corner-table. Can't beat Sunday, can you, Mr Morgan? Day o'rest. Good enough for Gawd, good enough for me, is what I say."
Yaxley's Cat is the final story in the trilogy and is a mix of Thomas Tyron's Harvest Home and the classic horror movie The Wicker Man. Rose, together with her two children Timothy and Jane, has escaped from her controlling husband Philip for a holiday in Norfolk around the community of Cley-next-the-Sea. As they stroll along the salt marshes they discover an old ,and seemingly unoccupied house....."The house was very Norfolk; flint and dull red brick, except where storms had nibbled the corners, leaving patches or raw bright orange. Gable on the right, two dormer-windows in the roof on the left; all covered with massive red pantiles that made the roof sag." The family decide to rent the house for a short period but what they discover within its walls has a devastating effect not only on them but on the rather odd and intimidating local people. This is horror writing of the finest; unsuspecting outsiders attempting to settle in rural communities with their questionable morals and sexual proclivities. Once again there is some excellent characterization; we meet the beautifully named Nathan Gotobed...."Mr. Gotobed did look exactly like a dog. A blunt-faced jowly sort of dog, with streaks of silver in his black hair, a farmer's three-day growth of whiskers on his face, and his spectacles mended with black adhesive tape." The original owner of the cottage Sepp Yaxley disappeared some 7 years ago, his discovery will prove most unexpected, however his cat is still in residence and refuses to leave. Will the local people learn to accept Rose and her family or will she always be viewed as..."A rich bitch and her two overprivileged brats..."
I received a gratis copy of this wonderful book from the good people at Valancourt in exchange for an honest review, and that is what I have written. Great praise must go to Valancourt Books who are rediscovering and reprinting rare, neglected and out-of-print fiction.