Saturday, 26 September 2009

'The Brook'


I'm steadily working my way through John. L. Probert's Coffin Nails (see previous post). 'The Brook' is an interesting example of a school story - of which M.R. James' 'A School Story' is one of very good example. The late Robert Westall - a teacher by profession and of course a children's author - wrote many school stories on a supernatural theme. So how good is 'The Brook', give that this sort of thing has been done many itmes before?

It's very good. Indeed, it reminded of Westall by its economy and originality. 'The Brook' is a poem by Tennyson which a group of schoolboys are required to read, in turn, by a substitute teacher. It becomes obvious quite early on that the teacher is getting more from the readings than a keen awareness of his charges' grasp of Victorian poetic nuance. 

It's not a sinister poem, incidentally. It's the one that goes:

I come from haunts of coot and hern,
I make a sudden sally
And sparkle out among the fern,
To bicker down a valley.

Not scary, of course. Tennyson was not one for the eerie or disturbing. But there's a twist, and it's rather a good one. The story is full of effective observations, especially on the subculture of schools and the odd politics of pupil-teacher relations. The ending is of a sort that difficult to pull off. It harks back to Lovecraft's 'Dagon' in a way - the narrator is faced with Something Nasty. But here JLP offers a more subtle sense of foreboding. So, two rather conventional ingredients - the school story and the 'Argh! It's coming!' ending - are handled here to good effect. Stylistically, too, 'The Brook' is on the money, with the narrative voice that of a well-educated middle-aged man harking back to his schooldays.

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