The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral: Gargoyle wrestling

Like the hem-sucking demon crouched beneath the slabs in James’s “An Episode of Cathedral History”, Westall’s gargoyle had one purpose: to destroy with a terror that exploited our primal fear of darkness.

New Statesman
Gargoyles versus stonemasons. Image: Getty

An afternoon play about a gentle, modern-day stonemason (played by Terry Molloy from The Archers) battling a possessed medieval gargoyle was clearly inspired by M R James, the great Victorian writer of supernatural fiction (29 September, 1.30pm). But as it also involved takeaway pizza and the sentence “That’s totally crap, Keith”, it could never be accused of too-blatant plagiarism.

Those familiar with James know that his stories of crosspatch academics visiting forgotten country houses are absolutely set: no sex, no marriage, just the slow setting down of buttered toast before the removal of dread-filled papers long locked in an antiquarian’s briefcase.

Robert Westall’s play ostensibly had this kind of thing in spades: the provincial town, the night-wanderings of the innocent, the bachelor clergyman, the deep suspicion of all things foreign. Here, the cause of all the trouble turned out to be an Italian. I can’t recall if any of James’s characters travel as far as Italy but they certainly venture now and again to the kind of eastern European hostelry happened upon by Peter Cushing in the Hammer movies – “Europe” as a snowcapped, stollen-heavy location with garlic flowers around the door that still manages to feel precisely like Berkshire.

“He’s an ugly fellow right enough!” gasps the stonemason when he first sees the gargoyle, “and he seems to be watching me somehow. I’ll wear my hobnails instead of trainers next time . . . ” From the interior of the cathedral emanates the sound of a choir perpetually rehearsing Allegri’s “Miserere” – the bit when the boy soprano goes for the top C and your fingers start to claw in anxiety for him. There was an uncanny smell of rotting fish among mouse droppings, and stone that mysteriously crumbled into mulch, centuries before its time. Like the hem-sucking demon crouched beneath the slabs in James’s “An Episode of Cathedral History”, Westall’s gargoyle had one purpose: to destroy with a terror that exploited our primal fear of darkness.

It was spooky enough – though lacking the appalling malice I personally always hope for (Westall, who died in 1993, generally wrote for children). But it was strangely consoling in the way of all good horror stories. An alternative world was quietly and sadly acknowledged – a place of phlegmatic rustlings and lowered temperatures, fetid smells (must ghosts always smell?) and violence, mainly voiced by the one-eyed grump who processes the milk up at Grange Farm. A world precisely like our own.